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Last updated: February 17, 2013 6:39 pm
Said Aidi, a 51-year-old father of three, feared for his life as he was kicked in the ribs and face while he lay curled up on the pavement. “Why?” he demanded of the dozen or so young men attacking him as he pleaded with them to stop.
Mr Aidi, a leader of the secular liberal Jomhouri party who served as employment minister in the transitional authority that preceded the current elected Islamist government, already knew his tormentors.
They were members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a network of government supporters claiming to uphold the spirit of the uprising that toppled Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali more than two years ago.
They had been hounding him for months, accusing him of betraying the revolution because of his opposition to the ruling Nahda party, the Islamist movement that holds the premiership and oversees the interior, foreign affairs and justice ministries.
“The League claims it is a civil society group, but from the beginning it has never organised conferences or debates,” says Mr Aidi, who suffered broken ribs and facial lacerations in the attack on December 4. “It was always about violence.”
Born out of the volunteer patrols that filled the security vacuum after the revolution and a series of protests that drove out the provisional government afterwards, the League and its supporters claim they are dedicated to promoting the values of the uprising by organising peaceful protests and performing charitable deeds.
But the February 6 assassination of one of their most outspoken critics, opposition leader Chokri Belaid, has sharpened the focus on the group’s alleged ideologically inspired violence.
Although police have not named them or any other group as being behind the murder, the League has agreed to disband in at least one province to ease rising animosity between supporters and opponents of the government following the killing.
Growing numbers of Tunisians are worried about the group’s ambition to serve as a mediator between ordinary people and the government and its emergence as a quasi-official police force.
Its members have occupied offices of Mr Ben Ali’s defunct political party, adorn themselves with brightly coloured vests, wear official-looking badges and hold sway over poor neighbourhoods with regular “patrols”.
“We try to bridge the gap between the people and regional authorities,” said Slim Bin Ayad, a lawyer and League member in the poor Tunis district of Cabaria. “We give the demands of the people to the authorities. We can also help whenever there is a security vacuum.”
Michael Ayyari, of the International Crisis Group, says League chapters sometimes serve as arbiters determining who gets coveted government jobs, adopting a role once held by Mr Ben Ali’s party.
Its leaders and rank-and-file also have a propensity to label any political leader who does not agree with the government “counter-revolutionary”. “During the revolution there were some leftist parties who were supporting the revolution but after they lost the election they joined the enemies of the revolution,” explains Mostafa Tahari, a League official in Tunis.
Seated in a government customs office with a Nahda party member watching and occasionally handing him notes, the 59-year-old Mr Tahari labelled secular opposition parties, the main labour unions, the private and state media and leftists, including Mr Belaid, “counter-revolutionaries”.
Under the banner of peaceful protest, League members form intimidating mobs outside the meetings and offices of political opposition groups, in one case leading to the death of a representative of the opposition group Nidaa Tunis in the southern city of Tattaouine last October.
Some critics allege that they have formed alliances with government officials who grant them space to act with impunity.
Mohamed Lazar Akrami, a Nidaa Tunis spokesman, claims that they are led and organised by the director-general of intelligence, citing sources he cultivated when he served as an adviser to the ministry of interior during the transitional government.
He says that in the past few months, Nidaa Tunis has suffered a spate of attacks, on its headquarters in the capital, on a member of the party’s parliamentary delegation in the northeast of the country, and on a forum organised by women in the city of Sfax, all allegedly at the hands of the League. “When the police arrived [in the Sfax incident] they didn’t do anything.” said Mr Akrami. “They said there were no orders to intervene.”
The League has bolstered its presence on the streets, keeping an eye out for youth abusing drugs or alcohol or committing crimes. Among their stated goals is the preservation of the spiritual health of the Muslim community, according to a spokesman for the group, Mohamed Daadaa.
“We’re still expanding and opening branches all over the country,” he said.
This is worrying to many Tunisians, who fear that the group will try to prevent those they regard as counter-revolutionary from gaining power. “The danger of these leagues will become more clear once elections come,” said Slaheddine Jourchi, an independent political analyst.
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