“Yesterday a policeman came here and kicked my barrow. He then insulted my mother and went away, just like that,” says one of the vendors, who chose to remain anonymous.
Since the 2011 revolution, street vendors in Tunisia have become part of the urban landscape in most big cities, and particularly in downtown Tunis. Citizens and shop vendors alike have complained over their presence, saying that they clog the sidewalks and prevent access to the shops.
The last, and most significant raid took place in October. It came months after the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts, commonly referred by its French acronym UTICA, announced a strike over the presence of illegal street vendors, whose stalls they said were destroying their members’ businesses. The strike was called off only hours before its execution, as the government assured UTICA they would take action against the illegal vendors. The eventual crackdown was applauded in much of Tunisia’s popular press, which was quick to celebrate the removal of the scourge of illegal vendors from Tunis’ traffic clogged streets.
However, today some of these vendors have already resumed work in their usual spots. Several municipality police cars can be seen around but, seemingly, without any problems or interference. Though in reality, according to some of the vendors, police harassment is constant.
After having his barrow knocked to the ground, one said, “Some people passing by helped me get my things back in place, and I just got back to work as usual.” Like other vendors, the one Tunisia Live spoke to cannot afford to risk prison time by opposing police brutality. If that were to happen, he said he would be unable to take care of his family, which relies on him for basic necessities: “I was married before but I had to divorce because I couldn’t provide for my family. I can’t lose my job again.”
Another street vendor, who also asked us to remain anonymous is from the neighborhood around Bab Bhar. He sells handmade bags he makes himself. He didn’t learn the craft from his family, or have any training. “It’s the market that taught me and the way life works here. I had to adapt and come up with something,” he says.
Though aware of his illegal position, another vendor, Karim says that he has no other choice. He had to find a way to eat and provide for his family. “There are no jobs so I do what I can (…) I have did wrong in my youth and spent 4 years and 8 months in prison, but that was a mistake, and I’m trying to make up for it by having an honest job.” However, police harassment is sometimes too much to bear, and his only demand now is to be left alone. “Policemen have no right to seize my goods and to tell me to go home. On top of that they insult and humiliate me. Why do they do that? They think they must inspire fear, while they’re supposed to inspire respect.”
Another vendor is currently unemployed, and tells us,”Some weeks ago the police came and took everything. I was arrested for two weeks and then they released me, but I have nothing now. And on top of that I also had to pay a fine.” He adds that, if he were younger, he would have turned to theft and pick-pocketing. “During Ben Ali’s time there was an incredible amount of theft in metros, buses, or in the streets. Nowadays we hear about it less, and why is that? Because many of these people have become street vendors.”
This sentiment is shared by many in the market. “They are pushing me to my limits, and I don’t want to get back there,” said one of them. The others echoed his claims, adding that bribery is another major issue affecting the vendors. “Sometimes they haggle with me, saying: ‘This barrow has a value of 400 dinars. Give me 200 dinars and I’ll leave you alone.’” Another claim the vendors make is that of policemen dividing the goods they seize from the vendors between themselves, “I’ve seen them do it in front of me. They take half the goods to the station and take the rest to their families,” says one of them. “They also humiliated me. For example, one time they took the socks I sell and said: ‘We’ll help you with that’ while trying to put them on their own feet right in front of me.”
While talking with the vendors, the secretary general of the union of independent vendors intervened, asking them to stop talking. He said there was nothing to say, as the union was negotiating with the government to clarify the status of the street vendors.
It is likely that an agreement will be made with the Carthage Space Project: a project announced in 2012 giving vendors an area where they can trade in Avenue de Carthage. The space could allow between 500 and 600 vendors to trade there at a cost of 7 million dinars. However, a lack of government revenue has delayed the project. Street vendors protested several times, but progress remains stalled and, for now, illegal street vendors have no choice but to continue.