A Tunisian politician was physically assaulted by a fellow MP in front of their parliamentary colleagues, in an incident that has sparked widespread concern about growing political violence in the country.
Video footage circulated on social media showed Sahbi Samara, an independent MP, standing up from his seat, walking towards Abir Moussi, and slapping her multiple times before other politicians intervened.
Wednesday’s incident was swiftly condemned by the government and human rights groups, who pointed out that death threats, and verbal and physical abuse had become commonplace in the Tunisian parliament in the past year.
Samara appeared to hit Moussi, a right-wing opposition figure who is nostalgic for autocratic rule in Tunisia and is constantly at loggerheads with the ruling Ennahda movement, after she began protesting against a proposed agreement between the Tunisian government and the Qatar Fund for Development. Moussi had begun to livestream her commentary on her Facebook page, saying “Look, Tunisians, this is how they sell the country,” but within a minute, she was attacked by Samara.
Moussi has captioned the Facebook video with the words: “This is their true face… violence… insulting women… defaming chaste women… hegemony… violations."
Moussi is the leader of the Free Destourian Party, which won 17 seats in Tunisia’s 2019 general election. She believes the 2011 revolution that ousted former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali at the start of the Arab Spring was a foreign plot, and her platform calls for a return to the style of government favoured by Ben Ali.
She has made repeated, and fiery, rejections of political Islamism, and often attends parliament wearing a helmet and bullet-proof vest.
The Tunisian League of Human Rights condemned the attack on Moussi in a statement on Thursday, saying: “The flagrant assault is associated with the backward masculine mentality of Salafi [Islamic fundamentalist] groups that have been violating all human values, which is indicated by the low level of behaviour of some members of the people’s national assembly.”
But in light of public interest in the chaotic scenes that emerged from parliament this week, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied implied that Moussi had engineered the incident, describing the violence as part of the “ongoing theatre in a number of state institutions… both the director and actor has failed.”
He did, however, condemn Samara’s actions, saying that “Even if we disagree with the people who become a victim of violence, anyone who uses violence should be punished, and especially inside state institutions.”
Tunisia has been rocked by security issues, terrorist attacks and a flailing economy, particularly since the pandemic hit the tourist-friendly country, in the decade that has passed since the Arab Spring. Nonetheless, it is often held up as the only “success” story of the 2011 uprisings, and the Ennahda movement has been praised for managing the transition to democracy from one-man rule.