Almost as soon as he burns through one cigarette in the bustling cafeteria of Tunisia’s Parliament building, Yassine Ayari lights up another, and then another. The controversial computer science engineer, 36, had just returned from exile in France as a newly minted member of Parliament, following a shocking — even he was surprised — by-election victory. But his troubles are far from over.
A military court soon will decide whether Ayari should be sentenced to death for a February 2017 Facebook post in which he mocked the appointment of Brig. Gen. Ismail Fathalli as chief of staff for the land forces. The Ministry of the National Defense declined to comment. Scheduled for late this month, the trial — which Human Rights Watch says is illegal under international law — crystallizes Ayari’s mission: to eliminate police and military abuse of Tunisian civilians.
With 10 years of hard work and self-improvement, he believes he could lead the country.
Ayari’s mission started when, at age 17, a policeman slapped him for no apparent reason, threatening to chuck him in jail. He was spared, he says, only because his father worked for the military. But the experience triggered a lifelong commitment to human rights advocacy. Citing the late cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui as a major influence, Ayari says: “He was the guy who opened my eyes to how we can use the internet to do politics.” In 2007, he entered the fray with his first blog called From the Wall, inspired by Pink Floyd.
Insisting he wasn’t looking for an audience, Ayari got one anyway; he now has 234,000 Facebook followers. In early 2009, he was arrested for the first time and warned not to criticize President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or his family. Soon after, the government shut down his blog, so he helped plan the May 22, 2010, protests against internet censorship in front of the Tunisian Ministry of Communication Technologies. “This was the first crack in the wall” that led to the 2011 revolution, he says, and the wider Arab Spring that followed. But it came at a price.
Two policemen visited Ayari at home in June 2010. They told him, “You have one month. Either you leave, or you go to jail.” Afraid for his family, he fled to Belgium, only returning in October that year for his son’s birthday. Police apprehended, beat and humiliated him at the airport, destroying his son’s gifts. That turned the fight into something more personal, and not even Ben Ali’s fall could save him. After the revolution, the defiant Ayari couldn’t find work in Tunis. So in early 2012, he saw no choice but to move to Paris as an economic refugee.
In France, he worked for state-owned railway SNCF and IT company Obiane, posting admittedly rude comments on Facebook. Apart from the Tunisians, Ayari also became unpopular with European press. He openly declared his dislike for homosexuals (though he swears he will protect their rights), and he’s accused of being “close to Daesh,” aka the Islamic State. Haykel Jouini, a content creator who volunteers for the “cool” MP, calls the link “ridiculous.” Ayari says the rumor circulated because in April 2013, he was pictured holding a black Islamic flag with white Arabic script. It was a gift to the Grand Mosque of Paris after topless Femen feminist activists from Tunisia burned a similar one there to protest threats of violence against one of their members.
“It’s not my fault that Daesh chose, two years later, this flag as their flag,” Ayari says. His own father, Lt. Col. Taher Ayari was killed by radical Islamists on May 18, 2011, so he wants nothing to do with jihadists, he says. On his blog, Yassine accused the military of letting his father confront the terrorists alone. “Yes, the army, the government, were very unfair to Taher Ayari,” he wrote. “One day maybe I’ll talk about it, all the humiliation that the army, the government, Tunisia inflicted on him.” Ayari says life also has been hard on his wife, who has a Ph.D. in mathematics, and their two sons, because he has spent so much time away. His three younger siblings and stay-at-home mom remain mostly immune. It was his father who bore the brunt of Yassine’s activism, though he never breathed a word.
After the senior Ayari’s death, the military came after the son. In addition to two existing military court trials for offenses related to the Facebook post, Human Rights Watch confirmed earlier this year in a press release that Ayari was prosecuted twice before in military courts, in 2015 and 2016, spending four-and-a-half months in jail. “Time and again, the military prosecutor has gone after Yassine Ayari for his nonviolent criticism of the army,” said Amna Guellali, of HRW. Meanwhile, he just wants to get on with saving Tunisia’s hard-earned revolution.
Ayari decided to leap into politics after the deputy representing Tunisian expatriates in Germany was appointed to a cabinet post in September. An outsider with no party affiliation, Ayari defeated 25 other candidates to grab a seat in the Assembly. If he is reelected in the 2019 parliamentary elections, he hopes to form an independent coalition of 10 young deputies, infusing Parliament with “new blood.” Now living full-time in Tunis with occasional visits to Germany, he believes with 10 years of hard work and self-improvement, he could lead the country. Before anything, though, he has to face the military trials. Ayari could declare immunity from prosecution as a member of Parliament, but he refuses. He thinks the optics are on his side: “Imagine the son of the highest officer ever to die in Tunisia fighting terrorists. His son is not a criminal. He’s not a terrorist.”
No, he’s just an MP with a Facebook page.
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