What Is Going on?
Tunisian governmental repression of artistic freedom of expression threatens the democratic achievements the nation strives for. Many consider the Tunisian revolution to be one of the most successful Arab Spring uprisings. The fleeing of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali marked the downfall of the Tunisian regime and sent a message of democratic hope across the Arab world. In many ways, this historical moment began the foundational cracking of corrupt totalitarian regimes across the Arab region, while simultaneously radically altering the future path of the Middle East region. People rose up, all-powerful rulers fell, and the international word rejoiced. Yet, the fight is not over. Even in the Arab spring poster-child, Tunisia, widespread oppression still clings to the decisions of governmental offices and the policies of the national police force. Evidence of repression can be seen in the case of Tunisian rap artist Weld El 15. The artist faced police brutality and a rigged trial after singing a stanza from one of his controversial YouTube hits. The song catalyzed a harsh crackdown on Artistic freedom’s, highlighting the contrast between the desired perception of Tunisian democratic success and the region’s reality. While the new government claims to have granted greater civil freedoms to the people of Tunisia, the case of Tunisian rap artist Weld EL 15 begs the question, just how tangible is that freedom?
Who is Weld EL 15?
During a 2012 nine month jail sentence, the artist Weld El 15, wrote the YouTube sensation, ‘Boulica Kaleb’ ( Reidy, 1). Published on March 3, 2013, the song claimed Tunisian police officers are ‘sniffer dogs’ and used powerful lyric choices to cry out against the injustice of police brutality. ‘Boulica Kaleb’ became widely acclaimed for disavowing a government that claimed freedom of expression, yet did little to protect this right of its people(El Kotbi). The song went viral and became one of the most viewed clips in the Arab region ( to date the music video has garnered over 10 million views) (Reidy). Conservative government forces pushed back against the video’s legality, claiming that it violated Islamic principles (Amara). Prime Minister Ali Larayedh supported a two year jail sentence in the prosecution of Weld El 15 for “inciting hatred and calling for the death of police and magistrates”(BBC.NEWS). Despite impending charges, Weld El 15 sang a stanza of the ‘Boulica Kaleb’ song at a August, 2013 concert, claiming “I only sang a snippet to make [the public] happy by specifying that all police officers are not the same, that the song was for a few people”(Reidy). Media coverage of the concert supports peer artist’s claim that roughly thirty police arrived and attacked Weld EL 15 and co-performer Klay BBJ (We Sign. It). Their beatings were so severe that they had to be rushed to the hospital and issued 7 day rest certificates (Reidy). In Weld El 15 opinion, it wouldn’t have mattered if he had sung “Kleb Boulicia” or not, he still would have been arrested. “[What] happened to me today can happen to anyone tomorrow, for a song, an article or a graffiti, that’s why [we] can’t let go. The country is moving backwards”(Chaouch).
What is Our Media Telling Us?
The repression of Weld El 15’s artistic expression represents some of the major underlying issues within post-revolution Tunisia. According to a BBC online news source, Weld EL 15’s case caused public outcry with overwhelming numbers of human rights activists pushing for a campaign in the rapper’s defense. Despite this movement, the news source further informs that the artist has been forced to flee his nation and seek asylum in France. Another news source, Huffpost Maghreb, corroborates how an international show of solidarity has helped the artist to continue to make music that advocates for artistic freedom of expression and improved human rights in Tunisia. Weld El 15 told Journalist Tarek Amara that he understands that he has forfeit much of his former life by leaving his country and continuing to create controversial music. Yet, Weld EL 15 claims, “I will make music to the last breath, I surrender never, regardless of the price to pay,” further stating “if my death can serve to solve something in Tunisia, I’m willing to sacrifice myself” (Hamai). The variety of news sources reporting on the case of Weld El 15 show a diverse array of perspectives on his character. Some articles portray him as a hoodlum and others as a saintlike martyr. Yet, the greatest injustice that these sources all committed was that they all stopped telling this Tunisian artist’s story. Despite being unable to return home (without threat of an unjust jail sentence,) Weld El 15 has lost his fifteen minutes of fame and the news media has moved on. In order for the nation to move forward, it is important that the Tunisians not forget those who have suffered and those who currently suffer under the nation’s repressive tendencies. There is hope though. Tunisia may have a ways to go before reaching truly free freedom of expression, but alongside the support of artists such as Weld El 15, Tunisians are proving themselves willing and able to make such a journey.
Author: Bowen Stephens.
I am a Secondary Education major with a focus in Social Studies at the beautiful Champlain College in Burlington, Vt .
Faculty Advisor: Professor Rob Williams, Ph.D., Champlain College Faculty Advisor
•Amara, Tarek. “Rapper Weld EL 15 Gets Two Years in Jail for Calling Police ‘Dogs’ in a Song.” Independent. 22 March. 2013.independent.co.
•BBC.com “Tunisian Rapper Weld EI 15 Sentenced Again.” BBC NEWS. 2 Sept. 2013.bbc.com/
•Chaouch, Rebecca . “”The dog”: A song by Syrano tribute to Weld El 15 (AUDIO.)” HuffPost Maghreb. 9 March. 2013. microsofttranslator.com
•El Kotbi, Rabia. “Freedom of Expression in Post–Revolution Tunisia, Gains and Pitfalls.” The North Africa Post.com. 11 Dec. 2012. northafricapost.com
•Gelvin, James. “The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs To Know?” Oxford University Press. 2nd ed. New York, NY. 2015. Print.
•Hamai, Sarah Ben. “Weld EI 15 On the Run: “Someone Stole My Youth.” HuffPost Maghreb. 9 July. 2013. huffpostmaghreb.com
•Reidy, Padiarg. “Rapper Weld EI 15 Walks Free.” Xindex:The Voice Of Free Expression. 2 July. 2013. Edited May 7, 2016. indexoncensorship.org
•Weld EI 15. “Boulica Kaleb Lyrics.” microsofttranslator.com/genius.com
•We Sign. It. “Freedom For Weld EI 15.” 15 Dec. 2013.freeweldel15.wesign.it