How Tunisia’s Crooked Cops Are Undermining the Revolution

Tunisia's uprising was a cry against pervasive corruption. Five years later, it's only gotten worse.

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Something went wrong when Mohammed and his fellow cops raided a terrorist hideout near Tunisia’s border with Algeria last September. It’s not that there was a dangerous firefight, or booby-traps, or that their targets escaped. In fact, there weren’t any terrorists at all — just a couple of smugglers and 129 large cartons of black market Marlboro cigarettes worth almost $100,000. The cops detained the smugglers, loaded up the cigarettes, and headed back to the station in a six-car convoy. But suddenly three of the cars, carrying 100 cartons and the detained smugglers, split off and drove away. Neither the cigarettes nor the smugglers ever made it back to headquarters. Mohammed says the remaining 29 cartons were switched out with much cheaper cigarettes before an official seizure report was filed.

It is well known that the Tunisian revolution began five years ago when a young street grocer set himself on fire to protest his abuse at the hands of local police in the poor town of Sidi Bouzid. Less well known is that the grocer was an entrepreneur who had been forced into the black market by impossible bureaucratic barriers, leaving him vulnerable to constant extortion by the police, who eventually seized his equipment and sole means of income. Exasperation at this form of widespread corruption — no less than demands for dignity, freedom and employment — played a key role in fueling the uprising.

But in the five years since the revolution, stories like Mohammed’s make it very clear that corruption in Tunisia has not been defeated. Last month countrywide protests erupted after a young man in Kasserine, another poor interior town, electrocuted himself after his name was removed from a list of potential public sector employees.

In the case of Mohammed, it’s not clear whether the “terrorism” scenario was a set-up, a miscommunication, or an intelligence failure. His district is also in Kasserine, which is very close to Mount Chaambi, a refuge for reported insurgents. But his account suggests a level of advance planning by police officers. Moreover, a 2013 Crisis Group report examining the links between jihadism and contraband on Tunisia’s Algerian border asserts that local police have become enmeshed in the smuggling trade.

“R-19. Renault 19. That was the make of the cars,” Mohammed tells me of the cars that split away, jabbing a finger at my notebook to make sure I get it all down. Mohammed (which isn’t his real name) wants to tell his story, but remains skeptical that the English-language press can change anything. “I’ll tell you my story, and what will the result be?” he asks me probingly, then implores my fixer to help get him onto a national TV channel. For now, he wants either to stay anonymous or to come out in a big way.

It was his district commander who sent him on the raid in September. But after Mohammed filed a report detailing what he saw, the same commander refused to sign it. When he went to his commander’s superior — a regional official — he was told to mind his own business. He’s heard of plenty of other cases when his fellow police officers have had murky links with smuggling operations.

“There’s a group that works together with smugglers,” Mohammed alleges, saying that some officers have made fortunes in the process. “These cops have nice cars, they have chateaus.”

Mohammed insists that corruption in the police force is widespread — in fact, he says, the problem has gotten worse since the revolution. Some officers, he claims, tamper with drug test results for a fee of 5000 dinars, or almost $2500. Such a high price can only be meant for dealers and traffickers, not ordinary drug users — and may be a way for cops to keep leverage over the bigger crooks. He has even seen well-known smugglers coming in and out of the district police center where he works. But the case of the cigarettes just happened to be the first time he saw a corrupt scheme with his own eyes.

So Mohammed went to the media and spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. His story made national news, and by mid-October, the Ministry of Interior had opened an investigation and temporarily suspended four officers. Investigators from the capital came for a week, he said. That was when he started to feel serious pressure from some of his superiors.

“They offered me 20,000 dinars [almost $10,000] to say ‘no, there was nothing with the cigarettes,’” Mohammed says. When he refused, they told him they would give the money to someone in the Ministry in Tunis instead, to make sure the inquiry found nothing. “Why didn’t you take the money?” I ask. It was brave to speak up in the first place, but now he had an opportunity to cash out while saving himself.

“If I took the money, I would end up in prison. These guys have links everywhere,” Mohammed says. He insists that if he had taken it, the accusations of impropriety would have turned against him. But more than that, he feels a moral pull. “My colleagues all tell me that they don’t say anything when they see things like this because they’re scared. I’m not scared because I’m following the truth. I do what’s right. I’m on the straight and narrow.”

Mohammed started getting death threats in late September. When he refused the money, he says his commanding officer and two other cops beat him up to dissuade him from talking to investigators.

“Did you sustain any injuries?” I ask. By way of answering, Mohammed draws a line with his finger across his right hand. Then he points to his neck, and then to the back of his left thigh. He claims he has medical certificates from a doctor ordering 12 days of bed rest, but he could not immediately produce copies. A researcher for Human Rights Watch who interviewed Mohammed in October confirmed his injuries but could not confirm their severity.

Mohammed was grateful when press reports in October generated enough pressure to get his tormenters suspended. But last month, he says, their suspension was quietly reversed. His reinstated commanding officer tried to have Mohammed transferred, but Mohammed refused; he wants to face the situation and try to change things, despite the threats and abuse.

On February 2, the ministry inquiry was closed without any conclusion, Mohammed says. A newly appointed spokesperson for the Interior Ministry promised to look into the inquiry to confirm basic details, but was unable to do so before publication.

Under popular pressure, the ministry has opened up numerous other investigations since the uprising, with topics ranging from corruption to police brutality to political assassinations. But virtually all of these inquiries remain inconclusive. Tunisia may have a new democratic electoral system and hard-won freedoms, but the vital work of tackling corruption and reforming state institutions hasn’t even begun. In fact, corruption may be getting worse.

In the photo, Tunisian police stand guard in front of the interior ministry during a rally on January 14, 2016 to mark the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Fadil Aliriza is a Visiting Senior Fellow for the Legatum Institute’s Transitions Forum. He has been working as a journalist and analyst focusing on Tunisia and Libya after the 2011 uprisings. Follow him on Twitter @FadilAliriza.