Tunisia’s Authoritarians Learn to Love Liberalism

Police unions are using their country’s newfound freedoms to protect themselves—and attack freedom fighters.

Policemen and residents demonstrate in the office of the main policy labor union in Tunis, Tunisia on Oct. 28, 2013.
Policemen and residents demonstrate in the office of the main policy labor union in Tunis, Tunisia on Oct. 28, 2013. Nicolas Fauqu/Corbis via Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia—In a nondescript office above an ice cream and coffee shop in downtown Tunis on April 2, Mohamed Beldi, the public relations officer of the National Syndicate of Internal Security Forces (referred to its French acronym, SNFSI), leafed through photos of police officers’ stitched-up wounds in plastic sleeves in a binder. He pointed to them and said, “They were attacked by ordinary citizens.” For Beldi, the internal security forces of Tunisia were victimized following the 2011 ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and creating unions was the only way to protect themselves.

In the immediate aftermath of the uprising that ousted Ben Ali, police disappeared from the streets in some parts of the country, leaving the army to maintain order for months. Despite Tunisia’s history of worker militancy under the more than 70-year-old Tunisian General Labor Union, Interior Ministry laws from prerevolution Tunisia read that police and other internal security services—which fall under the authority of the Interior Ministry—are not allowed to form professional unions, nor to strike. So as the post-Ben Ali era witnessed a blossoming of civil society, the creation of countless nongovernmental organizations, and the spread of public debate, internal security employees took advantage of the newfound opening to create unions.

Beldi described the security services union as part of Tunisia’s liberalizing vanguard, which protects those among their ranks who have been unfairly blamed for old regime abuses, and guards against the oppressive control of the Ministry of Interior. “The regimes [prior to and after the revolution] used us. They want to put all the blame for abuses on us,” he said. “Before, it was oppression. Anyone of us could be fired for any reason. The station chief could say, ‘Hand me your badge and pistol and get out.’ So we demanded union rights, and we demanded that our colleagues who’d been dismissed for technical reasons—of course not those who stole or kidnapped—are brought back.”

The office we sit in was supplied to the SNFSI by the Ministry of the Interior because it feared their independence, Beldi said. “They wanted to watch over us,” he added, pointing to his eyes. The picture Beldi painted was one in which the security unions head the resistance to the vindictive power of their Interior Ministry bosses and the out-of-control aggression of victims of the previous autocratic regimes. He stressed that the unions are progressive in their very purpose—giving workers the ability to collectively demand better pay and working conditions—and in their structure, which allows for voting and, ostensibly, rank-and-file decision-making.

Not everyone agrees. Many Tunisians, from ordinary citizens to politicians to human rights workers, say that the security unions often protect the interests of the security state embodied in the Interior Ministry and protect their members from accountability for past and ongoing abuses, including murder. The portrait that emerges is of a security sector that has managed to precisely use Tunisia’s newfound liberal freedoms to entrench its own authoritarian power—to turn the power of the Tunisian revolution against itself.

Beldi said the unions got their start just days after Ben Ali’s departure in January 2011, when policemen started wearing red armbands to signal their stand with the revolution. He and his police colleagues began communicating with individuals in other security sectors, namely the National Guard and the civil defense, coming together in a march on Jan. 22, 2011, only eight days after Ben Ali fled the country. They began in Tunis’s Kasbah Square and continued through the city to the gates of the Interior Ministry. The demonstrators demanded the laws be changed to give them the right to organize unions, which they had previously been legally prohibited from doing, chanting, “We’re innocent—by the blood of the martyrs!” and “Unions protect us from gangs!” It was out of this public demonstration that internal security units began recognizing their common desire for union representation, said Beldi.

Over 100 security sector unions appeared over the course of 2011 and 2012, with the public aims of improving pay and changing terms of promotion and recruitment. They recommended adopting a formal code of conduct for the police. While those like Beldi say the internal security forces seek to protect themselves from abuses and unnecessary blame, Hamida Ajengui, an administrative secretary and activist, believes the unions are a cover for decades of abuses.

On Jan. 30, in the parking lot of a stadium in Tunis fronted by a plaque dedicated to Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, I sat in the passenger seat of Ajengui’s tiny car. Ajengui wore a blue headscarf and often smiled shyly, mostly concealing her bright white teeth. She spoke about growing up and her first taste of political activism in the 1980s under then-President Ben Ali. “I used to be crazy about school,” Ajengui said. “I was a normal girl: I wore jeans and I memorized songs by Julio Iglesias. In 1987, Ben Ali took over from Bourguiba, just as I had decided to wear the hijab.”

But having joined the Islamist Ennahda movement to oppose Ben Ali’s autocracy, Ajengui was viewed as a threat to the state and became a police target in her late teens. She was a rabble-rouser: Ajengui and her co-activists collected money to distribute to the families of political prisoners. She joined demonstrations demanding that Ben Ali let women attend school while wearing hijabs—a ban Bourguiba had proclaimed and Ben Ali upheld and intensified—facing tear gas and clubs in response, she said.

She recounted the beatings she received inside the Interior Ministry in the early 1990s by police under Ben Ali: “The Interior came and took me from my house—me and three other girls. The police [at the Ministry of the Interior] could see I was modest, so they tore off my hijab and all of my clothes too. They tied me hanging around a pole like a roast chicken and said, ‘We’re going to take away your virginity.’ I was tortured.”

Karim Abdessalem, an activist with the Justice and Rehabilitation Association, said that Tunisia’s security forces were shaken to their core by the sudden loss of the total power they once wielded and the ouster of Ben Ali in 2011. “With the political vacuum and the flight of Ben Ali after the revolution, the [security services members] feared that ordinary Tunisians would take revenge on them,” he said. “Most of them left their homes and wouldn’t go back to their stations. They were traumatized.”

Abdessalem noted that the unions’ most dangerous intervention has been their advocacy for the “Prosecution of Abuses Against the Armed Forces” draft law. In 2015, after the passage of a counterterrorism law, police unions began pushing for the Ministry of the Interior-drafted bill, which would, according to an Amnesty International report, “authorize security forces to use lethal force to protect property even when it is not strictly necessary to protect life, contrary to international standards.” It would also outlaw the “denigration” of the security forces and criminalize the unauthorized publication of “national security” information—a vague law posing an obvious threat to journalists.

Unions began demonstrating to pressure lawmakers to adopt the bill. In late 2017, the three largest police unions—Beldi’s SNFSI, the Syndicate of Officials of the General Directorate of the Intervention Units, and the National Union of Syndicates of Tunisian Security Forces—threatened that they would stop protecting members of parliament if they did not bring the draft law to a plenary session within 15 days. “This law does damage to all human rights,” Abdessalem said. “It takes away freedom of expression, gives unbounded freedom for [police] abuses, and puts the responsibility for it all on citizens.”

Yassine Ayari, a rebellious Tunisian MP, is one of the country’s youngest, at 37. He’s also the only MP to have called for the dissolution of a security union. In a clamorous cafe in the basement of Tunisia’s parliament, he said that at several critical junctures since the revolution, the unions have intervened to protect those in the security apparatuses caught up in cases of torture or murder—citing the unions’ 2011 besieging of a military court that was trying officers accused of killing protesters, their call for members not to attend hearings by Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, and their storming of a courthouse to stop a trial and release five colleagues accused of torture, among other interventions.

“The unions were meant to be an armed political wing for those who repressed the revolution,” Ayari said. He said that the système—those who were against the revolution—created the unions as a political weapon, “Because Tunisia is a police state, and whoever controls the ‘security’ controls the power.”

He cited the trial of Col. Moncef al-Ajimi, a former director of the Intervention Forces, who was accused of killing peaceful protestors in the poor interior cities of Thala and Kasserine. He noted that the police unions came to Ajimi’s military trial in 2011 and surrounded the courthouse, protesting his dismissal. The interior minister then annulled Ajimi’s dismissal and returned him to his post. Ayari also pointed out the unions’ participation in the Errahil movement, which disavowed the legitimacy of the constitutional process, holding sit-ins demanding the dismissal of the three-party alliance that ruled Tunisia after the 2011 elections.

Ayari spoke of one of the most glaring recent cases of intimidation and abuse of the judicial system by the police unions: that of the storming of a courthouse in Ben Arous, just to the south of Tunis, in February 2018. Five officers had been accused of torturing a terrorism suspect and were being tried. Dozens of officers from two of the unions surrounded the courthouse while others entered, carrying their weapons. Under pressure, the court released the officers accused and cleared them of charges.

The day after the courthouse confrontation, Ayari announced that he would be taking up a lawsuit for the dissolution of the unions involved in the scandal. He said he has since been personally threatened by the unions and their supporters for taking such a stance.

“There were unions made to protect police,” said Mondher Cherni, the secretary-general of the Tunisia branch of the World Organization Against Torture. “And in other cases they were created to cover up abuses and torture.”

When police units have been accused of torture, they have responded with vicious defensiveness, Cherni said, insulting their detractors and simultaneously avoiding accountability and punishment. “There’s a big chunk of [the police force] that deserve to be tried before a court,” he said. “The unions tried to protect the officers implicated in crimes from prosecution. There are officers who murdered, those who practiced torture, before and after the revolution.” Fida Hammami, a Tunisia researcher at Amnesty International in Tunis, also said that accountability for the police is rare. “Impunity is the rule when it comes to these abuses,” she said. “When you have strong security forces unions asking their members to boycott investigations [by the Truth and Dignity Commission], that’s one answer for why accountability is really difficult to achieve.”

But the police unions aren’t just hostile to individuals claiming police abuse. They also oppose post-revolutionary institutions aimed at reckoning with the past and achieving a semblance of accountability. Hammami said, “Police unions have also been very hostile to the IVD (the French acronym used for Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, charged with carrying out investigations of almost 60 years of abuses, whose mandate ended in December of last year). The IVD summons officers that might be involved in cases they’re investigating. [The unions] have encouraged their members not to cooperate. They issue statements publicly on Facebook. They put out the message to their members that they don’t have to cooperate with the IVD. Sometimes it’s even more aggressive, saying, ‘Don’t go.’”

Hammami said that these should be considered very clear calls to undermine the rule of law and that to actively impede the commission’s work in such a way is a violation of the rights of victims to find dignity, truth, and justice. She cited recent infamous cases of extreme police abuse that killed two young men. In March 2018, Omar Labidi, 19, was trying to escape police chasing team supporters after a soccer match that escalated into clashes. According to witnesses, though he shouted that he didn’t know how to swim, Labidi was pushed into a river by police, where he drowned. Some claim the police responded, “Learn how to swim.” “There’s a trial, but nothing happening,” Hammami said. Further, in October 2018, customs officers shot and killed a young man, Aymen Othmani, also 19, after raiding a warehouse in a rough neighborhood of western Tunis. By this January, Hammami noted, no progress had been announced in the investigation into this homicide.

In an interview in her office on June 2, Truth and Dignity Commission President Sihem Bensedrine said that she believes the security unions are one of the parties most responsible for the undermining of transitional justice in Tunisia. “One of the strongest anti-justice groups are the police unions,” she said. “We have in our final report published their communiqués where they call for police not to testify before the IVD, and where they say they will not assure the security of the courts judging the police officers.” Bensedrine noted the recent rise of the Free Destourian Party, whose leader, Abir Moussi, is currently polling third among presidential candidates in the election scheduled for later this year. Moussi is a former high-ranking member of Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally party, which is now banned. [Moussi] claims the heritage of Ben Ali. She says, ‘I’m a Ben Aliste.’ Her husband is the chief of one of the police unions. She’s become the political spokesperson for the police unions,” Bensedrine said.

In response to Ayari’s claims about the police unions, Beldi said, “Show me the proof.” “I doubt that man’s mental stability,” he added, dismissively. He went on to defend the various unions’ threats to stop protecting MPs unless they brought the Prosecution of Abuses Against the Armed Forces draft law to the general assembly. Citing the various, often individual, attacks on security forces members in recent years, Beldi said, “Today the police are being attacked! Today, I as a policeman could be beaten, and there’s no law to protect me. You want me to protect you? No. Without these laws, the country’s going to become a jungle.”

Nabil Smida, a member of the Tunisian Observatory of Global Security conducting doctoral research on Tunisian police reform at the University of Grenoble in France, believes the unions are on the right track. He conceded that the unions had been slightly aggressive on occasion but said that it was not in any systematic way, he and stood by the security unions’ right—even need—to continue in Tunisia. “Police unions exist in all democratic societies,” he said. “They are a counterpower to exploitation. This is the democratic fruit of our revolution.”

Ajengui sees plenty of challenges from the unions on the horizon. She believes some of the old regime is coming back to power. She said that the old regime elements in government need the security forces if they want to maintain power and return Tunisia to the way it was before the revolution.

“The old powers want to come back,” she said. “They’re trying to use the police unions to do this. They’re organizing themselves to repress our free voices and protect themselves from accountability,” citing that some unions have actively discouraged members from attending Truth and Dignity Commission hearings.

“[Security unions] say, ‘Don’t go. We’ll be behind you,’ so that transitional justice doesn’t succeed and this revolution doesn’t succeed, and so that the police can rule once again.”

Ajengui said she supports reconciliation with security forces who carried out crimes, but it requires admission of the crimes and accountability. And as for the unions serving the interests of the “regime,” as she calls it—they need to go. “I think the unions have a right to exist, but not those serving a political agenda,” she said. “Sure, the unions can protect their rights. But when they serve policies that are against me? I say, ‘No.’”

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