Dispatch

Kais Saied’s Unholy Marriage of Convenience With Tunisia’s Police

Police impunity has long plagued the country. Now, it could get even worse.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
An armed Tunisian police officer stands guard in front of a tall metal gate behind which fly Tunisian flags.
A police officer stands guard outside the parliament building in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 27, one day after President Kais Saied fired the country’s prime minister and suspended parliament. Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia—In January, hundreds of young Tunisians in working-class neighborhoods across the country took to the streets in anger at political elites’ failure to address the country’s poor economic situation and declining living standards. Police responded with a brutal crackdown, arresting hundreds of demonstrators, some of whom were reportedly subjected to physical violence at the hands of police.

That sparked another wave of protests, with police brutality now at the top of the list of grievances. Those protests played a significant role in helping fuel the popularity of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s late July invocation of emergency powers, under which he fired the prime minister and suspended the parliament that stood by indifferently as police arrested and beat protesters. Saied’s move was met with jubilation by many of those same demonstrators.

Now, propelled by the promise of wholesale political reform, Saied nevertheless finds himself locked in a dubious marriage of convenience with the very security services that brought the country to a standstill earlier this year. Since July, the president has relied heavily on police to enact sweeping measures he introduced to counter corruption, enforcing house arrests and travel restrictions, as well as rounding up the politicians and business leaders accused of wrongdoing, the promise of which went a long way in securing his 2019 victory.

TUNIS, Tunisia—In January, hundreds of young Tunisians in working-class neighborhoods across the country took to the streets in anger at political elites’ failure to address the country’s poor economic situation and declining living standards. Police responded with a brutal crackdown, arresting hundreds of demonstrators, some of whom were reportedly subjected to physical violence at the hands of police.

That sparked another wave of protests, with police brutality now at the top of the list of grievances. Those protests played a significant role in helping fuel the popularity of Tunisian President Kais Saied’s late July invocation of emergency powers, under which he fired the prime minister and suspended the parliament that stood by indifferently as police arrested and beat protesters. Saied’s move was met with jubilation by many of those same demonstrators.

Now, propelled by the promise of wholesale political reform, Saied nevertheless finds himself locked in a dubious marriage of convenience with the very security services that brought the country to a standstill earlier this year. Since July, the president has relied heavily on police to enact sweeping measures he introduced to counter corruption, enforcing house arrests and travel restrictions, as well as rounding up the politicians and business leaders accused of wrongdoing, the promise of which went a long way in securing his 2019 victory.

“Kais Saied is now almost entirely reliant upon the armed forces and the security services,” said Lamine Benghazi of Lawyers Without Borders. “Parliament was never a great deal of use, but at least individual [members of parliament] might at least mention police abuse there.”

In return for their support of Saied, many suspect the police will regard themselves as better positioned to finally demand the legal protections their unions have long campaigned for. Yet parliament has shunned. Indeed, there is already growing evidence that Tunisia’s security unions are seeking to channel the momentum created by the president’s July intervention to their own ends. “If you look on the Facebook groups, there’s clearly a message there. The unions are calling for a halt in foreign funding for human rights and reform groups and for their members to be prosecuted,” Benghazi said.

Through 10 years of political instability and ever-rotating governments, Tunisia’s security unions, first formed in the wake of the 2011 revolution, have grown to the point where they exert a near absolute shield over the officers in their charge. Through unexplained deaths, torture, and arbitrary beatings, only a negligible number of officers have ever been disciplined.

Police impunity in Tunisia is a real concern, said Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s acting executive director for the Middle East and North Africa. “We’re aware of countless accusations against police officers, yet nothing seems to happen. There’s talk of investigations opening up, but there never appears to be any follow-through. As far as we can tell, there’s no accountability.”

That Tunisia has long had a culture of police violence is hardly news to 26-year-old reporter Ghaya Ben Mbarek. Through the social unrest that roiled Tunis early this year, Ben Mbarek played a pivotal role in covering the demonstrations against police brutality that gripped the capital, supplying news outlets Meshkal and Nawaat with rolling news and video, often from the protests’ very front lines.

The shockwaves triggered by Saied’s July actions were still ringing in September when Ben Mbarek attended a small protest called by a group known for its support of the president.

“I had my press card with me, and I was wearing my press vest,” Ben Mbarek said. Nevertheless, in the midst of the relatively small demonstration, Ben Mbarek found herself entangled in an ugly confrontation among protesters, police, and journalists trying to cover the clash. Ben Mbarek saw a protester assaulted by police and began to reach for her camera. It was then “another policeman hurled himself on me and threw me into the air. I ended up on the ground, with an injury to my back.”

Nine journalists were attacked that day. There are no numbers for how many protesters were injured. No police officer has been held accountable.

Tunisia remains some distance from reverting to the police state of its pre-revolutionary years. Torture is no longer policy, and since Saied appeared to clip officials’ wings following September’s confrontation, protests have proceeded largely unmolested.

However, police attacks on individuals continue. In mid-September, officers flagged down a car carrying journalist Arroi Baraket and her friends for violating the country’s COVID-19 curfew. She attempted to film the officers but was beaten for her efforts. When she went to report the attack, she discovered one of the officers had already reported her. She has since been charged with assault, with her trial slated for January.

Later the same month, Badr Baabou, one of the leaders of the Tunis-based LGBTQ organization Damj (the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality), was targeted and beaten by two police officers while walking home. As bystanders looked on, Baabou reported one officer pressing his boot on his neck while he lay there stricken, telling him: “We are the police. This is the penalty for those who insult the police and file complaints against us,” referencing the complaints his organization had brought against the force.

With police impunity unchecked and a hard winter ahead, chances of confrontation between the police and those living in Tunisia’s marginalized districts, whose cause Saied has made his own, grows more likely with every mention of the country’s dismal economic future.

For now, the country remains with Saied. Numerous private polls—though their methodology remains opaque—have consistently suggested overwhelming popular support for the president. In the marginalized districts around the capital, that support borders on the cultish, with many calling on the president to maintain his autocratic rule indefinitely. In Ettadhamen outside Tunis, where this year’s protests against police brutality began, the president is widely seen as a savior.

It is these and other overlooked and marginalized neighborhoods that Saied referenced during his campaign for president, capitalizing on their desperation and the neglect afforded to them by years of political party indifference.

Yet it is also here that, with the president and central bank warning of looming economic austerity measures, Tunisia’s hope of a new future stands the biggest chance of colliding with the most obviously unreconstructed elements of its pre-revolutionary past, with the outcome potentially explosive.

“For many living on the fringes, the state is the enemy,” Benghazi said. “It’s already seen as little but the policeman’s baton. It’s these people who are going to be austerity’s principle victims. They always are.”

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia. Twitter: @IgnitionUK

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