Is Tunisia's police state making a comeback?

Is Tunisia's police state making a comeback?
Comment: The revolution against the Ben Ali regime swept away a suffocating police state. But there are signs it is returning with vengeance, says Samir Hamdi.
4 min read
04 Mar, 2015
Many Tunisians thought the era of police repression was over [AFP]

Perhaps the main gain of the Tunisian revolution was getting rid of the Ben Ali police state, which lasted for nearly a quarter of a century. The regime had the entire country under strict surveillance and presumed all were guilty.

The security establishment was a real nightmare for ordinary Tunisians, intervening in all aspects of life, beginning with issuing official documents - which were denied to dissidents and other undesirables - and continuing through the record keeping on ordinary people, many of whom were subsequently denied official jobs due to some perceived transgression.

This is, of course, in addition to harassing and persecuting political activists and human rights defenders, and preventing all forms of opposition.

Yet despite the multiplicity of Ben Ali's security services and their involvement in politics, the security establishment was unable to prevent people from taking to the streets and toppling the head of the regime on January 14, 2011.

A chokehold released

When the revolution erupted, it was clear how detached the security services were from the Tunisian street, evident from the burning of police stations and violent clashes between protesters and security services.

One of the key demands of the protesters was abolishing the police state, unbridling freedoms, free speech and peaceful political activism. Many of these demands were indeed fulfilled in the first year after the revolution.

The Troika government tried to preserve these gains. However, a combination of factors has meant that a security-based approach to various issues is returning to Tunisia.

Police withdrew from the streets in the first few months of the revolution, which led to a surge in crime and made Tunisians feel that they were in need of police presence.

     The attempted storming of the US embassy proved to be a turning point, with the security services making a strong comeback.

The attempted storming of the US embassy proved to be a turning point, with the security services making a strong comeback.

Then, following a wave of terrorist attacks, including the assassination of opposition politicians including Chokri Belaid and Mohammad al-Brahmi, the need for a bigger role for the security services grew.

It was back to normal for the security services, putting suspected individuals under surveillance and carrying out pre-emptive raids against anyone suspected of being involved in violence or with radical groups.

However, a number of developments suggest politicised trials against the backdrop of freedom of speech issues are returning to the Tunisian political scene.

The party that won the general elections, Nidaa Tounes, emphasised security in its campaign. But the trials of activists and bloggers suggest repressive practices are returning.

Yassine Ayari, a blogger, received a harsh prison sentence in January for "undermining the morale of the military establishment".

Then, more recently, a number of young activists were arrested for allegedly hacking into Israeli and western websites.

Similarly, protests in southern Tunisia were dealt with violently, with one man killed. All this could indicate that the desire to dominate the establishment has survived in the ranks of the security services.

     All this could indicate that the desire to dominate the establishment has survived in the ranks of the security services.

It could also mean that some security officers remain willing to engage in violence, and that the much-touted reforms have yet to alter the deep structure of the security apparatus, despite all that has been said about bringing them into the fold of the constitution and the law.

The security establishment itself is seeing a sharp internal polarisation, between politicised trade unions for police officers and others that are not politicised. The media has become a space for mud-slinging between these two factions, who accuse each other other of failing in their duties.

There is a need to take firm and serious measures to stop such public bickering, as it swiftly influences public opinion.

The resurgence of the security services is part of the attempt of the Deep State to catch its breath, after the technocratic government took power and the victory of Nidaa Tounes.

Although press and political groups still have a large margin of freedom, there are concerns over the next five years.

This is especially valid in light of the many justifications that can be used, led by the war on terrorism, which could bring back the police state. Citizens may only be given a binary choice between security and freedom.

Perhaps the only guarantees against this are the awareness of the Tunisian citizen, and then the work of the broad array of human rights groups and civil society organisations to expose any violation against freedoms and rights.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.