Perhaps the key gain of the Tunisian revolution was the fall of the police state established under Ben Ali’s regime. It lasted a quarter of a century and centred on the security establishment, which played a role in documenting and monitoring every minute detail of events and occurrences in the country. The state would arrest people based on suspicions and supposed intentions and by doing this it would create a nightmare for Tunisian citizens in their everyday life by interfering with any and every aspect that could be related to the state. The state also had the habit of holding all official documents and depriving those accused of wrongdoing of their passports and travel documents. Moreover, many of those who dissented against the state were prevented from applying for official jobs within the state apparatus while the movement and initiatives of social and human rights activists were limited to the point where they could never interfere with the state or hinder its power. And yet, all of the state’s efforts could not have prevented the Tunisian people from their revolution on the streets on 14 January 2011.
When the revolution broke out, it was clear that a visible division existed between the people on the streets and the security agencies and this conflict was embodied by the protestor’s decision to burn down police stations as well as the violent clashes that took place between protestors and security personnel in general. One of the main demands of the Tunisian revolution was to bring an end to the police state and to allow the people to exercise their basic human rights and express their opinions in the political sphere. All of this was achieved during the first year of the revolution.
The Turkish government tried to aid the Tunisian people in maintaining these revolutionary gains but a series of factors allowed the police state to return to Tunisia once again with an even stronger grip on the streets than before. For some time, the police withdrew from their public presence and during this time Tunisians felt the need to be more active in their confrontation with the state and in the face of crime. Perhaps the protestors’ attempts to burn down the US embassy marked the beginning of the reassertion of the police force’s former presence. The security forces’ grip on the people increased with the rise of terrorist activity and the assassination of politicians Chokri Belaïd, who was affiliated with the leftist and secularist democratic movement, and Mohamed Brahimi, who was the president of the Tunisian constituent assembly at that time. The rise of the police state’s grip on the people has once again left a negative impact on society and greatly hindered the democratic process. While it is natural that there should be more emphasis placed on security in times of chaos, it should be done so against an appropriate backdrop, one that upholds the law and is beneficial to politics in Tunisia.
Everyone in Tunis remembers how the Ennahda Party, the winner of the last election, spoke up against terrorism and the rise of the security agencies, and yet, the trials that took place in Tunis went on to affect many bloggers and activists and confirm that a police state was on the rise again. In addition to the arrests of several young activists there have been many cases of electronic piracy that have gone on to affect Israeli and western politicians; this has created a sense of fear among Tunisian politicians that they will be the next targets.
The violent protests that have taken place in the south of Tunisia and the arrests of numerous activists as well as the death of one of them indicate that the violence of the police state is undergoing a revival. The reforms that took place within the police state and the security apparatus have not yet reached the very depth and core of the problems that exist within these institutions despite all the talk about the situation and the claims that the security forces are being transformed into institutions that protect the republic.
The return of the police state and its supporters to the Tunisian public scene is in a sense a return of the old regime and we must remember this despite the fact that a technocratic government and the Ennahda Party have gained more political power, and despite the fact that the media still enjoys a fair degree of journalistic freedom. The status quo in the Middle East raises many concerns about the rise of terrorism in the region and this might be the umbrella under which the police state makes its return. Although the comeback is happening gradually, it is making a comeback nonetheless. Soon, Tunisians will be forced to make the decision of having to choose between the security and their newfound freedoms and all the gains of the Tunisian revolution will be lost. Perhaps the only thing that is guaranteed in the region as it stands today is the return of the police state.
This article by Sameer Hamdi originally appeared in Al-Araby Al-Jadid