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One man's fight for Tunisian security reform

August 21, 2014 at 3:19 pm

“Radical change is necessary,” says the determined blogger Azyz Amami, who is devoting his life to the reform of the former regimes’ security sector legacy, one of Tunisia’s biggest obstacles to a successful and comprehensive democratic transition.

The self-immolation of vendor Mohammed Bouazizi after he was harassed by a police officer who confiscated his vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 triggered the wave of protests that would force then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee his country after 23 years in power. One of the keys to Ben Ali’s 23 years of authoritarian regime, prevalent not only in Tunisia but also in neighbouring countries such as Libya and Egypt, is a strong security apparatus. These sectors serve the interests of the regimes and have little to do with democratic values such as transparency and accountability. For democratic transition reformation is key.

In Tunisia there is a clear political discrepancy between the military and the police. Unlike many of the North African countries, Tunisian military has remained relatively apolitical. The country’s first leader Habib Bourguiba was determined to keep political power separated from the army and since then the military force has remained at large apolitical, the army has also remained fairly small, as has military spending. On the other hand, Ben Ali, the successor of Bourguiba left the position as Director of National Security, the highest stance within the police force, to lead his country, however, in doing so he didn’t leave his security influence behind, making Tunisia one of the world’s most heavily policed states. The police became a tool of repression, frequently used by Ben Ali in order to oppress opposition.

Today the internal security services include the National Police, which is mostly operating in the bigger cities, and the National Guard, which is focusing on the rural areas. There is also the Civil Protection Force, which is more closely linked to the Interior Ministry, as well as the Prison Guard. Their exact division in duties, however, remains unclear.

But old habits die hard and the post-revolution has seen police violence against demonstrators, arbitrary arrests and torture cases. Police brutality has become a controversial issue in contemporary Tunisian society. One man who has experienced police aggression up close is cyber activist Azyz Amami, who quickly became a symbol of resistance as the Arab Spring protests began. The blogger’s first experience of a Tunisian prison was at age seventeen. His crime: organising a school strike. After three days between prison walls, where the young blogger was beaten and marked with cigarettes, Azyz left the facility with a determination to change what he felt was an unjust security system.

“This is my job, my call,” he says. “When I get arrested it is a part of my work.” Even within the prison he continues his mission, “I speak to the other prisoners and tell them about their rights,” Azyz says and adds, “I give them advice.”

According to the blogger the security sector remains to a large extent the same as during Ben Ali. The older generations still believe in the old system, argues Azyz. “Nobody is trying to reform the old structures, the only thing they do is to use it to their benefit,” he says, “There is a direct conflict between the young and the old when it comes to change.”

Another corner stone, and challenge, for successful Security Sector Reform is the need for an independent judiciary apparatus. Earlier this year a Tunisian military court released Ben Ali’s former interior minister and security chief, a setback for the families of the more than 300 people who died during the revolution. “This is a blow to the transition after the revolution,” Laila Haddad, lawyer to the victims’ families, told Reuters after the court ruling. There needs to be a clear distinction between the interior ministry and the ministry of justice, concluded Azyz.

Some of the Security Sector Reforms initiated by the government includes the Interior Ministry’s white book: “Security and development: towards security in the service of democracy,” which was supposed to act as a roadmap for the police force’s transformation, including training of police officers and greater transparency. Other measures undertaken include the termination of Ben Ali’s “political police,” however, critics argue that the reformations are only cosmetic.

There are also civil society initiatives supporting the security reform process. Reform, an NGO established in May 2012, is pushing for institutional transparency and accountability within the security sector and organizes training sessions for security officers including efforts to improve the relationship between citizens and police officers.

In addition, six United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) supported police stations are due to open in Hammamet, a popular Tunisian tourist destination as part of a programme to support the security sector reform. UNDP Resident Representative Mounir Tabet emphasised the importance of reform for the country’s democracy. “These model police stations represent a real transformational change both in terms of reception of citizens and working conditions for the security forces,” he said at the inauguration of the first station in June.

“Radical change is necessary,” argues Azyz. “We have got the same penalty code for many years but the society has changed.” However, Azyz remains optimistic, “For the first time in three years what needs to be done is clear.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.