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Do the security forces in Tunisia really need a law to protect them?

Tunisian riot police officers attend disinfection works at streets within precautions against coronavirus (COVID-19) in Tunis, Tunisia on March 28, 2020 [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]
Tunisian riot police officers attend disinfection works at streets within precautions against coronavirus (COVID-19) in Tunis, Tunisia on March 28, 2020 [Yassine Gaidi - Anadolu Agency]

In response to the protests in Tunisia against the draft law to protect police officers and security forces, parliament has postponed further consideration of the bill. The protesters include human rights activists and young people from radical left-wing political backgrounds, as well as national organisations concerned with defending human rights, combating torture and supporting transitional justice. The draft law reconsiders versions submitted in the past and carried multiple sub-headings, such as “thwarting attacks on security forces”. The protestors believe that it is an attempt to restore Tunisia as a police state and eliminate the only thing that citizens have gained from their revolution: freedom.

The anger is justified, arguably because there are still painful memories of official violence by the security forces which ensured that the regime kept a tight grip on the country and could oppress its opponents. Security officials committed most of the regime’s crimes prior to the revolution. Even after ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, the security forces remained the enemy of the protesters. The army used intelligence and patriotism to distance itself from the regime’s worst excesses, but the security forces were involved in all of the serious abuses and violations that took place during the revolution; they bear the responsibility for the revolution’s martyrs and those who were wounded. Hundreds of “executioners” wanted for transitional justice cases were given immunity and refused to appear before the judiciary, except in rare cases. Some surrounded the courts on several occasions.

Nevertheless, from its early days, the revolution has been able to prevent any revenge operations against the security forces, even at times of complete chaos when it was very difficult to control the raging crowds. Civic sense and the desire to build a joint future based on the rule of law prevented such behaviour, especially since the demand for transitional justice emerged early on, so it reined in any revengeful behaviour.

READ: Tunisia to ban gatherings, cut public-sector work hours due to pandemic

Projects to reform the armed forces became an urgent demand that usually accompanied the path of transitional justice. Specialised international organisations offered help, expertise and advice for this, but none of it was achieved, as subsequent political developments reinforced the security forces’ impunity. The officials’ unions played a major role in blocking this move as they shifted from defending the social rights of security personnel to defending their transgressions, as well as embedding themselves in political conflicts that, according to the constitution, do not concern them in the first place.

The security sector needs reforms which must take into account a number of criteria, perhaps the most important of which is to be under the umbrella of the constitution, especially in the absence of the Constitutional Court. It is a fact that some of the clauses of the bills presented before parliament may involve serious violations of the constitution, which provides for equality among all citizens and the criminalisation of torture, no statute of limitations and so on. Reform also requires a review of the training that security personnel receive so that a new security environment may be established that is inspired by the democratic transition and favours the values of freedom and citizenship, while being opposed to human rights violations. The winning bet is to educate this agency on the doctrine of republican security.

The security forces have benefited more than others from the revolution and the gains of the democratic transition, with promotions, material privileges that have been restored in their wage scale, important social rights and health care, but their involvement in the benefits of the democratic transition is still disordered. Defending them is a noble task, entrusted to all Tunisian elites, but that requires engagement in the aforementioned reform, not the addition of a new law that I do not think protects security officers.

The current legal code contains sufficient guarantees for the protection of every public official who performs his or her duties, whether civil or security, but reviewing some procedures for security intervention and determining responsibilities requires urgent attention. Opposing these bills is legitimate, but that requires moderation and calmness that builds confidence in a system that is not only needed by the country but is a partner in the joint experience of building the nation in Tunisia during this difficult stage. Some protesters have raised insulting and provocative slogans, but the security officers in attendance to protect the demonstrations displayed discipline and tolerance, and this deserves to be commended. Such slogans raised in the faces of the police have opened the door to hell for demonstrators in some neighbouring countries. We should understand that.

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This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 12 October 2020

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

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