Ben Ali-style security arrests raise questions on government commitment to security reform

Security has been a major preoccupation of Tunisians since the fall of the previous regime. The fear is based not only on actual risks, including increases in small arms traffic, the release of several thousand prisoners, and general lawlessness – but also on increased crime reporting in the media. Information long surpressed under Ben Ali is now regularly in the news. What is considered banal crime beat reporting in the west (home break-ins, muggings, car theft) was literally unheard of in Ben Ali-era media.

In response to these rising fears, the government has been keen to show resolve and results in its crime fighting measures. Curiously, however, it has approached this in Ben Ali-style fashion – reporting mass arrests in huge crime sweeps in various neighborhoods and cities around the capital and other cities. Reports of several hundred criminals being rounded up are a regular appearance in the country’s print and online media. A recent headline from the state news agency reports: 423 delinquents arrested in Tunis: 423 delinquents, some wanted on charges of murder, theft, violent attacks, possession and trafficking of drugs, and illegal distribution of alcohol here arrested in Tunis between April 12-29.” More reports can be read here, here, here, and here.

Even in reports without the dramatic numbers of arrests, one finds precious little information on the police work involved or the ongoing investigation. A search on the Tunisian news agency found no results for actual convictions or guilty verdicts by Tunisia’s courts against these criminals.

This is curious. The current government, desperate both to show that it can manage the security situation and reform the security apparatus itself – is using the same tactics as Ben Ali to prove its competence. Government reports on jobs and investment projects often follow the same model – reporting huge numbers, with no analysis of concrete results, or follow up that things have actually changed. It reminds me of the headlines in the run up to the January 14, 2011 toppling of Ben Ali – week one the government promised to create 10,000 jobs, week two 50,000, and by week three they were promising 300,000 jobs.

Of course, government press releases are not the only problem. The fact that these are reprinted without any changes in the country’s newspapers shows the inadequecy of reporting that still plagues the Tunisian media. But  the media isn’t running for reelection next year – the government is – and it is the government’s responsibility to show that it is prosecuting real criminals and getting real convictions – and thus making the country safer. Instead, we get something that falls far short.

One of the foremost complaints about the Ben Ali regime was the arbitrary arrest of just about anyone for anything (see Bouazizi, for one). Reporting mass arrests, without correllary stories on the police investigation, the prosecution, or honest crime statistics makes a mockery of the reports themselves and raises questions about what the government is actually doing.

Magnifying the problem is the seeming inability or unwillingness of the government to tackle the security challenges brought on by radical conservative groups, who have recently stepped up attacks on both tourists and establishments deemed un-Islamic.

So we have a situation in which the government seems content to continue the arbitrary arrest of delinquents, yet is unwilling to investigate and hold accountable groups that are a real and open threat – including to the just recovering tourism industry.

The irony in all of this is that the government has made security sector reforms one of its top priorities of 2012. It has released an action plan and a statement of values the security system should uphold, including raising confidence in the system and instituting community policing measures. Its efforts so far, at least by way of official spokemen, have fallen far short of this goal.

[Photo: Image of police at the interior ministry from Nawaat]

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A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  – the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

Can Tunisian Islamism survive without secularism?

Writing in AlJazeera, Northwestern University professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argues that democratically elected Islamist parties in the Middle East have overturned the secularist/islamist divide.

Yet outside actors should also consider what Middle East Report calls the “pull of the possible”, and reach out to actors, parties and tendencies that refuse to be defined by the political limitations imposed by a secularist versus Islamist frame….

Overcoming the urge to classify actors as secularists or Islamists will take some work. The US failed to see the Egyptian revolution coming in part because it followed the lead of the Mubarak regime and divided the world into two camps: radical Islamist threats to the regime and friends of Mubarak (and the US)….

…If interested parties in the region, the media, or the international community re-instrumentalise the secularist-Islamist divide it could jeopardise the long-awaited transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa…

…Democratic voices that are non-secular and non-theocratic exist across the Middle East today, and not only in Tunisia. Now would be a good time to listen to what they have to say.

Dr. Hurd’s point misses the fact that Islamist parties grew up and became popular as opposition movements to secularism. The question is not whether the West can get along with Islamist movements, but whether Islamist movements can define themselves without secularism.

As I wrote last month in Foreign Policy:

Ennahda seems intent on [characterizing] its opponents as extremists. The party aims to project itself as the guarantor of Tunisia’s moderate center, while at the same time pushing the center to the right. Recent statements by Ennahda’s leadership group “fundamentalist” and “extreme” secularists with radical Islamist groups. This is an interesting strategy because it co-opts the language used by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali that described the government as the guarantor of a certain Tunisian moderation. It also shows opponents of the regime as not only divisive, but also dangerous.

Today, Western governments are meeting with, providing aid to, and supporting the new Islamist led governments in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. The question may be not whether the West can handle Islamists, but rather whether Islamists can operate without secularists.

Tunisian transition leader speaks out – a must read interview

Image courtesy of Tunisia Live

Yadh ben Achour is one of Tunisia’s best known political philosophers. A lawyer by training, his academic work has focused on constitutional law and the role of Islam in a modern democratic state. He is best known for his leadership of Tunisia’s High Commission for the Transition which guided the government’s work and oversaw last October’s elections. You can read more from his bio at Tunisia Live.

Although criticized by some for being too secular, he is generally considered to be a highly respected jurist and his recent interview in La Presse is a must read for its clarity on the political situation. Some excerpts from the interview:

On whether Tunisia’s current situation meets expectations: Yes and no. Yes, insofar as Tunisia is in the midst of a democratic age of rare intensity. Yes, insofar as the strength of democratic civil society is undeniable, forcing governments to be more modest. No, because this period, without a constitution, without a permanent government, has become too long…the longer the transitional period is lengthened, the more dangers proliferate.

On the public debates taking place and Turkey: Everything we’ve done so far has been a waste of valuable time in lamentable and ridiculous discussions about female circumcision, the niqab, Sharia, the caliphate, and other dreams and utopias which all proceed from thoughts which will never be realized. It was these very thoughts that were once the fundamental causes of the general decline of the Muslim world. Turkey, ruled by an Islamic-oriented party, is admired not because it applies Sharia, or agrees with Salafism, or is inspired by the somber niqab for its fashion. The reasons for its success comes from the fact that they lead a secular state, which has achieved an economic growth rate well above 7% and is led by a competent government.

On the current government: For now, what we should avoid is harassing the government critics through impromptu or unjust attacks. But the government must, in turn, avoid blunders or improvising its actions. We need better coordination between the three heads of state. I will not go further in my criticism. I would say, however, that some ministers and secretaries of state, notoriously incompetent, are really not in their place and are sources of problems. I think that there should be a ministerial reshuffle urgently to get rid of some ministers and secretaries of state whose capabilities are extremely limited.

On the consolidation of political parties: What we observed during the elections of October 2011 is a certain lack of rationality, because of fragmentation and the number of political organizations, whether partisan or independent, and the phenomenon of lost votes. Remember that in some electoral districts, voters were forced to choose between 95 lists, which is an aberration. For future elections, therefore, we must first enter into cycles of consolidation among various political parties belonging to the same ideological family. This is what is happening now.

On the government response to security and justice: [The government’s actions on] security and justice give a clear impression of working under the inspiration of the principle of a double standard. From the case of Nessma TV to the recent sentencing of young activists on Facebook sentenced to seven years of prison by the trial court of Mahdia or the repression of the demonstration by unemployed young people on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, despite the ban, to the case of the newspaper “Atounisia”, or the aggression against the journalists Ben Hamida Soufiane and Zied Krichen and Professor Hamadi Redissi , or in the case of the national flag being insulted and defamed at Manouba, justice, every time, proved extremely harsh vis-à-vis the movement of intellectuals or artists of democratic and secular modernists and extremely soft or extremely slow, vis-à-vis the Islamists and Salafist movements of all sizes. All these events leave, objectively, the impression that the state is biased, which is a very bad sign. I’m not trying to judge intentions. They may be good. I describe a fact of opinion, an objective fact. It is true that the reaction of the interior minister, and Mr. Rached Ghannouchi, against the Salafists, tried to reassure the public. This is a good step. But we expect concrete action.

On the nature of the new constitution: Most important in our draft constitution is not about the nature of the regime. On this point, we must rely on the wisdom of the National Constituent Assembly. The real goal will be manifested through a declaration of human rights in the body of the constitution, then by the general principles of state organization which aim to ensure the neutrality of the administration, the separation of politics and religion, very strict control and management of public funds.


The bizarre and counterproductive crackdown by Tunisia’s police

Courtesy Willis from Tunis: A tear gas canister explodes while cries from inside the cloud call for freedom, dignity, and the people

It’s been a busy week for me. I hosted friends from Europe, which included a beautiful tour of northern Tunisia in all its springtime glory. As I was hiking up beautiful Mount Zaghouan, enjoying the flowers in bloom and views across Tunisia’s fruited plain, I received a scary text – things were exploding down on Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis.

I was shocked – protests are often called on public holidays, in this case Martyr’s Day, to celebrate Tunisians killed by French colonial forces in 1938 – but these seemed to be particularly violent. Back in Tunis, the stories rolled in, the violence and brutality almost unimaginable.  Activists, onlookers, and even Western journalists were savagely beaten by police.

I’ve witnessed police brutality firsthand in Tunis, but none since the elections. What was happening? After all, the tourists are finally returning, the economy seems to have a little life. Why would the Interior Ministry embark on such a public and violent crackdown?

The official line was that protests on Tunisia’s main avenue had been banned. After the embarrassing scenes of religious extremists attacking a theater troupe and climbing the central clocktower, Islamist flags (not Tunisian ones) in hand – the government had banned further protests on Bourguiba Avenue.

A week later, with public condemnation by most political leaders and an official investigation underway, we are still no closer to understanding why the police would act the way they did. But for now, the ban on protests has been lifted. It is an open question  whether this will change either public opinion or the government’s actions. One thing is certain, the heavily reported event will do the Tunisian tourism industry no favors.

For many, this week’s events were a sad reminder of how much work remains to be done to reform a police state.

Have Tunisian Salafists written themselves out of the new constitution?

Tunisian Salafists demonstrated this weekend on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis. Thousands of supporters rallied for the Quran, for the institution of Charia law, and to show Tunisians that they would not back down.

But the image that will remain for most Tunisians is one of a half dozen Salafists scaling the clocktower in front of the Ministry of the Interior and waving their black flags with the shahada. See above photo courtesy of Tunisia Live.

The government, led by moderate Islamist movement Ennahdha, has been walking a tightrope with Salafist groups. The Interior Minister told Le Monde last week that jihadist groups were the number one danger for Tunisia, but he was also careful to distinguish between Salafist groups and jihadist ones. Ennahdha leaders have told me that their goal is to not push these groups underground, but to neutralize them by allowing them to protest.

Nevertheless, Ennahdha seems to be feeling the pressure from ordinary Tunisians, who group both violent and non-violent fundamentalist groups as extremist. This might partly explain Ennahdha’s announcement today that it will leave the first article of the constitution as is. Article 1 has been the subject of debate, particularly for those who argue that it should include charia as the principle source of legislation.

The debate over charia is far from over. However, it appears that the more the Salafist are in the news, especially when they are allowed to deface public buildings, the less popular they become. The question is whether or not the public will continue to support Ennahdha’s “light touch” when it comes to these groups – or whether it will force Ennahdha to track further toward the center.