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]

High School Civics or Conversations with Taxi Drivers

“Where are you from?” Taxi drivers never fail to ask as you hop into their car. And the question would never fail to be followed by “And what are you doing in Tunisia? Tourism?” and after a look in the mirror, a welcoming smile: “Do you like Tunisia?”

From Tunisia 2011

But since January 14, these conversations now include the follow-up question, “What kind of political system do you have in the US, presidential or parliamentarian?” or “which do you think is the best political system? I mean in an ideal world, what would it be?”

The recent decision by the Tunisian government to delay the election of the constituent assembly (to replace the interim government and form a new constitution) ensures that I will have at least 4 more months of fascinating discussions with taxi drivers, shoe shiners, friends and neighbors about the best system of representative government, conversations that usually have me trying to think back to 10th grade American history classes and what exactly John Stuart Mill meant in On Liberty.

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January, one of the fundamental questions for Tunisians has been whether they should continue with the presidential model of government, choose a parliamentary system, or some sort of mix between the two.

While certain political questions remain very sensitive (the role of women or religion, for example), and thus not entirely open for discussion, the system of government is a question that is openly debated in cafes, on the “drive time” call in shows, and in just about every conversation I’ve had with Tunisians over the last 6 months.

On more than one occasion I’ve been told that all Tunisians want is some sort of alternation in power. The fact that Ben Ali hung on for 23 years is the biggest  problem many Tunisians, especially those who prospered under the regime, seem to have. This led to an unnecessarily abusive and corrupt system.

What is interesting, and surprising for me, given Western perceptions about the Arab Spring, is that so much of the hopes of Tunisians is based on the system of government, rather than the ideology of the government. Many people believe that having the proper structure and constitution – along with accountability and competence – will lead to the best outcomes for the country, regardless of the beliefs of any political party in charge.

In this respect, the debate here is often more along the lines of political theorists, like Locke or Rousseau describing the social contract, than it is about freedom, liberty or expression. This academic perspective in turn perpetuates debates that exclude the hard issues – such as what role women or religion have to play in society.

As I reflect on this, and my 10th grade history lessons, I realize that these were probably the same debates that allowed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The hard issues, such as the role of the federal government or the institution of slavery, were fudged or left for later, and difficult compromises were made. And while leaving these issues for later had serious consequences, it allowed the nation to coalesce around the common values of democracy, basic civil rights (if not for everyone), and above all, the rule of law.

As Tunisians continue their national public debate, and as various political parties try to steer the conversation in one direction or another, I will be looking to see if these debate ground rules hold, or if they will be high-jacked. In either case, the taxi cab civics debate will continue….