Standing side by side in their grey uniforms, they formed a whole, a sort of impenetrable, unwavering wall as a crowd of young protesters, boiling with anger, hurled insults and made obscene gestures at them. Yet, the response unit officers were, just like all Tunisian law enforcement officers, directly concerned by the crowd’s demands.
Backed by around 10 civil society organisations, on 8 October demonstrators carried out a sit-in in front of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly in protest of a draft law seeking to expand legal protections for domestic security forces and customs officers. The controversial initiative was recently revived by the assembly after being shelved back in 2015.
According to a lawyer source: “In the penal code alone, security forces benefit from an expansive legal arsenal, as it criminalises insulting or using violence against a public official. I’m referring in particular to Article 71 of the anti-terrorism law. So many texts can be cited that protect police officers, but how are citizens protected?”
Oussama Chaabouni, a member of a Tunisian youth communist organisation, the Union de la Jeunesse Communiste de Tunisie, shares the lawyer’s concerns: “We are worried that the current draft law will bring back a police state and some impunity encompassing illegal security practices.”
Ten years after Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster from power, citizens continue to be as distrustful of the police and the acronym ACAB (“All cops are bastards”) is displayed all over the urban landscape. Although law enforcement has since made some amends for their past, bitter feelings still linger.
In their barracks in the Tunis neighbourhood of Bouchoucha, the security force formerly known as Brigades de l’Ordre Public (BOP) – responsible for terrorising protesters in the 1980s – have now become response units. The men who make up these groups have banded together under one of the largest police unions, the Syndicat des Fonctionnaires de la Direction Générale des Unités d’Intervention, which in 2018 became a 36,000-member-strong union.
“Since 2011, we have been working on a reform that goes hand in hand with the democratic transition,” says Lassaad Kchaou, the union’s secretary general. In just under 10 years, his fellow union members have undergone extensive human rights and communication training, organised primarily by their Portuguese counterparts.
But for many, the concept of a ‘republican police force’ is vague. Kchaou is committed to such an ideal, as he wants law enforcement reform to be free of partisan politics and aspires to build a new relationship with citizens and civil society organisations.
“We haven’t forgotten that our task is to ensure the security of the country and its citizens,” says an officer who was in the past dispatched to the site of terrorist attacks in Tunis to assist his colleagues but also to manage the flow of curious onlookers and rubberneckers. “It was real life, not a movie,” he says. “In these types of situations, you have to know how to reassure people and stay alert at the same time.” Such a job isn’t always easy, especially during the period of attacks in 2015. “Every little thing I saw seemed suspicious,” he adds. “Fortunately, the training I received taught me how to de-escalate situations, which prevents tragedies from occurring.”
For all this talk of progress, political parties, including the Parti Destourien Libre (PDL), maintain an outdated conception of the security forces, one in which citizens should show a level of respect to law enforcement that practically borders on worship. The PDL has put forward an amendment to the draft law under which anybody who criticises the actions of law enforcement could face anywhere from three months to three years in prison. The proposal caused outcry from civil society groups. “If you wanted to kill the bill or help out the Islamists, I can’t think of a better way of doing so,” says an officer who participated in drawing up the draft law on the protection of security forces.
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The Covid-19 epidemic, curfew, the continuation of the state of emergency since 2015 and social demands: law enforcement is tasked with preventing escalations of violence and keeping a climate of insecurity – one that has become pervasive and multi-faceted – in check. “We are Tunisian before anything else,” says Kchaou, taking pride in a children’s magazine his team is creating. It communicates the message that “the security forces protect without causing harm”. It’s a noble idea, but it isn’t consistently applied out on the streets.
“These attitudes occur in every democracy when tensions are high in cities. When there’s no real vision for society, citizens should hate wrongdoers and criminals rather than the people who are there to protect them,” says a former BOP officer who, after a visit to Bouchoucha, noticed there had been a major shift in mindsets.
Bringing the police and citizens closer together, or rather reducing the rift created by past regimes, isn’t a simple task. Some feel that a law will end up legitimising police use of force and thereby leading to its abuse.
“However, many Tunisians acknowledge that members of security forces and their families have the right to protection and that their material conditions need to be improved,” says Yamina Zoghlami, a member of parliament of the party Ennahdha, adding that her party plans to reject the law because it violates the constitution. The decision has added to the confusion because Ennahdha has been the leading party in parliament since 2012 and had plenty of time to review the text.
In Le Bardo, while the assembly was in the midst of debating a draft law impacting response unit officers, they remained impervious to the insults hurled at them. “Politicians and citizens will ultimately recognise that we are citizens too, and that we need a modicum of protection,” an officer says.
Meanwhile, the re-instatement of a curfew and measures to protect against Covid-19 have already made many Tunisians forget that the draft law appears to be in jeopardy.
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