Tunisia Eyes Its Cops and Spies

10/18/2012 07:01 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2012

Twenty months after the overthrow of Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the waiting room office of the "Union of Security Workers" in central Tunis, roughly akin to America's "Fraternal Order of Police," betrays a culture of policing that hasn't quite broken with the past. Several posters on the wall commemorate "martyrs" of the Tunisian revolution -- that is, officers of the security apparatus who died in the attempt to quash it. One banner quotes the classical Arab poet al-Mutanabbi: "If you see the fangs of the leopard protruding, do not assume that the leopard is smiling." Another, also in Arabic, reads, "We do not surrender. Either we triumph or we die."

During last year's revolution, demonstrators torched more than 150 state security installations, mainly police precincts, which had long been viewed as tools of repression. A security vacuum ensued, followed by a wave of violent crime. Now in Tunisia as well as Egypt, where similar events transpired, two principal popular demands are to restore public safety and reform the security sector.

The challenge of doing so is complicated by the fact that for decades, the security apparatus in many Arab countries has policed not only criminals but also politicians, media, the economy, arts and culture, and religious life. On behalf of their ruler as well as the United States and European governments, they also served as partners in the campaign against Islamist groups. Today in Tunisia and Egypt, most of the people who staff the police and intelligence services are holdovers from the deposed regime -- while some of the very Islamists whom they were trained to undermine hold the reins of power and bear responsibility for reforming them.

In an optimistic scenario, elected Arab governments over the next few years will use their mandate to transform the security services into guardians of the rule of law, human rights, and a level political playing field. In a pessimistic scenario, they will simply rejigger the old system to serve new masters, elected or otherwise. Consider the changes in Pakistani state security initiated in the early 1980s by President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Then a partner with the United States in supporting Islamist fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he inducted a generation of Islamist ideologues into his own country's Inter Services Intelligence directorate. Since then, their hold on domestic security has survived democratic elections and coups d'etat, and, long after Zia-ul-Haq's death in 1988, enabled a situation in which Osama Bin Laden could find shelter for years near a Pakistani military academy.

An attempt at security sector reform was initiated by the post-Ben Ali caretaker government last year, prior to the first-ever parliamentary elections. Al-Azhar al-Akrami, a secularist lawyer with a background in human rights law, led a ministerial committee to internally assess the institution by questioning some of its officers at length. Specialists in the field of police reform from France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom (though not the United States) provided expert input. Their work culminated in a 72-page report, "Security and Development," which calls for a reorganization of the structure of government such that security, economic management, and electoral oversight would fall under different authorities, separated by a legal firewall. It also recommends severely limiting the practice of domestic intelligence gathering to target traffickers in drugs and human slaves, violent jihadists, and foreign spies.

"The elected government has not applied our recommendations," Akrami told me. "We aren't Islamists, so they don't want to credit our work in any way." Citing security officials he came to know while working on the study, Akrami alleged that Ali Larayedh, a stalwart of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party now serving as interior minister, has reconstituted a small intelligence unit to eavesdrop on the Islamist party's political opponents. "Some of them are the same snoops as before, only now with beards," he said.

Akrami said that Ennahda has tried to induct its members in the police academy but encountered internal resistance. "What they're trying to do will take five years," he added. Ziad al-Hani, a reporter for the Tunisian daily Al-Sahafa who has written on the subject, agrees. "But the party has begun to make headway indirectly," he said, "by appointing some of its people to head the 'Mu'tamadiyat.'" That designation refers to upper-level bureaucrats, reporting to the provincial governor, who historically worked hand in glove with security officers on the local level.

Larayedh, the target of their accusations, is a dapper, clean-shaven man in his fifties whom I met in his majestic office on the second floor of the interior ministry. "I've visited this building numerous times under different circumstances," he noted, referring to his interrogation and torture under the Ben Ali regime. (He received a death sentence twice.) He described the process of security reform as well underway, and focused as much on transforming the culture of policing as reorganizing the hierarchy of power. "The real reform imposed itself immediately after the fall of the regime," he said. "The security apparatus now understand that they have no place in politics, or organized labor, or art, or human rights, or media, or anything. ... And that's not something Al-Akrami did, or I did, or anyone else. The people did it."

Larayedh described his own efforts as a sort of triage, juggling short-term security priorities with the longterm reeducation of security officers. He saw his first task on taking office as to phase out the dependence on "volunteer defense committees" -- young people who attempted to fill the security vacuum on their own immediately after Ben Ali's departure. He wanted to preempt a repetition of what was happening in Egypt at the time: the devolution of volunteer groups into criminal gangs. So he redeployed the army from the borders to city streets and coaxed police back to work with financial incentives. At the same time, he has tried to acculturate his subordinates to the ideal of "democratic policing" by a combination of speeches to large groups of officers and the arrest and trial of the prior government's most egregious human rights offenders. He flatly denied that his party conducts any surveillance on its political adversaries. As to the latest crop of high-level bureaucrats, "We have indeed introduced new people into the Mu'tamadiyat and, for that matter, appointed new governors," he said. "Some are from Ennahda and some are not. It's totally based on merit." Larayedh said that he has encountered little if any resistance to his decisions from subordinates at the ministry. "Considering the bad blood we have," he added, "the cooperation has been remarkable."

But I gained a darker view of the ministry's internal politics at the party headquarters of Ennahda, which is guarded by a formidable police detachment. "Larayedh is surrounded by enemies," a mid-level activist told me, stipulating anonymity in light of security concerns. "The police are like a mafia that stick together. They don't want us here. And look outside." He pointed out the window at police. "They say it's for our protection, but we don't want it. They take notes on everybody who comes in and out."

These intra-government tensions over security strategy and reform mirror the situation in Egypt, where a new Islamist leadership now attempts to make its mark on a state structure still dominated by an incumbent military elite. The U.S. government's many strategic concerns in the region and long history of intelligence cooperation with Arab security services mean that it is thoroughly vested in the outcome. But some opponents of Islamism in Tunisia have formed the impression that American officials are less focused on Arab security reform than on reestablishing counterterrorism ties. "They are waiting for Ennahda to manage police the old fashioned way, then cooperate with them as they did with Ben Ali," Akrami said. Whatever the case might be, the United States has a choice to make in its policies toward transitioning Arab governments. It can again seek out the leopard as a partner in hunting, or support the widespread demand to remove its fangs.

@Joseph Braude, a writer and Middle East specialist, spent four months embedded with the Moroccan police in 2008. His book on the subject is 'The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World' (Random House: Spiegel & Grau, 2011).