North Africa, West Asia

Ask a professional: security and democracy in Tunisia

The choice is so easily reduced to a zero sum calculation between security and democracy: the ‘apparatus’ having a considerable interest in making people feel sufficiently insecure to renounce the democratic process in exchange for security. An interview.

Haykel Ben Mahfoudh Fabio Merone
20 March 2014

After the coup de force of General Sisi in Egypt, the salafisation of the opposition in Syria and the militia military conditioning of the process in Libya, the Arab Spring has turned from a transitional democratic process into a struggle for stabilisation and security. This is clear in the new political rhetoric and the normal preoccupation of the people that are living a long and conflicting process of transition.

The call for a return to the security issue, however, risks compromising the democratic process, especially because for most of these countries (Syria and Egypt), the security system is linked to the authoritarian state. The choice may be reduced to a zero sum choice between security and democracy: the ‘apparatus’ having a considerable interest in making people feel sufficiently insecure to renounce the democratic process in exchange of security.

Many of the security arguments are intertwined with a critical debate over the experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in power. More generally, it is political Islam which is under discussion, accused not only by the military and security apparatus but by the elites as a whole for being fundamentally unsuited to democratic systems. The irony is that in order to prove this argument, non-democratic systems and mechanisms are deployed, as the repression of the MB in Egypt and in the Gulf countries shows only too clearly.

Tunisia is one country in the MENA region that has chosen a different path. Sharing features with other countries where a democratic process has begun, it differs in not having fallen into the trap of the return of the authoritarian state. Though the same characteristics are present, the country seems to have found a balance between ‘the fight against terrorism’ and the build up of democratic institutions.

The aim of this interview is to show through the lens of a security advisor what this process feels like from the apparatus’ point of view. At the beginning of the transitional process, after the demonstration in La Casbah, the ‘street’ asked for the revolutionary process to be completed by dissolving the RCD (Ben Ali’s party) and the political police. The former institution was a very clear target for dissolution, but nothing quite as obvious as the ‘political police’ existed in Tunisia. Farhat Rajhi, former Interior Minister, decided to go ahead and dissolve the (Direction de Sécurité du Territoire), DST, a specialist wing of the intelligence apparatus of the Interior Ministry (IM), thought to control political opposition leaders in the past. This move appeared to most observers of the security system to have been a big mistake. Mr. Heikel Ben Mahfoudh, our interviewee explains why.

As he sees it, the Interior Ministry acts more as an administrative bureaucratic apparatus than as the black box of former dictatorships. Moreover, he wants to convey the message that Tunisia, even as an authoritarian state, possessed something of the ‘culture’ of modern state institutions. Is this reading key to the way the Tunisian transitional process seems to be developing in a different direction to the other MENA countries? This interview is at least an interesting glimpse into a crucial aspect of Tunisia’s democratic process.

How did the security system work before the revolution?

In order to understand the security system, it is necessary to link it to the administrative and political system as a whole. A security system is not something abstract that lives outside its context.

As an administrative apparatus, the IM simply fits into the general institutional structure of the state. It functions according to this hierarchical and pyramidal system, and is composed of several support structures.

As part of the political system, the IM developed in parallel to the modern state after independence in 1956, and then suffered from the evolution of the political system as a whole into an authoritarian regime. IM development was strongly influenced by the bureaucratisation of the state apparatus and the authoritarianism of the political system. Obeying the same logic as the state-machine overall, it is nonetheless a bigger and more complex body than most. Its use as a repressive tool followed on from the way in which it was shaped. In other words, it became repressive because of the political system in which it was incorporated.

So we have to read the IM apparatus within the general framework of modern state-building?

Tunisia has a tradition of modern institutionalisation and even within an authoritarian system like this one there has always been a special ‘cult’ for modern norms and the law. Between 1956 until 2011, I personally reviewed 1700 legislative texts, of which 1200 are still in force. We are not here discussing the efficacy of the system. Of course it was not a well-performing system. But I’m just pointing out that neither the dictatorship nor the Interior Minister had the character many people attribute to them. It was not a rational machine designed to be repressive. It was first and foremost a state institution with its perversions, but also with its own rationality.

What about the political police?

In Tunisia, since the revolution, there has been a big debate about the survival of the old regime, and everybody thought that the seat of repression must be located within the IM. So the call has gone up to dissolve the ‘political police’, considered as the core of the system. But this is a mistake. There is no such specific body to be identified as the ‘political police’. Rather what we have is a process: the way the political system, the regime, applied the functioning of the state machine for repressive purposes. I don’t know if that makes the difference clear...

Still there was a system of information that controlled political opponents, for example?

Correct. The heart and the brain of the IM were, and still are, the intelligence services. This is not specific to the Tunisian system, of course. Every modern state has its own intelligence services. On the contrary in a modern democracy, huge importance is given to this segment of the state system; because to have information on the risks that your people may face in the future is a strategic tipping point. On this depends your ability and preparedness to face up to those security threats. If there is a bomb in Jendouba, for example, there are only two ways to know about it: first, it explodes and you will soon know about it after the explosion; secondly, you have the information that a bomb will explode and are able to avoid the damages a bomb explosion inflicts.

What was then the DST (Direction de Sécurité du Territoire), this special department of the IM that former Minister Rajhi (at the time of Caied Essebsi government) dissolved?

This was a big mistake that we are still paying for now. Rajhi acted off the cuff hoping to give a definitive answer to the popular demand to get rid of the old regime. It was thought at the time that the power of the Ben Ali system was concentrated in this specialist department, and that it contained many of the functionaries closest to the regime.

And that was not true?

No. Unfortunately.

What was the truth, then?

The DST was a key coordinator within the intelligence system of the IM. Intelligence services in Tunisia are divided into two main structures: the services speciaux, which work on general intelligence information, and the service technique, which provides the same information but through technical instruments like phonetapping or internet control. These two bodies were then coordinated by the former DST. You will immediately see the centrality of this service. It ensured that the entire system worked; without it, the whole system has gone haywire.

Was it precisely this centrality to the intelligence system that prompted Rajhi (and others) to suspect its role in the past regime?

Sure. But, as I said before, it was not the apparatus or the specific administration that made the system repressive, but the political use to which it was applied. Those services are of a strategic importance for any country in the world. You don’t fight dictatorship by eliminating those functions, but by framing your new political system in terms of civil society control and respect for the rule of law. We want a democracy, but we also want security.

Are you saying that in order to have security we should accept a strong police and intelligence apparatus?

I’m saying that we should draw clearer distinctions and avoid confusion. As I have suggested throughout this interview, the IM is just another administration and the functionaries working there are normal employees of the state. We need a security apparatus: nobody is going to dispute that are they? The real issue is rather how to create a context in which the police apparatus doesn’t take up far more space than the society requires.

So it is mainly a political issue. The parties in power should not seek to use the IM to their own advantage?

The IM - as it is now in Tunisia - is a system that must learn to act according to the interest of the people and not that of a particular political power. It is the same problem that we have throughout the whole Public Administration (PA). At the time of Ben Ali, the entire system was under very strong pressure to conform to one interest. It worked in a way that each person responsible for a department entirely depended on those ranked above him. The upper level of the ladder was not the Director of the Interior Ministry, not even the Minister himself. Instead, every decision went back to the special consultants of the presidency. Ben Ali had special counsellors, the real initiators of every  activity. Whatever was done was an implementation of an order coming from the ‘palace’. What is clear is that before activating this order system, every counsellor talked to Ben Ali in person in a way that ensured that the entire apparatus was managed directly from Ben Ali’s hands. This system of command created the paradoxical situation that no lower level of the ranks took a single decision so afraid were they of possible reactions from the palace. The highest cadres were in fact themselves victims of a power system wholly concentrated in Carthage (location of the presidential palace).

This system does not exist any more in the sense of the real climate of fear that pertained at that time. However, the logic of having a structure that solely depends on one man’s orders to take any decisions does still exist. This is well known; there is not a clear normative system that allows employees (from the lowest rung of the ladder to the highest ranking cadres) to take a decision or to act according to what is in the interest of the Tunisian people, according to the specific duty he or she serves in his/her respective function. Still today, the key word to make anything move in our administration is taalimat (instructions). Employees are all the time just waiting for instructions.  

This system must change. Without serious legislative reform, the machine will still work with the same instinct, and moreover each new political regime will tend to reproduce the same mechanisms as the old regime when it comes to the security apparatus.

So did the Nahda party act like the old regime, as the opposition alleges?

I believe that the Troika government (the alliance of three parties in which Ennahdha was the biggest party) wanted to establish a new regime, but it is more than likely that they reproduced the same mechanism in the way they handled the apparatus. You have to deploy a power that will abuse everybody if there is not a clear framework to regulate it according to democratic rules.

How do IM functionaries live with the transition from the old regime to democracy?

At the beginning they were very enthusiastic, like all Tunisians. They could not stand the regime any more. They supported every kind of pressure that could be brought to bear on the old regime. This is something that ordinary Tunisians don’t know enough about. Both in their private lives and in their professional capacities, life was very hard under Ben Ali. Just to give one example, no average policeman could get married without authorization. The person he or she would be allowed to marry was controlled beforehand. If he wanted to travel abroad, he had to seek authorization. As for working conditions, unlimited hours of work without any guarantees in terms of decent wages and conditions were the rule of the day.

For most of them revolution came as a liberation. They started to organize themselves: the first result was the organization of unions (there are today three security workers’ unions). In the prosecution of this process they experienced a certain amount of disillusionment because they had hoped that the system of working described above would change with the new government. It did not: it just reproduced itself.

Concerning the unions and the general effect of lobbying within the IM, are you sure that there was such a political welcome from this sector for regime change?  

This is true for most of them. Some elements inside the structure of the IM are not glad at all - this is well known - and also that they have tried to put obstacles in the way of the normal functioning of the structure. But we can’t identify them: nobody knows them. This is because they go about their business very discreetly. Nobody is going to say openly that they are against Tunisia’s revolution and the new democratic course.

Do you believe there to be a parallel police force within the IM, as a section of the opposition have alleged?

For sure, there are people who have formed a resistance within the apparatus; this is more than likely. But I don’t believe they are an organized group with a specific political agenda. I tend not to believe these conspiracy theories.

But still we can assume that Nahda and the security apparatus did not like each other very much. For example, take the official declarations of Sahbi Jouini. These have a distinct political edge. Don’t you think a struggle is taking place between them?

I agree that sometimes the tone and type of declarations made by certain police union representatives goes beyond what is legitimate. We should understand though that the policemen feel they have been deceived in their hopes that their working conditions would change. They are also under pressure, both from the political class and public opinion. One moment they are the ones who are accused of being part of the regime: the next, they are again accused of not being able to handle the new security threats.

You don’t think that they hate Islamists?

I think that those people do have dossiers that relate to the past. We don’t know the whole story. They must have their reasons.

You mean they know things about the past of nahdhaouis (Nahdha partisans)?

Nahdaouis and others.

Nahda did try to impose their power on the IM?

I think that Nahda came to power and they liked it. Once you have power in your hands it is not easy to manage. Especially since the IM is a very large and powerful machine. It indeed gives you the strong sense of having a huge power on your hands. That is why the entire administrative system must be changed, giving much more precise competences to the functionaries and absolutely clear mechanisms of control.

What does the political transition look like from the IM’s point of view?

The fall of a regime never brings about immediate changes automatically. This is a false notion. The analysts divide any transitional period into three phases: a first period in which there is the perception of change; a second in which you start to develop a change mentality, and a third during which you at last have an opportunity for real change. This whole process, it is calculated, takes around fifteen years to effect.

Where are we now?

Now we are living through the second stage. This is the moment in which we have very seriously to work to change the mentality in order to make real changes. This is a process that leaves noone untouched.

For example policemen should learn how to treat judicial defendants according to international rules?

True. We know of many abuses being committed right up to today.

Another problem is the abuse of the technique of confessions during investigation?

In this field, policemen are really in need of a specific body to be formed which teaches more sophisticated means of investigation and in particular how to apply these according to a respect for human rights.

Let’s talk about recent developments. What about the security challenge, and in particular, the decision to declare Ansar al-Sharia a ‘terrorist group’?

As I tried to explain at the beginning of our interview, the security apparatus has been weakened. First because of the moral responsibility people attributed to them for being the repressive arm of the old regime. Secondly, because of the dissolution of the IM’s strategic intelligence body. Now things are slowly returning to their normal functioning. The intelligence system is going back to its former effectivity, and lessons have been learned from past mistakes. There is a clear improvement of the situation.

Do you think that the general political situation, i.e, the change of the government, is another cause of this improvement?

There is no doubt of that. Just one example will suffice. On August 5, 2013, during Ali Laraayedh’s government, the presidency of the government posted on its FB official page the new plan against terrorism. A week ago the same IM just announced a different strategy that modifies the previous one.

You mean that there is a different political will?

The precise moment the country is living in is political par excellence. The security apparatus is indeed influenced by the general political climate and reacts according to the change of governments. For example declaring Ansar al-Sharia (AST) a terrorist organization can be nothing but a political decision. A political decision was required.

And this was positive?


Isn’t there a risk of creating a division in society between the supposedly ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that only sets up the premises for future abuse?

This decision was inevitable, because, as I said, this is the way the security apparatus still works. That is their mindset. They need a taalimat, an order to act. Then they do act. To them, this is the only way they can work. Without such a statement they would have never have acted, regardless of the danger of the situation.

But we do need security; we cannot live in a situation which just deteriorates until there is a risk of pure chaos. At the same time, the way you manage the security situation can have an impact on the general political evolution of the political transition. Leaving things to collapse into chaos may make people feel the need for the return of the dictator; but only depending on a repressive approach will ultimately cause the system to degenerate into a new authoritarian regime.

As in Egypt?

We want our security but we want a democracy and the respect for human rights as well. In our field we used to say that both factors are necessary to make two elements work tightly together: that is, efficiency and governance. The first must not be exploited for political means or power, as is the case when it comes to General Sisi in Egypt. Once the political insists on efficiency at the expense of a civic responsibility that is in control, this must turn into yet another authoritarian type of government.

Do you think that this awareness is widespread among political elites?

We are in the middle of a process, as I said before, and the real changes must be brought about in what I have referred to as the middle term in three stages.  I do think, though, that the Tunisian political elite has acquired an authentic democratic awareness. 

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