Chahrazed Ben Hamida, a doctoral researcher at the University of Carthage-Tunisia and the University of Pierre Mendes-France. She is also vice president of the Tunisian Observatory on Comprehensive Security.
Security sector reform had formerly topped Tunisia’s list of priorities after the fall of the Ben Ali Regime. But a rise in the number of deadly terror attacks—the most recent being the June 26 attack on a tourist hotel in Sousse—has indefinitely delayed reform.
Amid calls to expedite the ratification of an anti-terror law and fortify the security forces, citizens now find themselves caught between the hammer of terrorism and the anvil of the police. Tunisians lack the guarantees necessary to successfully balance addressing terror threats with a respect for civil rights. Part of the issue stems from the common fallacy that reform is an institutional luxury available only in the absence of terror threats. But such a position neglects the fact that reform also includes the structural changes necessary to achieve security without limiting personal freedoms.
Strategic planning is essential in drafting, monitoring, and evaluating general security policies. This is more effective than taking impromptu or rash decisions in reaction to individual attacks. Following the Sousse attack, for example, a number of decisions were announced, including a review of licenses granted to some parties and associations, closing mosques that are outside the state’s control, and restricting youth under 35 years old from traveling to certain countries. These decrees revived the public’s concerns about the return of a police state. In addition, serious questions arose about their effectiveness in the absence of an integrated national policy to combat terrorism.
Today, despite the gloominess of Tunisia’s security landscape and the need to give priority to combatting terrorism, there is still hope for security sector reform in the country. Citizens show an increased willingness to pressure the government on the need to reform the security sector. This has been accomplished through establishing new practices such as the “citizen vigilance” initiative against police violations.
Since the outbreak of the revolution, most police abuses have been monitored and documented, the exposure of which has led public opinion to mobilize to hold Tunisian authorities accountable. For example, two police officers were charged and sentenced for the 2012 rape of a young woman after the case mobilized civil society. Similarly, several officers were recently dismissed from their posts after they used force to prevent citizens from visiting cafes and restaurants during daylight hours in Ramadan.
Though these are small measures, such practices show that Tunisians are still rejecting authoritarianism and questioning the security forces even while supporting their efforts to combat terrorism. But more explicit political will is still needed to achieve broader reforms.
* This article was translated from Arabic.