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Tunisia's democratic transition cries out for police reform

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Tunisia's democratic transition cries out for police reform


At last: normal, reliable civic security… the legislative elections under preparation in Tunisia are raising hopes.

When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, the army stayed in their barracks, and most security forces — generally felt to be the brutal instrument of President Ben Ali’s police state — left the streets to the demonstrators.

Now come the second free elections since then.

The spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mohamed Ali EL-Aroui, said: “These elections will be successful. Both the Interior and Defence Ministries are ready to ensure that these elections will unfold properly. Fifty thousand police officers and soldiers will be deployed at voting stations and thoughout the country. Our units are ready to make this a success. Tunisia will succeed in its transition to democracy.”

However, ordinary Tunisians say daily abuses by security forces remain a major problem, including beatings in public, accusations of murder and a multiple rape conviction this year.

One resident of Tunis told us: “It’s only now that security is returning. Things did get impossible to handle at times, it’s true. The police were scorned by everybody. But there has been a lot of progress. Imagine not daring to go out after eight o’clock in the evening because you’re afraid you’re going to get mugged, when you don’t know where they’ll come from.”

Another voter said: “Security now… It’s neither good nor bad. The police must undergo reforms. We are Tunisian citizens.”

“May God save the police,” said one woman. “Really, they work so much. We’ve never seen that before. They’re in the streets day and night, of every rank. What more can we ask for?”

According to Human Rights Watch, police regularly abuse prisoners. The Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou has admitted there are abuses, but strongly denied systematic torture of detainees.

Senior government spokesman Nidhal Ouerfelli said: “We are on the right track concerning security, with positive results, we have the proof, especially in the fight against terrorism. I hope the governments that follow will continue on the same path.”

Two opposition leaders were assassinated last year; that brought the downfall of two coalition governments led by the Ennahda Party, generally referred to as moderate Islamist. It then stepped aside to allow an apolitical government of technocrats take the reins under the direction of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa.

Maya Jribi, Secretary General of the centrist Republican Party, the largest in opposition in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, said: “Tunisia is facing threats, notably terrorism, but it is also true that we have experienced a return to a certain level of peace, above all political stability following the ratification of the constitution and the Mehdi Jomaa government. As a result, there is a feeling of peace and comfort.”

The Association Against Torture in Tunisia says that police brutality is alienating whole sections of Tunisian society from the democratic transition, notably the poor, and that it will pressure the newly elected politicians to reform security services.

Our correspondent Sami Fradi summed up: “The success of Tunisia’s transitional period has brought optimism to some, who consider it an exemplary model of the Arab Spring uprisings in Arab countries. That might be overstating things somewhat, but gradually here in Tunis, there’s no denying that democracy is moving forward.”

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