Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior: A Revolution Cannot Be Corrected by the Institution It Rose Against

2021-10-13    |   

Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior: A Revolution Cannot Be Corrected by the Institution It Rose Against

On 14 January 2011, the Tunisian people revolted, and protesters assembled before the Ministry of Interior demanding the departure of those administering and representing it, and the fall of the regime it was protecting. On 25 July 2021, shortly after President Kais Saied announced exceptional measures that shook the country, he dismounted from his vehicle in Tunis’ Habib Bourguiba Avenue and headed toward the Ministry of Interior, evidently seeking to confirm its loyalty. The contrast between the two sights [of January 2011 and July 2021] will go down in history given that the president and his supporters claim that these measures aim to correct the course of the revolution that erupted in opposition to the police state. Ten years were enough to turn the tides. Now the very institution that the people rose against is being portrayed as the apparatus that protects and administers the measures for correcting their revolution’s course, even though its agents enjoy impunity and it has undergone no mentionable reform.


Stringent Policies Against a Peaceful Society


Since independence, the Tunisian state has practiced a harsh, stringent penal policy in which the Ministry of Interior played a key applicative role and exercised its domination over citizens. During the years of authoritarianism, the institution’s role grew into the apparatus, or stick, that was wielded not only against opponents but also against society in order to intimidate it and subjugate it to political authority. The principles of rights and freedoms were kept out of the legal texts, and violations proliferated in the absence of judicial oversight. The stringent character of the penal texts is readily apparent from their imposition of heavy prison sentences, criminalization of acts that fall under individual freedoms, broad application of custodial sentences to not only serious crimes but also misdemeanors and infractions, and lack of alternative sentences. Over the past decade, these texts have not been developed or amended to accord with the 2014 Constitution. Rather, a penal code containing texts that date back to 1913 (i.e. before independence), as well as texts that bear the imprint of the dictatorial regime that the Freedom and Dignity Revolution rose against, remains in force. Compared to other countries’ penal texts, the Tunisian text is extremely strict because of its universal application of prison sentences. For example, anyone who is found drunk on a main road or launches fireworks in public is punished with 15 days of imprisonment, and anyone who openly offends good morals is punished with six months of imprisonment. Because of the weakness, imprecision, and ambiguity of the penal text, police agents have played the primary role in interpreting and adapting it to the repressive policy. Judicial police characterize people’s actions and force them into persecutory judicial proceedings.


In practice, these stringent texts were accompanied by a disregard for the most basic of procedures and safeguards concerning arrest and police custody applied in countries that respect the rule of law. This practice facilitated the process of imprisoning people and thereby directly contributed to the high number of detainees and prison overcrowding. In 2020, inmates numbered 23,607, with 62% not yet tried (i.e. they were under remand).[1] These prison sentences and mass arrests are being applied to a society with low crime rates. According to the latest data published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Tunisia was distinguished by a homicide rate no higher than 3.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, whereas the rate was 6.2 globally and exceeded 12 for the African continent.[2] These rates demonstrate, firstly, that in Tunisia the penal and policing policy and its mechanisms, including arbitrary procedures to criminalize actions and arrest people, are still being exercised to repress and terrorize citizens. Secondly, these policies have not kept pace with the deep societal changes that occurred over the last two decades.


Reforms Remain Absent While Budgets Increase


The Constitution of the Second Republic set out the universal principles of human rights and rule of law and established safeguards ensuring that they would not be violated. However, these gains were not translated into laws and remained stuck in the form of a constitutional text not applied in practice. The outdated legal texts were not revised (with a few exceptions, such as the law combating violence against women) and no replacement texts were proposed. This inaction helped to perpetuate the violations and the impunity of their perpetrators.


The lack of reform primarily concerned the security sector despite its priority and importance to democracy building. Because of the overlap and entanglement of legal regulations, some reforms curbing abuse by the policing system could have been introduced in the realms of public and individual freedoms and the judiciary. However, these reforms were postponed. For example, neither the Penal Code, nor the Code of Criminal Procedure, nor the order regulating states of emergency, nor the law on demonstrations and assembly has been revised, and the Code of Individual Freedoms has not been debated.


Two committees of experts were established in the Ministry of Justice to expedite the revision of the Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, but their work dragged on for years. Although the committee tasked with amending the Code of Criminal Procedure finished its work, the draft it put forward was obstructed by the Prime Minister’s Office in Youssef Chahed’s government, which held it back from Parliament on the basis that it favored lawyers’ interests and lacked a consensus among judges. Regarding the text regulating states of emergency, a bill was presented, but it was opposed by several organizations and associations because it violated many freedoms, and it was obstructed in Parliament’s General Assembly. Regarding the Code of Individual Freedoms, several MPs put forward a bill containing the proposals by the Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality (which the President’s Office had established in 2018), but it was not approved or even debated in Parliament. As for the law on demonstrations and assembly, no party has submitted any bill to this end for examination or study.


After 2014, Parliament did not turn its attention to such legislative reforms, approving only the amendment of arrest and police custody procedures in 2016 (a reform that police agents – whose primary task is to enforce and respect the law – have ignored, as established by many reports issued by rights organizations).[3] Rather, Parliament prioritized examining a dangerous bill submitted by the Ministry of Interior under the title “Deterring Attack on the Armed Forces”. This text was rejected by rights organizations[4] and thwarted by social movements because of the protection and criminal immunity it provided to police agents who cause bodily harm or death while “performing their functions”.


Even though Article 19 of the Constitution explicitly stipulates that the national security forces are republican security forces charged with maintaining security and order and enforcing the law while respecting freedoms, the ruling political authority throughout the preceding period adopted no reform to establish such security forces. There were no radical reforms to establish an effective system of internal accountability (to the contrary, the Supreme Inspectorate for the Internal Security Forces was replaced by an inspectorate controlled by the police unions). No external oversight (besides the judiciary) was established to track and monitor the police apparatus. The parliamentary majority presented no new conception for the law governing the internal security forces’ powers or regulating the intelligence agencies and the scope of their work and activities, especially with regard to data collection. The code of conduct for police agents went unapproved even though it was backed by many funders, and the successive governments and MPs neglected to revise the contexts in which firearms can be used, particularly against protesters. Meanwhile, the judiciary neglected to rule on cases of assaults and violations by police agents. No final rulings were pronounced in torture cases, and there has been no progress in the work of the Specialized Chambers for Transitional Justice, which were unable to enforce summons on accused Ministry of Interior agents to begin with.


In the meantime, victims faced malicious charges concocted by police agents to harass and pressure them using legal texts that have not been amended, such as those on insulting a public servant. These charges were expedited while the original cases pertaining to the violations against the victims were postponed. This shook citizen’s faith in the independence and integrity of the judiciary and deterred some from filing complaints with it.


Yet the ruling political forces have progressively raised the budget of the Ministry of Interior, increasing it by approximately 98% between 2012 and 2020. Consequently, the ministry’s budget is now second only to that of the Ministry of Education, exceeding those of the President’s Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2020.[5] This significant boost in financial resources was aimed not at implementing the necessary structural reforms but at developing the police agencies’ methods and supporting agents and senior police and administrative officers(such as increasing wages and re-ranking and rehiring many agents). This trend was confirmed when the Five-Year Development Plan for 2016-2020 was presented and then approved by Parliament in April 2017. The section on the policing system did not address any of the reform proposals; rather, it was limited to a few points, namely strengthening and modernizing work methods, bolstering the police presence in the various regions, training, and providing social care for the internal security forces’ staff and agents.[6]


This trend and these political decisions helped only to bolster the power of the Ministry of Interior within the state and entrench its policing policies hostile to freedoms. Hence, the relationship of the Ministry of Interior to the authoritarian system was not deconstructed and understood, and the weaknesses were not reviewed so that visions of reform could be proposed. This [shortcoming] helped to expand the scope of the human rights violations.


Repressing Freedoms and Consolidating the Police State


The events of January 2021 were a watershed in terms of the nature and severity of the confrontations between police forces and protesters. Because of their geographical stretch, they involved violations that the country had not witnessed since 14 January 2011. The police responded violently to the protest movements, which encompassed several regions and lasted much longer (more than a month) than those in previous years. This approach resulted in the arbitrary arrest of over 2,000 people, 30% of them minors. Similarly, criminal procedures and safeguards were flagrantly breached, and extreme violence was employed, going as far as torture in many cases. The ruling authority endorsed the police’s response, describing the protesters as saboteurs and encouraging the internal security agencies to extinguish the protests. The prime minister stated that the police forces acted professionally in a blatant denial of any breaches or violations. The President’s Office refrained from offering any clear stance on the events, perhaps because it was already vying with the Prime Minister’s Office for the loyalty of the Ministry of Interior and its agents. Meanwhile, Ennahda called for property to be protected from those it described as saboteurs and paid agitators. Ennahda’s stance thereby overlapped with that of the Free Destourian Party (lead by Abir Moussi and opposed to Ennahda), which declared its absolute support for police agents.


The Public Prosecution also supported the violent police response, playing an important role by turning a blind eye to the breaches and violations that accompanied the arrests when it should have been monitoring police actions and safeguarding rights and freedoms. The use of general and imprecise articles to pressure people opposed to the policing policy continued. Police agents arrested people based on articles they had tailored to fit. Article 125 and Article 126 of the Penal Code, which pertain to insulting a public servant verbally or through actions, are among the main articles that the police used to harass and arrest participants in the recent protest movements. Moreover, they constructed cases bereft of evidence or proof and bearing heavy charges such as criminal conspiracy and inciting rebellion.


The violations recurred and expanded in scope, prompting the police unions to step in and play a significant role in defending the agents involved. They safeguarded their impunity while harassing and pressuring citizens and the legal professionals and organization members who defended them. Representatives of the Tunisian Human Rights League suffered violent attacks in the lobby of the Court of First Instance in Sfax, and a minor was violently attacked and dragged in plain sight in Sidi Hassine after one of the neighborhood’s residents died under obscure circumstances in the police station. Hence, the police unions directly contributed to the perpetuation and escalation of the violations and the attempt to silence the social resistance and restrict freedom of expression. They were aided in this by the judiciary’s disinterest in addressing the breaches and protecting rights and freedoms.


This cohesion between the two sectors is reminiscent of the authoritarian system and its foundations, especially given the absence of any significant radical reform to either. What was supposed to be a republican security force that shoulders the task of providing security to protesters so that they may exercise their right to demonstrate peacefully against unjust policies has become a tool for repression and constricting their freedoms.


These practices are a continuation of the policies that the authoritarian system developed and implemented and that the revolutionary forces rose against. Hence, they have created a delicate and frightful situation that raises questions about the role the police apparatus will play after July 25. Moreover, anyone seeking to correct the course and do away with dysfunctional democracy should be aware that it is impossible to establish rule of law and protect rights and freedoms in a democratic state without first reforming the policing system and establishing republican security forces. This is all the more true if we recall that the final and most important scene in the life of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime took place before the Ministry of Interior in Habib Bourguiba Avenue.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Keywords: Tunisia, Ministry of Interior, Police apparatus, Freedom


[1] “Prison et réinsertion, une impossible combinaison”, a brochure by Lawyers Without Borders.

[2] Breakdown of homicide rates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes.

[3] “You Say You Want a Lawyer? Tunisia’s New Law on Detention, on Paper and in Practice”, Human Rights Watch.

[4] “‘Awda Barlamaniyya Mufzi’a”, a statement signed by 23 associations and organizations on 6 October 2020.

[5] Distribution of spending in the state budget as documented by MARSAD Budget.

[6] Five-Year Development Plan for 2016-2020, Volume 3: Sectoral Content.

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