Foreign Policy Digital

Tunisia’s Authoritarians Learn to Love Liberalism

Police unions are using their country’s newfound freedoms to protect themselves—and attack freedom fighters.

TUNIS, Tunisia—In a nondescript office above an ice cream and coffee shop in downtown Tunis on April 2, Mohamed Beldi, the public relations officer of the National Syndicate of Internal Security Forces (referred to its French acronym, SNFSI), leafed through photos of police officers’ stitched-up wounds in plastic sleeves in a binder. He pointed to them and said, “They were attacked by ordinary citizens.” For Beldi, the internal security forces of Tunisia were victimized following the 2011 ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and creating unions was the only way to protect themselves.

In the immediate aftermath of the uprising that ousted Ben Ali, police disappeared from the streets in some parts of the country, leaving the army to maintain order for months. Despite Tunisia’s history of worker militancy under the more than 70-year-old Tunisian General Labor Union, Interior Ministry laws from prerevolution Tunisia read that police and other internal security services—which fall under the authority of the Interior Ministry—are not allowed to form professional unions, nor to strike. So as the post-Ben Ali era witnessed a blossoming of civil society, the creation of countless nongovernmental organizations, and the spread of public debate, internal security employees took advantage of the newfound opening to create unions.

Beldi described the security services union as part of Tunisia’s liberalizing vanguard, which protects those among their ranks who have been unfairly blamed for old regime abuses, and guards against the oppressive control of the Ministry of Interior. “The regimes [prior to and after the revolution] used us. They want to put all the blame for abuses on us,” he said. “Before, it

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