Surveillance reports of Tunisian General Directorate of Public Security shed light on police state and human rights violations, fear of return of Islamism is not warranted

Reporter Hasan Almustafa found a surveillance report after the fall of Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia which sheds some light on the workings of the police in Tunisia in its ‘fight against extremism’. (English translation here.)

On the basis of administrative order 1120/SAM of 6 October 2002 and a message from the General Directorate of Public Security (27 November 2003) the police were ordered to “crack down on followers of extremist religious groups” by “aborting the attempts of individuals wearing sectarian outfits, bearded men, individuals selling amulets, books, suspect books, activities of the Dawa & Tabligh group, mosques, prayers spaces and activities of Salafis” to organize themself.

The surveillance report in question said that on the basis of these orders a girl was arrested because she was qearing a hijab.

After investigation, [we learned] that she performed her religious duties regularly and she was informed that she needed to stop wearing the sectarian outfit [Hijab]. She acquiesced to said request.

This practice is a clear violation of article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of religion. Wearing the hijab in public is not a practice which would be covered by the limitations clause in article 18.3. Tunisia has signed and ratified the ICCPR.

Another document gives some anecdotal proof of a widely reported practice in Tunisia, namely the refusal to hand out passports as a form of ‘punishment’ for individuals who have criticized the regime, even when they’re still abroad. In the document the Tunisian Consul in France asks the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for instruction about issuing a passport to the daughter of a Tunisian man living in France. The document shows the consul asking for instructions on how to proceed with the passport  application given that the little girl’s father is a political refugee in France.

This practice of systematically denying passports or visa to dissidents is again a violation of the ICCPR, more in particular of article 12.

Investigations to start into human rights abuses

The interim government has announced a number of important measures. Initial Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchisaid the government was committed to releasing all political prisoners. “We have decided to free all the people imprisoned for their ideas, their  beliefs or for having expressed dissenting opinions,” said Ghannouchi. The new government led by by Mebazaa began releasing prisoners on Wednesday, with one government official saying 1,800 non-political prisoners who had less than six months to serve were freed.

Amnesty International, the London-based rights organisation, praised the release as a positive step, but said the former detainees should receive reparations.

“The Tunisian authorities now need to show that they are really serious about ending the culture of human rights abuses that has existed for over two decades, and begin to rein in the security apparatus that has harassed and oppressed ordinary Tunisians for so long,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme, told the Reuters news agency.

However, Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, said it was difficult to know how many detainees there had been in the first place.

“We’ve heard earlier in the day that some Islamist ones, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, may not have been freed yet, being kept under Tunisian anti-terror laws.”

Most recently Tunisia’s new government says it will recognise all banned political groups, including Islamists, and grant an amnesty to all political prisoners. Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the exiled head of al-Nahda, told Al Jazeera earlier this week that he plans to return to Tunisia. However, the prime minister said he would only be able to do so once the amnesty law is passed because he carries a life sentence for plots against the state.

The new government announced the setting up of three Commissions: two Commissions of Inquiry into human rights abuses and corruption, and one Commission on political  reform. Current Prime Minister Fouad Mebazaa is expected to keep this promise.

The Commission of Inquiry into human rights abuses will look mainly into two related, but separate issues. The first one is the most recent wave of human rights abuses that occured during the crack down of street protests in Tunisia, especially the shoot-to-kill orders in general, and the 35 deaths in the Kasserine region in particular.

Will the revolution lead to Islamism?

The weak response of the Eureopan Union and the linitial silence of the U.S. has partly been blamed on the fact that while Tunisia might had a dictator, at least he was ‘our dictator’. Tunisia was pro-western, anti-Islamism, a beacon against ‘extremism’ as such. Washington and Brussels were willing to entertain autocracy to stave off Islamism.  A Hamas/FIS scenario was feared: if real elections provide Islamist winners, the West is in trouble. (Excellent coverage on the silence of the West here.)

Commentators on the American right are now stepping in to express the same concerns after the revolution took place. Witness troubled Daniel Pipes:

The first worry concerns Tunisia itself. For all his faults, Mr. Ben Ali stood stalwart as a foe of Islamism, battling not only the terrorists but also (somewhat as in pre-2002 Turkey) the soft jihadists in school rooms and in television studios. A former interior minister, however, he underestimated Islamists, seeing them more as criminals than as committed ideologues. His not allowing alternate Islamic outlooks to develop could now prove a great mistake.

Tunisian Islamists had a minimal role in overthrowing Mr. Ben Ali but they will surely scramble to exploit the opportunity that has opened to them. Indeed, the leader of Tunisia’s main Islamist organization, Ennahda, has announced his first return to the country since 1989.

The Weekly Standard is even more troubled:

The fear of Islamism in Tunisia is well founded. The movement has grown steadily since the 1960s, when devout Muslims lashed out at President Habib Bourguiba for drinking a glass of orange juice on television during Ramadan. In 1987, after Bourguiba arrested over 3,000 Islamists, street riots erupted and four Tunisian hotels were bombed. When Ben Ali assumed power later that year, he suppressed the Islamists, but their ideology has only grown more popular over the years.

It is now reasonable to assume that Tunisia’s Islamists may exploit the current unrest to assume power in the country. They can be expected to use the appeal of the mosque, coupled with the financial, political, and paramilitary support of their international sponsors, including Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.

Pipes then moves to the second problem:

The second worry concerns nearby Europe, already deeply incompetent at dealing with its Islamist challenge. Were Ennahda to take power and then expand networks, provide funds, and perhaps smuggle arms to allies in nearby Europe, it could greatly exacerbate existing problems there.

(A similar point was made by David Pryce Jones in the National Review)

This is echoed by the Weekly Standards, which says:

If Tunisia fell to the Islamists, it could spark a wave of Islamism across North Africa, and produce unpleasant echoes among the Islamists north  of the Mediterranean, particularly in France and Italy, where large  Tunisian communities reside. It could also trigger a wave of migration
to Europe, if Tunisians flee from Islamist rule.

Pipes moved then to the third problem:

The third and greatest worry concerns the possible domino effect on other Arabic-speaking countries. This fast, seemingly easy, and relatively bloodless coup d’état could inspire globally Islamists to sweep away their own tyrants. All four North African littoral states – Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt – fit this description, as do Syria, Jordan and Yemen to the east. That Mr. Ben Ali took refuge in Saudi Arabia implicates that country too. Pakistan could also fit the template.

But these assumptions that political Islam will thrust itself into the space vacated by secular authoritarians, miss the point entirely.  As Tom Pfeiffer notes:

Syria to Egypt and Algeria, governments have used the Islamist peril to justify draconian security policies and emergency laws that gnawed at civil liberties and allowed broad powers of search, arrest and imprisonment without trial.

The absence of Islamist slogans from Tunisia’s pro-democracy revolt punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power”.

Let’s also not forget that the appeal of Islamism in most Arab countries has a ceiling, which well-informed analysts in 2009 put at around 20% of the population, according to The Economist. In Tunisia Islamists were “not able to carry the concerns and longings of the vast majority of Tunisian people, especially the middle class which has chosen freedom and justice”, said Egyptian political analyst Nabil Abdel Fatah.

Leaders of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) movement have said they want to cooperate with the interim government, not overthrow the country’s secular institutions. Hundreds of Ennahda
supporters were put on trial in Tunisia in the 1990s while others fled  to Europe.

In a bid to exploit Tunisia’s unrest, the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb called on Tunisian youth to join its fighters for training in Algeria. But analysts say the group has negligible support, even in Algeria.

Al-Qaeda analyst Camille Tawil said that while small numbers of angry  young Tunisians might eventually be tempted, it was clear demonstrators  were ordinary people protesting against despotism and the al-Qaeda  appeal would have no impact.

Even in Tunisia, mosques became spaces for political protest and some young Tunisians adopted a language of revolt that took a cue from Salafist groups and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“There has been growth in Tunisia of what could be called manifestations of popular piety,” said Michael Willis of Oxford University. “But many Tunisians see that as a protest against the regime, as Ben Ali spoke against headscarves.”

“The Islamist opposition is not what it was 20 years ago,” said Boubekeur. “Many young people don’t even know who Rached Ghannouchi is.”

Elsewhere in the Arab world, moderate Islamists have become part of the political landscape, all touting the values of freedom and democracy, at least in public.

“We hope [Tunisia’s] popular intifada will be crowned by a pluralistic democratic regime that guarantees everyone their rights,” Sheikh Hamza Mansour, head of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, told Reuters.

Commenting on Tunisia, Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD) said “achieving stability and prosperity is tied to respecting the democratic option and the people’s will”.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the overthrow of an autocrat in Tunisia and said many Tunisian problems were also true of Egypt.

The group, which is the country’s biggest opposition force and could rally thousands of supporters according to some analysts, refuses to confront the state on the streets.

Aaron Y. Zelin sums it up in The Atlantic:

The jihadist movement, which has long defined itself as Arab governments’ staunchest and most authentic opposition, had nothing to do with it. Jihadists’ non-involvement in organizing, encouraging, or even participating in the Tunisian protests suggests that the jihadist current has been largely irrelevant to Tunisia’s popular uprising. For as long as jihadists have been in business, one of their main goals has been to overrun an “apostate” Arab leader such as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But with the possible exception of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s 1981 assassination, they never came close. That Tunisia’s protesters succeeded where the jihadists so often fail, and appear not at all driven by anything close to jihadist ideology or even general religious grievances, has left members of the online jihadist community unsure how to respond. The uprising, after all, fulfills a top jihadist goal, but it also rebukes their belief that only violent and pious struggle can bring down a man like Ben Ali.

Although jihadists have been passing around a YouTube video extollingthe creation of a Caliphate in Tunisia, scarcely any Tunisians, and no significant Tunisian organizations, have shown any real interest in replacing Ben Ali with such a government.

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