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A Tunisian state police officer shares harrowing inside view

The policeman tells of a stifling, paranoid atmosphere within the security apparatus, where officers were abused and humiliated into submission before going out to do the same to the public.

February 03, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • A Tunisian police officer and demonstrator face off after security forces stormed a protesters camp in Tunis last week.
A Tunisian police officer and demonstrator face off after security forces… (Zohra Bensemra, Reuters )

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — He glances over his shoulder. Not here, he says.

In the shopping center across the street, there's a cafe downstairs. He picks out a table in the far corner, behind a pillar, to shield his face from security cameras, as jumpy as a fugitive.

Except that Najib, 32, is a member of Tunisia's state security forces.

During the protests that toppled President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, he was ordered to put on a helmet, hold up a shield and baton, and stand against his own people.

He went through the motions, but in the end he didn't have the heart to raise his baton against them.

Even with Ben Ali gone, he is reluctant to talk about life as a policeman in a police state. His commanders at the Interior Ministry don't know that he failed in his duty, and they have ordered officers not to talk to reporters.

Still, Najib decides to risk it, on the condition that only his first name will be published. With gentle encouragement from his wife, a 30-year-old schoolteacher named Dhekra, he tells his story, the words pouring out.

"The dictator is gone," he says, speaking quickly and in hushed tones. "But the dictatorship is still here."

*

In Tunisia, as in other Arab countries, the Interior Ministry has long been the Ministry of Fear, an instrument used by unpopular rulers to keep a restless population in its place.

It is where friends or relatives would disappear for hours or days and emerge shaken, a little different, unable or unwilling to talk about what happened. It was home base of the plainclothes officers who stormed political meetings and the riot police who stood against protesters.

During recent anti-government riots in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters made a point of sacking police stations, Interior Ministry outposts, throughout both countries.

Demonstrators continue to gather in front of the Tunisian Interior Ministry headquarters, now surrounded by barbed wire and protected by the army. Some are teachers, lawyers, street cleaners and even police officers shouting for more rights and better wages. Others come just to stare at the building.

The very act of standing in front of the gray Soviet-style compound of glass, steel and concrete is cathartic.

"It's the symbol of the repression," says Yacine Labib, a lawyer. "If you go there and scream, it's a kind of therapy."

Najib says he joined the ministry's forces seeking financial security. His father, a bus driver, was always short of money, and Najib wanted to do better.

He went through a year of police training that he describes as abusive and humiliating. After 12 years on the job, his salary is $67 a week, less deductions for his uniform and other expenses. He described a stifling, paranoid atmosphere within the security apparatus.

He was trained to use a gun, shown how to huddle with fellow police officers and hold a line against an angry crowd. But much of the training, he said, was meant to dehumanize and humiliate him and his fellow recruits. Commanders screamed obscenities at them constantly, he said.

Before he could marry Dhekra, his childhood sweetheart, he had to ask superiors for approval because she observes Islamic dress codes. It took six months for ministry officials to vet her background and satisfy themselves that she wasn't an extremist, he said.

The couple said that another security policeman applied for permission to marry a Frenchwoman and was denied.

If Najib wanted to visit a city outside the capital, he had to get approval. He was barred from voting or obtaining a passport to travel abroad.

"I was always under surveillance," he said.

During his years of service he worked rotations in different units. Each, he said, had its own indignities.

He served tours in the rapid intervention force, on standby to put down any unrest. Until the recent upheaval, political demonstrations were rare, so mostly he and his fellow officers beat up and arrested drunken merrymakers, releasing them after a night in the lockup and shaking them down for bribes, he said.

Traffic duty was the worst. He stood in the middle of an intersection for 12 hours without any authorized break. He was assigned a quota of tickets, and if he didn't fine enough people, his pay could be docked.

He stood guard at soccer matches. Occasionally melees erupted, and Najib and his fellow officers cracked heads with impunity, he said. But mostly he stared down rowdy spectators, enduring the contempt of fans as well as harsh treatment from commanders.

"I need a pack of 30," one commander said to an underling, referring to officers standing guard as unruly fans left a match.

"They're not a pack," the second commander said, according to Najib. "They're human beings."

For that insubordination, the underling was jailed for a week, Najib said. The message was clear:

"You follow orders. You keep your mouth shut."

*

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