Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Police Are Dogs

An excerpt from my latest piece in Foreign Policy:

One day in November, Fawzia Ben Ahmed sits down in her living room in the hardscrabble Tunis neighborhood of Bab Jdid to watch a video of her son being detained by police. Ben Ahmed, a lady of small frame, is dressed simply and conservatively with two pieces of brown cloth covering her hair and torso, thick glasses covering her expressive eyes. Her 17-year-old daughter Hedia sits next to her on the sofa. Today is her mother's birthday.

"Look, he's smiling even as they bring him out," says Fawzia with pride. The television screen shows police pushing Ahmed Ben Ahmed, better known as rapper Klay BBJ, out of his dressing room at the cultural center in the beach town resort of Hammamet.

The trouble at the Hammamet concert late last August, started when Klay and fellow rapper Weld el 15 (real name Alaa al-Yacoubi) performed Weld's song "Boulicia Kleb" ("The Police Are Dogs"). During an intermission soon after, the police killed the music, cut the spotlights, and stormed the two musicians' dressing rooms. The police brought the rappers out, put them in a van, and proceeded to beat them on the way to the police station, according to Klay.

"The first person I saw, I also saw a slap coming from him at the same time. It was like he was saying: 'Hi,'" says the 22-year-old Klay. The singer has an oval face, an underbite, and puffy lips. (In the photo above, Klay (right) poses with Weld el 15 upon arriving at court on Dec. 5.) His smoky and slightly nasal voice has a laid-back quality that almost hints of southern California (despite the fact that his favorite rappers are East-Coast legends Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls). He's sitting on a couch in the hallway just outside the living room, sporting an Orlando Magic jersey, sweatpants, and granddad slippers. Even when he's not rapping, he speaks lyrically.
"When they started beating us, Alaa and I were just looking at them and saying: 'Why?' And they replied: 'Yeah, you're insulting the police, and since 2011, no one has arrested you. Well, now you're going to pay for everything,'" says Klay as his bleached-blonde girlfriend pets his back softly. "More than 30 police officers came in. The ones who didn't beat me just threw in a punch." 

To read the entire piece, click here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tunisia’s Politicians Play On

The Tunisian political game continues, thankfully without a brazen coup (for now), yet sadly without much regard for the needs of common citizens. Here is an excerpt from my latest analysis in the Cairo Review:

...despite deep ideological rifts, continuing economic woes, and regional pressures, Tunisia’s political game continues.
To understand Tunisia’s current political state, it is helpful to distinguish the public’s latent disenchantment, frustration and anger from the specific triggers that, in the last several months, sparked a series of demonstrations, moved large institutional players clearly into the opposition camp, and motivated opposition politicians to push for an end to Ennahda’s rule and the dissolution of Tunisia’s only elected body, the National Constituent Assembly.

To read the full article, click here.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Interview with the Bedouin commander who captured Saif Al-Islam Gadhafi

Here is an excerpt from my latest piece in The Independent:

On an old Saharan road in the small hours of a cold November night, darkness cloaked a Bedouin commander and his 14 men waiting in ambush.

At 2:30 in the morning, their patience and their intelligence sources were proved justified, and two cars travelling along Libya’s borders with Niger and Algeria became mired in a depression in the sand.

One man exited the first car, immediately fell flat, and buried his face in the sand. Commander Alajmi Ali Ahmed al-Atiri raised the man to his feet to inquire who he was.

“He said: ‘My name is Abdessalam al-Tergi. I’m a camel herder and I’m going to my herd,’” recounts Atiri. “And when he asked: ‘Who are you?’ I responded: ‘We are the revolutionaries of Zintan and [the] Hutman [tribe], oh Saif,’ and that’s when he knew that we recognised him.”

To continue reading, click here.

Libya's Unarmed Revolutionaries

Here is an excerpt from my recent article in Foreign Policy:

During the more than four decades of his rule, Qaddafi succeeded in fusing his family with the state and the government. The basic building block of civil society -- associative life -- could not exist outside the regime's control. The revolution ruptured this model. Citizens, long silent, collectively asserted their right to a share in Libya. In the fight against Qaddafi, armed groups secured victory with the help of peaceful citizens' associations, a nascent civil society that provided medical assistance, food and water, and psychological treatment for those traumatized by war. Now in its second year, civil society groups are taking their first tentative steps toward an institutional role in the state. While government is at the mercy of warring militias and the private sector primarily revolves around natural resources, it is the third sector, civil society, that is laying the groundwork for an educated citizenry engaged in the rebuilding of Libya. A strong civil society is key to guaranteeing and protecting the gains of the revolution, and, in many ways, represents Libya's best hope for a genuine democracy. 

To continue reading, click here.

Tunisia and 'the Egyptian Model'

Here is an excerpt from my recent analysis in the Cairo Review:

In both Tunisia and Egypt, the state’s most important and entrenched institution remains the security establishment. In the case of Egypt, this means the army. It wields enormous political power, has close relations with the U.S., oversees the complicated relations with Israel, and maintains interests in virtually all sectors of the economy. Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were all military men, and it seems that General Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi seeks to follow in their footsteps.
In Tunisia it is the Interior Ministry that retains potentially decisive power. This is the case particularly with the police, which was led at one point by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, before his ascendance to the presidency. Tunisia, under his rule, was rightly characterized as a police state. What we know of the Interior Ministry is more limited than what we know of the Egyptian army, and Human Rights Watch has described it as “a black box,” However, tiny slivers of light have begun to emerge, and the role of the ministry and the police in the current standoff between pro- and anti-government protesters may be key to understanding why Tunisia has not followed Egypt’s lead.

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tunisia and the 'Arab Spring' Reversal

The following is an excerpt from my recent analysis of Tunisia's current turmoil following another political assassination. Read the full article here at Jadaliyya.

Two years ago, hope was not only palpable in the streets of Tunis; it was infectious. Young Arabs had risen up and triumphed against a Western-supported dictator whose police state ran on fear. Similar uprisings across the region seemed to have confirmed that Tunisia had led the way towards a new, more democratic order. And Tunisia was about to lead the way again by holding a clean election, almost unprecedented in the Middle East and North Africa.

Now, hope is in rare supply across the region. Egypt’s elections yielded new leaders that blindly and illiberally ran the country along strict partisan lines until a military coup publicly reasserted old-regime institutions. Libya’s timid leaders and bold militias have hampered democracy, security and institution building. Syria’s revolution turned into a bloody war and a hellish game for external actors, while Lebanon desperately tries to quarantine itself from the neighboring chaos. Western observers use increasingly desperate euphemisms for Iraq’s escalating civil war. No one dares talk about Bahrain, or perhaps no one cares. Other Gulf countries quietly quarrel amongst themselves through political and economic maneuvering in neighboring proxy countries.

While numerous pundits bemoan “Arab Spring” fatigue, many still believed that tiny Tunisia alone might overcome its challenges to create a new inclusive, civic, stable, free, and prosperous political order. But what started in Tunisia may soon end in Tunisia as the gains of the “Arab Spring” are systematically rolled back with the help of old regime forces, ascendant ideological zealots, domestic lassitude, and powerful outside players that are uncomfortable with independent, populist politics in the region.

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Snapshot Tripoli: February 17, 2013

The following is an excerpt from my personal, narrative non-fiction snapshot of Tripoli during the second anniversary of Libya's February 17 revolution, published in Guernica.

The second anniversary of Libya’s revolution, in February of 2013, brought a festival to Tripoli’s streets. Local pride drove fierce competition in celebrations, but many will happily concede that the neighborhood of Fashloum won beautifully. Local kids handed out mints and chocolates to cars in transit. At heavily armed checkpoints, young men dressed in new military uniforms and government badges sprayed orange blossom perfume into open car windows in jest, in revelry. They—we—danced in the streets, in the cafes, on the roofs of moving cars, singing songs about the land. Flags dressed cars, buildings, walls, heads and necks and chests and backs. Wildly crisscrossing networks of red, yellow, and green illuminated wires, shadowed alleys glowed like hearths. Fireworks launched the colors of the flag into the sky as we danced below.

In my lap was a Beretta. I’d heard the ominous name before. Its black metal, its grooves, its markings looked too real. “Yes,” said the stoned revolutionary in front of me, leading us at 80 miles-an-hour down narrow city streets, inches away from other moving cars, “it’s loaded.” This kid was supposedly a cop, and he drove a bullet-proof, custom-made, black BMW that he took as booty from the ex-regime’s interior ministry during the revolution. The thing really flew. He asked me to take off my seat belt: it made me look like a foreigner at checkpoints.

To read the full piece, click here.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Tunisia's Missing Democrats

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 10, a Tunisian NGO sent out a photograph of the National Constituent Assembly on Twitter. In the photo, two out of Tunisia’s 217 nationally elected officials are seen at their desks. At 10 a.m, one hour after the scheduled starting time for a plenary session that included voting on the establishment of an independent judicial body, the same Twitter feed sent out an update: “38 deputies present in the chamber…”

According to the watchdog organization, Al-Bawsala, this problem of tardiness and absenteeism in Tunisia’s first genuinely democratic body has been relatively constant following the revolution. More than that, the problem gets to the heart of Tunisia’s continuing difficulties in transitional democracy.

“People are angry about this assembly,” says Selim Kharrat, Executive Director of Al-Bawsala.

“We accept that all parliaments suffer from absenteeism, but Tunisia is not normal,” he says, referring to Tunisia’s fragile democratic transition following decades of dictatorship.

Popular anger is compounded by the fact that assembly members have broken several deadlines for completing a new constitution, while they have voted to increase their salaries and benefits so that they now receive between five and ten times the average Tunisian salary.

The Tunisian National Constituent Assembly was democratically elected in October 2011, a landmark accomplishment for the first Arab country to overthrow its despot. The assembly was initially tasked with writing a new constitution within a year before dissolving. However, the body quickly took on the additional role of parliament. Al-Bawsala has been one of the few organizations to monitor nearly all of the assembly’s plenary sessions. They run a website that publishes the attendance and voting records of assembly members. In March, Al-Bawsala presented some of its finding to the assembly’s Commission of Rules and Procedure and Immunity.

After 22 plenary sessions, held between January 17th and February 25th, 2013, we have recorded an average of 73 minutes of delay per session, with a peak of 2 hours and 45 minutes of delay. The average number of presence is 90 members out of 217,” the president of Al-Bawsala, Amira Yahyaoui told the elected officials.

The damning report caused a stir, garnering scathing criticism from some elected deputies and support from others. According to Kharrat, after their presentation, assembly Vice President Mehrezia Laabidi said: “We understand why people are upset with the assembly.” However, days after the report, the eldest member of the assembly, Tahar Hmila, called for Yahyaoui to be banned from entering the assembly before verbally attacking another Al-Bawsala employee, Myriam Ben Ghazi.

Asked why he confronted Al-Bawsala in this manner, Hmila, formerly the interim president of the assembly due to seniority, accused the NGO of being an agent of French imperialism.

“They are all Francophones… Civil society associations are all there to abort this revolution. They are against this constitution because it doesn’t accord with a French perspective,” he said.

Asked about Al-Bawsala’s stated commitment to transparency and accountability, he responded that “they are little liars.”

But Ben Ghazi says that his anger stems from the fact that Al-Bawsala recently caught him voting in support of the formation of the new government led by Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh, despite the fact that, publicly, he opposed its formation.

“All the old guys think they are the ultimate authority in Tunisia and no one should question them. They are so old-fashioned. They feel exposed, with no sense of privacy – and that’s what should happen. They just don’t get it,” says Ben Ghazi.

While Ben Ghazi says she has experienced hostility from some members, many others seek her out for information about their own voting records.

“Even assembly members come up and ask me: ‘What’s my percentage of absences?’ One chased me down the street. Some are worried about their numbers. Some want to brag about it,” she says.

In their initial report to the assembly’s internal rules commission, Al-Bawsala singled out some members for their attendance. They noted that member Mahmoud El May attended only 2 percent of the plenary sessions that focused on dealing with the formation of the independent election committee. El May, in his defense, notes that during those sessions, his time was divided between taking care of his sick wife and going to Turkey as part of an official delegation. He accuses Al-Bawsala of being unprofessional.

“They [Al-Bawsala] don’t try to verify [their information] – not even they didn’t ask me, they throw my name to the public, then my name is taken in the newspapers as 2 percent presence in all the assembly, which is not true, and then, when they see this error in the newspaper, they don’t go and correct. I found this very unprofessional.”

“When they give the name they should yes, he’s 2 percent, but overall he’s 65. Or you don’t give names. Then I checked my presence; I never checked my presence. The [vote] that came after, for the finance law of 2013, I was at 80 percent. They could say this… they are young people that are overpaid to put shit on people that are underpaid.”

Kharrat of Al-Bawsala concedes that El May has an excuse for his absence during this period, but justifies their publishing of the numbers as a way to fight the lack of accountability that plagues the assembly.

“He was on an official visit, but we don’t have access to this information. This assembly is very opaque. We are not asking MPs to be accountable to Al-Bawsala; we are only intermediaries,” says Kharrat.

Even some members of the assembly who publicly support the work of Al-Bawsala and greater transparency have been caught by the NGO’s watchful eye. Lobna Jeribi is an assembly member and part of the OpenGov transparency initiative. She claims (along with former party colleague Karima Souid) to be responsible for a new article in the assembly’s internal regulation that obliges the body to publish attendance figures. The move came after Al-Bawsala made its recommendations to the body’s internal rules commission.

“They push the ANC towards transparency. They stimulate and accelerate transparency,” says Jeribi. “Today, the assembly is the victim of this, that is to say ruled by transparency; it has implemented transparency. It is the victim of transparency in the sense that we are in our first democratic exercise. All institutions are in an apprenticeship.”

Ms. Jeribi herself was caught by Al-Bawsala when she voted on behalf of two of her absent colleagues during one plenary session. She apologized for doing so on her Facebook account after Al-Bawsala published the incident.

“Everybody noticed us since then and kept their distance. Every report we publish, there is a reaction in the assembly the day after,” says Ben Ghazi. “They started being more cautious.”

Surprisingly, the problem of absenteeism falls largely along party lines. Al-Bawsala’s March report initially included the ten assembly members with the best attendance records and the ten with the worst. The ten with the best records are all members of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party. While Al-Bawsala quickly removed the names of the worst offenders in preparation for a full re-launch of their watchdog website, the original list included top opposition figures, including Maya Jribi and Ahmed Nejib Chebbi of the Republic Party. Numerous interview requests, including direct phone calls, calls to their press attaché, their secretaries, and a visit to their party headquarters received no response.

Many have accused opposition parties of failing to attend sessions in a bid to see the Ennahdha-led government fall. However, Kharrat is skeptical of this explanation.

“I don’t believe this,” he says, noting that many opposition members are very active at the committee level in the assembly, and that his organization has received support from politicians of all stripes.  “The problem is one of responsibility… Some blocs used our report to attack other blocs, but it wasn’t our intention.”

According to Hela Hammi, a member of the assembly’s bureau and of the Ennahda party, the issue is one of discipline.

“Every day we [Ennahda party] pass a sheet, a sheet of presence. We prepare a list to record the absences, and they are published in our own offices.”

For Al-Bawsala, they are happy to see that their work and recommendations are finally being considered seriously by the assembly. Kharrat sees the problems as systemic, but he knows there isn’t much time to get a new constitution right.

“Old habits are very difficult to change. We are fighting against a culture,” says Kharrat. “We want [the assembly members] to respect their duties… This is a historic moment.”

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Murder in Tunis

The following is an excerpt from my latest analysis in Foreign Policy magazine. Click here to read the full piece.

TUNIS -- On the night of Feb. 5, prominent leftist politician Shoukri Belaid went on a popular Tunisian television station to denounce the political violence that had targeted him, his party, and other opposition groups. He gave at least one specific example where Islamists, allegedly associated with both the ultraconservative Salafi movement and the governing al-Nahda Party, recently attacked a meeting of his United Democratic Nationalist party in the interior town of El Kef. He said that security forces watched the attack take place but did nothing.
The following morning, Belaid was shot in the head and the chest as he was leaving his home. In the hours that followed, Tunisians took to the streets around the country to protest the escalating political violence and the slow pace of reform. Protesters gathered in front of the cordoned-off Interior Ministry in the capital, demanding a new revolution. There were widespread reports of clashes between police and protesters -- including in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Sidi Bouzid, where protests first began in Tunisia. Al-Nahda Party headquarters in towns in the interior of the country were attacked, despite the fact that leaders from the party strongly condemned the assassination.
Continue reading here...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Police Reform without Justice in Tunisia?

Reportage and Analysis
How does a former police state reform its police force after a revolution? Tunisia’s over 70,000[1] security forces were instrumental in maintaining and promoting the old authoritarian regime led by former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The police forces in particular were usually the agents of oppression and torture used to silence opposition. The revolution of December 2010, January 2011 was itself sparked by an incident, by no means isolated or unique, of police abuse, and security forces killed and injured hundreds of protesters during the revolution.

“People do not trust police and the police officers do not trust citizens,” said Abdesattar Moussa, the president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH by its French initials), at a two-day, international symposium on police reform organized by civil society groups. “We need security in the service of society.”

Despite the government’s stated commitment to reform Tunisia’s security apparatus, there are glaring examples where the government has not dealt with pre-revolution abuses. Most of those security officials responsible for attacking protesters during the revolution have not been named by the government, let alone charged for criminal activity. Human rights activists have said that incidents of torture continue to take place, while police brutality continues at public demonstrations across the country.

So far, the government’s response appears to separate the issue of justice from that of reform. Said Mechichi is the state secretary charged with reform at the Ministry of the Interior. According to him, police reform begins with additional training, union rights, cooperation from civilians, and higher salaries. At the January 25, 26 symposium, Mechichi laid out what his ministry has done so far to solve the problem.

“The ministry has changed,” he said. “Enforcing the law while respecting the liberties of the people – that’s not just a slogan.”

Mechichi listed the changes that have been made since the revolution: the police budget is 50 percent higher, officer schools include 30 hours of human rights training, officer salaries are 70 Tunisian dinars (~$45) higher, and sanctions have been imposed on those who committed torture, although he did not specify what the sanctions include. Mechichi also said that progress is being made in relations between the government and police unions.

Mechichi has a history of working for human rights. He is a member of Amnesty International, treasurer of the LTDH for the town of Jendouba, and founder of the Organization for the Struggle Against Torture. However, he quickly defended the police when challenged by the moderator of Friday’s opening session.

“We should be a little bite more positive,” he said. “We really want to work to strengthen the rights of the police… they are very difficult conditions in which police officers are working.”

He also said that protesters who set fire to police stations are negatively impacting attempts to reform the police.

“People should understand that they should help the police [to facilitate reform],” he said.

Many audience members were disappointed by Mechichi’s comments and the government’s current approach to reform.

“Impunity does encourage police violence,” said Wael Karrafi, 22, who lost a leg due to police gunfire during the revolution in the town of El Kef.

“The criminal is still ruling in the Interior Ministry,” he said to Mechichi, referring to the fact that the names of those responsible for firing on protesters during the revolution have not been released. “If you want people’s trust and confidence, you must disclose [their] identity.”

Another audience member, who gave his name as Mohammed and said that he was beaten by police during the April 9, 2012 demonstrations, also expressed his dismay.

“This conference should be dedicated to me as a citizen before the police,” he said. “Mister minister, you did not convince me today. What you are saying is very dangerous.”

Another panelist, Lazhar Akremi, was even more supportive of the police. Akremi was a journalist for 25 years during the rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, when the press had no freedom to criticize the government. He served in the Interior Ministry during the transitional government of Beji Caid Essebsi, and was one of the people responsible for publishing the “White Book,” which documented corruption.

“We need psychological help. Police are scared. That’s why they don’t work in the appropriate legal framework. They need appropriate tools to work, appropriate training, infrastructure and arms,” he said.

When one audience member asked whether the Interior Ministry archives had been destroyed, Akremi lashed out.
“People who say the archives were destroyed [without the evidence to prove it] should be brought to justice,” he said, accusing such people of “spreading rumors, violating the privacy of others,” and acting “like children playing.”

On the other end of the spectrum at the opening panel of the symposium was Moussa, the president of the LTDH. He said that he joined the panel because Mechichi was a friend of his, and one of the few people in the government who picks up his phone calls. However, he too was disappointed with the pace of and approach to reform.

“We want to monitor detention centers. We haven’t been able to do so,” he said.

Moussa also noted that he was disappointed that adherence to international human rights conventions were not enshrined in the current draft of the constitution.


Should police reform be separated from the issue of justice, i.e. public punishment for officers guilty of murder, torture, brutality etc.?

In some ways, the separation makes sense. Oppressing/suppressing opposition was one of the roles of the police force during the Ben Ali era. To punish individual officers for abuses that were not only rampant throughout, but integral to the maintenance of the old system, would create scapegoats. If justice is to be carried out in this fashion, it would require the entire cleansing of the security forces. Tunisia would then no longer need to reform the police force, but create an entirely new force.

However, there is a very practical reason why the government is avoiding publicly bringing some police to justice. Tunisia’s economy is still in dire straits, with unemployment close to 20 percent nationally and weak growth. A major component of Tunisia’s economy is the tourism sector, which employs about 1 in 5 people directly or indirectly. Tourism is a sector particularly sensitive to security. Any disruption to security would greatly harm Tunisia’s efforts to improve its economy. Given that economic complaints were key to the revolution, there will be a political cost to any party that does not improve the economy, or that presides over a weakening of the economy.

Problems of security have high visibility at the moment in Tunisia, as evidenced by the attacks on the US embassy in Tunis in September, the emergence of violent political groups, and the continuing destruction of shrines. If the police forces feel threatened by overly zealous reform that includes punishment for its members, they can take retribution by going on strike and ignoring these problems. The former interim Prime Minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, got into some hot water when he criticized the police and tried to ban them from forming unions in September 2011. Others within the government have hinted that they do not have full control over the police, and that old networks within the security forces are working to prevent their members from facing judgment.

The government seems to be taking the safe path while attempting to create a better policeman by treating its police better. After all, it is difficult to create a professional force when salaries are low and training is inadequate. However, Wael Karrafi, who lost a leg to police violence in the revolution, makes the most compelling point for linking justice to police reform: “Impunity does encourage police violence.”

[1] Figure cited by Lazhar Akremi, assigned as delegate minister to the Tunisian Ministry of Interior during the transitional government led by Beji Caid Essebsi