Police Unions and Political Developments in Tunisia: Interview with Audrey Pluta

Tunisian policemen hold banners and shout slogans during a protest organized by security forces unions in Tunis, Tunisia, 06 September 2011. © EPA/STR

The declaration of the state of emergency by Kais Saied on 25 July 2021 took place with the consent of the Tunisian security apparatus, including both the army and the police. These two institutions, and particularly the highly criticized police unions, have been at the heart of the conflicts between President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in the last few months. Malek Lakhal, a research associate at the Arab Reform Initiative, interviewed Audrey Pluta, a doctoral student in political science at Sciences Po Aix, whose thesis tackles the evolution of the Tunisian security apparatus since 2011.

Can you give some context to police unions in Tunisia?

I should point out, first, that the first police protests in Tunisia took place on 15 January 2011 in Sfax, before spreading to Tunis on 17 January. Through these protests, police officers wanted to defend and protect themselves, mainly by establishing a union. The month of January 2011 caused great trauma to police officers, as many were threatened or assaulted in their own homes. The establishment of police unions was therefore an attempt to protect themselves against such acts.

Many negotiations took place with the different directors-general at the Ministry of Interior at the time, who were opposed to the idea of establishing a union - like any other employer would be generally. At first, to absorb the anger of police officers, salaries were raised by a few hundred dinars and it was proposed that officers form an association. However, this was met with rejection by police officers, who continued to put pressure until the statute governing police work was revised on 25 May 2011, allowing them to establish unions.

Several police unions have since been established in Tunisia, the first of which is the National Union of Internal Security Forces (SNFSI, referred to by its members as “El Wataneya”). While it is difficult to obtain official figures on the number of members, the union claims that it includes 64,000 officers. This union comprises all the different corps of the Ministry of Interior, as well as those of prisons and civil protection. Soon after the establishment of this first union, in July 2011, the Brigade of Public Order seceded from it. These secessionist dynamics were fueled at the time by the Ministry of Interior, which adopted a Manichaean approach of “divide and conquer.” Therefore, the directors-general and political officials at the Ministry of Interior encouraged the establishment of multiple unions.

As a result, a competing union emerged: The National Union of the Officials of the Directorate-General of Intervention Units (SFDGUI), which is the union formed by the Brigade of Public Order, in charge of maintaining order during protests. The union was formed based on a corporatist model, i.e. its members are only public order officers, although it does establish alliances with other unions, such as those of the National Guard, the Public Security and the Civil Protection. Overall, this union includes roughly 34,000 members.

How do police unions use social media?

There are many different aspects to consider. On the one hand, you have the official and national pages of the different unions, where we see a professional use of social media. For example, the SFDGUI has a team that includes both officers and civilians in charge of “community management,” as well as communication experts. They also have a team consisting of four or five officers of the Brigade of Public Order who travel across Tunisia to take photos, shoot videos and publish posts on Facebook. The other major union, El Wataneya, has hired a community manager for their Facebook page. Other officers in the union are tasked with managing content on social media and the official page. That said, the national executive committees have very little control over the pages of their regional or local offices. Last March, for example, the SFDGUI published a press release (within the framework of the negotiations with the Prime Minister on the sectoral agreements) in which it called upon its members to exercise restraint on social media. The executive committees of these unions have no control over the pages of their local offices. If we were to analyze the different pages of the same police union, we would notice that there are great discrepancies between the official pages of the two unions and their regional and local pages.  These differences were amplified in the winter of 2021 when anti-police protests intensified. As a result, last February, the local branch of the Wataneya organized a protest in Sfax, during which police officers verbally abused some protesters, accusing them of being “communists” and “atheists.” On social media, it was clear that the local branch of this union had harsher opinions and more frequent recriminations towards protesters than the union’s official page.

How did police unions become a battleground between the two heads of the executive?

If the above numbers are correct - keeping in mind that it is difficult to verify them - and when taking into consideration that there are nearly 98,000 employees at the Ministry of Interior (according to the 2020 budget law), this would mean that almost all police officers have joined a union, or that some of them have joined several unions at the same time. Those numbers are likely inflated, but it is reasonable to assume that they reflect reality to a large extent. This would give police officers substantial power in the negotiations with their ministry, but also with the Prime Minister. It must be noted that police unions not only negotiate with their administration but also directly with the Prime Minister. As such, the President of the Republic did not interfere much, and his interventions were rather symbolic. For example, Kaid Saied had called for the unification of police unions in February 2021, which could be seen as an attempt to better surveil them and better control their activities, because, in reality, there are numerous unions, and it is very difficult for the executive to control them.

The executive faces a real challenge: On the one hand, the representativeness of the unions seems to be fairly significant, and, on the other, they seem to have substantial influence over nominations. In Sfax, for example, officers protested against the district director and managed to have him transferred. This shows that they can exert great pressure. Public authorities are therefore keen on obtaining their approval.

Why did they prefer Kais Saied over Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi?

Based on an interview I conducted and on my observations on social media, it seems to me that during the period between last January and March, police officers had already expressed their disapproval towards Mechichi’s policies. People tend to forget, but during the protests staged by local police unions against the protesters, the officers attacked the Prime Minister, mainly due to the economic and social crisis. Mechichi was also criticized for dismissing Taoufik Charfedine, the Minister of Interior appointed by Saied in September 2020, whom Mechichi dismissed and replaced in January 2021, due to his conflict with Kais Saied. Mechichi appointed several figures at the Ministry of Interior, particularly Lazhar Loungou, who was dismissed a few days after 25 July 2021. Loungou was subject to severe criticism by the unions, mainly for his supposed or real ties with Ennahdha. He was also investigated for suspicions of corruption under Ben Ali and was demoted as a form of punishment. Loungou was appointed by Mechichi as head of intelligence services last April. This was an interesting move, as one of the first reactions of the national union of its official Facebook page after 25 July was to say: “This is good, but now appointments in intelligence services should be done based on competency, rather than nepotism.” The union was referring here to the appointments it opposed.

However, we must not forget that on 25 July, the protests were violently suppressed by the Brigade of Public Order, in stark contrast with the night on which police officers celebrated Saied’s announcement. This could also be explained by the fact that police unionists and officers in general still have a vivid memory of 14 January 2011. The very idea of establishing police unions stemmed from the desire to protect officers against popular outrage by solidifying their ranks within the framework of a union. This desire came into play in the reaction of police officers in July: the desire to not be on the bad side, if I may say so.

How can we explain the army’s support of the coup d’Etat?

Given the army’s intervention in 2011, I was not surprised by its reaction on 25 of July. By affirming that he was the “supreme commander of all the armed forces” last April, Kais Saied was indicating the possibility of resorting to the military and security forces in his political conflict with Mechichi and Ghannouchi. In addition, many military officials signed a letter addressed to the President of the Republic demanding that he implement Article 80 of the Constitution. The former defence and security adviser of Béji Caid Essebsi and head of the National Security Council, Admiral Kamel Akrout, had also called for the implementation of Article 80. The army’s interference in political life remains quite limited, however. We must see how this will evolve going forward and how Saied will make use of it. Béji Caid Essebsi has left him a legacy that includes a National Security Council with broad powers. Will Saied make similar use of it? This remains unknown, but so far I do not have the impression that this will be the case. However, what is worrying is the prosecution of civilians before military tribunals, which is, unfortunately, not a recent occurrence.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.