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Tunisia, Arab Spring’s Sole Success Story, Plagued by Police Brutality

Protests against police brutality have taken place throughout Tunisia on and off since January, and recent weeks have seen them proliferate, particularly in working-class areas of the capital.

The death of Ahmed Ben Ammar, 32, in police custody on June 8 prompted many Tunisians to take to the streets. During one of those protests, officers in civilian dress were filmed beating and stripping a 15-year-old boy in the middle of the street, inflaming the situation.

Demonstrations hold a special status in contemporary Tunisia, as the only country to achieve democracy as a result of the Arab Spring, a series of protests against despotic rule.

“Protests are an essential part of Tunisia’s democracy. Protests brought about the democratic transition in the first place and continue to be the primary avenue for citizens to make their voices heard,” Sarah Yerkes, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program who specializes in Tunisia, told The Media Line.

Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, argues that protests have become the key to political change.

“Since late 2010, protests are the driver for change and transformation,” he told The Media Line. “Politicians are reluctant to change; hence the street became the venue for pressure, whether it was the [Jasmine] Revolution [of December 2010-January 2011], the constitutional drafts or the push for economic rights.”

Citizens hope to use demonstrations to spur substantive improvement in police conduct.

While the country has changed dramatically in the decade since the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, policing practices remain problematic.

“The level of brutality has decreased dramatically since the fall of Ben Ali, but over the past several months we have witnessed an uptick in egregious behavior on behalf of the police, in part because there is no clear signal from the Tunisian government that this behavior must stop,” Yerkes said.

Today, police violence is both an institutional and a political problem.

“It’s a legacy of old practices and culture combined with the government’s reluctance to punish offenders or seek legislative changes,” Ghali said.

Yerkes agrees.

“Today, police brutality persists in large part due to the impunity of the police, who are protected by strong police unions,” she said. “Legislative efforts to curb their power have failed, despite widespread and vocal calls by the Tunisian public to end police brutality.”

Yerkes said political change would require, among other things, passing laws that penalize police brutality and weaken the level of protection officers receive as part of their collective bargaining agreement.

“Lawmakers can draft legislation that would curtail the powers of the police unions and would hold police officers accountable for extrajudicial actions such as beating and torturing protesters,” she said.

“Citizens have been in the streets demanding these sorts of reforms and can continue to do so,” Yerkes said.