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Tunisia and the Archives of the Secret Police

November 30, 2011

Farah Hachad of Tunisia, Virgiliu-Leon Tarau of Romania, and Kate Doyle of the National Security Archive speaking at conference

As the Arab Awakening continues to rock the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia’s civil society has launched a national dialogue about one of the thorniest issues facing the country: how to bring former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s brutal security system under civilian control?

From November 12-13, the Tunisian NGO Le Labo’ Democratique teamed up with Geneva-based Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) to convene a public meeting on “The Archives of the Political Police: A Challenge for Transitional Democracy?” The conference brought security experts, archivists, intellectuals, journalists, bloggers, artists and activists together with members of Tunisia’s interim government to discuss strategies for obtaining and preserving the records of the old regime’s hated security apparatus. For comparative purposes, the organizers invited four international specialists with experience in archives: from Poland, Germany, Romania, and the National Security Archive. (See conference agenda, here.)

Tunisian street art post-Arab Spring. Photo by Kate Doyle.

Tunisia’s revolution began on December 17, 2010, when a young street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in protest of repeated harassment by local officials. His act inspired angry demonstrations by citizens fed up with an abusive and corrupt regime; after he died from his burns on January 4, the riots became a general uprising, and on January 14 Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years in power.

Now Tunisia struggles to build a democratic nation out of the ruins of authoritarian rule. Although the country has navigated the dangers of political transition with an extraordinary calm and national cohesiveness, the old governing structures and many of the former officials remain in place. The November conference was designed to address one of the regime’s most despised legacies: the secret police.

Operating out of the Interior Ministry and other federal agencies, the intelligence and security forces known collectively as the secret police, or political police, excelled in spying on citizens, infiltrating civil society groups, trolling emails and social media sites for information, and harassing, intimidating and torturing suspected opponents of Ben Ali’s regime. Conference participants agreed that no space, public or private, was safe from the surveillance state. As Farah Hachad, a lawyer and president of Le Labo’, recalled at the start of the conference, “Since I was born, even conversations inside our house would be silenced because of the fear inside our hearts that we would be heard and punished.”

Testimonies from art exhibit outside conference auditorium. Photo by Kate Doyle.

Presenters at the conference and audience members had their own memories of the repressive power wielded by the political police. One man recounted how an agent showed up at his door to detain him, “And when I asked, do you have an arrest warrant?, he pulled twenty blank arrest warrants from his pocket, all signed by the Interior Minister, and said, I can have as many as I want.” Taieb Baccouche, the interim Minister of Education and president of the Arab Institute of Human Rights, remembered signing his name to a petition for democracy in the late 1960s along with dozens of other activists, artists and scholars. “That was the beginning of surveillance: they controlled my phone, my mail and all my movements from then on.” Everyone agreed that the political police still existed and still posed a danger to democratic change, despite the advances of the revolution.

More than the issue of disbanding the secret police, however, the conference was focused on how to seize their archives as a way of preserving collective memory and permitting informed public debate about the repressive past. There were strong differences of opinion about how to manage the archives. Some feared the impact on people’s lives of the release of personal information, whether true or invented by the regime. Others felt that Tunisia’s democratic transition could not be complete without access to the archives. As artist and activist Zeyneb Farhat put it, “These political archives were designed to devalue and damage the credibility of activists by spreading lies about them… They have to be opened now in order to create a justice-based relationship between police and citizens and to build trust, so that people understand the police are for protecting security, not for undermining change.”

International presenters Dagmar Hovestaedt of the Stasi files, Virgiliu Tarau from Romania’s Securitate Archives, Polish lawyer Mikolaj Pietrzak and I brought the examples of European and Latin American societies that had successfully obtained and opened the archives of former repressive security forces. We answered dozens of questions from an audience eager to draw from the experience of other countries: How to find and seize the files? Could they be made public without invading people’s private lives? What might they reveal about the role of informants? How to judge the veracity of the intelligence information? What purpose did they serve in recovering historical memory? Did they lead to accountability for past crimes?

speakers, organizers, and funders at conference.

To the many questions about the function of such archives during democratic transition, Hovestaedt talked of “reclaiming the information stolen by the regime,” and told the audience that the Stasi files became “a school for democracy. By sharpening our understanding of how the dictatorship functioned we improve our understanding of what we want in a democracy.” The National Security Archive’s analysis of the archives of Guatemala and Paraguay resonated for Tunisians worried that the European experience implied a level of resources and expertise unavailable to them.

The conference – which took place in the auditorium of El Teatro and included an exhibition of paintings, filmed testimonies and other works addressing human rights in Tunisia – closed with a discussion of “Tunisian solutions” between a human rights expert, the president of an anti-corruption commission, a blogger and former political prisoner and an active member of the Tunisian police. There was general consensus that the archives of the secret police represented a critical part of the country’s history and should be preserved. “There will be no transitional justice if we do not acknowledge the role of the state in oppressing its citizens,” affirmed Mokhtar Trifi, former president of the Tunisian League for the Rights of Man.

Congratulations to Le Labo’ Democratique and DCAF for a convening such a meaningful conference and living up to Le Labo’s own slogan, “Inventons notre démocratie!” (Let’s invent our democracy!)

See additional photos from the conference below:

Conference Theatre Entrance - Photo by Kate Doyle

Tunisian military members attended - Photo by Kate Doyle

human rights art exhibition outside conference auditorium - Photo by Kate Doyle

conference audience - Photo by Kate Doyle

  1. December 1, 2011 11:26 am

    Thank you for this post. It was informative. One of the major concerns a number of Tunisians and foreign observers have noted to me is that apparent lack of truth and reconciliation. In a number of ways the atrocities of the former regime are being encapsulated merely as things of the past and looked over. While the need to move forward is non negotiable it is also important to critically examine the abusive use of power that the country is moving out of. As the example you mentioned of Guatemala, this has been a strong point holding the country back in the decades since thousands of Mayans were murdered, as they continue to be. By neglecting to critically engage the past, the rhetoric of ‘move forward’ can sometimes turn into a system where the crimes of the past are simply repacked but allowed to slowly creep back into the repertoire of the powerful.

    I am also moved by the way the Tunisian artistic community has risen out of the revolution. There have been many powerful pieces and exhibits that present the important issues of the past atrocities and crimes but in a colorful, uplifting way. While the Ministry of Commerce was quick to reissue new bills that do not contain the symbols of the old regime, they may also be moving too quickly to ignore what these symbols meant in the past and may continue to mean, albeit in new forms, for the future of the country.


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