Over the last decade in Tunisia a large number of unions representing police and national guard personnel have been created. These unions have proven to be potent, exerting influence over the Ministry of Interior (MOI) on issues of promotion, pay and deployment, impacting political debates, primarily around security issues, and stymieing oversight efforts by the Tunisian parliament.
The activities and power of the unions has continued to grow under President Kais Saied. They have become more directed in their political action, supporting the President’s efforts to enact a new, more Presidential-focused constitution. They have also become more intimidatory against perceived enemies, threatening and doxing civil society activists and others.
The unions are likely to continue to grow in importance going forward. High inflation in Tunisia, in part linked to the war in Ukraine, has worsened the economic straits of security force members, likely leading many to turn to the unions to press for raises. Moreover, efforts by President Saied to unify the unions into a single entity, on-going as of mid-2022, raises the possibility of further union empowerment in the future. If successful, unification could act as a potent future check on external governance of the security sector under the new Presidential focused system enshrined in the 2022 constitution.
From Innovations to political influencers
Tunisia’s security force unions are a post-revolutionary innovation, with no real precedent in previous eras in the country. They emerged in the chaotic period in early-to-mid 2011, when security officers felt acutely at risk, both from citizens—who saw them abusive instruments of the former regime, leading to threats and the ransacking of stations—and from the government—which security forces feared would launch a transitional justice process targeting or fire them. This fear, in turn, led to widespread absenteeism in the immediate wake of the revolution, leading to functional gaps in security provision, leading, for example, to a sharp drop in contraband interception and concurrent rise in irregular migration.
Fears amongst the security officers also manifested in calls for the development of unions. This was cautiously promoted by the government at the time, which was in the process of stabilizing the situation and so needed security forces that could be relied upon. A legal circular was published in May 2011 which legalized the formation of unions. The legal notice, and later language included in the 2014 constitution, was highly ambiguous in terms of what behavior was permissible, with only strikes explicitly forbidden.
In rapid order over 100 unions emerged, some based on individual units or security force branches, while others developed on a regional basis. This fragmentation was supported by Ministry of Interior officials, who perceived the pressure and risk posed by multiple unions as being far more limited than that of a large-overarching syndicate.
Despite the large number of unions, three emerged as particularily influential: the National Syndicate of Internal Security Forces (Le syndicat national des forces de sécurité intérieure), the first union founded, the Syndicate of Officials of the General Directorate of Intervention Units (Syndicat des fonctionnaires de la direction générale des unités d'intervention), which was founded second, and the National Alliance of Unions of the Tunisian Security Forces (L'union nationale des syndicats des forces de sûreté tunisienne). These unions remain the most prominent in the present day.
In the wake of their foundation, the activities and influence of security force unions grew substantially, with the unions using a mix of direct action—including protests, the ban on which was never enforced—as well as public messaging and lightly veiled threats. In part, these actions were aimed at improving working conditions for the forces, which under Ben Ali had had involved low salaries and often decrepit facilities. Unions pressed for and gained higher salaries and better conditions, as well as influencing deployment patterns and promotional opportunities. The latter point, according to one former military official, proved highly destabilizing, with “officers with limited education, training and experience suddenly in positions that they weren’t equipped to handle.”
However, the unions also became deeply engaged in efforts to influence security sector reform and limit oversight. Amongst other efforts, they successfully agitated against the removal of Ben Ali-era officials, agitated against the adoption of new policies, called for the boycott of transitional justice trials, called on members to avoid delivery of subpoenas for specialized criminal courts. They helped to write and pressed for the adoption of a law to further extend legal protections for security officers, including immunity for use of lethal force and prohibitions sharing of information on policing issues.
Efforts to stymie reform and ‘protect’ officers also led the unions to target other government bodies. This included highly publicized, overt action, such as intimidation of judicial actors working on cases of physical abuse by security forces, protests outside of the Prime Minister’s offices, and threats to withdraw protection from legislators unless they voted in favor of the law detailed above. Less visibly, their informal role within the MOI grew, with the unions exerting substantial influence over the appointment of key officials and functionally acting to prevent the punishment of members who transgressed policies and rules.
In checking reform and targeting other bodies, the unions also benefitted from a broader rebound in security force influence within Tunisia. While the reasons for this rebound are complex, a key element was the emergence of both urban and rural terrorism challenges around 2013. The high-profile attacks on Tunis’ Bardo Museum and the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse, as well as less visible but bloody insurgency in western Tunisia, changed government prioritization from security reform to stabilization of the situation. The unions leveraged this change in prioritization to gain workplace concessions, counter-reform initiatives, and target any criticism of the security forces, which they claimed demoralized security forces. Crucially, this change also helped to fuel their efforts to draft and push for the passage legislation, like the draft law on suppression of attacks against the security forces and the 2015 counter-terrorism law, which legally enshrined key union goals.
Overall, throughout the 2010s the security force unions increasingly developed into a potent, though highly focused actor, able to influence both political debates and internal debates within the MOI. They became a potent check on reform and accountability initiatives, as well as stymieing even mild criticism of the security sector, even as they brought tangible materiel benefits to their members. Crucially, because of their composition, they also operate largely outside the control of the MOI, cooperating with it when initiatives align, but not menaced or coerced by it, in contrast to the challenges faced by other civil society organizations in Tunisia.
The Syndicates under Saied
The election of President Kais Saied began to alter security force unions dynamics in both overt ways and at a structural level. Overt changes in union activity can be seen in both their involvement in actively countering perceived opponents and their politics. There is no linkage between President Saied’s arrival in office and the rising intimidation, with the issue seeming to emerge coincidentally.
The targeting of opponents is not precisely new, with judges, journalists and some civil society activists targeted in the 2010s. However, in late 2020 and early 2021 intimidation and assaults by unions increased substantially. Repeatedly, activists or individuals who had been photographed at previous protests, were doxed by police union officials, with their photos and personal information was released via Facebook posts. The campaign also seemingly involved a legal element, with a number of the activists who had been targeted online subsequently summoned to police stations and charged using infrequently applied statutes. In Sfax, one local union went further, with members reportedly attacking a group holding a demonstration in the city.
While the connections and any coordination between the MOI and unions in responding to the protests are unclear. However, the intimidation campaign stands out as a worrisome harbinger because of the blurred lines, with union members reportedly drawing on police databases for information, and a general lack of clarity as to whether union members were acting in official or unofficial capacity in targeting opponents.
At a political level, the unions slowly shifted from advocacy for specific goals, such as the draft police law, towards more general support for President Saied, dialling back some activities after the President’s invocation of emergency powers on 25 July 2021. There has reportedly been both a drop in union intimidation of opponents and police violence more broadly, reportedly in support of the President’s goals of limited unrest in the lead up to the 25 July 2022 constitutional referendum. The proposed constitution is generally positive for the police unionism, mirroring the clause in the 2014 constitution that allows for security force unions, ensuring their legal position will be unchanged if the constitutional order shifts.
At the structural level, President Saied has attempted to use his political influence with the unions to unify them into a single, overarching syndicate covering all security forces. This represents a sharp divergence from the divide-and-rule tactic taken by MOI officials when the unions first emerged, and, if successful, represents a potentially highly significant evolution of the power of police syndicates.
Discussions around unification are not new, having been proposed first in the mid-2010s. However, at the time it was vigorously resisted by the unions, in particular smaller and medium sized entities which feared losing influence. The current moment, however, differs, with the major unions responding positively, though cautiously, to the President’s call for unification.
For President Saied, efforts to unify the forces likely revolve around issues of control. While at least fifty security force unions were registered with the MOI when he assumed office, three syndicates represented most officers. The system remained highly decentralized, however, with regional branches of the main unions frequently acting with substantial autonomy. This fragmentation functionally means that major initiatives, such as around reform, require negotiations with a multitude of different actors, most with specific interests and goals that do not necessarily synch.
For President Saied, then, unification of the unions is aimed at the establishment of one entity which would be easier to control and co-opt. Such an approach also matches the corporatist approaches that have long been a mainstay in Tunisian political thinking. In this, Saied may be estimating that a unified security force union would be similar in some ways to the UGTT, which he has been able to politically manage, and would further his efforts to influence and control any threats from the security forces, a key constituency for him.
For the unions, the benefits are less clear-cut. They are already successful in providing benefits to their members and forestalling accountability and reform initiatives which they see as threatening. Further, smaller unions, such as that representing the National Guardsmen, risk losing influence and power, even if the ultimate bargaining position of their members would be slightly improved. This latter point may be particularly salient at present, as accelerating inflation has reduced the real earnings of security force officers over the last year, likely leading to bottom up pressure on union leaders to address the situation.
Most unions—in particular the major three—have voiced cautious support for the initiative, though predicating that on long list of demands, including passage of the security force law detailed earlier. Likely, this is because they look at unification as an opportunity to become stronger, and build the structures—under terms they influence—which allow them to further grow in influence under the post-July 25 2022 era. They also are likely aware that at this juncture, Saied needs them and want to make the most of this.
While the process of unification seems likely to be drawn out and complex, it is important to track closely because of the potential impact. It is quite possible that rather than rendering them easier to control, unification of the unions will lead to their super empower them, potentially birthing a new competing power centre in the MOI, with potentially far-reaching impacts on oversight and accountability.
Tunisia’s security force unions represent a post-revolutionary innovation which have seen their power and influence over the last decade. They have a track-record of providing benefits, including pay and promotional advancement, to their members, as well as acting as a bar to reform initiatives and oversight efforts which they assess to be threats. The unions have, at times, become highly political, with their influence extended over legislators, other government agencies, and even the MOI institutionally.
To date, part of the resilience and power of the unions has been their fragmented nature, necessitating government actors negotiate with a large number of different unions, most with subtly different goals and concerns.
President Saied has attempted to address this challenge by pressing for the unification of the unions. This, however, risks hyper-empowering the actors. The unions are negotiating from a position of strength, aware that the President needs their support and, more broadly, requires stability as he re-orders Tunisia’s political landscape.
Even under the new Presidential system, enshrined in the 2022 constitution, a single union representing Tunisian security forces would likely act as a potent check on executive oversight and accountability. Effectively, there would be no easy avenues to police it.
Within the MOI, such a unified force risks evolving into a power centre that leads to friction or competition between appointed civilian leadership. This, in turn, could lead to a functional rollback in the reforms which have been enacted over the last decade—such as citizen focused policing and less violent crowd control—coming not from executive decision, but rather the further empowerment of security force officers themselves.
It is important to note that unification may fail, either due to a failure in union-government negotiations or the emergence of opposition from within the base of the unions. Even without unification, the union movement is likely to become even more centrally important to security force officers and Tunisia going forward. Security force salaries, which remain relatively meagre, are being further compressed by the high inflation moment Tunisia is currently suffering through, likely leading to mounting pressure for salary raises. Accomplishing this, even in the face of worsening public finances and the raising possibility of a public debt default, is likely to be a key goal of the unions in the remainder of 2022. If successful, it is likely the unions, rather than the government or the executive, who will be given credit by the security forces for addressing the situation, which in turn will cement their salience as central players on security issues in the country.
Because of these evolving dynamics, it is key for international actors to design reform and capacity building programs with an eye towards convincing security officers of the operational benefits of reform, rather than dictating the need for reform to them. As well, focus necessarily need to be paid to conceptualizing, with union members, officials, and civil society, what holistic reform of the security sector looks like, and how it could be functionally accomplished.
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