Tunisia’s surveillance state

Mass monitoring poses a threat to democratic freedoms as the case of Tunisia shows.

Tunis, Tunisia. Image credit Stephen Downes via Flickr CC.

Tunisia is often heralded as an anomaly of the 2011 Arab uprisings, with commentators pointing to the country’s political stability and the country’s progress on liberalization. There are some discordant notes—Sofia Barbarani, a journalist with Aljazeera recently shared her sober assessment of Tunisia’s economic problems, such as high food prices and unemployment—that the positive assessments miss. Yet, hidden beneath the progress are legal and extralegal measures that have increasingly restricted freedom of movement and obtruded people’s privacy.

In 2013, the Tunisian government enacted S17, a 17-part national program to control the Tunisian border and combat terrorism that was clandestinely applied and later challenged. The program arbitrarily restricts Tunisians’ freedom of movement in the name of preventing terrorism. In January 2018, the Tunisian Ministry of Interior said that under S17 it had prevented 29,450 people from traveling to internal conflict areas. In October 2018, Amnesty International reported that its research identified at least 60 people were also banned from traveling abroad under the program. The government’s justification: that movement bans would curtail the ability of Tunisians to join ISIS (an approximately 7,000 Tunisians are estimated to have joined ISIS since December 2015). The illuminating Amnesty report unveils what we already know: counterterrorist measures are expansive for governments and restrictive for individuals. By the end of 2018, S17 did not go unnoticed by Tunisian judiciary and legislative bodies. One Tunisian judge declared S17 unlawful and the Tunisia House of Representatives drafted a law to overturn it.

The S17 program is part of a number of Tunisian government initiatives to “increase security.” In the spring of 2012, the Tunisian government created the National Intelligence Agency (ANR). By late November 2014, the government had also set up a new military intelligence agency called Agence des Renseignements et de la Sécurité pour la Défense (ARSD) working under the authority of the Ministry of Defense. Also in 2014, former President Mehdi Jomâa established a new security and judicial center as part of a broader project for the Security Counter Terrorism, to oppose terrorism and money laundering. Over the past several years, the United States and Germany have contributed $25 million and $41 million, respectively, to surveillance technologies including mobile observation and securitization of the Tunisian-Libyan border. As the Associated Press noted in 2017, German politicians are polarized about the use of this surveillance technology because of the implications it has for preventing migration. Nevertheless, the Tunisian Ministry of Interior is directly receiving funds and equipment from two major industrialized nations to carry out the surveillance technology along the Libyan border and the Mediterranean Sea.

In light of the global war on terror, Tunisia’s proximity to Libya, and Tunisia’s position as a non-voting member of NATO, national security has also been aligned with new and increased surveillance. Tunisia became a non-voting member of NATO in 2015, contributing to a military alliance between NATO and Tunisia: the Tunisian navy and naval forces of various NATO countries engage in joint exercises. However, this liaison deepened when the Tunisian National Security Council and NATO proposed to create an intelligence fusion center in late 2016.

As Tunisia has transitioned from an authoritarian police state towards a more democratic civil society, it has replaced the old regime’s military intelligence apparatus with a new system. Prior to 2011, radar and security cameras were used by then Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to monitor people’s movements. One of the many sources that has documented this is Wikileaks. In September 2013, their collection of “Spy Files” demonstrated how 92 global intelligence contractors sold surveillance systems throughout the world. Unsurprisingly, authoritarian regimes were not immune to using and abusing surveillance technology. What was surprising was that most surveillance corporations were in the Global North while their clients were in the Global South. One particular company that profited under the Ben Ali regime was the German outfit ATIS Huer. Founded in 1946 and based outside of Frankfurt, the corporation specializes in voice and data surveillance with a system named 100 Klarios®. As early as 2013, 80% of the German company’s 100 Klarios® had monitoring centers in the Middle East and Africa. In Tunisia, the Klarios system was deployed in Alcatel and Tunisie Telecom as early as 1998 and had been collecting voices since 2005.

Today, Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime has not been dismantled, rather, the security apparatus has been integrated into the new parliamentary system. Since 2016, the Tunisian government has installed 1000 surveillance cameras and 300 electronic checkpoints in the capital city. Mass surveillance is an intricate and complex phenomenon, ranging from predictive policing and individually designed advertising to facial recognition. Closed circuit television (CCTV) has become incorporated in cities such as London and New York City as have the debates about the extent to which people are monitored. However, little is said in the western media about the growing cases of camera and data collection outside of North America and Europe, even though people of Muslim heritage and Arab/North African descent are often targeted in the West by those technologies.

This technology is incrementally and unknowingly creeping into people’s lives without their knowledge. When I corresponded online in July 2019 with Farah, a 30-year-old Tunisian researcher, she told me about what the security state was like during her childhood. “I remember before the revolution, you could hear your own voice echoing during phonecalls.” For Farah, the transition in Tunisia from an authoritarian police state towards a democratic civil state has not proceeded smoothly since increased surveillance measures have undermined the initial spirit of the 2010-2011 Arab uprisings. She fears that the evolution of Tunisia’s surveillance state contradicts the democratic principles that she and her friends fought for.

This expansion of surveillance programs is not unique but has also included contracts with European telecommunication companies, such as Trovicor (Germany) and Sundby (Denmark) as Privacy International documented. Even with the transition from an authoritarian state to a more parliamentary structure, the incoming government has extended existing contracts.

The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense have had budget increases since 2014, far more than their budgets were under Ben Ali. This increase is partially to do with the increase in personnel and the increase in salary; it is not clear how much they are spending on new equipment. Given that there is still grave unemployment and economic issues in the country, the increased military budget is concerning because that money could be used for social and job programs.

How do we understand the mechanisms of post-democratic movements in a context where people are increasingly being watched and monitored? Disturbingly, some of these new laws have been used to monitor and charge activists and researchers with espionage or related crimes. One prime example of this was when Moncef Kartas, a Tunisian German member of a UN panel investigating violations of the UN arms embargo on Libya, was arrested at a Tunisian airport in March 2019. The Tunisian Ministry of Interior alleged that the research Kartas collected compromised Tunisian security, but members of the international community suspected that his arrest was because he’d covered sensitive topics related to arms smuggling and armed groups in North Africa. Through an international campaign, he was released.

In Tunisia, the increase in cameras and surveillance has implications for curtailing individual freedoms and comes at a hefty price that benefits European companies. Even more chilling is that there is a lack of independence of the judiciary, which can leave public prosecutors and judges to create a process that undermines justice.

During a phone conversation I had with a Tunisian activist in August 2019, he remarked, “The security apparatus has undermined civilian political autonomy over anti-terrorist laws. The terrorist threat has been overemphasized compared to the reality.”

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