"Tunisian riot police stop protestors along Avenue Bourghiba on January 20, 2011 in Tunis, Tunisia."(Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)
By Borzou Daragahi
The Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2011
"He glances over his shoulder. Not here, he says. In the shopping center across the street, there's a cafe downstairs. He picks out a table in the far corner, behind a pillar, to shield his face from security cameras, as jumpy as a fugitive. Except that Najib, 32, is a member of Tunisia's state security forces. During the protests that toppled President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, he was ordered to put on a helmet, hold up a shield and baton, and stand against his own people. He went through the motions, but in the end he didn't have the heart to raise his baton against them. Even with Ben Ali gone, he is reluctant to talk about life as a policeman in a police state. His commanders at the Interior Ministry don't know that he failed in his duty, and they have ordered officers not to talk to reporters. Still, Najib decides to risk it, on the condition that only his first name will be published. With gentle encouragement from his wife, a 30-year-old schoolteacher named Dhekra, he tells his story, the words pouring out. 'The dictator is gone,' he says, speaking quickly and in hushed tones. 'But the dictatorship is still here.' ... Najib says he joined the ministry's forces seeking financial security. His father, a bus driver, was always short of money, and Najib wanted to do better. He went through a year of police training that he describes as abusive and humiliating. After 12 years on the job, his salary is $67 a week, less deductions for his uniform and other expenses.
He described a stifling, paranoid atmosphere within the security apparatus. He was trained to use a gun, shown how to huddle with fellow police officers and hold a line against an angry crowd. But much of the training, he said, was meant to dehumanize and humiliate him and his fellow recruits. Commanders screamed obscenities at them constantly, he said. Before he could marry Dhekra, his childhood sweetheart, he had to ask superiors for approval because she observes Islamic dress codes. It took six months for ministry officials to vet her background and satisfy themselves that she wasn't an extremist, he said. The couple said that another security policeman applied for permission to marry a Frenchwoman and was denied. If Najib wanted to visit a city outside the capital, he had to get approval. He was barred from voting or obtaining a passport to travel abroad. 'I was always under surveillance,' he said. ... With Ben Ali gone, protesters turned their rage on the Tunisian security police, likening them to 'dogs' guarding their rulers' castle. The home of Najib's father was vandalized. Dhekra was outraged. 'The police were victims of the regime too,' she said. Finally, the police themselves took to the streets, demonstrating for better wages and appealing for understanding from the public. They spray-painted graffiti along the city's main boulevard: 'The police say no to the dictator!' 'We're not dogs!' said Iyad Fathi, a 42-year-old officer who has been on the force for 23 years. He said he has to feed five children and a wife on a salary of $76 a week. 'I am unable to pay rent with what I have left at the end of the month.' After a few hours sleep, Najib joined the protest. Dhekra went too. 'I took this job because I needed the pay,' Najib said. 'I want to be a police officer just like the police in America and work eight hours a day. I don't want anything else. Just my right.'"