HomeForces and Order. Police, security and surveillance in North Africa

HomeForces and Order. Police, security and surveillance in North Africa

Forces and Order. Police, security and surveillance in North Africa

L’ordre et la force. Police, sécurité et surveillance au Nord de l’Afrique

"L'Année du Maghreb" 30|2023-II

« L'Année du Maghreb » 30|2023-II

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Published on Thursday, June 09, 2022


The police forces of the Arab regimes have been the mainstay of the dictatorships in place before and after the 2011 uprisings.The main functions of the latter were and still are to break down democratic opposition. They hold a very specific place in the region’s collective imagination. This imaginary is affected by the power of State repression, which tends to overshadow the plurality of law enforcement mechanisms. As a result, security has mainly been apprehended from the angle of political repression and from outside the security institution, by focusing on the repression’s clientele groups rather than its actors, that is the police. This special issue aims to highlight sociological, anthropological and historical analyses of the various security systems: from the police institution to the more opaque surveillance mechanisms fostered by various institutionalised security professions (informers, militias, neighbourhood agents, etc.).



The police forces of the Arab regimes have been the mainstay of the dictatorships in place before and after the 2011 uprisings (Filiu, 2018).The main functions of the latter were and still are to “break down democratic opposition”, (Marzouki, 2009). They hold a very specific place in the region’s collective imagination. This imaginary is affected by the power of State repression, which tends to overshadow the plurality of law enforcement mechanisms. As a result, security has mainly been apprehended from the angle of political repression and from outside the security institution, by focusing on the repression’s clientele groups rather than its actors, that is the police. Political science has provided a body of knowledge that focuses mainly on the control and silencing of political dissent and the related restrictions of freedom, imprisonment, torture or disappearances (Khalili et Schwedler, 2010; Bellin, 2004). One of the last issues of L’Année du Maghreb focused on the prison experience in its political dimension (André et Slyomovics, 2019). However, this approach to security, through its effects (repression), leaves little room for distinction and differentiation between the existing range of institutions, mechanisms, and actors of coercion, which deserves to be understood in greater depth. For example, the devices deployed for maintaining daily order (urban control, protection of citizens and their property, crime, prison, traffic, etc.) remain largely unexplored in the literature.

This special issue aims to highlight sociological, anthropological and historical analyses of the various security systems: from the police institution to the more opaque surveillance mechanisms fostered by various institutionalised security professions (informers, militias, neighbourhood agents, etc.). In this sense, this volume positions itself in contrast to approaches, with little empirical support, in which an understanding of the security sector and its apparatuses is used to define differentiated forms of authoritarianism. Without sidestepping the repressive dimension that has returned with force in recent years (Josua et Edel, 2021), the articles of this publication will examine the practices of policing, from the physical security of people and their property to the control of populations, including maintaining social, moral, and racial orders of territories (urban, peripheral, border), digital surveillance, (ordinary) arbitrary brutality and everyday relations with citizens. In contrast to current approaches in favour of a decompartmentalization of the understanding of control practices outside the Global North, this dossier intends to adopt a de-exoticizing stance by insisting on the importance of a multi-situated but specific analysis of coercive institutions and state violence. Each of the four thematic axes constituting the volume seeks to study the ways in which the police apparatus contributes to maintaining and defining a political, moral or security order. Furthermore, the focus will be on current ways of controlling, monitoring, and repressing while examining the development and evolution of domestic security policies.

Security governance of otherness and minorities

Ensuring the durability of an order, both then and now, means ensuring the adherence to a specific social organisation and social stratification. Particular attention will be paid in this issue to analysis of the ordinary work of the police, closely focusing on the actors and revealing the threefold character of this institution: maintaining order, governing bodies and defending social order. While the police’s mission is said to be to protect citizens, their work actually involves repressing populations affected by social disadvantage, precarious housing, lack of social welfare and uncertainties about the future, as well as classified as being deviant, undesirable and subversive of the social order.

The maintenance of public and social order entails guaranteeing a gendered and heteronormative order: namely the patriarchal order. Such order is assured by the daily work of the police, in particular by the vice squads, which consist of reaffirming the limits of proper public morality and containing the visibility of indecent disorders. This dimension of repression remains relatively unexplored, even when the reform of legal provisions for the criminalisation of gender-based violence has not led to a change in police practices, and the reception of the violent effects of the gendered order by police units remains suspicious to say the least. Examples include the treatment of harassment in Egypt (Boutros, 2018; Amar, 2011), or the treatment of sexual assault and violence by the police in Tunisia (Voorhoeve, 2014). The more recent repression, as in Tunisia, of gay, lesbian and transgender activists (Kréfa, 2019) is a strong indicator of how security policies participate in the global anti-gender crackdown marking heterosexuality and cisnormativity as the only visible and permitted standards. Here again, at the centre of the work of these moral polices is the categorisation, tracking and management of populations with diminished social value, which constitute the main “police prey” (Jobard, 2010) such as prostitutes and all those identified as “poor” and supernumeraries (Cheikh, 2020).

The protest movements of the twenty-first century have recently given rise to a literature on the relationship between police practices and social antagonisms, particularly in the field of sport (Ben Rjeb, 2021; Rommel, 2021; Sadiki et Saleh, 2020; Close, 2019; Bourkia, 2018; Tuastad, 2014; Amara, 2012). Although football was just after independence a domain monitored by the police and the army who ran the main clubs, which de facto legitimised them (Dorsey, 2014 ; Boum, 2013) while giving a nationalist identity to an institution inherited from the colonial military police (Sayigh, 2011 ; Blanchard et Glasman, 2012), the close bond eventually weakens and ends pitting the police against the increasingly criminalised supporters groups/clubs (the ultras). How, in this conflictual configuration, does the construction of the police as a common enemy contribute to the cohesion of the ultras’ groups? Being the ordinary targets of repressive practices, ultras groups have developed a disposition to confrontation with police forces, likely to be activated outside stadiums, in Tahrir Square in January and February 2011 for example (Allal, 2014) or in Algeria in 2019 (Belkaïd, 2020). They may also be at the forefront of protests against police violence, as in Tunisia, where the death by drowning in early 2018 of a supporter chased by police officers gave rise to several protest movements and the creation of collectives bringing together activists, lawyers and supporters.

Last but not least, the police is also responsible for the control of movements, one of its primary prerogatives, which has been at the core of its mission since its origins (Blanc-Chaleard, Denys, et Morieux, 2001). In North Africa, mobility and the police have over the past three decades been inextricably linked to the gradual externalisation of the European Union’s migration strategy. Circulation and population movements in the Mediterranean region, but also within countries, raise questions about the modalities of security deployment in the context of the growing trend towards criminalising migrants since the 1990s. By classifying these social groups as undesirable and by using violence, the police handling of migration contributes to setting them up as a racial minority (Natter, 2021; Cassarini, 2020; Alioua, 2019; Richter, 2019; Bachelet, 2018; Detue, 2017). In the case of illegal migration, the logic of security can be seen in the way in which work is carried out to manage undocumented people, common law offenders, or in the identification procedures of anonymous corpses when dramas occur: shipwrecks for instance (Diallo, 2018). The work of the police is not limited to restricting crossings from one side of the other of the border between Europe and Africa. Inland, it also becomes, as it has been observed for European countries, a migrant police force whose actions are based on a daily work of filtering, dispersing and harassing (Le Courant et al., 2019) that builds a specific relationship to space (Choplin et Redon, 2014). What are the tensions and the dividing lines between external agendas and the realities of police work in managing movements? How does the repression of migrants in the North African region by these police forces contribute to redefining, or not, of migratory routes and trajectories? How do the police perceive their territories of intervention?

Socio-history of security institutions and surveillance

Military, Police and security forces, domestic surveillance and intelligence systems have been central to the creation of states in the region. Their consolidation and successive restructuring have been necessary to maintain the power of the regimes in place. What is the historical background to the establishment and expansion of these different security apparatuses? We are thinking here about a historical background rooted in colonisation, which provides information on the persistent impact of the colonial origins of security activities. We refer also to a post-colonial historical backdrop, in which the security apparatuses have become more complex, particularly with the division of the union between military and internal police forces, which took on distinct forms in previous periods (Khalili et Schwedler, 2010). Among other things, the intention is to show the colonial legacies and filiations of the security apparatuses in the region, particularly regarding the continuities in the forms of repression of the colonial powers and those of the newly independent states. It should be remembered that the treatment of the so-called “dangerous classes” was at the basis of police institutions in Europe. They would refine it as they settled in the colonies where their mission would be to maintain the colonial order. Furthermore, this historical perspective serves to shed light on the legacy of the colonial police and the “indigenous” or vernacular police, such as the Goumiers in Morocco or the Spahis regiment in Algeria (Blanchard, Deluermoz, et Glasman, 2011). Contributions on the subject of pre-colonial police - in particular the shurtas with their multiple functions (maintaining order, managing crime, regulating market prices, maintaining prisons) - and on the subject of pre-reform and reformist Ottoman policing forms are also particularly welcome (Lévy-Aksu, 2018).

This diachronic perspective also seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the progressive bureaucratisation of these apparatuses and the modalities of this through the diffusion of the expertise. As a matter of fact, knowledge and skills in the security field also have their own particular history, derived from European models, imported or adapted according to needs: as in Morocco and Tunisia with the French-style bipartition between security police (“sûreté nationale”), rather civil, and the gendarmerie, rather military; or as in Egypt (Tollefson, 1999 quoted by Khalili et Schwedler, 2010) with the creation of a semi-militarised police force; or recently with the training of future Tunisian police officers in France, etc. This circulation of knowledge thus raises questions about the concrete modalities of training: where and how were the staff of these security apparatuses trained and what continuities can be observed in the knowledge and techniques taught to state servants? It also questions the constitution (borrowing and adaptation of European codes) of legal systems that allowed criminality and immorality to be sanctioned (penal codes) and that reflected local understandings of the categories of crime and their evolution, as well as the regulation of the process of criminalisation, especially through procedural codes.

More recently, another historical aspect deserves to be reconsidered in the light of the latest developments, most notably on Transitional justice (Vairel, 2022; Gobe, 2016) that of the role of the security forces in human rights violations. In Morocco, the years of lead documented in the context of the Equity and Reconciliation Commission (Laouina, 2016; Vairel, 2004) or crimes such as those perpetrated in the Rif in 1958, still resonate in a continuing pattern of “unarchivable violence” with the recent confrontations during the Rif hirak (Rhani, 2021; Rhani, Nabalssi, et Benalioua, 2020). In Tunisia, the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, and in particular the hearings of the victims, have lifted the veil on the brutality of a regime supported by security forces whose modes of action included the use of torture.

Restoring order and “democratising” the security apparatus: police forces in crisis (of legitimacy)

Without overlooking the continuities and forms of path dependencies at work in security institutions before and after 2011, this issue intends to study the different ways in which political crisis situations (Allal, 2012 ; Bennani-Chraïbi et Jeghllaly, 2012) affected the security forces in the North Africa. The crisis of legitimacy of security institutions that accompanied the 2011 uprisings raises questions about their role in the protest dynamic. Real safeguards of the contested regimes, the manner in which the agencies in charge of maintaining order (police, armies, militias) resorted to force have had consequences on the dynamics of protest. We have seen how, in Egypt, the collapse of the police force (El Chazli, 2018) or the intensification of repression in Tunisia before 14 January (Hmed, 2015) contributed to the amplification of mobilisations. The attack on police stations by protesters has, in both countries and more recently in Sudan, been part of a repertoire of contention that goes beyond and encompasses the events that led to downfall of regimes. How do these institutions and their members that guarantee the survival of a regime (re)act when it is challenged, threatened, when the “illusion of the monopoly shatters” (Monjardet, 1996) ? What place does confrontation with the forces of order have in militants’ repertoires of collective actions, and how are these repertoires (re)activated in fluid conjunctures?

Whether we think of the dismantling of weak security apparatuses as in Libya, but also of their reorganisation and the importation of models of “democratisation” for the police forces as in Tunisia (Pluta, 2020), the stability of the security apparatuses has been deeply affected by the Arab upheavals, as shown by the increasing size of the security forces in Egypt (Abdelrahman, 2017) or in Tunisia, where the number of agents has doubled since 2011. These reinforcements are, nevertheless, paralleled with an intensification of the rejection and criticism that these institutions trigger and the emergence of discourses and attempts to reform them (Sayigh, 2015; Kartas, 2014; Brumberg et Sallam, 2012). Thus, the Arab countries of Africa are not left untouched by the effects of the circulation of transnational expertise, of “good practices” presented as “universal” (Maillard de et Zagrodzki, 2017): community policing, “good governance”, security sector reform, etc. Beyond the promises of “democratisation” of security apparatuses made by international organisations, it would be necessary to question the processes of appropriation and translation of these forms of expertise.

These moments of legitimacy crises also involve external parties to the security institution: civic coalitions against police violence, associations, rallies of victims’ families, etc. The desire for civilian control over the police is not just a chimera of human rights activists who are easily accused of having facilitated the deterioration of relations between the security forces and the citizens and of having contributed to the delegitimization of the former. Analyses highlighting the possible recomposition of the repertoires of action of these civilian and popular mobilisations are welcome. The judicialization of police-citizen conflicts, particularly by community groups, indicates major changes in the ways in which the accountability of law enforcement agencies and the impunity of officers are debated.

The crises of legitimacy raise another question, that of the logics behind the professional and training activities, as well as their content and efficiency. The analysis of the careers will first of all make it possible to consider the constitution of a professional culture as well as the forms of socialisation (essentially masculine) that emerge during the period of formation, then within the institutions. Besides, it will enrich our knowledge on the production of gender identities within organisations (Connell, 2005), a topic which has not been sufficiently developed with regard to the region. The evolution of the police profession does not elude the mainstreaming of a gender perspective, reflected in particular in the policies of feminisation toward the security forces: whether real or just a targeted communication strategy aimed at euphemising police violence, how is this feminisation welcomed from within and does it contribute to rethinking the profession?

Political crises and transitions also tend to modify the socio-institutional arrangements of the security apparatus, in which the tight political control of the security forces by the ruling authorities used to be hegemonic. Following the example of Egypt and Tunisia after 2011, demonstrations and sit-ins by police officers, while allowing them to distance themselves from the fallen regimes, serve to defend their own group interests. Working conditions, relationships with the political authorities and the hierarchy, and the salaries of police officers become issues of struggle and conflict that are brought into the public debate. Beyond the strictly material aspect, these elements call into question the socio-demographic changes in the composition of the members of the police profession.

Among the working classes, the relationship with the police is ambiguous: feared and hated for its violence, it also constitutes a desirable professional horizon for young people seeking social mobility (Catusse et Lamloum, 2021). On the other hand, due to low salaries and career advancement blockages, more and more officers (sometimes retired) are tempted to move into the private sector, a sector that is expanding in a global context of economic privatisation of public services. What are the challenges posed by the privatisation of security missions, and what competition is at work with public security institutions? What does it tell us about the current state of the police?

Journalists, researchers and police officers: representations and perceptions of security forces and devices

Rather than rejecting the discourses produced by security institutions, this section aims to take seriously what they say and how they say it. Agencies in charge of policing and security are keen to communicate about their actions in an attempt to undo the stigma of the “bad reputation of security institutions” (Geisser, 2015). This is particularly the case for the police department, in the front line with the population they have decided to address. During the 1990s, there was a growing investment in the means of communication with the public (sensational press dedicated to crime – tried and tested in colonial times –, police chronicles, etc.), thus creating an image of a civic-oriented police force serving the public and guaranteeing its individual freedoms. While providing an insight into the way in which the institution wishes to conceive itself, this media presence is part of wider practices that we consider to be cultural.

In fact, the police institution is no stranger to the creative field. How is security work seen in cinema, music, humour (jokes, caricatures), rumour, literature, and so on? Whether in literary production and the emergence (revival) of crime fiction (Ghosn et Tadié, 2021; Sagaster, Strohmeier, et Guth, 2016) or in film production, the representations and perceptions of these national police forces have shown the mixed relationship between the population and the security forces. They have, for example, highlighted the evolution of ways of showing the police on screen between the post-independence nationalist period and the post-revolutionary period marked by the deterioration of relations between the public and the forces of order (Mostafa, 2018). The long-standing use of political humour, in which the security apparatus and its leaders are mocked (Khachab, 2016 ; Fakhfah et Tlili, 2013; Ibrahim, 1995) is part of these perceptions. These perceptions are also indicative of the way in which the security forces are perceived. They are also indicative of internal metamorphoses. In a move towards self-politicisation, police chiefs and other police officers, who take up writing fiction in Arabic and especially crime fiction, provide a glimpse into characters in uniform far more complex than the social imaginary would have us assume (Smolin, 2013).

The police voice themselves through their own communication channels, in the local and national press and now on social media, where they report on their actions - often in line with a “politics of number” agenda -, counteract the multiplicity of viewpoints (political, theoretical, critical) and respond to the criticisms levelled at them. The study of policing therefore requires an analysis of police and security rhetoric. Some police forces, such as in Morocco and Tunisia, have set up press organs where carefully selected information is disseminated. In Algeria, many press executives, editorialists and journalists are officers with undisclosed identities who do not fail to echo the official discourse that places the fight against terrorism as a national priority (Hachemaoui, 2016). These media practices aim to ensure the coherence of an institution marked by secrecy, and to showcase the police profession by defining the contours of a high-performance profession in the use of violence, while at the same time appearing to be the cornerstone of peaceful social relations. In Tunisia, the post-2011 period saw the emergence of the function of the spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior, the narratives of which are sometimes in contradiction with the trade unions, who often play the role of privileged informants for journalists. The professionalization of public discourse by members of police institutions is an important observation point for analyzing the organization of the profession, the internal hierarchy of the police Corps and how it is challenged, and the position occupied by the institution between the public and the regime.

The above-mentioned opacity and repressive role - which is not to be denied here - reflects the problem of data production faced by researchers. It makes it difficult to conduct studies, and to access data and actors (Aldrin et al., 2022). Insofar as the obstacles experienced by researchers in their fieldworks have to do with the security institution’s will to control, this thematic also intends to focus more specifically on the methodological aspects of research on the subject of “security”: how does one work on such subjects? What are the limits but also the empirical possibilities and the effects on scholarly output? In a context where the academic world, and in particular the social sciences, are under attack from public authorities in several countries of the world, where researchers’ activities have increasingly come under scrutiny and have placed them in a situation of danger, how is the production of knowledge evolving? What are the experiences shared with other professions such as journalists?

Alongside the experiences of surveillance by local and foreign researchers, this line of enquiry also aims to examine scholarly production from within. While external production is increasingly in danger, emic knowledge should not be neglected. Proposals could focus on the production of criminologists, whether police officers or others – who borrow from the social sciences or, in some cases, embrace social science research paths – and reflect on the use and vernacularisation of crime categories by law enforcement practitioners. For example, in Tunisia, the post-2011 period has seen an increase in the number of books, generally on the fight against terrorism, written by former police or gendarmerie officers. This expertise claimed by security professionals on social and public issues is not insignificant, and is part of a process of securitisation (with their ensuing practices) of social phenomena, i.e. their elevation as a matter of concern for security (Balzacq, 2018). What strategies and networks are mobilised by these police officers in order to assert their knowledge and techniques?

Submission guidelines

The journal is open to contributions on the Maghreb countries, Sudan and Egypt.

350-to-500-words abstracts in French or English, including bibliographical references and a short biography must be sent on this link

no later than September 1st 2022

The coordinators will provide an answer by September 15th 2022, and full articles, written by following the journal’s publishing norms, must be sent before March 1st2022

Editorial recommendations to authors can be found at this link: https://journals.openedition.org/anneemaghreb/259

Reviewers’ assessments will be forward to authors in May 2023.

This special issue of L’Année du Maghreb is scheduled for December 2023.


  • Mériam Cheikhand, Anthropologist, Inalco-Cessma
  • Audrey Pluta, Political scientist, IEP Aix-en-Provence-Mesopholis/Iremam


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  • Aix-en-Provence, France (13)


  • Thursday, September 01, 2022


  • systèmes sécuritaires, représentation sécuritaire, gouvernance sécuritaire, sociohistoire


  • Mériem Cheikh
    courriel : meriam [dot] cheikh [at] inalco [dot] fr
  • Audrey Pluta
    courriel :

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Sabine Partouche
    courriel : sabine [dot] partouche [at] uni-amu [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Forces and Order. Police, security and surveillance in North Africa », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, June 09, 2022, https://calenda.org/1000603

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