Police states are labor-intensive. Those that try to keep a veneer of pluralism, like the Tunisia of deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, are perhaps even more so.
Therein lies a major problem facing transitional governments, not only in Tunisia but now also in Egypt. While many Tunisian police officers and members of the former ruling party held benign jobs, others hounded dissidents, tortured Islamists, and shook down their compatriots. They did not exit with Messrs. Ben Ali and Mubarak, nor will they vanish if they are purged in an indiscriminate de-Baathification-style process.
In Tunisia, repression was a veritable job-creation program. A country of 11 million, Tunisia had about 200,000 policemen. Working for an international human rights group and with Tunisian organizations, I encountered many of these policemen there.
President Ben Ali could have simply shut down local human-rights groups and jailed their founders. But that would have run counter to the image he wished to project. So he let these groups exist-barely-while employing hundreds of goons to harass their members, block their meetings, and scare away the victims of government abuse who sought their help.
Any visitor to the office of the independent National Council for Liberties in Tunisia would pass by the plain-clothes policemen stationed outside. These officers would note all comers and goers and often deny members and visitors access to the building, insulting and shoving them in the process. The organization persevered but could not legally assemble, open a bank account, or receive foreign grants.
Similarly, the authorities never prevented Human Rights Watch from entering Tunisia. But men in street clothes would visibly follow our researchers and intimidate Tunisians who might wish to speak to us. That type of obstruction requires many more security forces than it would have to simply deny us entry.
When Human Rights Watch tried to hold a news conference in Tunis last March about the persecution of released political prisoners, we couldn't find a single hotel in Tunis that would rent us a conference room. So we booked a suite under our individual names, hoping to squeeze in a few journalists for a briefing. When we arrived, we were told our suite had suffered a leak and was no longer available.
We quickly moved to the office of an accommodating human-rights lawyer. But we were foiled again. Not a single journalist showed up. As we later learned, officials had called many of them and ordered them not to attend. Those who came anyway were turned back by burly men outside the office.
The public already accuses shadowy elements of the former regime of stoking fear and unrest to turn the transitional period to their advantage. Hardly a popular demonstration takes place now without reports of "militias" or provocateurs in attendance, spoiling for trouble.
On Jan. 29, some of them allegedly infiltrated a week-long peaceful sit-in before the seat of the national government, turning it into an ugly confrontation that ended with the police evicting the protesters with excessive force. On Feb. 5 and 6, provocateurs reportedly fanned the flames of a confrontation between protesters and the governor of Kef Province that resulted in at least two shooting deaths and the torching of a police station.
Whether true in each instance, Tunisians seem to see remnants of the old regime lurking everywhere, fomenting discord. Mindful of the balancing act he needs to carry out, Farhat Rajhi, the respected transitional interior minister, announced on Feb. 1 that he would allow the police to form a union, retire 42 senior police officials and increase police salaries. Last week, he announced the suspension of the former governing party, pending its dissolution.
While the transitional government may have reason to act swiftly, taming the remnants of the dislodged government ultimately requires fairly investigating past abuses and identifying and punishing the individuals responsible for any crimes, rather than an indiscriminate purge.
Alongside the reports of "militias" and provocateurs, we see positive changes in Tunisia. For instance, Human Rights Watch held a news conference in Tunis on Jan. 30. The only authorization we needed this time was the one from MasterCard to rent the conference hall. Tunisian media covered the event extensively and fairly. The same media had boycotted us until the day President Ben Ali fled.
It is no small victory to be able to hold a news conference in Tunisia about a sensitive topic simply by hiring a room and inviting reporters. This kind of change exhilarates Tunisians. But they also know that their compatriots who made a living tormenting dissidents, neutralizing civil society groups, and provoking a flash flood in our hotel suite, are still out there. They are one reason the "Jasmine Revolution" has only just begun. To succeed, it will require both vigilance and a firm but fair-minded approach to the former government's worst abusers.
Mr. Goldstein is deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch