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Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia
Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
On the Politics behind Tunisia’s Protests
On the Politics behind Tunisia’s Protests
Members of Tunisian security forces stand guard as Tunisians wave their national flag during a march against extremism outside Tunis' Bardo Museum on 29 March 2015. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia

Tunisia’s security apparatus is dysfunctional, at once fragmenting, asserting authority over democratic institutions, and failing to block significant jihadi advances. Without a comprehensive new strategy including reform of Tunisia’s internal security forces, the country will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis, and to​ swing between chaos and renewed dictatorship.

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Executive Summary

ever more devastating jihadi attacks has been ad hoc. The attacks in Tunis and Sousse, in March and June 2015, as well as frequent assaults against the police, the National Guard and the army over the past two years, especially in areas along the country’s borders, are evidence of jihadi groups’ significant advances. The authorities are struggling to confront this threat and develop a public policy on security. While their predicament is primarily linked to problems inside the internal security forces (ISF), the regional context does not help. To tackle jihadi violence, as well as better manage political and social conflicts, a thorough reform of the ISF will be necessary.

Instead of promoting standards of professionalism and strengthening its efficiency and integrity, the internal security sector – which includes National Security, police, National Guard, civil defence and correctional services – is both fragmenting and asserting its authority vis-à-vis the executive and legislative branches of government. Its members, many lacking motivation, carry out their profession in an institution whose statutes date from the time of dictatorship and that has been uprooted and politicised by the 2010-2011 uprising. During the subsequent transition, political parties took advantage of the discretionary power held by successive interior ministers in matters of recruitment, promotions and dismissals; police unions supposed to defend the institution have, for the most part, only worsened its internal divisions.

Many officers and staff now look at reform as destabilising, much as they see the revolution and those who speak in its name. A recently submitted ISF-championed draft law granting impunity to the security forces (the ISF, the national army and the customs police) indicates that they are on the defensive. They respond to political rhetoric accusing them of representing the counter-revolution, dictatorship and human rights abuse with a narrative of their own that pits security against democracy as part of a “war on terrorism”.

Many elements inside the ISF are worried about the state of their institution, even if it has the capacity to reform without the intervention of external actors. Priorities should be improving management capabilities, curbing bad practices (police brutality, the spread of petty corruption) and pushing back the rise of clientelism that is hollowing it out.

Yet, the presidency, the government and members of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives (APR, the parliament) have a role to play in improving the security sector (through, for example, parliamentary oversight). Rather than impose their vision on the ISF, they should channel the ISF’s desire for independence: encourage it to reinforce its internal oversight mechanisms, review the way it is structured and operates, and provide the support necessary for its professionalisation.

The last four years of transition have shown that a head-on fight between the ISF and the political class is a dead end. Neither revolution nor counter-revolution has achieved its goals. This confrontation – in part exaggerated by ordinary citizens – has produced a false antithesis between order and liberty that must be overcome.

The government and APR should agree on a new ISF code of conduct, to be drafted jointly following wide consultation inside and outside the security sector and taking into account its new mission in the post-Ben Ali era. This should entail a collective reflection, particularly inside the interior ministry, as well as a national political debate on the notion of security, the role and mission of the police (as distinct from the military), the causes of the north/south fracture and jihadi violence, and the public’s lack of confidence in the security apparatus.

The presidency, the government and Tunisia’s international partners should understand that the urgent need to correct the ISF’s dysfunctions enabling it to confront the country’s security challenges, cannot be limited to improving the equipment of operational units or reinforcing counter-terrorism capabilities, even if this, too, is necessary. Strengthening the internal security apparatus requires first and foremost changing the laws governing the sector, establishing an ambitious human resources management plan and improving basic training and professional development.

Without an ISF reform that would allow for the formulation of a holistic security strategy, Tunisia will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis as its regional environment deteriorates and political and social tensions increase, at the risk of sinking into chaos or a return to dictatorship.

Preventing such a scenario will require a joint effort of the political class and the internal security sector. Such cooperation will be critical to preventing the temptation to restore the public’s “fear of the police” or increasingly burden the national army with internal policing tasks to compensate for the ISF’s weakness and poor management.

This set of measures amounts to an essential preliminary step before rethinking the state’s response to increased social and political violence. This is a national challenge that encompasses more than the security forces’ mission: it also entails tackling the need to make progress on implementing regional development projects in border regions, rehabilitating degraded living conditions in the urban peripheries, improving prison conditions and promoting alternatives to jihadi ideology, among others. The ISF should not find itself alone in compensating for the lack of strategic vision of the political class.

On the Politics behind Tunisia’s Protests

Originally published in The Arabist

Analysis on the politics behind the scenes of the ongoing protests in Tunisia.

This article was reprinted by The Cairo Review.

The protests and rioting that have raged in parts of Tunisia since last week are sometimes branded, both inside the country and abroad, as signs of a new revolutionary moment similar to the 2010-2011 uprising that launched the Arab Spring. The images circulating, after all, give a sense of déjà-vu: young men burning tires at impromptu barricades, throwing stones at police; the army deploying to secure public institutions and banks, etc. This is indeed familiar: it has taken place at regular intervals, especially in winter months, for the last few years. As before, it will most likely die down: protestors are largely driven by specific socio-economic grievances, not a desire to overthrow the regime. Even if there is some continuity – frustration with social injustice and corruption – today’s Tunisia is not ruled by a dictator.

The immediate trigger for the current protests was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January. It introduces tax hikes on a number of consumer goods (especially imports) and services, as well as a one-percent increase in value-added tax, contributing to a pre-existing rise in the cost of living that, in a gloomy economic context for most Tunisians, is understandably unpopular. The government says it needs to raise income to balance its finances, and especially to pay for public sector salaries (which account for over half of expenditures). This budget, passed in December 2017, received the support of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the main trade union federation. In most respects it is more protectionist than liberal, and was opposed by business lobbies.

The government has not been deft in selling its policies: claims that the increases won’t affect the poor have fallen on deaf ears (perceptions of cost-of-living increases are much higher than the 6-percent official inflation rate), and the minister of finance sounded rather Marie-Antoinette-ish when he impatiently suggested in a recent interview that mobile-phone recharge cards, whose prices have increased, were not a basic necessity.

The immediate trigger for the current protests [in Tunisia] was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January.

At its core, anger against the government’s austerity policies is driven by an overwhelmingly young population with few prospects, especially in the long-neglected interior part of the country. Successive governments have had little success in changing this since 2011, and the current one must reconcile pressure from the street with that coming from its international partners, including the IMF, which has called for accelerated reforms and greater fiscal responsibility.

The protests are mostly non-violent – the large protests during the day have been well-organized and peaceful, expressing the general frustration of the population about the meager returns of the 2011 revolution when it comes to living standards. At night, however, a different crowd comes out, often engaging in looting and attacks on public buildings, stealing from stores or taking advantage of localised chaos for criminal purposes. The rage against the system that periodically erupts in the most deprived areas of the country – and has done so before, during and since the 2011 uprising (indeed there have been similar protests every January for the last three years) – often targets security forces, as the arson of police stations attests.

The police, which must address the rioting, is showing signs of panic and over-reach: among the over 700 persons arrested since the unrest began are left-wing bloggers and activists who have conducted no illegal acts. This reversion to bad old habits of the era of dictatorship is dangerous, as it may encourage further escalation and shift the framing of current unrest in a more anti-state direction. It is also yet another sign of the lack of reform and capacity-building that has plagued the ministry of interior.

There are subtler political dimensions to the unrest. The protest movement is, unsurprisingly, being encouraged by the opposition, especially the far-left, some of whose activists have been arrested. Tunisia is entering a two-year electoral cycle (local in May 2018, parliamentary and presidential by the end of 2019) and the opposition has an interest in positioning itself against the current governing coalition, led by the secular nationalist Nida Tounes and Islamist An-Nahda parties. It is also supported by elements of civil society and activist groups such as the “Fech Nestannew?” (“What are we waiting for?”) campaign, which is expressing a widely-felt resentment against austerity policies.

The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading.

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-government protests are convenient for Nida Tounes and An-Nahda, perennial rivals who nonetheless share a common foe: Youssef Chahed, the prime minister appointed in August 2016 who must now deal with the unrest. Originally seen as subservient to Béji Caid Essebsi, the Nida Tounes leader who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2014, Chahed has grown in stature and popularity, especially after he launched an anti-corruption campaign in summer 2017. In recent weeks, Chahed is said to have threatened to arrest senior members of both parties and their allies in the public administration – but has been blocked from doing so. More generally, he has begun to build political alliances in anticipation of 2019’s presidential election, especially with the powerful UGTT. His relationship with Essebsi and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has now significantly soured, and they may hope to use the unrest as a pretext to justify his removal or at least dent his appeal.

Previous protests died down after political leaders mobilized to calm the situation or the government granted concessions; this may yet still happen. If not, they carry a risk of amplifying the increasingly prevalent idea that Tunisia’s democratic transition is failing, particularly if security forces over-react and political bickering allows the situation to fester, providing an opening for a wider crackdown in the name of public order. The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading. As Crisis Group argues in its latest report, the danger is that this will encourage political adventurism by would-be saviours on horseback; the resistance any such attempt would engender would likely create far greater unrest, violence and economic misery than the ongoing, often plodding and frustrating, democratic transition.

Tunisia’s leaders, in other words, has little choice but to move forward and work harder to strike a compromise on the social contract – and especially address the historic neglect of parts of the population – as they did on their political transition. Nostalgia for the era of dictatorship or the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 will bring only problems, not solutions.

Contributors

Project Director, North Africa
boumilo
Senior Analyst, Tunisia