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Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia
Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
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.

Tunisian special forces take position during clashes with militants in the southern town of Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, on 7 March 2016. AFP/Fathi Nasri

Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

The Islamic State (IS) attack into the heart of the south-eastern Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane opens up a new zone of conflict. This alarming spillover from Libya 30km away requires a fresh response from Tunisia’s political elite, still struggling to steady the country after three major terrorist attacks last year.

Beginning at dawn on 7 March, dozens of IS fighters stormed into the city and attempted to overwhelm the city’s key security installations. They were countered by virtually all regular and specialised units of the police, National Guard and army. Several hundred troops surrounded the city, taking up positions to defend targeted buildings and scouring neighbourhoods for the assailants.

The death toll was heavy: 36 jihadis, eleven members of the security forces and seven civilians were killed. Although the attack has not been officially claimed by IS yet, it is likely linked to the 19 February U.S. airstrike on an IS camp 170km away in Sabratha, in north west Libya, that killed over 40 alleged members of the group, mostly Tunisians.

The Ben Guerdane attack was repulsed by security forces but marks a new departure. It is unprecedented since the “Gafsa coup” of 27 January 1980, when a raiding party armed by Libya and supported by Algerian military intelligence took control of the central Tunisian city of Gafsa and called for a popular revolt. Tunisia should expect further attacks and prepare to mitigate their impact by bearing in mind seven key points:

  1. This was no simple “terrorist” attack. It was a simultaneous assault on an army barracks, the local headquarters of the National Guard and the city’s police station, accompanied by three targeted assassinations of a customs officer, a police officer and a member of the counter-terrorism unit of the National Guard. It was an attempt at a local insurrection, coordinated by some 50 members of IS sleeper cells in Ben Guerdane. The term “terrorist” would obscure the political objectives of the assault: win the support a part of the city’s notoriously rebellious population by inciting an insurrection even as it takes military control of the city. IS broadcast a revolutionary jihadi message from mosque speakers at dawn and attempted to distribute weapons. In this respect, this week’s attack resembles the events of Gafsa in 1980.
     
  2. On this occasion, IS forces were insufficiently numerous and made tactical mistakes despite their knowledge of the terrain. But Tunisia’s armed forces will not always have a numerical advantage. Tunisia’s army, National Guard and police should redouble their vigilance and rapidly draw operational and strategic lessons. A few kilometres from Ben Guerdane, Zarsis, a nexus of illegal migration towards Europe, or Djerba, a touristic hub and centre of Tunisia’s Jewish community, could be targeted. In the west of the country, jihadis operating in the forested mountains along the border with Algeria could take advantage of any new crisis to attack nearby Kasserine or reach as far as central Sidi Bouzid.
     
  3. The attempted insurrection in Ben Guerdane is not just a Tunisian-Libyan affair, but a regional problem that demands a regional response – in particular a significant reinforcement of Tunisian-Algerian political and security cooperation. The mental geography espoused by IS does not adhere to the borders established in North Africa in the twentieth century. Experts on the group say IS members dream of re-establishing the historic borders of the Aghabid dynasty (800-901), which ruled a semi-independent emirate roughly based on the ancient Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, including Tripolitania (western Libya), most of modern day Tunisia and the eastern half of Algeria. In this vision, Ben Guerdane is a strategic nexus point of a “liberated” zone that would tie south-eastern Tunisia to western Libya. The city’s business life has long been dominated by a parallel economy based on an informal foreign currency exchange market and smuggling; it could become a convergence point between jihadis and regional criminal networks.
     
  4. Tunisia’s political class and its media must absolutely avoid any attempt to take advantage of the attack to settle scores or revive the Islamist-secularist divide. A calm examination of facts is necessary, not polemics.
     
  5. A new national discourse is needed to address regional and social divides, particularly a sentiment of historical exclusion in the south of the country. The attacks over the past year – on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March, a tourist resort in Sousse in June, and the presidential guard in November – have weakened the old discourse of “national unity” advanced by the political class. Tunisia will have to do more to preserve the culture of compromise and civil society inclusion in 2013-14 that helped political activists of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
     
  6. Security forces should react in a measured manner when questioning Ben Guerdane residents who may have lent logistic or other support to the IS raiding party. The scale of the attack means they could number in the hundreds. A wave of mass and indiscriminate arrests accompanied by police brutality could polarise families, feed into residents’ frustrations, and increase support for IS in the future.
     
  7. The Tunisia-Libya border cannot be secured without the close collaboration of the local population, especially the smuggling cartels operating in the area. Trying to combat these at the same time as jihadis would dissipate energy and likely feed local resentment of the state, since so much of the local economy depends on this smuggling. In order to secure their cooperation, Crisis Group has argued that the government should consider the creation of free trade zones at the border that would legitimise at least part of the border trade.

A French version of this article was published by Al Huffington Post Maghreb.