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Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia
Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
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.

Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.