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Tunisia: Combatting Impunity, Restoring Security
Tunisia: Combatting Impunity, Restoring Security
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

Tunisia: Combatting Impunity, Restoring Security

Although Tunisia stands out in a turbulent Arab world for its relatively peaceful transition, justice and security must be bolstered to ensure long-term stability.

Executive Summary

In an Arab world marred by stalled and bloody transitions, Tunisia still stands out as an exception. Since January 2011, not only has the former leader, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fallen from power, but an entire system has been overwhelmed, if not overhauled, relatively peacefully and with the support of a fairly broad consensus. That said, the country faces serious challenges that could threaten this progress. Of these, two in particular are closely intertwined: restoring security while combatting impunity. For the new tripartite unity government referred to as the Troïka and led by the Islamist An-Nahda party, the key to success remains broad participatory dialogue to facilitate reforming the security forces without provoking a destabilising backlash; ensuring accountability for the dictatorship’s crimes without triggering a witch hunt; and ensuring justice is done efficiently while taking into account the limits of the existing judicial system.

There are indicators of real progress. In October 2011, the country held successful elections for the National Constituent Assembly. Remarkably, the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, is a former political prisoner and the president, Moncef Marzouki, lived long years in exile. The former opposition now sits on the benches of the assembly and stands in the halls of power. Freedom of expression no longer is a pipe dream. A genuine civil society is emerging. Media, civil society organisations, trade unions, and political parties participate in the democratic process, even going so far as to lambast the Troïka’s policies.

Yet disturbing signs remain. Security is fragile. Many suspect that members of the security forces still are loyal to the former regime. An-Nahda is accused by its adversaries of turning a blind eye to certain acts of violence with religious connotations. Victims of the dictatorship are growing impatient, demanding justice and protesting impunity. And the judicial system is unable to cope with mounting demands. The new National Constituent Assembly established in the wake of Tunisia’s first transparent and pluralist election has been hampered by continuing instability.

Security-wise, the situation has improved to some degree in the larger urban agglomerations after a difficult post-revolutionary period. But there are important geographic discrepancies. In the central highlands, cradle of the December 2011 and January 2011 uprisings, as well as in the south – most notably the Gafsa governorate, a mining basin and scene of a bloody 2008 crackdown against a labour insurrection – the police have been largely absent, leaving it to the army to ensure safety. The country regularly experiences episodes of violent strife of an economic, communal or criminal nature or, at times, related to newly emerging forms of religious extremism. All of which inevitably tarnish the image of a mostly peaceful transition.

Restoring security requires that the police regain the confidence of the population and, for that, the interior ministry needs to implement internal reforms. That could be a tall order: much of the public still harbours deep-seated distrust of the police, a legacy of decades of dictatorship and repression. This is particularly true in the central regions, where security forces tend to be perceived as a violent power to be opposed, not trusted. In fairness, the interior ministry has begun to take necessary steps, dismissing officials closely linked to the former regime or suspected of abuse. But these changes are insufficient. Undermined by internal divisions, the police at times seem focused on defending its narrow institutional interests while some of its members remain hostile to the idea of serving those they were putting in jail not long ago.

The end result is a vicious circle. Police – denounced by a public eager for accountability – are reluctant to patrol the streets; security suffers; in turn, the police are subject to harsher criticism, which only strengthens their resolve to stay on the sidelines. In other instances, the feeling of alienation from the public can lead security forces to violent excesses, which only make things worse.

At the heart of this dilemma are the thorny issues of transitional justice and the legacy of impunity. Successive governments, including the current one, have advocated a gradual, restrained approach towards remnants of the dictatorship. Although former regime officials have been put on trial and independent commissions have launched investigations into corruption, violence and past abuses, the authorities have been at pains to avoid a potentially destabilising witch hunt. This is an undeniable success, a likely outcome of the transition’s largely peaceful nature.

But there is a flip-side. The deliberate pace of the transitional process has left unanswered powerful demands for justice and accountability; notably in central Tunisia, the struggle against impunity has become a rallying cry. The families of those killed or injured during the days leading up to Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia insist on moral and material compensation. They have participated in demonstrations calling for senior former regime officials, particularly in the security sector, to be put on trial. They fear a reign of impunity under the guise of ineffectual national reconciliation. Journalists, civil society, union leaders and human rights activists are united in sharing these concerns, fuelled by the interior ministry’s and judiciary’s recent history as key pillars of the authoritarian system. In this respect, Ben Ali invented nothing; rather, he inherited the repressive legal and law enforcement systems established under former President Habib Bourguiba. The judiciary followed orders while the interior ministry set up an all-encompassing system of surveillance.

Genuine transitional justice is on a slow track. Judicial reforms have barely begun, and there is a lack of technical and financial resources to address current challenges. The system appears disorganised, a maze of separate, uncoordinated institutions: independent commissions against corruption and abuse, the human rights and transitional justice ministry, civil justice and military justice bodies, as well as scattered civil society initiatives. What is missing is a shared, coherent vision of transitional justice that is capable of both addressing victims’ rights and overcoming the bitterness of the past. Instead, dissatisfaction on the part of victims of state repression combined with an economic downturn that has hit hardest in the regions from which they tend to hail, risks reinforcing their sense of marginalisation, deepening their grievances against the central state and preventing a return to levels of stability and security that are essential for democratic gains to take root.

In one sense, the hardest part is over. Unlike the experiences of other Arab countries – or at least more swiftly than them – Tunisia has begun its transition in relative harmony, with an emerging consensus on certain democratic rules of the road. But it is not so easy to get rid of the past. The disconnects between central and peripheral regions, between Islamist and secular forces, and between heirs to the old regime and supporters of the new order remains ever present. The critical task of this and future governments will be to resolve differences that for now appear irreconcilable through dialogue and compromise.

Tunis/Brussels, 9 May 2012

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.