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Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation
Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption
Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation

The growing link between cartels and armed jihadi militants along Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya, combined with heightened ideological polarisation, could form an explosive mix ahead of Tunisia’s legislative and presidential elections.

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I. Overview

Since the December-January 2010-2011 uprising, Tunisia has successfully overcome successive political crises, yet seems less able to absorb the impact of major jihadi attacks. Despite the success of a national dialogue that significantly reduced tensions and helped begin 2014 on a note of optimism, leading to a significant reduction in political tensions, concerns are growing again. At the heart of this anxiety are an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse. An echo chamber for the deadly conflicts agitating the region, Tunisia needs to approach the issue of terrorism in a calmer and depoliticised manner. The battles against terrorism and organised crime are inextricably linked. The government would gain from adding to its security measures new economic and social initiatives that would ensure that border communities are on the side of the state. 

Since 2013, the alliance between arms and drugs traffickers and armed jihadi cells appears to have considerably strengthened in the border regions. The activities of the major illegal trade networks are encouraging violence that much of the media is quick to blame on terrorists. This violence could reach dangerous levels, particularly should a worsening of the Libyan conflict lead to serious economic and political consequences for Tunisia. 

The social crisis in the south, the lasting alliance between cartels and jihadis, the exacerbation of ideological polarisation by regional developments and the approaching elections could form an explosive mix. Voters and candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections – scheduled for 24-26 October (parliamentary), 21-23 November (first round, presidential) and 26-28 December (second round) – are fearful that the electoral process could fail and that Tunisia could suffer the same fate as other countries in the region. The deepening security crackdown, combined with the reprisals carried out by weakened jihadi groups, risk forming a vicious circle. The independent, so-called “technocratic” government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa is playing on the resonance of anti-terrorist sentiments. This is recasting the anxieties of the educated middle class toward a fear of religious extremism. In this context, the risk is that a major terrorist attack would promote further ideological polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

In order to deflect another crisis, the authorities would benefit from carrying out two principal measures. The first is to strengthen the state’s presence in border regions through socio-economic development policies whose impact would be quickly noticed by local communities. The second is to implement an effective and calibrated counter-terrorism strategy, in contrast to sensationalist media treatment that only serves to increase anxiety about jihadis and indirectly promotes confusion between different strands of Islamism.

Regional and international ideological trends on the question of political Islam impact Tunisia, but need not determine the country’s future. After its initial report “Tunisia’s Borders: Jihadism and Contraband” (November 2013), this briefing analyses the new reality of threats on the Tunisia-Algeria and Tunisia-Libyan borders and offers suggestions to attenuate risks.

In the near term, it is crucial for the main political, trade union and civil society forces – both Islamist and non-Islamist – to maintain a consensual approach to public security and for the authorities to adopt a calmer anti-terrorist discourse in order to prevent renewed polarisation in the event of a major attack on the country. Similarly, it would be desirable that the government, or the one that will follow it, increase security cooperation with neighbouring Algeria, pursue the creation of a new National Intelligence Agency, and dialogue with contraband cartels in order to persuade them to stop trade in dangerous goods, and possibly encouraging some to collaborate with the Tunisian state on the security front. Such measures would ultimately help keep border communities from becoming irrevocably alienated from the state and be tempted, in the medium term, to challenge it directly by joining militant groups.

Tunis/Brussels, 21 October 2014

Tunisians hold placards during a protest against a controversial draft law on amnesty for corruption offences in the capital Tunis, 12 September 2015. AFP PHOTO/Sofienne Hamdaoi

Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight Against Corruption

Polarisation over transitional justice after the 2011 fall of Tunisia’s old regime is obstructing basic progress. Accounting for past actions cannot include the early idea of “revolutionary justice”, but can become a tool to reconcile citizens, tackle corruption and give the economy a much needed new impetus.

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Executive Summary

Political tensions between supporters and opponents of Tunisia’s transitional justice process and of its application in the economic realm are delaying the implementation of policies necessary to stimulate the economy and tackle corruption. The process’ supporters view it as essential to keeping the revolutionary flame alive, reestablishing citizens’ trust in state institutions and promoting the rule of law, equitable development and reconciliation. From their side, its opponents see it as a remnant of a past political context and an obstacle to economic recovery. Compromises will be needed to reconcile these two camps as well as strengthen government efforts to root out corruption and economically integrate regions most neglected under the former regime.

After the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, Tunisia’s new political actors implemented a politicised, often arbitrary and thus haphazard, form of justice; comprising a variety of ad hoc and extrajudicial measures, this process could be described as “revolutionary justice”. The former regime’s victims were able to receive material and symbolic reparations, while businessmen believed to have been implicated in corruption had assets seized, faced trials (many of which are still pending) or were blackmailed.

In December 2013, a Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance vérité et dignité, IVD) was established to implement a comprehensive transitional justice mechanism anchored in the law, informed by the evolution of transitional justice theory and its use in other countries, and enshrined in Tunisia’s new constitution (enacted in January 2014). The Troïka government in power at the time (composed of political forces in opposition or in exile during the Ben Ali era) supported the move.

After Tunisia’s political landscape changed in December 2014, official support for the IVD began to crumble. The newly consecrated parliamentary and governmental alliance between Nida Tounes, a secular movement that has given a second political life to former regime members, and the Islamist party An-Nahda (a former Troïka member) created a political balance that has favoured selective amnesia over remembrance.

During the second half of 2015, public debate about the transitional justice process became both more prominent as well as more polarised. In July, President Béji Caïd Essebsi proposed an economic reconciliation bill reducing the IVD’s prerogatives. The most determined opponents of the bill, which has been shelved for now but could yet re-emerge in a new form, argue it would absolve those implicated in corruption and thus underscore victory by the “counter-revolution”. Use of this latter term points to the revival of Tunisia’s traditional socio-economic elite, mainly hailing from the capital and the east coast, which was weakened by the 2010-2011 revolution.

The bill’s supporters – including An-Nahda, which is torn between its revolutionary ideals as a former opposition movement and its determination to preserve the fragile coalition with Nida Tounes – view the implementation of transitional justice measures as a threat to stability. They want the IVD to abandon its pursuit of corruption cases stemming from the 1955-2013 period and instead focus exclusively on human rights violations.

Both sides must make concessions if this struggle is to be overcome. First, it will be necessary to resolve the misunderstanding that derives from the association of transitional justice – and the legitimate role it can play in relation to justice and reconciliation – with the ad hoc measures adopted during the “revolutionary justice” period, which some groups deem a witch hunt against businessmen and senior civil servants.

Second, given the deteriorating economic situation, the country cannot afford to wait for the IVD’s final recommendations in 2018-2019. It would be better for the government to support a law regularising under certain conditions the status of Tunisians implicated in corruption and tax evasion. Instead of entering into conciliation procedures that could create new opportunities for cronyism and blackmail, these Tunisians would have to entrust the inventory of their assets to certified public accountants, who would be held responsible for any false declarations, as a basis for a tax assessment and back payment.

To restart the economy, businessmen must be able to free themselves from the “revolutionary justice” measures which they claim have victimised them for the past several years. State agents accused of embezzlement under the previous regime should also be able to regularise their status. In exchange, both the presidency and the government should actively support the collaboration of other public institutions with the IVD, and ensure its activities, in particular its public hearings, are disseminated.

In parallel, the government should quickly formulate and implement measures to fight cronyism, nepotism and corruption; prioritise dialogue between regions, specifically between entrepreneurs in border areas, the Sahel (northern part of the east coast) and the capital; and institute new transparency mechanisms for public tenders.

The aim should not be to modify the transitional justice mechanism rooted in the January 2014 constitution but to find a middle ground that increases political elites’ confidence in it, so that the IVD’s work can take place in a more auspicious environment. Contrary to a widespread preconception, encouraging the implementation of the transitional justice process is in the current political class’s interest. Renewing political support for it and accompanying it with immediate reforms to prevent the spread of corruption would reduce the risks of polarisation and help prevent Tunisians’ complete disillusionment with politics.

Tunis/Brussels, 3 May 2016