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Counter-terror in Tunisia: job done or mission misunderstood?

2 March 2017 - Kloe Tricot O'Farrell, Lola Aliaga

Following the Arab uprisings and a number of high-profile terror attacks, Tunisia has received significant support from the U.S., U.K. and Europe. While some assert that security assistance is lessening the terror threat in Tunisia, in fact Western counter-terror strategies are getting it wrong by neglecting the country's democratic transition, and failing to address crucial structural problems that pose a threat to peace in Tunisia and the wider region.

According to the United Nations, the number of Tunisians travelling to join conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya is among the highest in the world, with estimates ranging between 3,000 and 7,000 people. Recent attacks in Europe, including in July 2016 in France and December 2016 in Germany, were committed by people of Tunisian nationality or origin. Many Western tourists fell victim to attacks committed by Tunisian citizens in Tunis and the resort town of Sousse in 2015. These attacks, and those targeting Tunisian security actors, including the presidential guard (November 2015) and the army and national guard in Ben Guerdane (March 2016), raised concerns about stability in Western capitals already struggling to handle the ripple effects of the crises in neighbouring Libya and the wider region.

International actors have responded by increasing their support, including through the provision of military training and equipment, assistance in some aspects of the reform of the justice and security sectors, investing in countering (or preventing) violent extremism (CVE/PVE) programmes, as well as socio-economic support. While understandable in their motivation, the visibility of the terror challenge has almost inevitably prescribed a narrow counter-terror approach which has focused primarily on strengthening the coercive security capacities of the Tunisian State.

Meanwhile, other structural factors that contribute to violence and instability in Tunisia, such as exclusive and abusive governance, corruption and a lack of economic opportunity, are largely overlooked. Specifically, international actors are ignoring the apparent use of the security agenda by the government to delay the implementation of structural reforms which could weaken its hold on power. However, without these much needed reforms, it may well prove impossible to ensure the security and stability of the country in the long run.

Large parts of the Tunisian population feel marginalised because they lack employment opportunities and access to resources on the one hand, and because they are denied the space to contribute to political change on the other. While they played a central part in the country’s political life during the uprisings, many Tunisians, especially young people, now feel disempowered. They also feel disillusioned, as what they had hoped for their country in 2011 has yet to materialise, and current trends seem to indicate that the government is not fully committed to fulfilling all of its promises. The concentration of resources and power within the elite continues to reinforce grievances, as illustrated by renewed protests in 2016 and 2017.

In addition, although Tunisians identify institutionalised corruption as a key challenge, the Tunisian Government has been ambivalent about tackling the issue. Since 2015, it has been trying to pass an ‘economic reconciliation’ law that would give amnesty to those responsible for the embezzlement of public funds or acts of corruption. The text was frozen after receiving a strong pushback from civil society, but the government’s repeated attempts at passing this law suggests little interest in tackling corruption among circles of power.

While popular discontent signals the importance of structural problems to Tunisia’s stability, the international community is helping the Tunisian Government tackle immediate threats by reinforcing the security sector. In doing so, international actors are overlooking the role that the Tunisian State plays in perpetuating violence and reinforcing existing tensions and grievances. To date, the Tunisian Government’s response to security threats has been reactive and overly securitised. In November 2015, it restored the state of emergency imposed after the uprising, and this remains in force today. This measure allows the government to control the press and prohibit gatherings that may cause disorder. In addition, a counter-terrorism law adopted in 2015 grants security forces broad surveillance powers, allows the incommunicado detention period of ‘terrorism’ suspects to last up to 15 days, and permits courts to close hearings to the public and witnesses to remain anonymous to the defendants. In this context, many individuals and their family members have been arrested and detained arbitrarily, mainly based on their appearance or religious affiliation, and have suffered at the hands of the security apparatus which is rarely held to account.

These practices have generated a sense of alienation and injustice especially among those that have been targeted or affected, but they have been justified through a shift in narratives, from one of ‘transition’ to one of ‘counter-terrorism’. Part of this strategy has clearly consisted in pitching the achievement of security against respect for human rights. Placing security as the number one priority has largely been successful: having lived under an authoritarian but stable regime for several decades, many Tunisians are “used to security rather than human rights”, as a prominent civil society activist put it. As such, many human rights organisations have been widely accused, including in the media, of supporting violent groups and undermining the security sector’s efforts by ’using’ human rights to free suspected members. 

According to several human rights groups, the practices which are being used with the aim of securing Tunisia show worrying signs of a return to a strong central government. They have raised concerns that these practices are jeopardising human rights while the necessary safeguards to prevent abuses are not in place. While a number of state accountability mechanisms have been created since 2011 on issues including human rights, torture and counter-terrorism, these bodies are struggling to fulfil their mandates. This is largely because they have not received sufficient political or financial support which, according to some, reflects reluctance among the authorities to see them deliver effective oversight.

Of course, Tunisia does need technical support and equipment from the international community to respond to the challenges it currently faces. However, such support should be designed to encourage security actors to be more transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs and concerns of all Tunisians. The current lack of transparency and accountability underpins a level of impunity that not only reinforces public resentment but also plays into the hands of violent groups that seek to weaken the Tunisian State. Indeed, part of the strategy of these violent groups is to elicit repressive responses in order to delegitimise the democratic process and enhance the alienation of potential recruits.

Addressing exclusive and abusive governance, corruption and marginalisation will be fundamental to supporting a peaceful and sustainable democratic transition in Tunisia in the long-term. As such, short-term interventions that reinforce an unreformed and unaccountable Tunisian State, and specifically its security sector, will not help address those problems. Rather, they risk further entrenching systems of power monopoly and state control which are detrimental to the democratic transition.

It is thus vital that international actors involved in Tunisia recognise these dynamics and develop interventions which do not reinforce them. Specifically, in order to address the structural drivers of violence and instability in a sustainable way, international actors will need to balance the immediate need to provide security and safety that is responsive to people’s needs and concerns, with longer-term reform of state institutions. This will also require prioritising efforts to empower people and communities as relevant actors for bringing about positive change and building a democratic state. With all the grievances it engenders, the current securitised approach will bring neither security nor peace.

Photo: a sign in the Medina of Tunis signals 'Freedom 2km away'. Following the uprisings, many Tunisians feel that freedom is still a long way off

This comment piece was written by Lola Aliaga and Kloé Tricot O’Farrell in the context of a wider research project which explores strategies for responding to security threats and instability in Tunisia and draws from views of Tunisian people and civil society. A full report will be published in the coming months.

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Addressing exclusive and abusive governance, corruption and marginalisation will be fundamental to supporting a peaceful and sustainable democratic transition in Tunisia in the long-term.

Kloe Tricot O'Farrell and Lola Aliaga