Tunisia: Desperately Seeking Direction

Tunisia is no stranger to terrorism. Mourners stand near the flag-draped coffins of soldiers and civilians who were killed during an attack on army and police posts by Islamist fighters in the town of Ben Guerdan, Tunisia, near the Libyan border March 9. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Tunisia stands at a crucial crossroads

By Nicholas Noe

Tunisia, the much lauded “success story” of the Arab Spring, is fighting for its survival.

According to the World Bank, growth for the past year is expected to be near zero at best.

In fact, among all the countries of the Middle East, only war-torn Libya is expected to do worse when the final numbers are tabulated, according to the international body.

This, of course, represents a serious challenge for a country with a burgeoning youth population, high unemployment and falling standards of living. Indeed, in just the last few months, extended socio-economic protests have rocked the deprived interior and border regions, exactly the locales where Tunisia’s 2010 revolution first began.

Taking advantage of the situation, Daesh seems to have now added a “Southern Strategy” to its year-long repertoire of soft target operations, launching attacks from Libya into the Tunisian border area of Benguerdene in early March apparently with the aim of testing the longstanding grievances of the local population as well as the competency of the government.

Unfortunately, just when strong leadership is most needed, Tunisia’s political class is also unraveling.

The main secular party, Nidaa Tounes, has effectively fragmented into several smaller, warring parts, while the leading Islamist party, Al Nahda, holds only one ministry in a coalition government with weakened Nidaa Tounes remnants.

The result is that all sides have increasingly put forward the claim to their constituents and international allies that they don’t really control the legislative and administrative levers of power and therefore should not be held responsible for the ills that the country is facing or the reforms that many Tunisians say are necessary to protect the country and improve the economy.

Counter-Terrorism, Unbounded

As so often happens in similar situations around the world, one side has unambiguously benefited from all of this: The security sector.

After multiple Daesh attacks last year, which killed and wounded hundreds of people and devastated tourism, the United States and Europe opened up their coffers, injecting an array of weapons systems and training efforts across the board.

The U.S. alone tripled its military aid to Tunisia in 2015 and raised its overall economic and security assistance to $140 million this year. The European Union, for its part, released more than $128 million in security and development aid to Tunisia late last year.

Germany, Britain and Italy, along with the Americans, are also all now conducting a potpourri of border protection and “train and equip” programs with the country’s sprawling police force, its national guard and the still anemic Tunisian army.

Even Portugal recently announced it would provide aid to beef up Tunisia’s border with Libya. Ironically, the only thing missing for a full cast WWII reunion is French “collaboration,” as one commentator has wryly noted.

“We believe that had this attack on Benguerdene happened in 2011 or 2012, the Tunisian army and security services may not have been able to repel the 100 or so attackers that were involved,” one senior Western official overseeing his country’s train and equip effort, tells Newsweek Middle East on the condition of anonymity.

“This time, they were able to defeat [Daesh] and demonstrated that the terrorist group’s attempts to hold territory will be quickly countered.”

Whilst the Tunisian security services did succeed in eventually bringing calm to Benguerdene–it took several days of fighting and resulted in 13 dead among the security services–the incident nevertheless underscored widespread fears that the country as a whole is largely unprepared to face multiple or sustained attacks by terrorists in the coming period, (a four-year-old Al Qaeda-led insurgency is still attacking civilians and security forces along the border with Algeria).

“Yes, the Special Forces are well trained and well equipped and we saw that in Ben Geurdane,” International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst Mikhail Ayari tells Newsweek Middle East.

“The real problem is in the day-to-day tasks of the police who are supposed to protect so much of the country. Unfortunately, there is little motivation, they don’t apply good practices, and, through some of their practices, they are in fact radicalizing the most vulnerable part of the population.”

Clientalist networks, he adds, are also spreading throughout the sector, breaking the unity of command and compounding the inability to effectively police.

“Without overall Internal Security Force reform—especially focused on the daily work of the police—and without the formulation of a holistic security strategy, Tunisia is going to go 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.”

Despite stark warnings like these, however, the prospect of reform within the all-powerful ministry of interior now seems less likely than at any point since the 2011 revolution.

“The narrative of counterterrorism is effectively undermining the push for systemic reform that the 2011 uprising seemed to herald,” argues Fadil Aliriza, a visiting fellow at the London-based Legatum Institute.

“Not only is this change antidemocratic, it is actually counterproductive since it is creating a classic vicious circle. Terrorism serves as an excuse to crack down on freedom of speech and association. This crackdown, in turn, helps keep a corrupt, mismanaged, and incompetent security force in place, possibly even increasing the risk of terrorism.”

One place where the vicious cycle that so worries counter-radicalization experts becomes readily apparent is in Tunisia’s prisons.

According to statistics released by Tunisia’s ministry of interior, almost 100,000 Tunisians, or nearly one percent of the entire population, were arrested in the first half of 2015.

In fact, Tunisia now ranks seventh in the whole of Africa in terms of its prison population rate; by comparison Egypt is ranked 28.

“You have a counterterrorism policy that has worked like a dragnet, picking up poor Tunisians who seem suspicious because of their Salafist dress and beards,” notes Legatum’s Aliriza.

According to one recent detainee held in the notorious Mornaguai prison outside the capital Tunis, helicopter flights drop dozens of terrorism suspects each day into the prison where small cells often hold 30 or more people at one time.

The court system is so overburdened that some detainees can go months or years without seeing a lawyer, much less a judge.

And throughout—even after release—no formal de-radicalization program exists.

“The Interior Ministry wants to be the arbiter of any and all contact with suspected violent extremists and prisoners. This is in line with its own traditional strategy of power – monopolizing information about violence and violent networks. This way, anyone who wants to fight terrorism has to deal with the ministry,” says Aliriza.

“They certainly don’t want NGOs or foreign governments involved without their blessing, participation or control. This means that, paradoxically, Western aid provided to help Tunisia fight the war on terrorism may be helping to achieve the opposite of what is intended. Instead of helping the government deal with terrorism, it may increase the security sector’s autonomy from the government, further immunizing it from accountability and therefore weakening its effectiveness in protecting citizens”

Towards A Mafia State?

Of course, corruption, inefficiency and abuse by the security services are only part of the dynamic whittling away at Tunisia’s stability and strength from within.

More than 50 percent of the Tunisian economy is believed to rest in the informal or black market.

Conversely, most of the productive sectors in the legitimate economy are controlled by family-based monopolies that fiercely resist any competition which might threaten their positions.

Somewhat ironically then—though it is certainly not unheard of in many countries—some of the business elite in the white market and many of the smugglers in the black market rely on the security sector to lubricate and protect their interests, creating, in effect, a deeply corrupt, parallel state triangle unified against any kind of systemic reforms, economic or security oriented.

As Chawki Tabib, president of the National Anti-Corruption Authority, put it bluntly at one press conference in mid-March, Tunisia risks becoming a “mafia state.”

“We share, with many analysts, the belief that corruption in the country has become a real plague, an infection that is spreading… but if there is no real strategy for fighting [corruption] and we do not give the necessary means to the institutions monitoring and to the justice system in this fight, we will end up with a mafia state.”

He then added: “The various governments that have succeeded since the Revolution have not fought against corruption, we just pretended to fight this battle.”

A Fork in the Road

“We have a choice in Tunisia,” implores Achraf Aouadi, the director of the local youth-led, anti-corruption nongovernment organization ‘I-Watch’.

“We know the main issue is corruption and that the main way to protect against Daesh is to deal with this. Even joblessness, the lack of regional development, these are actually sub-problems of the main event, corruption,” he tells Newsweek Middle East, pointing to a loss of four percent in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) each year and 60,000 jobs due to corruption.

“We need to focus on the security sector first. We need to study the sector and then we need to radically overhaul it. Tunisian politicians, citizens and civil society have to get involved and make it happen,” he adds.

However, democratic power might not be enough especially given the longstanding, pervasive power of Tunisia’s parallel state and the relatively weakened position that so many elected officials find themselves in following the repeated Daesh attacks over the past year.

One proposal to shift the balance is for international actors to finally condition any aid on concrete reforms in the security sector and the economy that might get both up to fighting form.

“Coopting the security sector won’t fix these problems, only genuine reform will,” argues Aliriza. ” It is politically very risky, however, because elements within the security forces may resist or the motivation and morale of security forces currently carrying out counterterrorism operations may suffer. But the long-term security of the Tunisian state and its people depends upon it.”

For Ayari, at least one possibility for change has finally opened up from the inside. Last week, after an eight-month delay, the national commission to fight against terrorism was convened.

Its main task: Writing a detailed plan for dealing with all violent extremists that threaten the country from within and at the borders.

“Perhaps some reform might be possible through this process,” says Ayari. “At the very least, right now there is no strategy, so it is a good first step that the commission has begun its work to finally draw one up.”

Be that as it may, one thing, at least, is certain: “Daesh is not going to wait for reforms,” admits Aouadi.

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