Security and Development Needed To Boost Tunisia’s Transition

Tunisia’s security seems relatively stable, especially when compared to the region. Yet, the reality on the ground is that of an uncertain and increasingly volatile environment. Enhanced border control, significant improvement of the economy, and security sector reform are all necessary in order to improve Tunisia’s security. These initiatives, generally regarded as the main responsibility of the interim government comprised of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa and his cabinet which took office last week should not, however, be left to the government alone. Regional and international involvement in tackling some of the root causes of Tunisia’s insecurity is crucial to ensuring its long-term stability.

The violence that has gripped Tunisia is a disturbing trend in the country’s socio-political landscape. On February 6, 2013—a year ago last week—prominent opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated. That July, Mohamed Brahmi, a member of the constituent assembly, was also assassinated. Both murders were attributed to the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), a terrorist group believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). On February 3, 2014, Kamel Gadhgadhi, the main suspect in Belaid’s assassination, was killed in a shootout with security forces. Overall, 2013 witnessed low-level but consistent terrorist activity throughout the country. Mount Chaambi, along the Algerian border, became a focal point for the government’s counterterrorism activities with security forces conducting a number of raids. The government’s efforts to improve the country’s security have often been regarded as unsuccessful or as having minimal impact and, over the course of the year, counterterrorism efforts resulted in the deaths of twenty security force members.

Tunisia’s political progress is directly related to its security and stability. Stalled political processes inevitably cause the kind of unrest that creates a space for extremism to grow. In October, as political deadlock persisted, Tunisia’s first suicide bombing in ten years occurred in Sousse and another suicide bombing attempt was foiled. This symbiotic relationship also allows terrorism and political violence to affect its politics, producing a negative feedback loop. Following Brahmi’s assassination, seventy members withdrew from the constituent assembly and protests erupted demanding that the assembly dissolve and the government resign.

Tunisia’s shared border with Algeria and Libya place an added burden on the government that must also fight drug and arms traficking, and movement of jihadists that pose a significant threat to Tunisia’s security. This threat will only increase as jihadists and border gangs connect with their counterparts in Tunisia’s major cities. Improving control of the borders, through increased monitoring and eliminating corruption of border agents, cannot be pursued by Tunisia alone. Algeria and Libya have a role to play as all three countries share a strategic interest in controlling these threats. Cooperation is often discussed between the countries, as recent as Jomaa’s visit to Algeria over the weekend, but few concrete plans result. Doubling down on joint efforts, in addition to unilateral initiatives, will improve Tunisia’s border security; nonetheless, a stagnant socioeconomic environment will hinder any potential progress.

The next phase of Tunisia’s political transition presents an opportunity for the interim government to improve Tunisia’s security. The economic marginalization of the population along the border leads to a lack of concern on the part of the communities living along Tunisia’s margins, especially if some feel they potentially can gain more from a porous border. More broadly, economic disenfranchisement across the country creates the conditions for extremism to flourish, namely social unrest and increased criminal activity. Those who feel that their government cannot meet their basic needs, or who are searching for a greater sense of belonging, may find an attractive alternative in extremist organizations. As a result, the government needs to focus on development programs that target the marginalized regions of the country— and international support could have a big impact. The IMF’s recent announcement that it will provide $500 million in funding to Tunisia is a particularly positive development. Political progress also has the potential to attract further international assistance, increase tourism, and encourage foreign investment, all of which are essential to revitalizing the economy. In his first months in power, Jomaa needs to devote significant time and energy, in tandem, to the economy and Tunisia’s stability. Growing insecurity would derail efforts to increase tourism and foreign investment.

The final important step is to continue to pursue security sector reform. Minister of the Interior Lofti Ben Jeddou came under harsh criticism for the government’s failure to prevent and investigation of the above assassinations. The lack of preventive action, adequate investigation, and the failure of the judiciary to prosecute the killings all suggest broader problems plaguing Tunisia’s security sector. It, along with the judicial sector, needs to improve its legitimacy and accountability through internal reforms. Tunisia will require outside support in this area as well and the US is already playing an active role. The president’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 called for the highest level of security sector assistance to Tunisia since the Jasmine Revolution. Funding will go towards counterterrorism, stabilization operations, security sector reform, and improving the rule of law and human rights. 

The transition now faces a number of challenges that make the above recommendations all the more time sensitive. The roles of religion and sharia in the country’s future have become particularly contentious issues. With AST opposing the establishment of a secular Tunisia, it may be motivated to increase its activities to fight an emerging secular system. Reports that AQIM intends to establish a new branch in Tunisia, which is likely to become an increasingly important front for AQIM due to top-level defections and heavy personnel losses, is particularly worrisome. The coming months will be a critically important time where the intersection of security and development will influence the course of Tunisia’s transition. International support for a simultaneous commitment to Tunisia’s democratic transition and improvement of Tunisia’s borders, economy, and security sector is essential to ensure Tunisia’s stability.

Ilana Hosios is an intern for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Funeral procession for Tunisian opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, assassinated July 2013. (Photo: Wikimedia)