Countering Terrorism in Tunisia: Prospects for Security Sector Reform

This event was co-sponsored by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and the Legatum Institute.

Date: Monday, November 16, 2015
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm
Location: Open Society Foundations
1730 Pennsylvania Ave NW, #700
Washington, DC 20006

Despite the immense progress Tunisia has made in its transition since the Jasmine Revolution, significant challenges—both internal and external—threaten the future of Tunisia’s democracy. As major terrorist attacks have negatively affected the country’s security and economic stability, Tunisia’s government has struggled to find an appropriate and effective response to counter the threat of terrorism.

The Legatum Institute’s upcoming publication Tunisia at Risk: Will counter-terrorism undermine the revolution? analyzes successive Tunisian governments’ responses to terrorism and considers the relation between these responses and the future of the country’s democratic transition.

How can governments effectively counter terrorism without threatening civil liberties? What reforms are needed to make Tunisia’s security sector effective, accountable, and in line with international human rights standards? And how can the United States and the international community play a productive role in encouraging and facilitating these reform efforts?

A discussion with:

Fadil Aliriza
Visiting Senior Fellow, Legatum Institute

Daniel Brumberg
Co-director, Democracy & Governance Studies, Georgetown University

Querine Hanlon
President, Strategic Capacity Group

Moderated by:

Cole Bockenfeld
Deputy Director for Policy, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

With opening remarks by:

Anne Applebaum
Director of the Transitions Forum, Legatum Institute

On November 16, POMED co-hosted an event with the Legatum Institute titled “Countering Terrorism in Tunisia: Prospects for Security Sector Reform.” Panelists included Fadil Aliriza, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute and author of “Tunisia at Risk: Will Counterterrorism Undermine the Revolution?”; Daniel Brumberg, co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University; and Querine Hanlon, President of the Strategic Capacity Group. The discussion was moderated by Cole Bockenfeld, Deputy Director for Policy at POMED, and opening remarks were provided by Anne Applebaum, Director of the Transitions Forum at the Legatum Institute.

In his opening remarks, Fadil Aliriza explained that in writing his report on Tunisia, he sought to answer the question of what the response to terrorism has been in Tunisia. This includes the two terrorist attacks this year, the assassinations in 2013, and the insurgency beginning in spring 2013. Aliriza contends that Tunisia’s response has been politicized. The security sector, he argues, and in particular the Ministry of Interior (MOI), views security through the lens of how it can best serve its own interests. While the revolution itself was against a police state, the MOI has set about a counter-revolutionary project to re-image itself, using the media to change the discourse from one of revolution to one of counterterrorism. Furthermore, Aliriza noted that there has been some lobbying by the security forces to counter some of the gains of the revolution. For example, the anti-terrorism law has increased pre-trial detention from six days to fifteen days. Within this counter-terrorist discourse, there are groups of politicians who see all opponents of the state, not just violent ones, as terrorists, painting all critics with a terrorist brush. In addition, as the MOI is not entirely under civilian control, civil society members are concerned about its lack of checks and procedural protocols.

The result of these factors, argues Aliriza, is that counterterrorism actions counterintuitively might be creating an environment conducive to terrorism. Employees of the MOI, for example, are letting arms into the country, and employees have intelligence on terrorist attacks that never makes it to civilian chiefs. Additionally, between January and July of this year, 100,000 arrests were made, according to the MOI. The problem with these arrests, however, is that they seem to be arbitrary, with many people arrested based on appearing to be Salafists. Furthermore, torture still occurs. Working together, these factors can lead to threats of radicalization. The solution to this, Aliriza contends, is to change the way people think. The problem goes beyond a problem of lack of training and equipment for the police, and the situation is so dire that Tunisians are starting to see the national military as a potential solution.

Following Aliriza’s opening remarks, Querine Hanlon laid out some challenges to the security sector and potential reforms. According to Hanlon, the central challenge is that the security apparatus in Tunisia was created for regime protection and preservation, and this security sector design remains largely intact today. Reforming the internal security sector, not the military, needs to be a priority, and reform faces four main challenges. First, the security apparatus, Hanlon argues, is “Byzantine in its complexity.” The MOI is the “black box” of the security sector, where there is excessive duplication of duties and departments. The structure is so complex that most Tunisians do not know how all the sector and divisions work, and more importantly, the information is not publicly available. Second, there is limited to no coordination among and between institutions. Serious tensions exist between the military and police. The police were the most resistant to the revolution, as they had the most to lose when Ben Ali lost power, and are now generally reviled by the populace. With these significant tensions, the police and military do not coordinate, cooperate, or share information. Furthermore, for any serious decision-making, all decisions must go through the capital of Tunis, giving forces at the border and in the interior limited capabilities and no real autonomy. Third, there is the fundamental problem of the mission. The security sector in Tunisia does not operate on the idea of civilian protection. There is no understanding, particularly in the police force, of what it means to serve the population. Fourth, there is a culture of secrecy and distrust. There is no real and practical way for civil society organizations to request a meeting with anyone from the MOI. Furthermore, when it comes to information-sharing with the police, citizens are unwilling to share their intelligence due to a lack of trust and not wanting to be perceived as informants, and the police do not have a mechanism in place to change this perspective. Moving from the perception of serving as informants to a trusting partnership with the security apparatus is a significant challenge. Since the revolution, the regular police have been ignored more and more in favor of specialized forces, which has security implications in and of itself. While they are better trained and better equipped, these forces are militarized units, not the equivalent of a police force. The overarching solution to these challenges, argues Hanlon, is to generate an “ethos of service.” While it is true that the forces need better training and equipment, changing the overall perspective of the security sector is essential to creating any sort of real and long-lasting change.

Finally, Daniel Brumberg highlighted the importance of democratization in countering security threats. He argues that there is a race occurring in Tunisia between two dynamics: securitization versus democratization, and the race for securitization is escalating more quickly. However, there is a necessary connection between fighting terrorism and democratization, and democracy and security must go hand in hand. The deep state in Tunisia is expanding; the businessmen, members of the old regime, and smugglers are all merging into one block. Furthermore, the failure to establish advanced democratic institutions and processes has led to the exploitation of laws to support the security sector. This lack of democratic institutions and processes, the failure of the establishment of the Supreme Constitutional Court, for example, has led to the security sector employing outdated laws to justify its actions. In addition, reflecting Aliriza’s previous points, there is no active, effective opposition. Opposition members who questioned the anti-terrorism law were themselves accused of terrorism. There is a paradox developing where the middle class who supported the revolution are now shifting back to supporting authoritarianism. Brumberg’s central question is how to reform the state when the state itself is the problem. He believes the solution requires finding allies within state institutions who want to reform, and he argues that demonizing the MOI will not be productive. He also believes that mobilizing regional networks of reformers is essential. Finally, in the global fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the United States needs to support Tunisia and its democratization and stop supporting authoritarianism.

Following the opening remarks from the panelists, Cole Bockenfeld asked them how the U.S. and international actors can aid the security sector and ministries to reform. He also asked if the previous efforts to establish a Fusion Center, an initiative to bring together the Ministries of Interior, Defense, and Justice to better coordinate their actions, had helped at all. The panelists distinguished between assistance and reform, noting that reform needs to come from within. While it can be encouraged by outside actors, reform cannot be imposed, and the solution needs to involve finding areas where the government has the political will to change. The agents of this change will likely not be found at the senior level within the ministries. However, lower-level staff are trying to determine what operational changes can be made, so the political will to change might be encouraged through them. Regarding the Fusion Center, while it was an attempt to tackle the problem of information sharing that plagues Tunisian institutions, progress has been stalled because the MOI has not come to an agreement on who to name to work at the Center. The panelists argue that the U.S. needs to get involved in encouraging political will, perhaps through conditionality-based aid.

Subsequently, audience members were invited to ask the panelists questions. First among those, a member of the audience argued that the problems in Tunisia are not particularly unique and asked what solutions to these problems have worked in other countries. Qualifying that security sector reform is a relatively new field with few potential areas for success, Hanlon contended that the most obvious cases of success are in Eastern Europe. However, she argued that these cases are not comparable to Tunisia because those countries in Eastern Europe had the political will to reform in order to gain membership to NATO and the European Union. Tunisians themselves, she said, look to the cases of reform in Taiwan, Chile, and South Africa. One of the central issues they must address, though, is what the security sector is, which will require a public dialogue and sharing of information, and civil society organizations need to work to keep these issues in the public space.

Further questions broadly asked whether there were other actors in the MOI and security sector who would be interested in pushing forward reforms. Hanlon’s answer highlighted that the MOI contains both those who were uninterested in reform and information sharing and those who wanted to work towards reform but may not necessarily know how. First she emphasized that everyone within the MOI has their own private archive of information, and this information moves with him or her – there isn’t a culture of information sharing. So divided is the MOI that people who work in the same hallway or have worked in the same space for years may not know each other. Further, the police force views themselves as being above the politicians, which creates problems itself. However, there are those members of the police force who do genuinely want to change but do not know how. For example, Hanlon shared a story of talking to a police chief who asked with genuine curiosity how he could make someone confess without the use of torture. Part of the problem rests with Tunisia operating on a confession-based system of justice. While there are individuals who see that the system does not work, they do not know how to fix it.

Subsequent questions focused on what kind of incentives the U.S. can offer Tunisia to encourage reform. Is there any sort of leverage comparable to NATO or EU membership that can be offered? Can economic incentives be attached to security sector reform? The panelists noted that to join NATO, there is an exhaustive list of requirements a state accedes to, which inherently creates security sector reform, and there are no comparable incentives in Tunisia. Offering conditionality-based aid is an option, but there is no guarantee that the aid is put to effective use. Furthermore, economics are likely not enough of an incentive when asking institutions to give up some power, which the MOI would have to do in order to implement meaningful security sector reform.

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