Tunisia’s security crisis and government’s inability to cope

Published in Tunisia

By Al Jazeera Centre for Studies

On Friday, 26 June, Tunisia witnessed the deadliest armed attack in its history, leaving thirty-eight people, mostly British tourists, dead, and thirty-nine injured. This attack came three months after the Bardo National Museum attack, in which many foreign tourists were killed. The June attack, in Sousse, raised glaring questions about the efficacy of measures taken by the security forces to prevent attacks after Bardo.

The Sousse attack marked a new approach by armed groups in which they target Tunisia’s most vital economic sector – tourism, which provides employment for about half a million people. The attack coincided with a severe political crisis, due to the government’s inability to resolve various severe challenges facing the country. Its actions after the Sousse attack will increase the severity of the political and social crisis.

Security failure: Seeking to regain the initiative

Tunisia is experiencing a crushing socio-economic crisis in the context of a difficult democratic transition exacerbated by a fragile security situation. After the assassinations of two political opposition leaders – Shukri Baleid in the middle of 2013 and Mohammed Brahmi later that year – security has become am overwhelming factor in the Tunisian crisis.

The security crisis has deep-seated causes, mostly because the functions of the security apparatus have changed radically since the 2011 uprising and the beginning of the democratic transition process. These changes shook the core of the security doctrine as a result of the instability resulting from the rapid change of governments, and the multiple centres of power established by the January 2014 constitution. The previous core security doctrine, which had been adopted during the reigns of former presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was characterised by extremely centralised decision-making and the brutal suppression of dissent. Training, procedures and techniques were all geared towards the fulfilment of this doctrine.

However, the two high-profile assassinations and subsequent armed attacks were a new experience for the security establishment, which clearly lacked the capacity to respond adequately, despite its previous success in thwarting attacks and arresting members of insurgent cells. The armed groups seemed to be a step ahead of the security forces, outmanoeuvring and outrunning them with ease, and able to cause much damage. Furthermore, the insurgents had the luxury of choosing their targets, which ranged from military and security personnel targeted by small, mountain-dwelling armed groups in the west to major government and economic centres in cities.

Some in government believe that the proximity of the conflict in neighbouring Libya is a cause of the growing Tunisian insurgency. However, this notion fails to recognise the evolution of the phenomenon of armed violence in Tunisia, making it a Tunisian product exported to Libya and other neighbouring countries. Thus the phenomenon’s fundamental causes are local and fed by poor economic policies and inherited social crises. This is manifested by a disconnect between the state and a considerable portion of the Tunisian people.

A survey in the country’s poorest region, the north-west, just after the Bardo attack indicated that five per cent of young Tunisians openly support the Islamic State group (IS), and over half are willing to join IS if allowed to. It is noteworthy that most residents of the north-west part of Tunisia had voted for Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) in the parliamentary elections and for President Beji Caid Essebsi in the presidential elections. Another study, by a state institution, the Observatoire National de la Jeunesse (National Observatory for Youth), found that a third of young Tunisians sympathise with the Salafi movement’s ‘advocacy and charitable aspects’. Knowing that more than half of Tunisia’s population are youth, these revelations are alarming.

Despite widespread international sympathy for Tunisia after the Bardo and Sousse attacks, actual international cooperation with the country in the face of violence remains weak. Available data shows that the USA intensified its intelligence cooperation with Tunisia to track down armed groups by increasing the use of drones, which occasionally roam the Tunisian skies. However, a controversial agreement signed by the two countries in Washington, DC on 20 May was less helpful than hoped for. The Tunisian government suddenly found itself in a brutal war against armed groups, in addition to facing a crisis with its western neighbour Algeria, which had reduced security cooperation with Tunisia in response to the Washington agreement.

Government measures put into place after the Sousse attack sparked much doubt about its ability to cope with future attacks. The government announced the closure of eighty mosques, and a plan to protect hotel facilities and monitor parties and associations that violate the constitution and laws. The military summoned reservists to support the security effort, intensifying raids ‘to keep track of suspicious elements’. Days after, however, it was revealed that the plan had done nothing to allay public fears. On 9 July the United Kingdom asked its nationals to leave Tunisia immediately, citing poor security; Denmark followed suit a day later. No one, least of all the government, has confidence in the efficacy of these measures. Perversely, some pro-government media outlets embarked on a campaign against human rights defenders, who some call ‘the fifth column of terrorism’, raising concerns that the campaign against armed groups may be used as a cover for systematic human rights violations.

Over the past few weeks there have been rumours that bearded men and veiled women were being watched by police, and that security officers were abusing their authority. These rumours give credence to activists’ concerns about the threat to freedom and the undermining of the constitution. In a media conference on 7 July, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a wall would be built along the Tunisia-Libya border ‘to stop the flow of weapons and insurgents’. However, many politicians know that smuggling rings bring a considerable amount of weapons into Tunisia through official border crossings, with huge caches already stored in the country. Thus there are serious doubts that a wall can achieve a breakthrough in the overall security situation. However, the economic impact of the wall will be huge. The government knows that smuggling is the main economic activity in the country’s south. Since the government has neither the economic capacity nor the vision to replace this informal economy with a structured, legitimate one, the decision to build a wall is bound to worsen the already dire economic crisis in the south in particular, and throughout the country in general. The government will be hard-pressed to find compensatory solutions in a short time.

Social conditions fuel security crisis

The severity of the security crisis shows that the opposition’s accusations against the previous government of inaction in the face of armed groups were just political propaganda. Although a significant part of Nidaa Tounes’s electoral platform focused on security and the promise to expeditiously end violence, many Tunisians remain pessimistic about achieving a quick solution to the crisis after witnessing a general lack of progress, with violent attacks increasing in frequency and ruthlessness.

On the economic front, the government lacks the financial means to accomplish a rapid victory over the insurgents, who are now based in major cities. Despite promises of funding by regional and global forces before the election, little materialised, and the government is unable to cope with rampant unemployment. Social unrest, especially in Gafsa’s mining areas, exacerbate the situation, depriving the government of the cash generated by the phosphate industry for months.

The government has a limited understanding of the armed groups, and lacks awareness of their recent development. Further, it has failed to understand the social, political and economic context in which these groups gain new supporters. Instead, government has adopted an ineffective, deficient doctrine based on security alone. A considerable part of the political elite is out of touch with the frustrations of young Tunisians who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the democratic process, and whose hopes of social justice and equal opportunity wear thin. This will likely strengthen the armed groups.

Further, the armed groups seek to further weaken government’s ability by striking at the pillar of the economy: tourism. This will worsen the social crisis as more people grow desperate, and will allow easier recruitment by extremist groups.

The lack of resources, and rising costs, leaves the government unable to solve the crisis. Moreover, the coalition government is incapable of significantly changing the economic structure even if it wanted to. International institutions are also increasing pressure on Tunisia to further liberalise its economy. Such a move could cause a social explosion. Several indicators show that the government cannot endure into next year. This is backed up by frequent complaints about its performance, especially that of the majority party, Nidaa Tounes.

Winter has often been unstable for Tunisia. Every social uprising has occurred winter, including in 2010-2011. Economic observers predict that the current government will be unable to achieve more than one per cent growth by the end of 2015, an indicator of how dire the situation is.

The government, supported by the presidency, is fighting for survival, as indicated by the recent decision to impose a national state of emergency. Observers know this decision, all its constitutional and legal violations notwithstanding, will have little, if any, impact on the fight against violence. At best, it will leave Tunisians shaken up; at worst, it could result in crippling strikes that disrupt the economy.

Thus, talk about changing the current government is growing. Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, the two largest parties, are poised to form a new government before the end of the year, in what could possibly be a show of ‘Islamist-secular solidarity’ that may break the polarisation between the two currents – a trend that already began with the previous ‘Troika’ government. Leaders of the two parties do not believe, however, that a change of government can achieve the desired outcomes. There is a general consensus that a stalemate is on its way, especially now that the Tunisian General Labour Union, the country’s national trade union with more than half a million members, declared – in response to requests for a national ‘truce’ - that it did not intend ending demands for wage increases.

At the regional level, the government is fraught with numerous diplomatic failures on key issues, such as Tunisia’s declining influence in Libya and its worsening relationship with Algeria. In addition, it has failed to make progress on international cooperation, leading to a significant decline in foreign investment. There is a general consensus that business and the Tunisian Union for Industry, Commerce and Trades (UTICA) are not doing enough to absorb unemployment. On 10 July, UTICA went as far as to demand a freeze on the right to strike, enshrined in Article 36 of the constitution.


Tunisia is plagued by violence while battling crushing social and economic crises that resulted from a long, cumulative history of poor policies that marginalised a significant number of people. Exacerbating the situation is the lack of an objective understanding of the violence by those in power and their ineffective actions. The security apparatus is not prepared to address the situation, and the political structure is in disarray, rendering the government unable to win this war. Though there might be a new government by the end of the year, it will not be able to resolve the complex security, economic and social development problems.

Last modified on Friday, 28 August 2015 13:28

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