In Tunisia, Instability Continues

7 MINS READNov 21, 2013 | 11:14 GMT
In Tunisia, Instability Continues
Tunisian demonstrators protest outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis in August.

The Arab Spring may not have affected Tunisia as badly as it did Syria, Libya and Egypt, but it nonetheless left the North African nation with a challenging future. The country is beset by political infighting. On Nov. 18, negotiations resumed between Tunisia's two main political parties, the Islamist Ennahda party and the opposition Call for Tunis, but these talks do not necessarily mean the parties will settle their grievances anytime soon. The transitional government headed by Ennahda is also poised to step down in response to nationwide strikes, protests and uprisings that have marred Tunisia's transition to democracy.

More important, the country has struggled to maintain security in an increasingly unstable region. Militancy is a growing concern, as is the destabilization of neighboring Libya. Indeed, achieving political consensus in Tunis will be difficult, but ultimately the largest challenge Tunisia will contend with is the rise of regional militants operating within its borders.

Tunisia is blessed, compared to other Arab Spring countries. Its military has largely stayed out of domestic political affairs, and its civilian population has avoided wholesale revolutionary violence and armed revolt. In addition, the governmental and bureaucratic apparatus created by former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, unlike those in Libya and Egypt, did not completely collapse. In fact, the outgoing transitional Ennahda government was able to pass a 2014 budget and amended finance law late Nov. 18, even though passage was delayed by weeks of negotiations. Moreover, the country's economic operations went largely uninterrupted because business and industrial leaders never really left, and basic social services have mostly continued.

But this relative stability belies the more serious challenges facing Tunisia. Since Ben Ali's ouster, the country's military and security forces have increasingly found themselves at odds with the new political order. Without a strong centralized political force, the various political elements of the Ben Ali regime have become individualized units working for their own interests rather than those of the nation. This has left Tunisia unable to confront rising security threats and maintain its economic and political independence from its larger, wealthier neighbors.

Meanwhile, no political party has been able to consolidate power. Ennahda, one of the region's more liberal Islamist parties, has had trouble keeping its coalition partners such as Ettakol in line. Former government officials from the Ben Ali regime that are now members of rival political parties have encumbered Ennahda and its allies on several occasions. For example, they resisted the transitional government's efforts to liberalize the economy and privatize state-owned industries because their interests may have been put at risk.

No More Centralization

The hallmark of the Ben Ali government was the one-party system it inherited from post-revolutionary leader Habib Bourguiba. Ben Ali was able to coordinate Tunisia's political, economic and security interests under a centralized system controlled by the Neo Destour party. He relied on a complex system of political and economic patronage, including a broad subsidization scheme, to maintain popular support.

With this centralization now gone, popular support for the transitional Ennahda government has dwindled. While Ennahda has militated against its unpopularity with an effective social outreach program, majority and opposition coalitions in the government have not been so lucky. Their popularity continues to fall as the country grows more politically disillusioned.

On Oct. 5, Ennahda formally agreed to recuse itself from office by the end of the month for a neutral caretaker government. The process has been delayed for weeks. Officials have yet to agree on how ministers would be distributed in a transitional authority — an important consideration, given that the ministers would oversee elections to ratify the new constitution and monitor elections to create a permanent government.

Rising Militancy

Though Tunisia's political infighting has largely been confined to the political arena, it has nonetheless affected the country's security environment. Rifts are growing between political and military leaders; in fact, the chief of staff resigned in June.

In Tunisia, Instability Continues

Militant Activity in Tunisia

This has given Islamist militants space to thrive. Tunisia's conservative, Islamist interior historically has been more underdeveloped, more illiterate and more excluded by Ben Ali's economic patronage network than the country's more cosmopolitan port cities. This divide has led to a number of disaffected and more easily radicalized youth joining local and regional Salafist organizations and regional and transnational jihadist groups. Indeed, strong anecdotal evidence suggests that a disproportionate number of fighters from North Africa, chiefly from Tunisia and Libya, are joining the Syrian rebels in their fight against the al Assad regime in Syria. Some estimates indicate that North Africans comprise at least half of all foreign fighters supporting the Syrian rebels.

In some ways, the Syrian civil war has helped some North African governments mitigate the risks of domestic militancy. It has attracted militants that may have otherwise waged jihad at home. But not all militants are leaving the country. Many join local and regional Salafist organizations or regional and transnational jihadist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Notably, those who do leave the country and make it back alive return as well-trained and experienced fighters, as evidenced by the leadership of jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia.

These groups have repeatedly compromised Tunisian security. Ansar al-Sharia was implicated in the assassinations of secular opposition figures Chokri Belaid in February and Mohammad Brahmi in July. The assassinations set off weeks of protests throughout the country and ultimately prompted Ennahda to step down.

Arresting and prosecuting those responsible has proved difficult, considering the Tunisian geography. Some jihadists escape to Libya, which has a porous and unstable border, while others train and hide in the regions surrounding Mount Chaambi in western Tunisia, where long desert borders and mountainous terrain make detection difficult, especially for overstretched security forces. Geography has thus made Tunisia a transit corridor linking jihadist groups in northeastern Algeria to the various militant organizations training in Libya. This corridor is also used to transport jihadist fighters, weapons and equipment. 

However, Tunisian militancy has not disrupted regional economic or energy activities. Unlike Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is not a significant exporter of crude oil or natural gas (though it does serve as an important transport hub). Nor is it a crucial manufacturing or processing center. Its largest commercial port, Rades, does not operate all day and is frequently subjected to labor strikes, limiting its effectiveness as a transshipment hub.

A Slow Process

Tunisia's problems have also left it susceptible to foreign influence, particularly from Algeria. Whereas Algiers was once preoccupied more with Rabat, Paris and its own domestic insurgencies, it is now taking a more prominent role in securing Tunisian territory and mediating its political disputes. Tunisia's ruling and opposition figures have met several times with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Ambassador to Tunisia Abdelkader Hajar. In addition, Algerian military and intelligences forces are cooperating heavily with their Tunisian counterparts, not only in patrolling their mutual borders but also in conducting joint operations in regions such as Mount Chaambi to seize weapons caches and capture or kill militants.

Algeria's actions are based less on altruism and more on its own self-preservation. The government's primary goal is to prevent Tunisian insecurity from threatening Algeria, not to eliminate the militant threat within Tunisia's borders entirely. Furthermore, without a significant shift in Libya's security climate, Tunisia will continue to struggle with security challenges that are for the moment beyond Algeria's reach.  

Tunisia's political impasse will not last indefinitely. Domestic and regional pressures will push Ennahda and its partners to reach an agreement on a transitional caretaker government, though weeks of protests and hurdles in the negotiations can be expected. But Tunisia's challenges cannot be solved by mere political consensus. The deep divisions between the various interests of the previous regime and the ambitions of groups like Ennahda will continue, as will the frustrations of the country's military and security forces. Most important, Tunisia will continue to face significant challenges from the continued destabilization in neighboring Libya and from the rising threats of al Qaeda-affiliated groups, which require a joint security effort to mitigate. Currently, Tunisia and Libya are ill-prepared to participate in such efforts.

The result will be a political process that moves along slowly, with intermittent violent strikes and demonstrations. Violence will continue to be driven by those outside the political process — namely, regional and transnational jihadists and Islamist militants who will continue to utilize the Libyan landscape to remain outside the reach of regional security forces. 

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