Economic and Security Pressures Mount for Tunisia

Tunisia is facing multiple pressures that, if not handled well by its current leaders, could undermine its stability as it continues to grapple with the post-Arab Spring era. The March 7 attack on Ben Gardane in Tunisia was a vivid reminder that the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups with safe haven in Libya is alive and well. The variety of extremist motives include: disrupting and crippling the economy, increasing tension and unrest, forcing the government’s hand away from democratic priorities, demonstrating their strength to potential recruits and maintaining the flow of goods from Tunisia via the informal economy.

The extremist groups are succeeding in most of the above, but those who believe that Tunisia is ripe for carving into ‘wilayats’ a la Libya fail to understand the overwhelming consensus among Tunisians that terrorism must be checked, and fail to appreciate the will of the international community to support Tunisia in this effort.

For the foreseeable future, Tunisia will be unable to prevent more attacks, despite expanded flows of equipment to Tunisian security forces, increased training and foreign-supported projects aimed at securing the Tunisian-Libyan border.

The goal of minimizing the risk is attainable in the next few years, but winning this battle does not mean they will win the war against extremism. In order to win this war against the Islamic State, Tunisia first has to confront its homegrown demons through a comprehensive program of enhanced domestic intelligence; strong enforcement balanced by adherence to civil and human rights; fundamental and far-reaching security sector reforms; and a crash program of nationwide dialogue on terrorism, coupled with education in the media, in the classroom and in the mosques.

But even if they succeed in all of the above, which is far from certain, they still must confront a citizenry, particularly its youth, who are either under- or unemployed with little hope of a promising future. The economy is struggling, and terrorism has ensured that neither foreign tourists nor foreign investors will contribute to any rebound in economic growth or jobs.

The enemy on the borders is daunting enough, but ultimately, unless Tunisia can address the pressing concerns of its own citizens—political, economic and social—a future wave of migration to Europe of both Tunisians and Libyans living in Tunisia may be inevitable.

Tunisia’s Pressure Points

The attacks on the National Bardo Museum and the beach resort in Sousse stunned Tunisians, but their main concern at the time was the significant damage done to their economy. Foreign tourism, especially from Europe, evaporated almost overnight with as many as 80 percent of coastal hotels closing down after the attacks. For a country already suffering from a high 15 percent unemployment rate, and a 40 percent youth unemployment rate, this was catastrophic to a struggling government that found no alternative other than to hire tens of thousands into an already massively bloated public sector.

Tunisia’s subpar performing economy, which slumped to 0.3 percent GDP growth in Q4 2015, is leaving the door open to exploitation by jihadist groups seeking new recruits. Tunisia’s interior, in particular the Kairouan governorate, is its Molenbeek. It is vast, impoverished and has been neglected for generations. Counterterrorism efforts will not succeed in the interior unless the citizens of this region can be provided with the hope that jobs will come, economic opportunity will not be a hollow promise and plans will be implemented.

When Tunisians in the late summer identified their top priority as ‘preserving social peace,’ they were referring less to countering terrorism and more to their internal political, economic and social fragility. The consensus that led to a constitution and government structure was indeed an extraordinary achievement, but translating this framework into necessary actions to move Tunisia forward proved elusive.

The security pressure Tunisia faces from the ongoing conflict in Libya has been widely noted, and needs to be urgently addressed, but another problem is in the offing to its west. Should Algeria, a country dependent on energy earnings for almost all its revenue, see its once mighty foreign exchange reserves fall to zero, as some project may occur as soon as the end of 2017, pressures from the west on Tunisia will be as intense as the pressures from the east, and terrorism will find new safe havens and smuggling routes. If Tunisia cannot survive these pressures and North Africa fails to stabilize, Europe may face an even greater migrant crisis.

Addressing Tunisia’s intertwined economic and security concerns requires an effective government, which was largely absent in 2015. The newly elected government ran into roadblocks at every turn, and despite an overwhelming majority for the ruling secular Nidaa Tounes party, legislative achievements were almost non-existent. By the end of the summer, Nidaa was falling apart, with the citizenry increasingly disenchanted with a governance they viewed as incompetent and ineffective at best, and corrupt and autocratic at worst.

This gridlock was manifested in government inaction on countering terrorism. A comprehensive July 2015 report by the International Crisis Group (I.C.G.) on steps to reform the security sector was read with great interest by the leadership, but nothing ensued. 

Making Progress

It wasn’t until the ISIS attack on November 24 targeting a bus in Tunis carrying presidential guards that the government clearly acknowledged fighting terrorism required much stronger efforts. Such new efforts require better coordination between the interior and defense ministries, which the government swiftly moved to establish following the attacks.

President Beji Caid Essebsi, who under the constitution is vested with authority on national security matters, appointed Prime Minister Habib Essid to chair a task force to counter terrorism that included these two ministries. The interior ministry, considered woefully unprepared for the tasks required to address the terrorism threat internally, was shaken up, with experienced officers put back in charge.

As we enter the second quarter of 2016, Tunisia has made progress on the security front courtesy of increased international support, and maintained social peace through the short-term fix of expanding public sector employment and expenditures on the one hand, and permitting the informal economy, which accounts for more than 50 percent of economic activity, to continue largely unchecked. There simply is no alternative on the horizon to replace the informal economy, and I have previously advocated that this is one area where reforms must wait.

But more work needs to be carried out related to counterterrorism. A dialogue on terrorism should be carried to every village, every community, every mosque, and every civil society group. This effort should be complemented by serious measures that will demonstrate to the people that while counterterrorism will be far-reaching, it will also respect civil and human rights. Special attention should be given to prison reform as the prisons continue to be incubators for terrorists.

International Assistance

The terrorist acts in 2015 raised alarm bells among Tunisia’s friends, in particular France, Britain, Germany, and the United States. These countries, which have long considered Tunisia of little strategic importance, realized that a failed Tunisia would have serious consequences, given the prevailing situation in Libya and the uncertain future of Algeria.

What is clear, however, is that Europe and the United States now view Tunisia as analogous to Jordan in terms of their willingness to insulate from regional threats. Strategic interests dictate that whatever should be done to assist Tunisia should be done. However, internal bureaucratic processes in Western countries are resulting in crucial delays of assistance.

The United States responded quickly after last year’s terror attacks with offers of equipment and training in all aspects of the security sector, but implementation on the ground has moved at glacial pace. While U.S. officials complained Tunisia was dragging its feet, the Tunisians complained that slow bureaucratic processes in the United States and Europe had resulted in delays of at least six months, particularly in the provision of what was required to secure the Tunisian-Libyan border. A trench promoted by the Germans was delayed, according to my Western sources, by as much as a year, while promised electronic surveillance equipment remains more promise than reality.

Tunisia must be protected from terrorist attacks, its security forces trained, equipped and provided with intelligence and information obtained through advanced technologies. Security sector reform, however painful it may be, must be fostered on a sustained basis.