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Why 60, 65 and 114 US-based experts are wrong in believing that more cash and weapons will help save Tunisia

Tunisia needs more aid from outside actors. It needs cash (and probably not more loans) to help its economy. And it needs a strong security sector to replace the clearly corrupt and ineffective one that cannot protect this country from a relentless, hi-tech insurgency which can claim multiple safe zones all around, including within some sympathetic, local populations.

In fact, unlike in several other parts of the world where external aid and influence can and perhaps should be viewed quite skeptically, Tunisia is thankfully free from several of the factors that customarily push powerful external actors to act rather badly when “assisting” the weaker state in question.

All of this, I believe, is fairly obvious to – what one thinks is – the majority of Tunisians, as well as for the external actors like the US, France, UK, EU and others who have a renewed interest in trying to make sure Tunisia does not become yet another failed state in the Med & MENA; that it remains the “only success story” in the Arab revolts etc. These arguments are clear, convincing and widely held.

The problem is that Washington and Brussels (especially this duo) are largely arguing for throwing more money, more training and more weapons into the Security Sector (and affiliated economic/administrative sectors) which together actually represent a greater triangular threat (composed of the police-business elites-mafia) to Tunisia’s ability to weather the approaching storm than the violent religious extremists who are deepening their influence and threat profile every day in and around Tunisia (more on this below and next week).

Two of the best pieces on this issue are by Yezid here and Mikhail at Crisis Group here, although I disagree with the policy recs in the Crisis Group piece.

I have written my only pieces about Tunisia in the past four years on these issues:

“Another Middle Eastern State Could Collapse, and More Cash and Weapons Won’t Save It”/September 2015

And a related issue: “The Problem With Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet”

Over the last year we have had countless experts, parliaments, congressional statements etc. pledging greater support. These are but three examples:

As it stands currently in the US at least, the specific cause is that, “Last spring, the Obama administration requested an increase in bilateral assistance for Tunisia in Fiscal Year 2016, to $134.4 million, nearly double the existing level. Appropriators in the House recommended fully funding the request, while the Senate appropriations bill fell significantly short, providing $86.9 million. In the weeks ahead, the House and Senate will reconcile all differences in these bills, so Tunisia will ultimately receive somewhere between the Senate allocation of $86.9 million and the House level of $134.4 million. While $47 million in additional U.S. assistance will not alone mean the difference between success and failure in Tunisia, for Congress to follow through on the administration’s requested increase would be an important if modest step toward helping Tunisia address its mounting security and economic challenges,” said McInerney. “And it would hopefully help enable the Tunisian government to make tough choices and carry out essential political and economic reforms.”

After almost four years of doing business in Tunisia, listening to the different actors and experts from nearly all sides here during our six extended research visits and traveling around the country (especially the last week and a half in the South, the Libyan border area and Gassrine/Chaambi), I am convinced of several things that contradict the hopeful statements above, and ultimately contradict the notion that throwing more aid in the imagined ways towards Tunisia will either reform the economy (a vital task) or protect the country.

“Tough choices” will not be made by the Triangle of de facto power in this country – the resurgent “parallel state” that Tunisians know so well and which foreign business people also understand in their daily life – by pumping more money into this apparatus (or actually, given the relatively recent fragmentation of power in Tunisia, apparatuses is more accurate). And it is time to give up hope that the current security sector can coordinate efficiently between its different elements, especially the MOI and ministry of defense. Such cooperation, revised pathways of power, new “patrons,” new practices etc. is simply inimical to the preponderant forces in the security sector as they are currently configured. It will be a huge waste of energy and time and will leave the external actors angry, confused and disdainful (which then usually produces negative reactions by all sides).

New policy tools therefore need to be considered, not least because Tunisia is in a critical period (more critical than the summer of 2013) that will likely get worse, will likely be tested by opponents inside and outside in a multitude of possibly new ways and will likely affect regional peace and security as well as Tunisian interests (surely) and external actor interests (especially the EU).

My piece on these issues for Newsweek should be out Tuesday, but in advance, a few of the “things” to consider:

— The threat of terrorism is clearly being mobilized for narrow political purposes to the detriment of freedoms, democracy, transitional justice and the vital task of a comprehensive reform of the economy and the security sector. The police-Min of Interior nexus is clearly gaining back substantial powers, leading to greater abuse, increased corruption, increased fragmentation, greater popular resentment and greater inefficiency as well. The fragmentation (30-40 guys in MOI that now run their own major fiefdoms, it is said…) is new and dangerous (the old way was through Ben Ali and the family for example, so ONE final voice), as is the element of revenge that did not exist pre-2011.

Sadly, think of the Lebanonization of the Tunisian Security Sector and one can understand where this seems likely to go.

— The fact that so many middle class and wealthy Tunisians seem to view the police as a potential threat, looked at with trepidation at checkpoints (not to mention the “popular classes” point of view), is but one, small signal as to how the security sector’s longstanding approach is the main reason for providing a relatively safe environment for insurgents to flourish, at home and abroad (contrary to the mis-guided assertion that the Nahda-led government was the only factor). The better example is seen in the widening closing down of mosques and arresting an estimated 1% of the whole population in just the last ten months… with no plan for what to do with folks afterwards, what to do with mosque congregations and no idea of how to treat the affected people, their friends and families who are and will push back.

In Gassrine as but one example, the population clearly – in some part – assists the insurgents that operate freely across borders, get supplies in town, attack police checkpoints. There is likely also complicity at some levels by the security sector, who profit immensely at a ground/local level and at the Capital City level (where the insurgency in Chaambi is a useful tool for deflecting criticism and external control and attracting foreign cash) from the widespread border smuggling that also necessarily intersects with extremist group movements and operations. See Mikhail’s excellent reports here on smuggling and jihadism. A final, small portrait of this counter-insurgency 101 point is provided daily on the main Bourghiba street where outside of the MOI itself, Tunisian cops must sit in riot-proof vehicles which are to protect the cops from the local population’s anger, not insurgent attacks.

— All of that said – especially the instrumentalization of terror and fear that is increasing here – the threat profile for Tunisia is indeed worsening. Algerian newspapers we translate talk of a “tsunami” of arms smuggling. The Tunisian defence minister talked recently about a massive export of terrorists from Algeria. President Sebsi let it slip that Tunisia could become a failed state after “The Next Attack” (TNA). All kinds of smuggling, movements of people and material is happening in the south and the Algerian border, often in plain view of the cops and the state and often with these folks profiting from it as never before. Sure, one can momentarily take an absurd level of comfort in the fact that Libyan border areas for now are controlled by ostensibly anti-ISIS militias. But this did not prevent the two attacks this year and is hardly a long-term or even a short-term mitigant. And either way, security cooperation with the militias is extremely problematic for the Tunisian side; on the Algerian side, the Tunisian PM just admitted that there is currently no joint patrols or joint, coordinated actions between the two states – which is also a big problem, to say the least.

— If ISIS and other like minded groups indeed have a “Southern Strategy” of ruining the tourism-dependent, long neglected southern regions, then sitting back and watching the security sector alienate and radicalize the local population, well, this strategy appears to be working quite effectively. The south is essentially done in terms of tourism, including Djerba where so many local people work in hotels and affiliated industries. Another small attack would only consolidate this fact.

With this dynamic, and pressed on both sides by Libyan chaos and extremism, alongside Algerian extremism and border instability (not to mention the question of Algeria’s stability in the next period), the line on the map extending from Chaambi in the country’s Midwest to the Med and the Libyan border can start to look like a potential fragment, able to be split off from the coast and capital areas that, in any case, neglected the south, often barely know the south and which seem to largely view the south as “a major problem,” perhaps even as a kind of foreign entity (for some).

So what can be done?

If we agree that the security sector and the parallel state structure centered on it is in fact the main problem preventing vital economic reform and security sector effectiveness, then this is the immediate issue that must be addressed by external actors and Tunisia itself. Everyone delayed dealing with this issue in 2011-2014 period which made sense in many ways. But it no longer is possible to avoid dealing with the central cancer that is eating away at Tunisia’s viability as a coherent state and society.

No More Playing Nice With the Cops

A second premise is that, in contrast to ICG and Mikhail’s July report, the old tools of 2011-2014 will simply not work. There is no more playing nice, “canalizing” the Security Sector, bringing them in more to the process, not directly challenging them etc. This didn’t work when they were on their “back feet” and it certainly won’t bring about any meaningful changes now when they are gaining more power.

Hard power, pressure, counter-force alongside soft power and incentives for inclusion, ablution perhaps and straight up retirement from the field is the only way forward given the immediacy and scope of the problem.

There are several tools that could be considered in dealing with this issue:

Understanding the main enemy. It is now more important to put resources behind understanding exactly the Whos and Hows and Whys of the security sector, especially Min of Interior. For decades, this was not necessary, it seemed, since the family controlled the whole matrix. This is no longer the case. External actors need to get out ahead of the Lebanonization effect and understand who is preventing reform, who is promoting grand theft and who is unable to protect the country. More resources need to go into this effort than efforts to figure out what groups are out there (for now), who has beards and watches ISIS videos etc.

Decentrilazation. A great way to undermine the malignant and inefficient power of the police to corrupt and (not) serve is to weaken the capital’s control of the sector. Local municipal elections sooner rather than later are therefore needed. Local mayors, accountable to the population, need to gain far greater control over the exercise of security in their domains. This dynamic will help to push the security sector closer to the local populations and lessen corruption, one thinks.

Push the Army Forward. Carnegie has a great piece on the need to make sure that the better trusted Tunisian Army is pushed forward but with democratic control. Surely. But the essential dynamic is to start building up the army and pushing out the cops. At checkpoints, borders etc…. The Army, as in Lebanon, is vastly more well liked and vastly less corrupt. Like Lebanon, push them out there more to the detriment of the cops. In a less fractious environment than Lebanon, this move could be even more successful.

Time for a UN-Tunisian investigation into grand scale corruption (and incompetency) that is negatively affecting regional peace and security. Tunisian democrats, MPs for example, could join with a UN-led effort to ID the main culprits, make it public, publish reports and information for the public etc. Such a hybrid effort would not trample on the independence of Tunisia and, I think, would be welcomed by the majority of the body politic. I wrote more about this in the Tablet piece. Even if there is a convincing argument for going ahead with “Economic reconciliation” with ex-regime business persons, this is separate from the more immediate task at hand – who are the business elites that currently rest on and encourage the security sector’s corrupt exercise of power? More to the point, who are the security sector actors exactly?

A final tool is available, but one that I am highly skeptical of: The US and EU have many times brought to bear their own sanctions against specific individuals to apply pressure and gain concessions. General Aoun and his supporters are still under an Executive Order sanction from 2007 for aligning with Hezbollah and “undermining Lebanon’s democracy”! And of course the examples of designated terrorists, their groups, Iranians, banks, businessmen etc. is well known. I am extremely skeptical of this tool having seen it backfire in the Lebanon case (and elsewhere). But if a UN-led effort is not possible, should the threat of targeted sanctions be wielded, perhaps in concert with some Tunisian democrats, institutions, government bodies, judiciary etc?

In the end, no matter which combination of tools are used, there is one thing that is really going in everyone’s favor: At the end of the day, the parallel state in Tunisia is fairly weak. They cant really retaliate against external interests. But more importantly, they are actually relatively soft and poorly armed when compared to Lebanon’s corrupt parallel state, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt etc. Hard power brought to bear by a Tunisian-led, externally-supported process against the known networks of corruption (and associated incompetency), I believe, would be remarkably effective.

Indeed this may be one of the few states in the world where most of these guys will probably just call it a day and go home to take their rest.

But it will take the application of pressure; anything less and the decades-old matrix built by Tunisia’s Western-backed dictators will continue on, gaining strength by the day, alienating Tunisians, providing fertile ground for violent jihadists and ruining the economy and security sector further.


Written by nickbiddlenoe

October 31, 2015 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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