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Tunisia – Waiting for Reforms and Security

Tunisia is the only state in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) where significant progress towards a constitutional democracy is being made after the Arab Spring.

The European Union (EU) has supported Tunisia on its path since 2011 through financial aid and technical assistance (e.g. peer review mechanisms) aimed at democratic reform. Accordingly, the EU has greatly increased its support in the context of the European Neighbourhood Policy compared to its involvement prior to the upheaval. However, the North African state still faces severe security issues both internally and externally which can slow down the democratic transition or even jeopardise its success. The current security situation labelled as a violent crisis is currently the biggest challenge for Tunisia and its transformation process. Organized crime and terror attacks by jihadists, which both are intertwined, are the major threat to Tunisia’s security in particular in the border regions to Libya and Algeria. Therefore, the EU must reinforce its efforts with respect to justice and security sector reforms (JSSR), despite the resistance within the Tunisian administration and its political actors. In this regard the increased financial aid for Tunisia from the EU for 2017 up until 2020 is crucial as well as a comprehensive dialogue.

First step backwards?

Nevertheless, Tunisian high-level bureaucrats like in the Ministry of Interior defy to a large extent European assistance to JSSR, which is the main cause for the absence of progress in this field. The bureaucrats in question were already in power under the former Ben Ali regime and refuse to establish a rule of law and democratic oversight over police and military forces and steps towards a more efficient public administration. In addition, politicians are afraid of reforms because of the current security situation. Instead, the protection of human rights in Tunisia is beginning to deteriorate due to new security concepts and anti-terror-laws. However, building trust between the Tunisian people and its government is crucial for a continued democratic progress and development in the country.

In the first instance, the Justice and Security Sector (JSS) should be a service to the population and their human security rather than protecting the government from its people. Thus, political resistance on the side of bureaucrats and politicians must be surmounted to promote the necessity of JSSR. Compared to technical assistance or new equipment, which is currently being promoted by the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, more sustainable reforms are much more suitable for tackling the security problems that the country is facing. Hence, considering the EUs own values and proclamations from 2011 (‘deep democracy’) the European community advocates that democracy and security are not mutually exclusive, but should go hand-in-hand. This is why a comprehensive dialogue by EU officials and diplomats is needed as a basis of reform promotion. For instance, personal talks with high-level bureaucrats and politicians can be much more effective than technical assistance or training and mentoring programs. Thus, the EU must perpetuate peer reviews.

Intensify and broaden the dialogue

The EU must identify those stakeholders within in the JSS who are keen to foster the democratic process and those who are not and attempt to cooperate with them. A lack of political will is no excuse. It is, however, a matter of how political will is directed and what kind of incentives must be given to enable such reforms. A mix of political diplomacy, public statements and agreements as well as multiple platforms for dialogue and space for consensus building would be very useful. As well as initiating talks between the EU and the Tunisian government it is also necessary to include state and non-state security and justice providers as well as civil society. Such implementing partners can help to analyse local needs and situations and go beyond formal structures of state institutions. With a strong civil society, Tunisia has the preconditions for this. Moreover, the EU has already strengthened the role of civil society, but is still not focusing sufficiently on human rights, democracy and the rule of law to provide stability.

In sum, Tunisia needs unequivocally to undertake democratic reforms in its public administration, security forces, and the judiciary to be able to cope with its security issues. Nevertheless, such reforms must be carried out without the violation of human rights. This autocratic behaviour of the former Tunisian government was among other contributing factors the trigger for the revolution and undisputedly does not help solve existing security problems. If the EU intends to support Tunisia, it must engage strongly in implementing JSSR and improve on its ambiguous behaviour that preceded the revolution.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.