Why Counterterrorism Could Be the Death of Tunisian Democracy

Tunisia’s security state is threatening to undo the gains of the revolution.

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Shortly after an explosion killed a dozen security agents on one of their own buses in Tunis, the Tunisian capital, on November 24, security forces started attacking journalists drawn to the scene, calling them terrorists. Within hours, pundits sympathetic to Tunisia’s old regime took to the airwaves to blame human rights lawyers and the freedoms that came with the revolution for the attack. Within a few days, the police violently raided more than 50 homes in a trendy middle-class neighborhood, arresting, interrogating and later releasing countless young men, according to a local resident and rights activist.

This kind of knee-jerk response to terrorism has become the norm in Tunisia. But the security services aren’t just failing to protect Tunisians from terrorists — they are also endangering the gains of the revolution. The Interior Ministry and its political allies are invoking “counterterrorism” while practicing it badly in order to justify a return to the police state, putting both Tunisia’s security and its democratic gains at risk.

Tunisia’s 2011 revolution was a rejection of President Ben Ali’s police state, which had legitimized its rule by claiming to provide security and stability. This was a familiar tactic practiced by autocrats across the Middle East: exaggerate the scope of extremists to present the public with a stark choice between accepting the authoritarian regime and falling prey to violent Islamists. But Tunisia’s authoritarian system had become particularly totalitarian in its twilight years. With no entrepreneurial private sector, working for the state was the only way to make a decent living, making Tunisians’ livelihoods dependent on the regime. And any independent civil society organizations, trade associations, and professional unions were gradually infiltrated by Ben Ali’s agents. As a result, ordinary citizens’ professional, educational, and political lives were largely dependent on the state or coopted by it.

The Interior Ministry — responsible for the state’s security apparatus — played the central role in perpetuating this authoritarian government. The ministry was in charge of the police, which violently silenced dissent, but it also controlled the political police, which carefully gathered information about Tunisians it suspected of being dissenters. More than that, it appointed governors and — in the name of security — interceded in decisions related to hiring, grants, and other bureaucratic processes in the country’s bloated public sector. The ministry was everywhere.

After the uprising, many Tunisians wanted to change this system and institute genuine civilian rule. In those early days, after protesters had burned down hundreds of police stations, the police were “very quiet, very fearful of the wave of reform,” according to Amine Ghali, a scholar with the Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center. The public was furious that the security forces had shot over 300 protesters, now known as “martyrs of the revolution.” The police became too scared to patrol openly in some areas. The people had reclaimed the public space.

But the Interior Ministry had its own ideas about the country’s future. It was not about to relinquish the power it had enjoyed during Ben Ali’s rule. Ghali remembered the moment he realized how difficult reforming the security sector would be. It came shortly after Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, took power in Tunisia’s first democratic elections in the fall of 2011. “One week after Ennahda took power,” he said, “there was a leak of a video of [then-Interior Minister Ali] Laarayedh having homosexual intercourse. This of course came from the police to say: ‘Watch out. We have something on every single one of you.’ Not every single one of Ennahda, but every single one of us [Tunisians].”

The security forces are open about their hostility to some of their civilian bosses. “We couldn’t work with the troika,” Imed Bel Haj Khelifa, a spokesperson for a police union, said recently, referring to the civilian government led by Ennahda that was in power from 2011 to 2014. “But through our will, and the will of the union, we have insulated our police institution from these politicians.”

Soon after the revolution, Interior Ministry bureaucrats began building relationships with businessmen to further lessen their dependence on the civilian authorities. One former secretary of state for security affairs explained: “[The Interior Ministry] decided not to submit to political power in any form. It succeeded in finding external intermediaries to avoid bending to the authorities.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one source with intimate knowledge of the Interior Ministry explained that he had witnessed a prominent businessman giving instructions to top ministry officials. The grip on the state’s security sector by special interests even extends into the field. One legislator, Ghazi Chouachi, recalled speaking with Tunisian soldiers on a parliamentary fact-finding trip to the Libyan border. The soldiers “told us with tears in their eyes that Tunisia in the south has been sold … by the police and the customs to the smugglers and terrorists,” he said. Though there is some debate as to how deep this goes, it is clear that that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary government has failed to gain control of the Interior Ministry.

The security sector’s escape from civilian control has had disastrous consequences. Veteran jihadists, released from prison in the tumult after the uprising, formed a new Islamist organization, Ansar Al Sharia Tunis, proselytized new converts, and gained support in vulnerable communities through charity work. While Ansar Al Sharia’s leaders were initially careful not to advocate for violence in Tunisia, the group eventually mutated into a real insurgency that began to target security forces. How and why this happened are still up for debate. But part of the reason is that Tunisia’s security forces and their civilian bosses don’t trust each other, and have been unable to coordinate a coherent response.

That insurgency, and the failure to contain it, went a long way towards undermining the narrative of the revolution. Instead, the Interior Ministry strengthened its position by spinning the war against Ansar Al Sharia to its advantage. The insurgency had its base of operations in the Chaambi Mountains, close to the border with Algeria. The ministry made sure to tightly control the flow of information from the region, issuing emotional dispatches about young Tunisian soldiers and policemen murdered by terrorists while remaining silent about its own tactical disasters.

The strength of the insurgency has been greatly exaggerated in popular media accounts. One analyst is on record putting the number of fighters in the mountains at only 50-60 men. But the ministry has made its own headlines, returning to what the French scholar of Tunisian politics Béatrice Hibou has called a “culture of danger, constantly reactivated” — the same tactic used by the Ben Ali regime. The ministry’s official Facebook announcements, as well much of the popular press, described the insurgents as “terrorists” and the victims as “martyrs,” with little context. Meanwhile, the ministry never made public any information about how it was conducting its counterinsurgency operations or whether its much-publicized killings of “terrorists” were actually accomplishing anything.

This strategy helped change the meaning of the word “martyr,” which had been primarily used to describe those killed by security forces during the revolution. At a politically charged trial of a police union chief for defaming the military, a human rights activist in Tunis reported that one security official had shouted: “There are no martyrs of the revolution. Do not say any more that there are martyrs. They are all burglars, thieves. The only martyrs of this country are the security services and the army.” In other words, the narrative of “counterterrorism” was designed to replace the narrative of revolution, reinstating the Ben Ali-era invocation of the threat of jihadists as justification for repression.

This effort has been assisted by some of Tunisia’s politicians. After the 2014 elections, some in the government made a familiar play to link spectacular acts of terrorism to their political opponents. The consensus politics that had navigated Tunisia out of crisis in late 2013 did continue, with the formation of a grand coalition government after the 2014 elections. But opposition legislators have increasingly been tarred by politicians, state press outlets, and police unions as terrorists, while those within the governing coalition have kept in line lest they face the same accusations.

This change began during the last presidential elections in November and December of 2014. Then-presidential candidate and founder of the secularist Nidaa Tounes party, Beji Caid Essebsi, channeled some of the language of counterterrorism into his election campaign, calling his opponent’s supporters “salafist jihadists.”

In July 2015, the government rushed a parliamentary vote on a new counterterrorism law which, according to human rights NGOs, “imperils human rights and lacks the necessary safeguards against abuse.” But legislators who had criticized the law and abstained from voting on it faced slanderous attacks in the media. An article in La Presse, a government-funded newspaper, called for them to be stripped of their parliamentary immunity and tried for supporting terrorism.

The “terrorist” label has also been used to enforce discipline within the governing coalition. An Ennahda legislator explained that colleagues in other parties in the coalition blamed her party for terrorism and pressured her to support ever-stricter anti-terrorism provisions. You always have to be more royalist than the king himself,” she said.

This atmosphere has only benefitted politicians and security officials associated with the old regime, who have become prominent in politics once more. On August 20, 2015, over a dozen legislators filed a lawsuit against the head of the new Truth and Dignity Commission for alleged breaches of the new antiterrorism law. The commission is a post-uprising institution tasked with investigating and documenting the abuses of the Ben Ali regime. This invocation of terrorism against it came at a time when the commission and civil society activists were mobilizing against a proposed “reconciliation” law that grants amnesty to corrupt officials from the old regime.

The Interior Ministry has also sought outright impunity. A security bill proposed with ministry support in the spring of 2015 called for criminal penalties to be applied to anyone found guilty of “denigrating” the security forces. The bill was roundly criticized by rights groups, and so lost political support. But the fact that such a measure was proposed helps explain why it has become so difficult to hold the police accountable.

Countering terrorism has become useful politically — but the harsh tactics practiced by the security forces are causing a human rights nightmare. In the first half of 2015, almost 100,000 Tunisians, or nearly one percent of the population, were arrested. Activists and lawyers describe the counterterrorism policy as a dragnet, picking up poor Tunisians who seem suspicious because of their “salafist” dress and beards. Amna Guellali, the lead researcher for Human Rights Watch in Tunisia, explained that the police target people against whom they have no evidence: “It’s a pattern, it’s not one case or two, it’s not something occasional. No, they all come from neighborhoods which are more popular, more working class.”

These tactics are also putting pressure on the independence of the judiciary. Imen Triki, a lawyer who runs a legal defense organization, explained that in the terrorism cases, the justice system enjoys little independence from the police and Interior Ministry. She adds that security forces and judges equate hardline Salafist ideas with terrorism. “I was talking to young man, and he said there are no more Salafis to arrest because they have all been arrested… We are talking about eight, nine, ten thousand in prisons.”

Worse, those arrested often face mistreatment, even torture — and upon release, are much more likely to radicalize. “This is how you form terrorists,” said a Tunisian familiar with an unpublished parliamentary report that described the torture and mistreatment of several young men who were arrested without evidence. He added that the young men’s lives are now broken, and that their experience will encourage the radicalization of others.

Observers are right to point out that acts of terrorism threaten Tunisia’s democratic gains — but Tunisia’s democracy advocates are quick to clarify that the real threat comes from the state’s response. So far, that response has been led by a group of security officials, politicians, pundits, and bureaucrats who regularly conflate terrorism and dissent. The root of the problem is that the security forces aren’t entirely under civilian control, that the Interior Ministry is subject to no meaningful oversight, and that it continues to have adversarial relations with ordinary citizens. These factors are fueling a counterproductive counterterrorism strategy and a return to authoritarian policies. With help from their international partners, Tunisians will have to address these dangers in order to find real security and preserve their new democracy.

This article is adapted from a paper written by the author for the Legatum Institute.

In the photo, Tunisian police block the road leading to the site of an explosion in central Tunis on November 24, 2015.

Photo credit: FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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