Tunisia’s Getting More Guns Than Democracy

As Washington earmarks nearly $100 million for military aid to Tunis, arms manufacturers sense a new gold rush. But it may come at the cost of the country's fragile democracy.


In the early morning hours of March 7, dozens of Islamic State fighters appeared in the center of Ben Guerdane, an arid, roughshod Tunisian market town that serves as a smuggling hub with Libya. The Kalashnikov-wielding militants launched coordinated assaults on the local military barracks, a police station, and the headquarters of the National Guard. The ensuing firefight claimed the lives of at least 54 people, including those of Islamic State militants, according to Tunisian authorities.

The same day, Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, addressed the country from the National Guard headquarters in Tunis. “The Tunisian people, in their immense majority, are at war with this barbarism and these rats, who we will exterminate,” he promised.

The attack in Ben Guerdane was just the latest in a series of terrorist killings, starting with last year’s siege of Tunis’s National Bardo Museum, which ended in the deaths of 24 people, and including June’s mass shooting in the resort town of Sousse, in which 38 people were killed.

The U.S. response has been to open the floodgates of military assistance to this small North African nation.

Three weeks after the Bardo attack, Washington announced it would triple military spending for Tunisia and help train its armed forces. The announcement came on the heels of an already growing military-security relationship: In the name of fighting terrorism, Tunisia has or will receive at least $81.9 million worth of military and security gear in 2016, including 12 Black Hawk helicopters (eight of which are to be delivered this year) along with Hellfire missiles, machine guns, night-vision goggles, and much more.

The White House budget request for military aid to Tunisia in 2016 was just under $100 million. This constitutes a 200 percent increase over 2014, when the United States provided $32.9 million in assistance, according to the Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy (CIP) that tracks U.S. defense assistance programs worldwide. And it would represent a 350 percent increase compared to pre-revolution figures.

The octogenarian Essebsi, however, may not simply be interested in combating terrorism; he may also be intent on rolling back the democratic gains of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. The growing U.S. focus on bolstering its military relationship with Tunis will only increase the government’s repressive capacities.

Essebsi — who served under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, as head of the country’s repressive Interior Ministry, and as speaker of parliament under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the strongman president overthrown in 2011 — came to power in elections in late 2014. He capitalized on a wave of popular frustration with the failures of the country’s then-ruling Islamists and ongoing security and economic crises. But his government has been criticized by activists and human rights advocates for cracking down on everyone from critical journalists to LGBT people, allowing police violence to continue unabated, and for pardoning former regime officials.

Gone are the heady days of declaring Tunisia the Arab Spring’s democratic success story. The state of emergency renewed in February, which was declared last summer after another terrorist attack, suspends the right to strike and the right to protest and includes provisions on media censorship and control. An anti-terrorism law passed under Essebsi’s watch grants security forces extensive surveillance powers, extends detention without trial for terrorism suspects, and permits courts to close hearings to the public. Furthermore, Essebsi introduced a draft reconciliation law to parliament that pardons civil servants and crony businessmen who committed financial crimes under the Ben Ali regime.

Despite the warning signs, the United States has lauded Tunisia, designating the country as a major non-NATO ally, which allows for greater defense aid and quicker review and approval for military funding.

When asked whether the increasing stream of military hardware being sold or donated to Tunisia could be used for internal repression, a U.S. State Department official wrote in an email, “When the U.S. government has learned of reports of abuse, we have urged the government to address them. We also believe Tunisians realize that addressing the concerns you raised, respecting human rights, and adhering to the rule of law are critical to maintaining hard-won democratic gains. Improving accountability among the security services and promoting rule of law are important in this regard.”

When asked why the State Department would continue to give military aid to Tunisia despite the claims of abuse, the official wrote, “While I won’t get into hypotheticals, I will note, in general, that we consider a wide variety of factors when evaluating our foreign assistance to other countries.”

The Tunisian government, however, may be prioritizing security over democracy. The Defense Ministry’s budget has expanded faster than any other ministry between 2011 and 2016, growing by 21 percent each year on average. A complementary finance law passed in July 2015 — after a bloody attack on a tourist hotel in the resort city of Sousse — provided the latest boost, increasing the defense budget by more than $153 million. While it may be a paltry sum in U.S. spending terms, the figure represents some 7.3 percent of the entire Defense Ministry budget for 2016.

With increased defense spending, the military purchases and dependence on U.S. arms seem set to become a trend. It appears that defense contractors are already on the scent: Lockheed Martin has opened an office, “Lockheed Martin Global, Inc. – Tunisia Branch,” according to the Tunisian Business Registry, a national registry provided by the National Institute of Standardization and Industrial Property, a public organization whose mission is “to undertake any action concerning standardization, the quality of products and services, and the protection of industrial property.”

According to a Tunisian Business Registry announcement from Aug. 25, 2015, the aim of the Lockheed Martin branch office will be “[s]upport, research, design, development, manufacture, support and product integration, advanced technology services and systems.”

Lockheed Martin denies opening an office in Tunis. John Neilson, Lockheed’s director of communications for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, wrote in an email to Foreign Policy: “Lockheed Martin does not have an office in Tunis, and there are no plans to open one.”

Neilson added that the defense equipment sold to Tunisia wasn’t directly supplied by Lockheed itself, but through the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program, meaning that while Lockheed Martin produces the hardware, it is the U.S. government that delivers the aid. Lockheed’s activities in Tunisia, he wrote, “primarily involve providing a customer support capability” for products such as the C-130J Hercules tactical air transport aircraft, which is used by the Tunisian Air Force.

Recent reports, however, claim that Lockheed Martin was part of a business delegation to Tunis on April 14, organized by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce and the American Chamber of Commerce, and chock full of U.S. defense companies.

The U.S. military aid to which Neilson referred is indeed supposed to come with strings attached. Defense Department spokeswoman Michelle Baldanza assured FP that the Pentagon would end assistance in the event of a coup but did not address the possibility of internal repression. Baldanza said that in the event of a legal determination that a coup had occurred, the United States would be legally required to terminate security assistance.

That promise, however, is less than reassuring. In 2013, Egypt’s then-defense minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, led Egyptian military forces in the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, killing more than 1,000 of Morsi’s supporters in the process and jailing thousands more. For a year and a half, the U.S. government went through political contortions to avoid labeling Sisi’s takeover a coup — and then dropped its diplomatic protestations entirely, restoring full military assistance to the oppressive government in March 2015.

It’s not just the U.S. government that drives transactions in military equipment. Experts say that the military contractors who produce the hardware also work to create demand among foreign governments in order to sell their wares abroad.

William Hartung, a foreign policy and national security expert at CIP, said that congressional caps placed on U.S. defense spending in recent years have reduced the domestic market for defense contractors. As a result, contractors are hungry for profits from foreign markets in unstable regions, where increased military financing from the United States to local governments means money to be made.

In response to reports of Lockheed Martin opening an office in Tunisia, he said, “The fact that [defense contractors] opened an office in Tunis means that they’re not sitting on their hands. They will try to build relationships with the Tunisian military.”

While the two players in the arms sale game — private defense contractors and the U.S. government — have different motives, they enable each other’s goals in the region, Hartung said.

“The Pentagon will help [defense contractors] market this stuff, saying to foreign governments, ‘You should buy American.… You’re not just buying a weapon, but a relationship with the U.S.’”

And while arms sales by U.S. contractors to foreign governments must undergo stringent review by Congress to ensure the hardware won’t be used to violate rights, Tunisia’s non-NATO ally status may change that. The designation allows additional funding to joint counterterrorism research and development projects, giving Tunisia priority over other countries for delivery of military equipment sold at a reduced cost. Most importantly, under the non-NATO ally designation, restrictions on the placement of U.S. military equipment will also be reduced.

“The biggest implication of the major non-NATO ally status is that [the United States] will speed up arms deliveries and Congress will have less time to review them,” Hartung said. In the event of internal repression, “even though State Department officials will say they regret violations happening, they will continue their [military] relationship.”

Congress now has more arms sales to Tunisia to review than ever before. Above and beyond the White House’s $99 million budget request in 2016, direct arms sales to Tunisia rose by 63 percent between 2010 and 2014; data is not available on sales after that year.

“The [nearly] $100 million budget request is not the total amount going to Tunisia,” said Seth Binder, an analyst at the Security Assistance Monitor. “There are other pots of money going around used to finance militaries abroad,” like the shadowy Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF), a Defense Department funding program to train and equip foreign militaries to combat terrorist activities.

The White House has requested $1 billion for CTPF in 2017. While some of that money is going to Tunisia, Binder said, it’s not clear what the exact amount will be. At best, its known that the North and West Africa regional account has been provided over $225 million with an additional $125 million requested. But Congress does not require the Defense Department to provide breakdowns of its funding by country.

“As a strong ally, it is highly likely that Tunisia will be a strong recipient of those funds. For each year, the DoD has provided a budget justifications and only provided regional breakdowns for where the money is going rather than on a country level,” Binder noted, adding, “It seems highly likely that including DoD-funded assistance will push overall security assistance to over $100 million for 2016 with all the money allocated for the CTPF and previous money allocated through the Section 1206 program.”

Binder said that he believed most of the funds going to Tunisia are being directed toward the military, rather than the Interior Ministry, infamous for its corruption, and which oversees the country’s hated police and internal security services and was used to crush political dissent under the former Ben Ali regime. However, he adds, “resources are going to other sectors,” like the police, “which is a point of concern.”

Binder doubts the small Tunisian military — historically marginalized and underequipped by Tunisian rulers afraid of a military coup — has the capacity to absorb all the aid. If the funds are distributed inefficiently, they could become yet another point of corruption in a state where bribery and fraud were main drivers behind Tunisia’s revolution. If the military is perceived as a cash pot for politicians, then political elites may try to connect themselves to the military for personal enrichment.

“The biggest concern, though, is what effect [U.S. military aid] will have on the Tunisian military,” Binder said. “Will it lead to politicization of the military?”

Others following foreign military aid are less skeptical. Melissa Dalton, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, seemed more optimistic about oversight of military aid to Tunisia. She made the case that Foreign Military Financing (FMF), a State Department- and Defense Department-run program offering grants and loans, has safeguards that ensure the money goes where Washington wants it to go.

“FMF comes with strings attached. It’s not conditioned, per se, but there’s an understanding that money will be used on agreed-upon priorities,” or the State Department will decrease funding in consequence of violations, she said.

But these reassurances aren’t enough for Binder. His worry is that democracy is no longer a U.S. priority in Tunisia and that Washington is instead focused on re-establishing its control in the region. And as violence has increased in neighboring Libya, and more recently inside Tunisia, he fears the United States is slowly falling back on armed force to maintain order.

“Our continued aid to Gulf monarchies for their war in Yemen, and Sisi in Egypt, is proof that [pro-democracy] policy is changing,” he said. “There’s a focus on the short term at the expense of the long term. U.S. [policymakers] see Libya in turmoil, Iraq and Syria in turmoil, so they’ve pushed aside the work of building democratic governments that address the root causes of the turmoil.”


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