New Tunisian think tanks to shed light on national security, foreign policy issues

The Tunisian Council for International Relations (TCIR) and the Tunis-based Institute for Prospective and Advanced Strategic and Security Studies (IPASSS) offer new independent venues for wide-ranging discussions.
Thursday 21/01/2021
The landmark Habib Bourgiba avenue in Tunis, where protests took place in 2011, during a national lockdown after a surge in COVID-19 cases. (AFP)
The landmark Habib Bourgiba avenue in Tunis, where protests took place in 2011, during a national lockdown after a surge in COVID-19 cases. (AFP)

TUNIS - Foreign policy and security issues are the subject of newly-established Tunisian think tanks that will rely on the experience and insight of former senior officials to shed light on key Tunisian challenges and concerns.

With a focus on the North African country’s regional and international environment, the Tunisian Council for International Relations (TCIR) was founded last November by former Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui and includes a number of senior officials and diplomats.

Like most foreign policy research outfits, the new think tank aims to “provide a national forum for all intellectual and political stakeholders to deliberate on regional and international issues,” as TCIR’s official objectives point out.

Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui. (AFP)
Former Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui. (AFP)

The think tank, however, has a clear geographic focus, as it intends to study the implications of international developments on “the situation in Tunisia, the Maghreb region and the Mediterranean area.”

Tunisia is part of the Arab Maghreb Union, a regional grouping that also includes Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Mauritania. It is also bound by a partnership agreement with the European Union, its main trade partner. This makes the Mediterranean perspective of particular relevance for Tunisia and its international relations experts.

Staffed by experts and former officials, the think tank is not detached from the country’s needs and challenges. It stresses its intent to “serve Tunisia’s vital and strategic interests” and monitor “the progress of Tunisia’s relations with various parties and countries in the African, European, Asian and American spheres and their contributions to strengthening Tunisia’s international stature and preserving its interests in various political, economic and security fields.”

Jhinaoui sees the new institution he chairs as contributing to his country’s democratic transition. He says think tanks “are part of any democratic system” and “help decision makers formulate the right policies.”

This process, he told The Arab Weekly, “requires building strong links among different stockholders, including academicians, opinion influencers, civil society activists and political parties.”

However, he added, “it is a slow process that will mature along with the consolidation of the democratic transition.”

One of the think tank’s major roles will be explaining foreign policy and security matters to the public at large, Tunisia’s former chief diplomat said.

For this purpose, “think tanks need to open up and introduce these difficult subjects to public opinion and policy makers. Their work is an important tool to understand government policies, regional and international developments and assess the domestic and foreign threats and their impact on the security and stability of the country.”

Sharing part of the interests of the Tunisian Council for International Relations is another promising independent research institution that intends to delve into national security issues.

Founded by retired Admiral Kamel Akrout, a former senior national security adviser to late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and a former head of military intelligence, the Tunis-based Institute for Prospective and Advanced Strategic and Security Studies (IPASSS) was created last October.

The new think tank focuses on national security, defence and geo-strategic issues, relying on “open source analysts with special interests in the Mediterranean, MENA and Sahel, social media as well as intelligence experts.”

The institute’s experts include a number of “experienced competencies who have assumed high-level responsibilities in the state for decades,” retired admiral Akrout told The Arab Weekly.

These experts are “committed to (bringing) their contributions at a time when our country needs all its forces and men and women of experience from all generations,” he added.

“Our country as we all know is going through difficult circumstances and daunting challenges including socio-economic, cultural, political, value-system related and geostrategic issues, in addition to the global pandemic.”

The think tank, Akrout added, “aspires to (become) an influential laboratory of ideas at the national level with a wider geographic scope.” Since its inception, it has co-authored studies, held a number of debates and online symposiums to discuss national security issues such as anti-terrorism, energy security, cyber-security, artificial intelligence, big-data and G5 communications prospects.

In the coming period, it intends to hold two symposiums on artificial intelligence and “youth and the possibilities of action in the current transitional period from political, legal, social, cultural and media perspectives.”

The timely focus on youth comes as Tunisia tries to deal with a continuing protest movement fueled by its young population’s unemployment and a multifaceted socio-economic crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tunisia faces major security concerns related to the threat of terrorism at home and across the border. Instability in Libya is also a major worry considering its security fallout and adverse economic impact.

Retired Admiral Kamel Akrout (TAW)
Retired Admiral Kamel Akrout (TAW)

Like those that preceded them, the new think tanks are likely to struggle with budgets at a particularly difficult economic juncture.

Jhinaoui admits that “financing is indeed a major hurdle to overcome.”

The “business community is not yet familiar with the issues and needs to find its own interest in the work of think tanks and public resources are quite limited too,” he explained.

Think tanks, he said, will have to diversify and adapt. Yet he is optimistic they can.

So is IPASSS’s founder. “I am optimistic that together, with all of our capabilities, forces, and women and men of experience, we will overcome this challenge and launch Tunisia into a brighter future inclusive of its youth and future generations,” added admiral Akrout.