The three facets of Tunisia’s security challenge

Friday 18/03/2016

Tunisia today faces security threats that could destroy what is still very much a democracy in the making.

The country’s first line of de­fence is internal. It involves the army and the national guard, both of which have done a sterling job since 2011 in trying to eradicate terrorist cells. The legitimacy and respect they command among most Tunisians is all the greater in that they did not turn on the young Tunisians when they rebelled against the regime of Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali.

A second internal factor is the economy, which is flat. It has been badly hit by a crippling of two of its key foreign income earners and employers — tourism follow­ing terrorist attacks last year and the phosphate-fertiliser industry, whose production has been stuck at a third of normal levels because of continuing social unrest. Living standards are declining for a major­ity of people, thus dashing the hopes of more jobs and a better life that were high five years ago.

The government dares not make bold economic decisions, and one of its key components, the Nidaa Tounes party, is consumed by petty internal quarrels.

The suicide commandos who attacked the frontier town of Ben Guerdane were notable for their composition — all 60 or so terror­ists were from the region, a tra­ditionally poor area that survives thanks to smuggling across the frontier with Libya, 30km to the south. No one knows for sure how many of the terrorists came from dormant cells in the region and how many from across the border. An estimated 6,000 Tunisians have joined the Islamic State in recent years and fought in Iraq, Syria, Mali and Libya. Many have been trained in Libya. Any consolidation of that organisation in Sirte, east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, poses a mortal threat to Tunisia’s democ­racy.

Tunisia’s second line of defence relies on close cooperation with its western neighbour Algeria, which since 2011 has acted as the de facto guarantor of the country’s security. Algeria’s prime minister, Abdel­malek Sellal, has clearly stated his country’s determination to avoid the emergence of a Libyanistan on its eastern frontier.

Cooperation between Alge­rian and Tunisian armies and intelligence is very good. Akram Kharief, one of his country’s best-informed security observ­ers, points to the bulk of Algeria ISIS-related fighters being in Kabylia, a mountain range due east of Algiers, and one small group further east near the Tunisian border.

The Algerian Army for its part has been massively redeployed from the Moroccan frontier in the west to the borders Africa’s largest coun­try has with Tunisia, Libya, Niger and Mali. The seriousness of the domestic threat of terror­ism is not taken lightly in Algiers. A large stock of rocket launchers was found among many other weapons when a jihadist group was hunted down in Guemar, about 60km from the frontier with Tunisia.

The collapse in the price of oil and the bitter infighting over the succession to the ailing president suggest to some observers that Algeria is hamstrung in its fight against terrorism. That may well be the case but the country’s army is very professional and well armed. Its officer corps up to the level of colonel is not corrupt but that is not the case with many of its gen­erals. Its intelligence forces know the whole region well and their efforts are backed by a diplomatic corps and a minister who have the full respect of their peers in the re­gion, Europe and the United States.

Tunisia’s third line of defence is the international cooperation on security issues in the region it can count on. Distracted by the flood of refugees that has swamped the Balkans and Germany, the European Union treats North Africa as its forgotten frontier. As they led the coalition that toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, France and Britain were free riders of American military might. Libya and Tunisia are in Europe’s backyard, not America’s. France and Britain cannot keep cutting their military budgets and ride on the coat-tails of America nor can Germany or indeed Europe as a whole.

Never before in the past half-century have the interests of key European countries — France, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain — and the United States been more at one with those of North Africa, particu­larly Algeria and Tunisia. Having failed to see how the suction effect of the Balkan crisis in the 1990s would spread to its eastern and southern borders, in a great arc of instability from Ukraine to Morocco via Turkey, Syria and Libya, Europe should strive to build a joint security policy with North African states.

Military and intelligence co­operation between Algeria and the United States has improved considerably. With France, the erstwhile colonial power, matters have been more difficult but Alge­ria today provides the fuel for the French military, which is engaged in the “Operation Barkhane” in Mali.

Europe must learn to treat North African states on equal terms if disintegration of countries that lie off its southern shores is to be avoided.

Were Tunisia to become Tuni­sistan, that would bring another flood of refugees and completely destroy North Africa and Europe as we know them.