February proved to be particularly tumultuous in Tunisian politics, with the assassination of a prominent leftist politician and the resignation of the country’s prime minister. French- and English-language media tended to frame these events as the latest in a binary narrative pitting Islamist “hard-liners” against members of a secular opposition. Though such ideologically oriented and sometimes alarmist coverage attracted readers, it failed to shine light on more substantive challenges – namely those of security reform and the rule of law – that made the assassination of politician Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6 the latest in a string of destabilizing security breaches.
Re-establishing security has been a key challenge for the new Tunisian state. Deposed dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali relied on a top-down network of informants to provide intelligence and used law enforcement officials to arrest, imprison and torture thousands of real and imagined opponents. The revolution upended Ben Ali’s authoritarian pyramid, disrupting chain of command structures at the national and municipal levels. Looters and criminals exploited the void, and many citizens intent on protecting their property formed neighborhood militias.
More than two years after the revolution, the state has yet to reclaim its monopoly over security. For Tunisia to achieve the revolution’s core demands – socioeconomic dignity and real, lasting freedom – it must redouble its efforts to reform the security sector.
Broadly speaking, the obstacles to security sector reform fall into three categories: institutional, political and practical. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s internal security forces, inherited a dysfunctional legacy from the Habib Bourghuiba and Ben Ali eras. Tunisia’s postcolonial rulers sidelined the army – relying instead on the police and national guard to bolster their power. Under Ben Ali, exchanges between and within ministries were limited to maintain control. This was particularly true of the Interior Ministry, which Ben Ali manipulated as a personal praetorian guard. Consequently, mechanisms for efficiency, transparency and communication had atrophied long before the revolution.
Developing a coherent understanding of how this “black box” ministry was organized – let alone articulating strategies for national security reform and communicating transparently with the Tunisian public – has proven to be a massive challenge. Some progress on communication has been made, as evidenced by the increased visibility of Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Tarrouche and the appearance of a weekly radio show called Le Forum de la Sécurité, which allows Tunisians to pose questions to a ministry official. Still, transforming the Interior Ministry from an instrument of oppression into a transparent institution that upholds the rule of law remains a monumental and unfinished goal.
Conflicts of interest and mindsets among the ministry’s staff represent another institutional obstacle. While a number of top figures – notably the interior minister himself – were reshuffled to different posts within the ministry or dismissed altogether following the revolution, the bulk of present-day employees worked in the ministry prior to January 2011. These “old regime” personnel often feel besieged from all sides – from international actors calling persistently for reform to average Tunisian citizens shouting “Interior Ministry, terrorist ministry” outside their windows, to the current government of Islamists from Ennahda – which the Interior Ministry brutally oppressed before the revolution.
Political obstacles also stymie security reform. The drafting of Tunisia’s constitution has taken longer than expected. Ministry officials argue that pursuing a detailed reform plan in the absence of clear legal architecture is impossible. Many would prefer to adopt a “wait-and-see” approach – holding off on detailed reforms until the constitutional framework is in place and the next elections are held. Another political challenge is the potential fallout of adopting a radical reform plan within the ministry itself. This is a transitional period, and many Tunisians are eager to see old regime officials out of office and called to account for their past actions – or both. However, this is also an election year, and opposition figures are likely to castigate Ennahda as overly authoritarian if the party dismisses too many prerevolutionary officials without establishing an independent vetting commission – particularly in an institution as sensitive as the Interior Ministry.
Finally, practical obstacles – a lack of experience and resources – stand in the way of meaningful security reforms. Interior Ministry officials – many juggled from one post to another and none of whom spearheaded security reform in a democratic state – have struggled to keep up with postrevolutionary security challenges and find time to craft comprehensive reform strategies. Adding to these difficulties, a large number of courts, police stations and police equipment were destroyed during the revolution. A handful of security-focused international organizations have successfully partnered with the Interior Ministry to improve communications and human rights training for law enforcement officials. Still, major needs regarding infrastructure, equipment, training and legal reform remain – including reform of Law No. 4 of 1969, which allows police to use disproportionate violence at public protests.
The phrase “security reform” doesn’t pique public interest in the same way that words like Islamism and Salafism do; security sector reform is a technical and long-term process particularly ill-suited to hit-and-run reporting. The handful of knowledgeable security-reform experts in Tunisia work in sensitive conditions and are hesitant to be interviewed on the record. Moreover, media editors generally eschew “dry” institutional coverage for flashier frameworks guaranteed to stir public interest.
In Tunisia, this generally means analyzing issues through the tired Islamist versus secularist dichotomy. Realistically speaking, though, Belaid’s death – and the ongoing impunity and security-related unrest in Tunisia – have more to do with weak institutions than conflicts of ideology. Complex bureaucratic logistics and institutional inertias obstruct security reform and rule of law in Tunisia. These challenges are fundamental to Tunisia’s transition, and deserve far more public attention than they are receiving.
Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.