Africa, World

International Crisis Group: Tunisia needs to reform its security strategy

By International Crisis Group 24 July 2015

The internal security sector is is both fragmenting and asserting its authority vis-à-vis the executive and legislative branches of government instead of promoting standards of professionalism and strengthening its efficiency and integrity. By the INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.

First published by the International Crisis Group.

With a dysfunctional internal security apparatus, Tunisia’s response to increasing, ever more devastating jihadi attacks has been ad hoc. The attacks in Tunis and Sousse, in March and June 2015, as well as frequent assaults against the police, the National Guard and the army over the past two years, especially in areas along the country’s borders, are evidence of jihadi groups’ significant advances. The authorities are struggling to confront this threat and develop a public policy on security. While their predicament is primarily linked to problems inside the internal security forces (ISF), the regional context does not help. To tackle jihadi violence, as well as better manage political and social conflicts, a thorough reform of the ISF will be necessary.

Instead of promoting standards of professionalism and strengthening its efficiency and integrity, the internal security sector – which includes National Security, the police, National Guard, civil defence and correctional services – is both fragmenting and asserting its authority vis-à-vis the executive and legislative branches of government. Its members, many lacking motivation, carry out their profession in an institution whose statutes date from the time of dictatorship and that has been uprooted and politicised by the 2010-2011 uprising. During the subsequent transition, political parties took advantage of the discretionary power held by successive interior ministers in matters of recruitment, promotions and dismissals; police unions supposed to defend the institution have, for the most part, only worsened its internal divisions.

Many officers and staff now look at reform as destabilising, much as they see the revolution and those who speak in its name. A recently submitted ISF-championed draft law granting impunity to the security forces (the ISF, the national army and the customs police) indicates that they are on the defensive. They respond to political rhetoric accusing them of representing the counter-revolution, dictatorship and human rights abuse with a narrative of their own that pits security against democracy as part of a “war on terrorism”.

Many elements inside the ISF are worried about the state of their institution, even if it has the capacity to reform without the intervention of external actors. Priorities should be improving management capabilities, curbing bad practices (police brutality, the spread of petty corruption) and pushing back the rise of clientelism that is hollowing it out.

Yet, the presidency, the government and members of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives (APR, the parliament) have a role to play in improving the security sector (through, for example, parliamentary oversight). Rather than impose their vision on the ISF, they should channel the ISF’s desire for independence: encourage it to reinforce its internal oversight mechanisms, review the way it is structured and operates, and provide the support necessary for its professionalisation.

The last four years of transition have shown that a head-on fight between the ISF and the political class is a dead end. Neither revolution nor counter-revolution has achieved its goals. This confrontation – in part exaggerated by ordinary citizens – has produced a false antithesis between order and liberty that must be overcome.

The government and APR should agree on a new ISF code of conduct, to be drafted jointly following wide consultation inside and outside the security sector and taking into account its new mission in the post-Ben Ali era. This should entail a collective reflection, particularly inside the interior ministry, as well as a national political debate on the notion of security, the role and mission of the police (as distinct from the military), the causes of the north/south fracture and jihadi violence, and the public’s lack of confidence in the security apparatus.

The presidency, the government and Tunisia’s international partners should understand that the urgent need to correct the ISF’s dysfunctions, enabling it to confront the country’s security challenges, cannot be limited to improving the equipment of operational units or reinforcing counter-terrorism capabilities, even if this, too, is necessary. Strengthening the internal security apparatus requires first and foremost changing the laws governing the sector, establishing an ambitious human resources management plan and improving basic training and professional development.

Without an ISF reform that would allow for the formulation of a holistic security strategy, Tunisia will continue to stumble from crisis to crisis as its regional environment deteriorates and political and social tensions increase, at the risk of sinking into chaos or a return to dictatorship.

Preventing such a scenario will require a joint effort of the political class and the internal security sector. Such co-operation will be critical to preventing the temptation to restore the public’s “fear of the police” or increasingly burden the national army with internal policing tasks to compensate for the ISF’s weakness and poor management.

This set of measures amounts to an essential preliminary step before rethinking the state’s response to increased social and political violence. This is a national challenge that encompasses more than the security forces’ mission: it also entails tackling the need to make progress on implementing regional development projects in border regions, rehabilitating degraded living conditions in the urban peripheries, improving prison conditions and promoting alternatives to jihadi ideology, among others. The ISF should not find itself alone in compensating for the lack of strategic vision of the political class.


In order to bring a balanced and proportional response to the rise of jihadism and social violence, and help the country escape the false choice between order and liberty:

To the president of the republic and to the government:     

1.  Avoid the temptation of assigning policing tasks to the national army as a way of sidestepping the ISF’s dysfunctions and improving security only in the short term.

2.  Increase meetings of the security co-ordination cell and promote a counter-terrorism discourse that is not anti-religious.

3.  Ensure the creation of a security information gathering centre (“fusion centre”) that includes, in addition to the defence, interior, justice and foreign affairs ministries, the education, professional development and religious affairs ministries.

4.  Organise a national conference, open to all, on the notion of security in a law-abiding society, the role and mission of the police, the causes of the north/south fracture and jihadism, the public’s lack of confidence in the security apparatus and the democratic means to tackle existing problems, with the purpose of breaking taboos and establishing an objective assessment of the state of security institutions.

To the main political parties:

5.  Avoid the political use of the terrorism threat by casting blame on opponents.

In order to improve the ISF’s professionalism to ensure it responds to the security challenges of the post-Ben Ali era

To the government and the APR:

6.  Put in place a series of internal consultations on the manner in which security officials conceive of their profession in the post-Ben Ali era, with the conclusions of these exchanges serving as the basis for a new ISF code of conduct.

7.  Establish, in collaboration with the interior and justice ministries, a High Committee for Security Sector Reform and Management, whose members should be elected from within the ISF and whose goal it should be to reinforce the sector’s cohesion and ensure that principles of ethics and competence are respected and the quality of security services is guaranteed. This committee should:

a) participate in the drafting of a new ISF code of conduct in co-operation with the relevant parliamentary committees;

b) establish, in co-ordination with the interior ministry’s General Directorate for Professional Training, a strategy for human resources management (including a psychological unit for recruitment, a frame of reference for job descriptions and functions, and computerisation of skillsets);

c) help revise the legal statutes that define the mission, procedures for recruitment, training and promotion, and hierarchy of ISF staff and officers, and in particular reduce the interior minister’s powers of appointment and reassignment under Law Number 82-70 of 6 August 1982 on the general statutes of the internal security forces.

8.  Accelerate the creation of a professional development division for national security at the interior ministry.

To international nongovernmental organisations, to international institutions and to Tunisia’s partner states in the security domain:

9.  Support, as a priority, statute reform, implementation of an ISF human resources management plan, improvement of basic training and professional development, and especially the creation of a professional development division for national security at the interior ministry.

10.  Co-ordinate bilateral and multilateral aid.

In order to improve the democratic oversight of the ISF and encourage its professionalisation

To the government and APR members, especially members of the General Legislative Committee, Organisation of the Administration of the Armed Forces Committee, and Security and Defence Committee:

11.  Participate in developing a new ISF code of conduct and co-sign, with the High Committee for Security Sector Reform and Management, a clear agenda for reforming the security sector. The APR should enact this reform through an organic law, as mandated by the constitution.

12.  Support the parliamentary oversight work of the APR’s organisation of the administration of the armed forces and the security and defence committees (by training APR members on security questions and hiring of parliamentary staff). DM

Photo: Members of the Tunisian security services stand guard during a memorial ceremony and minutes silence for the victims of a terror attack on a beach outside the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, in the popular tourist resort of al-Sousse, Tunisia, 03 July 2015. 38 people were killed, including 30 UK nationals, 26 June, when a gunmen opened fire on holidaymakers on a beach and in a hotel, before being killed by local security services, in a attack claimed by affiliates of the group calling themselves the Islamic State (IS), who have since vowed to carry out more attacks in the region. EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA


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