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It’s Not Springtime in Tunisia Anymore

In the wake of deadly attacks, why the one vaunted Arab Spring exception may not be an exception at all

Nicholas Noe
March 19, 2015
A member of the Tunisian special security forces takes position after two gunmen attacked Bardo International Museum on March 18, 2015 in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Tunisian special security forces takes position after two gunmen attacked Bardo International Museum on March 18, 2015 in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Wednesday’s terrorist attack at the national museum in the heart of Tunis, in which two gunman wearing military uniforms killed 17 tourists and two Tunisians, may have shocked outsiders who still describe Tunisia as “the one success story” of the so-called Arab Spring. Yet the attack should not have come as a shock to anyone, least of all to Tunisians. Although no side claimed responsibility, press speculation in Tunisia centered on Islamic State-linked groups that have been operating in neighboring Libya, specifically Ansar al-Sharia, which is believed to be behind a series of assassinations in recent years in the capital as well as an ongoing insurgency in central Tunisia.

Indeed, for much of the last four years following the forced exit of the country’s longtime dictator, Ben Ali, Tunisian society, its political and economic leaderships, as well as key actors in the security sector have all been living under a barely sublimated, deep-seated fear that the country is wholly unprepared to defend itself from the massive security breakdown that is enveloping the entire region and steadily eating away at Tunisia’s own borders.

Periodically, of course, these fears have burst to the surface: when gunmen assassinated two left-leaning politicians in early 2013; when the national army (deliberately hobbled over the decades by dictators who saw it as a threat) was unable to dislodge a small band of insurgents who are still operating right in the middle of the country; and when the chief of staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces, Gen. Rachid Ammar, inexplicably announced that “angels” would probably protect the country from the spillover of violence in Libya and the thousands of returning fighters from Syria.

Now, however, the illusion has finally been laid bare. Tunisians, their neighbors, and all of the country’s international boosters are going to have to confront the reality that the country’s much-vaunted, “exceptional” transition to democracy, the laborious investments in—and hundreds of conferences about—institution-building, funded by governments and NGOs the world over, are all yoked to a country that, if seriously challenged by a Mosul-like surge from ISIS or others in the region, would likely be unable to muster an adequate defense—either along the hundreds of kilometers of desolate border areas or in the heart of Tunisia’s cities.

In this, one can finally see that the sociopolitical factors that supposedly give Tunisia an advantage over other “Arab Spring” countries—the anemic army, a lack of weapons among the general population, and a supposedly cultural aversion toward violent confrontation—are also, in the context of sustained regional conflict, elements of a potentially fatal national weakness. In fact, had the planners of this week’s attack wanted to, it is quite likely that they could have decapitated more than half of the country’s government in an hour or so. After all, the museum lies less than 100 meters from the obscenely ill-defended Parliament building, where the bulk of the country’s elected leadership was in-house, debating antiterrorism legislation.

Tunisia is, quite simply, a country unable to protect the real progress it has made over the last four years.

On CNN International and Al-Jazeera English yesterday, many regional analysts reassured viewers that the antiterrorism forces in Tunisia were “ready,” “well-trained,” and “strong,” but that the prospect of hostages had complicated the picture, since only a few security services in the world could deal effectively with such a situation. Yet the stark reality contradicting these assumptions was seen by Tunisians throughout the day: security service personnel who seemed to have had little training in tactics, even to the layman’s eye. At one point on live national television, an officer was seen being unable to discharge his weapon, apparently confused about how to properly work his gun.

What is especially maddening about scenes like this—and the attendant death and destruction—is that the likely blowback effects of the Syria conflict (where more than 3,000 Tunisians are believed to be fighting) and the wider security breakdown in the Middle East have been well known for years. Barely a day passes without a Tunisian fighter in Libya or Syria pledging online that they are coming home to launch a war of annihilation (some of ISIS’s best commanders are believed to be Tunisian). Training camps for Tunisian and foreign fighters exist in several well-known locations in Western Libya, some a mere dozen or more kilometers from the border. Meanwhile, the growing insurgency in the relatively low-lying mountains of central Tunisia is backed by Algerian fighting groups that are well-known to regional and Western intelligence services, and are routinely reported to be operating in concert with Tunisian groups in the southern desert area and along the poorly defended Algerian-Tunisian border.


Three years ago, at a meeting in the tiny southern mining village of Redeyef about 20 kilometers from that very border, the main leader of the 2008 Tunisian worker’s revolt, Adnan Hajji, told me that tribal violence was being played on in an unprecedented way and that weapons trafficking was flourishing. At some point in the future, without an adequate national defense, Hajji said, there was bound to be violent confrontation among different groups—and quite likely with those who hold violent religious radicalism and supremacy as their doctrine.

In the intervening years, however, widely held Tunisian illusions synergized with an external desire to hold up the country as a wonderful (and relatively cheap) success story in an otherwise bleak Arab landscape—a success story that would show that the rhetoric of both the current and the past U.S. administrations about peaceful, “moderate,” democratic change in the Middle East had been referring to people and countries in the real world, and not to figments of policymakers’ imaginations that had been imposed on a landscape of rickety and shattered state structures, which in many cases had only been half-built before they collapsed. At cocktail parties in the Tunisian suburbs, and at Islamist gatherings in the neglected south, one heard ad nauseam that insurgents would be easily recognized and contained; that the country’s society and culture could not provide fertile ground for violent religious radicals; and, most crucially, that Tunisia doesn’t border Israel and has little oil so it is therefore immune to nefarious external machinations that might lead to violence. Some even would go so far as to say that the Algerian or French army would intervene if things became dire—thereby acknowledging that indigenous hard power was woefully lacking.

One of the main results of this collective self-deception, alongside real gains in the democratic health of the country, has arguably been the proliferation of conferences: In the last month alone, probably more than a dozen international conferences have been held in Tunis, focusing on the processes of transition and institution building. In fact, there may be no other “transitional” country on a per capita basis in modern history that has held more conferences, papers, and meetings about its experiences. Although this plethora of “democracy-building” activity is partially the result of Tunis being one of the few Arab capitals that has been physically safe enough to host such conferences, the dynamic has been primarily powered by a (relatively recent) American desire to de-emphasize large scale military support in the Middle East wherever it can—a desire that fits nicely with the longstanding European penchant for process and the dissemination of supposedly “European values.”

It is easy to say now that neither the Americans nor the Europeans ever accepted reality here. It wasn’t a question of either the Obama administration or the European Union offering even more economic and political support for the “democratic transition” in Tunisia—though that might have also been helpful. Tunisia is, quite simply, a country unable to protect the real progress it has made over the last four years. Its people are not familiar with violent conflict, its army isn’t ready, and its body politic is deeply and often personally divided, despite the statements over the last 24 hours about national unity.

Most crucially, however, the security services in general—especially when it comes to the preponderant Interior Ministry—are ill equipped and ill trained for the kind of conflict that they are now likely to face. Perhaps the commanders directing today’s attack were betting on this. A heavy-handed response on the domestic scene (which is likely, largely as a result of the neglect of security sector reform over the past four years) will probably entail a violent counter-reaction within Tunisia, even though the real enemy lies in its strategic depth, waiting for the right moment, just beyond the country’s borders.

In one particularly prescient speech, the recently defeated president of Tunisia warned Europe and the United States about neglecting Tunisia and specifically about the core need for rebooting and building-out the security sector. “The military didn’t have any training or any arms for 30 years,” former President Moncef Marzouki told a conference last summer. “We need about 12 helicopters, Blackhawks, and we need them now. We also need devices for night vision and communications” to allow Tunisia to get through the upcoming elections. “If Tunisia fails,” he concluded, “you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century.”

Unfortunately, despite all of the conferences, the security sector has remained largely unchanged over the last four years in terms of organization, culture, and capabilities, as one paper by the Carnegie Endowment’s Yezid Sayegh pointed out the day before yesterday’s attack.

Of course, this has been a convenient status quo for all sides, foreign and domestic, since any effort focused on this particular sector has always been a more complicated and dangerous task than holding elections or even writing a new constitution. After all, at the end of the day, the real power in a decades-old police state like Tunisia lies with the police, its relationship to the national army and elected government, as well as their associated mafias. Disrupting and re-ordering this crucial nexus, it was said by many, could be pushed off to some undefined, more auspicious moment in the future, even as insurgents all around grew vastly more powerful, more determined and with even clearer supply lines.

As one small, merely material indication of the poverty of this approach, only three months ago, the United States donated a second C-130 transport plane to the Tunisian army, with renewed promises that helicopters and other vital anti-insurgency and counter-terrorism training and technology would eventually be delivered to the army as well as the police force after some bureaucratic hang-ups were addressed.

Unfortunately, it seems today that ISIS and their Tunisian confederates are working on a much faster schedule, with more daring of purpose and a far greater focus on core priorities than any of their opponents can seem to muster.


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Nicholas Noe is the co-founder of and the editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. His Twitter feed is @NoeNicholas.

Nicholas Noe is the co-founder of and the editor ofVoice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. His Twitter feed is @NoeNicholas.

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