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Another Middle Eastern State Could Collapse, and More Cash and Weapons Won’t Save It

Why the Mediterranean refugee crisis could get that much worse, and soon

Nicholas Noe
September 22, 2015
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Armed police on patrol on Marhaba beach where 38 people were killed on Friday in a terrorist attack on June 28, 2015 in Souuse, Tunisia. Sousse beaches remain quiet following the Tunisia beach attack which left 38 dead, including at least 15 Britons. Around 1,000 tourists returned to the UK with more set to follow in the coming days. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Armed police on patrol on Marhaba beach where 38 people were killed on Friday in a terrorist attack on June 28, 2015 in Souuse, Tunisia. Sousse beaches remain quiet following the Tunisia beach attack which left 38 dead, including at least 15 Britons. Around 1,000 tourists returned to the UK with more set to follow in the coming days. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Tunisia, the only democratic success story to come out of the “Arab Spring” revolts once heralded by the United States and other Western countries, is in serious danger. Even the country’s octogenarian President Beji Caid Essebsi seems to agree, warning recently of the distinct prospect that his country could become yet another failed state in the Middle East (and yet another accelerant for the Mediterranean refugee crisis). Although he quickly walked back his dramatic pronouncement, Essebsi expressed a barely concealed point of view that is increasingly common here: Tunisia is wholly unprepared for another terrorist attack, much less the general increase in religiously tinged violence, social breakdown, and broad economic collapse that has become the norm throughout the region.

What happened? The Tunisians appeared to admirably manage to make it through the transitional period that took place after the revolution of January 2011. A solid new constitution was written. Two elections took place. Power sharing between Islamists and their opposite was secured at the heart of a new national consensus. However, the system that has emerged is still largely anchored on, and increasingly subservient to, the corruption and vast inefficiencies of the old regime, including the police, various business elites, and a homegrown mafia.

And therein lies the core problem: What some Tunisians call the parallel state—the triangle of power assiduously built over the last several decades of a Western-backed dictatorship and that serves as the de facto authority—simply won’t be able to provide security in the new environment of relentless hi-tech insurgency; nor can it stimulate growth or even ensure economic stability for the vast majority of Tunisians.

In fact, the parallel state is structurally incapable of taking on either task effectively. First, unlike several other states in the region, it has very little strategic depth, experience, or demonstrable success in countering sustained violence. Second, the security elite is overwhelmingly resistant to any kind of reform or oversight that might make their agents more capable and accountable, preferring instead to double down on inept, heavy-handed methods, alongside deepening corrupt practices, that only breed greater resentment—already at exceptionally high levels—within the civilian population.

And then there is the issue of the rapidly disintegrating Tunisian economy: How can the parallel state be expected to enact the kinds of desperately needed reforms that might help stem the country’s decline but that would also necessarily undermine its own financial interests?

In early 2012, of course, these difficult trade-offs were far less apparent. The first elected, post-revolutionary government led by the Islamist An-Nahda party essentially chose not to take on the parallel state aggressively despite its earlier assurances to the Tunisian people—a decision supported by the U.S. government and key European Union member states. One indication of the turn-around was seen when An-Nahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jbali during his first year in office, partially out of blatant self-interest, backed off from a range of structural economic reforms that were designed to soften the monopolistic economic order of the country that ultimately feeds the police-mafia apparatus.

Crucially, such reforms would have opened up key sectors of the economy to greater local as well as foreign investment, thus undermining the overwhelming power that a few wealthy families use to shield their affiliated enterprises from both foreign and domestic competition. But Jbali (and his An-Nahda successor as prime minister in 2013) realized that his party and the self-described revolutionary forces didn’t have the political muscle to effect such a major change and that their preferred approach could lead to the government’s rapid destabilization. Moreover, the dominant thinking at the time went, why rock the boat so quickly after some of the newly elected officials had just been released from the regime’s jails?

Gradually, they imagined, the problem of the parallel state could be addressed within the framework of new laws, a new constitution, steady personnel changes at the ministry of interior, and, hopefully, supportive international efforts. The wildcard that Nahda, the Americans, and the Europeans didn’t properly calculate for, however, was the steady breakdown of the Libyan state, the inexorable pull of the Syrian civil war, and the spread of jihadist safe zones that now stretch across the Middle East and North Africa.

Simply put, the accommodationalist approach to the parallel state might have made sense in 2012 or even 2013. But over the last year and a half it has reached its termination point in terms of efficiency. Thousands of Tunisians are now engaged in a violent jihadist offensive in the region (many of the top emirs in ISIS and Syria’s al-Qaida franchise are Tunisians). More than a dozen major insurgent and terrorist attacks have taken place across the country in the last year alone (including a still-unbroken, three-year old insurgency in the central Chaambi mountain range, which is a mere 1,500 meters high). The country’s economy has been devastated, with most hotels sitting empty and businesses refusing to invest in what is rightfully viewed as an exceedingly difficult place to do business.


Unfortunately, the current president and most other observers usually point their fingers at subsidiary reasons for Tunisia’s current predicament: a lack of foreign cash assistance to prop up the country’s inefficient practices; not enough imported weapons or training for an anemic army; and home-grown extremists radicalized by outsiders or dangerously coddled by previous An-Nahda-led governments. Indeed, the list goes on, but invariably they explain the main cancer as lying outside of the “normal” realm of the Tunisian body politic (An-Nahda is even said by some of its critics to be a kind of foreign invention) and Tunisian responsibility.

They are wrong: The central problem lies within Tunisia and is embodied in the parallel state. Yet even though its incompetency is increasingly obvious—tragically underscored just three months ago by the enormous level of human and economic destruction that a single, poorly trained gunman was able to exact in just one attack in the resort city of Sousse on June 26—the old triangle of power has actually been steadily expanding its reach. In fact, from the July passage of a new anti-terrorism law that effectively returns key powers to the security apparatus (without any new benchmarks of responsibility, oversight, or monitoring of effectiveness), to the imminent passage of an “economic reconciliation” with ex-regime businesspersons (a bill that will avoid the issue of accountability and the prevention of corruption going forward), the legal framework ensuring the preponderance of the parallel state has almost been completed. This time, however, it is being stewarded by elected representatives who generally have found no other viable option but to cede crucial levers of power to the a system of governance they once fought.

At the same time, a wide array of civil society organizations are being threatened with closure while journalists, activists, and even some members of parliament are coming under increasing attack for questioning the dominant anti-terrorism line. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have also been swept up in mass arrests, and, predictably, more than a hundred mosques have been shuttered and imams silenced without a clear and consistent basis for doing so, or much of a plan for what to do with the leaders and their congregations afterward. In one particularly dramatic illustration of the power of the parallel state recently, according to the Associated Press, seven Tunisians charged under the new anti-terrorism law were released by a tribunal, only to be kidnapped moments later as they exited the courthouse by police commandos whose fellow officers had reportedly tortured several of the men.


Given the obvious threat to international security that another failed Mediterranean state would represent, the gravity of the situation demands far more from all concerned actors than empty statements about supporting reforms or hoping that Tunisia is an inherently peaceful country somehow immune to a Mosul-like, jihadist surge or sustained civil conflict. In this regard, several approaches are available, including the most ambitious and comprehensive one: The creation of a supra-national, International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) that would function in a similar manner to the International Criminal Court (ICC). As one proponent has put it: “Like the ICC, an IACC would operate on the principle of complementarity, meaning that only officials from those countries unable or unwilling to prosecute grand corruption properly would be subject to prosecution. This would give many nations a significant incentive to strengthen and demonstrate their capacity to combat grand corruption.”

But cobbling together broad international support for an IACC would undoubtedly take time and face numerous obstacles. A better alternative, then, for the vast majority of Tunisians who desperately want to see an end to the corruption of the parallel state, as well as for regional peace and security, may be an ad-hoc U.N. investigation, combined with the threat of a hybrid (Tunisian-international) tribunal should Tunisia prove itself unable to prosecute the handful of people and networks widely believed to be responsible for the bulk of the corruption.

Such an effort, strongly backed behind the scenes by the threat of possible individual sanctions on the part of the European Union and the United States, would send a powerful message to all Tunisians that the era of high-level impunity is over. The culture of corruption/crony protectionism and the inefficiency and injustice it breeds has become an existential threat to Tunisia and to “frontline” states in the region. Patrimonicide is not an option.

Of course, any U.N.-led process would necessarily be conducted in concert with the legitimate, elected representatives of Tunisia. This would mean that Tunisian democrats would finally have the leverage that they haven’t had since the revolution’s heady early days to take on the kind of grand theft and economic monopolization that most Tunisians realize is killing the country and its incredible potential.

For its part, the parallel state would surely fight back against such a multi-pronged, international effort: It might begin by trying to exercise its influence through the Nidaa Tounes party that holds the presidency as well as a plurality (not a majority) of seats in the parliament—and that is routinely castigated by its opponents as being a kind of “ex-regime” front. In reality, however, a number of Nidaa MPs (and many of their coalition allies) have strong opposition and human rights bona fides built up over the last few decades. And many would likely be ideologically receptive to the idea of rationalizing Tunisia’s regime by ending the monopolization of the economy and its dependency on the police-mafia anchor.

Furthermore, unlike in Egypt, Iraq, or Lebanon, the Tunisian parallel state possesses few levers of hard power to disrupt its own decapitation. Fortunately, there are no private militias in Tunisia and only minimal capabilities (at least for now) that could be used to apply pressure. Most important though, external actors, whose unflinching support would be vital, have few stress points that could be threatened in their effort to aid Tunisian democrats.

Yet strangely, the search for alternative approaches to stem Tunisia’s decline doesn’t seem to be particularly of the moment in New York, Washington, Brussels, or any Mediterranean capital. To cite but one example, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) recently outlined how “a dysfunctional internal security apparatus” in Tunisia was failing and had to be “thorough(ly) reformed”:

Without an Internal Security Force (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.

Brushing aside the full implications of its own dire predictions, ICG then went on to propose more of the same remedies that might have made sense in the 2011-2013 period: The parallel state, and especially its manifestations in the security sector, needs to be brought into the democratic process since “a head-on fight between the ISF and the political class is a dead end.” Rather than “impos(ing) their vision on the Internal Security Forces,” the report asserted, Tunisia’s democrats needed to somehow “channel the ISF’s desire for independence,” cooperate with it and offer “encourage(ment).”

It is time to recognize the situation as it is: There may be a rare chance to build a robust, non-corrupt democracy in the Middle East. But a “head on fight” that aims to dismantle Tunisia’s de facto triangle of power—the police, their associated business elites, and the mafia—is the only credible way to move forward and the only way left to prevent yet another disaster in a region that can’t bear it anymore.


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