Tunisia’s security first approach

What will be the longer-term effects of the new Tunisian government’s sacrifices to ensure great security?

A general view shows part of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia [Reuters]
A general view shows part of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia [Reuters]

Tunisia may be getting a grip on the holes in its domestic security, but emergency powers becoming permanent pose a challenge to the ideals that underpinned the country’s 2011 revolution.  

After the intoxicating excitement of the revolution and a moment when Tunisia claimed to be the only success story of the Arab Spring came the cold, hard reality of the threat of modern terrorism.

The brutal attacks at the Bardo museum in the heart of Tunis last March, followed in June by a lone gunman killing of dozens of tourists in the resort city of Sousse, were a sucker punch to the emerging post-revolution body politic.

Confronting ISIL in Tunisia

It’s no fault of the Tunisians that their emergence into the sunlight of a post-authoritarian era coincided with a civil war and the state collapse of their Libyan neighbour to the east as well as the rise and rise of ISIL.

Tunisians are cited as having the largest number of foreign fighters operating under the black flag, with some 5,000 estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq.

Tunisian economy

Yet with tourism such a huge part of the Tunisian economy, comprising 8 percent of GDP directly but much more in associated industries, it has been a priority for the country to be seen as safe again for the cruise ship passengers and the package holiday tourists to return to enjoy the country’s beautiful beaches, ancient ruins and hospitable people.

READ MORE: Tunisia – a revolution besieged by ISIL

On a recent trip to the country I saw first hand what this effort looks like. Bag scanners in every hotel lounge, CCTV everywhere, police with automatic weapons guarding tourist sites and military humvees on resort town roundabouts.

Officials from the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism admit that traditions around welcoming guests and hospitality were unsuited for the security challenges of the modern day.

A huge amount of resources has been rushed into equipment and training for the security forces. The country’s army – the smallest in the region at some 45,000 active soldiers – is being invested in and saw action in March with fierce clashes with ISIL (also known as ISIS) that resulted in 50 of their fighters being killed. 

Officials from the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism admit that traditions around welcoming guests and hospitality were unsuited for the security challenges of the modern day.

The gun attacks in Sousse lasted for hours, pointing to shortfalls in coordination among the security forces that the new governor of the city claims have been addressed.

His manpower has been doubled and the restoration of power and influence by the Ministry of Interior means there is far more intelligence available to thwart attacks. 

Tunisia expects to attract 5.5 million visitors this year – the same as last year – as it increasingly believes that it has taken the necessary measures to protect tourists from harm.

‘Further attacks remain likely’

However British Foreign Office Travel advice continues to warn its nationals against all but essential travel to the country.

Despite the wide-ranging steps that the government has taken to improve security, the British government advice currently states that “further attacks remain likely”.

Tunisian soldiers patrol Ben Gardane a day after clashes with ISIL fighters near the border with Libya [EPA] 

This advice, powerful enough to ward off most British tourists on its own, also affects their ability to get travel insurance, which has led the larger British tour operators to cancel trips to the country for now, with the obvious knock-on effect for the tourism industry in a country where youth unemployment remains a big issue.

Ironically, Tunisia’s 5.5 million visitor number target has been helped with increasing numbers of Russian tourists travelling to the country after Turkey’s dropping off their agenda for political reasons and Egypt’s suffering following the attack on a passenger plane in November. 

What this shows is how the short-term picture is in such a flux against the backdrop of such an unpredictable security situation. What is perhaps a more important debate for the longer term is what sacrifices the new Tunisian government makes to ensure great security.

READ MORE: Tunisia still on the brink

A state of emergency is currently in effect in the country after a suicide attack against the police in November. This has been extended a number of times with the latest pushing it to late June of this year.

According to Human Rights Watch, the new counterterrorism laws “imperil human rights and lack adequate safeguards against abuses”.

Yet the governor of Sousse told me that Tunisians value “security above freedom” and his beliefs were backed up by the recent Arab Youth Survey which showed that 58 percent of responders from North Africa agreed with the statement that “given the current circumstances in the Middle East, promoting stability in the region is more important than promoting democracy”.

The overall picture highlights again the incredible impact that a handful of high-profile terrorist attacks can have on the direction of a country.

It seems that despite the fires burning in Libya, Tunisia has made significant strides in making the country a safer place. However, whether this trade-off with political freedoms is worth it in the longer term remains to be seen.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


More from Author
Most Read