In 2015, after the Bardo and Sousse attacks, the Tunisian government declared a ‘war on terror’ and adopted a series of measures to deal with pressing security concerns. [76] However, many of these measures have relied on heavy-handed and repressive security tactics and, two years later, remain in place. And while the government has set aside 20 per cent of its national budget for internal security and defence [77], many of the people we spoke to denounced the government’s reactive response and the lack of a political strategy to tackle the challenges the country faces. People have felt the effects of the government’s CT approach both directly and indirectly throughout the country – increasing public resentment and lessening the legitimacy on which the government’s authority depends. It has also created a favourable recruiting environment for violent organisations. 

Excesses on the CT frontline

In July 2015, the government adopted a CT law which grants security forces broad surveillance powers, authorises incommunicado detention of ‘terrorism’ suspects for up to 15 days, permits courts to close hearings to the public and allows witnesses to remain anonymous to defendants. A few months later, it restored the state of emergency imposed after the 2011 uprisings. This allows the government to control the press and prohibit gatherings that ‘may cause disorder’. Following numerous extensions, it remains in force today. 

Such practices are portrayed as necessary to respond to the security threat. Many individuals and their family members have been arrested and detained arbitrarily, often based on their appearance or religious affiliation, and have suffered at the hands of the security apparatus, which is rarely held to account. [78] Notably, we were told of a young man who, in 2014, after the police violently raided his parents’ home, was arrested on terrorism charges. During his detention, he was allegedly tortured and subsequently filed a complaint. While the terrorism charges were dropped in 2016, his complaint has never been addressed. [79] This is in spite of the fact that the government announced it had set up registries which contain information on complaints filed for acts of torture to ensure they are effectively followed up. [80]

In addition, authorities have prevented people from travelling inside as well as outside of Tunisia. Inside of the country, they have imposed assigned residence orders as well as restrictions to travel from one region to another (referred to as the S17 procedure). While the government announced that the measure targeted members of violent groups and returned ‘foreign fighters’, Amnesty International describes these measures as discriminatory, i.e. “based on appearance, religious beliefs or previous criminal convictions […] with disregard to the due process of law.” [81] Family members of suspected individuals have also been targeted: we were told of a father who, having notified the police that his son was planning to leave Tunisia to join a violent group, was himself subjected to an internal travel ban. [82]

Those affected by travel bans are generally unaware that their movements have been restricted. Because they are not given a written copy of the decision, they are in turn unable to appeal it. [83] In addition, young people especially have reported being questioned when travelling outside their home towns despite not being subjected to a ban. [84] In a practice reminiscent of the Ben Ali era, they have also been arbitrarily prevented from traveling outside of the country as part of efforts to prevent individuals from joining violent groups abroad. [85]

Not only have these practices had significant impacts on people’s lives, by hampering access to employment, education, health, and in turn leaving many facing greater marginalisation and stigmatisation, they have also created a lot of anger and resentment toward the state and the police. A civil society representative in Tunis told us of a man arrested on terrorism charges whose family hadn’t been informed of his detention. Before his release, his mother died of a heart attack, still believing he had gone to fight in Syria. “This clearly exacerbates anger toward security services,” the interviewee explained. [86]

Graffiti in the Medina of Tunis says 'Freedom 2km away'. Following the uprisings, many Tunisians feel that freedom is still a long way off. Photo: Kloé Tricot O’Farrell, Saferworld

Graffiti in the Medina of Tunis says 'Freedom 2km away'. Following the uprisings, many Tunisians feel that freedom is still a long way off. Photo: Kloé Tricot O’Farrell, Saferworld

Security vs human rights

Underpinning these practices is rhetoric claiming that the protection of human rights and the achievement of security are incompatible alternatives. Such arguments remain influential: having lived under an authoritarian but stable regime for decades, “Tunisians are used to security rather than human rights”, according to a prominent civil society activist. [87] Human rights organisations have thus been accused in the media of supporting violent groups and undermining the security sector’s efforts by ‘using’ human rights to free ‘terrorists’. Some people believe that terror suspects should not enjoy human rights, and that practices like torture, arbitrary arrests and police raids are necessary to prevent future threats. A judge in Sidi Bouzid also remarked that most police officers still think and act like they did under Ben Ali – as indeed many have remained in their functions. [88] Overall, although democratic gains have been made during the transition, the culture of human rights is clearly not yet ingrained.

To garner support for its CT efforts, the government has also directly appealed to the public’s patriotism. In March 2016, it called on all Tunisians to contribute to a national fund to combat terrorism and support the efforts of the security establishment. [89] It has also organised several campaigns around the need for the population to support and rally behind the government’s efforts. One campaign featured civilians performing a military hand salute with the message: “The Tunisian people salute their security services and army”. [90] We were also told of a campaign in Sousse which featured a photo of a soldier from the CT brigade (Brigade Anti-Terroriste, BAT) with the message: “We are all actors in the fight against terrorism.” [91]

According to several human rights groups, these practices show worrying signs of a return to a strong, militarised central government. Recent political developments appear to confirm this trend. Parliament recently resumed debate on ‘Draft law No.25/2015 on the Prosecution of Abuses against the Armed Forces’ under which anyone criticising the police could be criminalised. [92] The draft law was introduced following the 2015 terror attacks but was blocked following backlash from civil society and international bodies. Two years later, a number of NGOs have expressed their dismay at the reintroduction of the draft law and expressed concern that it “risks silencing all criticism of the armed forces and reinforcing a culture of impunity already entrenched in the Tunisian security and judicial system, where extensive reform has been sorely lacking since the revolution.” [93]

Meanwhile, the necessary safeguards to prevent abuses are not in place. [94] While Tunisians have enjoyed greater freedoms of expression, assembly and association since the uprisings, the government has recently increased scrutiny of CSOs. In June, it ordered organisations to disclose all funds they receive from abroad or face dissolution in case of non-compliance. The government has also proposed amending the existing Decree on Association to address certain flaws - but CSOs fear this will morph into an attempt to impose restrictions on their freedom to operate. [95] Several state accountability mechanisms have been created since 2011, on issues including human rights, torture, corruption and CT but they have struggled to do their job because of a lack of political and financial support. According to some, this reflects official reluctance to see them deliver effective oversight: 

“They [the government] say there is no money, but we know there is. At the same time, they claim there is no torture, so maybe they just don’t want the commission to be able to function properly”. [96]

Tough conditions for border communities

One area where security measures have negatively impacted local populations has been border control. The Tunisian government has taken steps to address the threat posed by over 1,400km of porous borders. To the east, it has sought to militarise the border to prevent spill-over from the Libyan conflict and the incursion of violent groups. This has severely restricted informal cross-border trade – on which many people’s livelihoods depend – and has resulted in confrontations between citizens and security services during tense protests. [97] Due to the economic paralysis and violence it causes, people we spoke to in Medenine actually identified border closure as a source of conflict and insecurity. [98] These concerns, along with the inability of the Tunisian government to provide alternative livelihood options and effectively regulate cross-border trade – due in part to the collusion between local security providers, politicians, businessmen and smuggling networks – have in turn granted violent groups leeway to exploit social anger in Tunisia’s south. [99]

Tunisian security forces continue to pursue al-Qaeda linked terrorists in Jebel Chaambi. Photo: Magharebia

Tunisian security forces continue to pursue al-Qaeda linked terrorists in Jebel Chaambi. Photo: Magharebia

Close to Tunisia’s western border with Algeria, the government has conducted aerial bombardments and designated the area where violent groups have established their strongholds as a closed military zone – making it accessible only with a permit. [100] With their livelihoods in ruins and exposed to considerable insecurity, frustration is growing among local people, who resent the lack of political will to address their needs and concerns. [101] And although local communities have traditionally not supported these violent groups, some have established peaceful relations with them to ensure their livelihoods as well as their security. As a journalist covering this part of the country concluded: 

“All security and military solutions will remain impotent unless accompanied by economic solutions that strengthen the social fabric in the mountains in order to counter terrorism”. [102]

The need for such measures is not lost on the Tunisian government. Recently, Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui, recognised the need for “a comprehensive approach against ISIS that also supports economic growth and employment, notably for youth.” [103] However, as we have seen, the socio-economic and political public goods that need to be part of such an approach have been slow to arrive amid a serious economic crisis and fragile political situation. [104]

Winning hearts and minds? 

The government has attempted to develop narratives that provide young people with a sense of purpose and belonging as an alternative to those of violent groups. [105] One campaign showcases the positive experiences of young Tunisian entrepreneurs, writers and artists. The aim is to inspire young people while sharing the message that they must count on themselves to succeed. One state official told us: “In the current context, you can’t count on the state to respond to young people’s problems. It just isn’t possible.” [106] But such messages can only go so far unless they are accompanied by more concerted efforts to offer young people concrete opportunities. 

Some efforts to prevent people from joining violent groups carry the risk of further marginalising individuals and groups who are already on the fringe of society. Notably, while many have looked to religion in search of a meaningful identity, the government has tried to restore control over the religious sphere by closing mosques and religious associations or replacing imams deemed to be radical instead of supporting peaceful religious diversity. Some take the view that tackling religious leaders and institutions that incite violence has become necessary following the revolution which opened up political space and allowed even advocates of violence to express themselves. However, it is essential to distinguish between a criminal justice response to inciting violence and a more general clampdown on religious thought, belief and practice. In addition, those who question the state’s legitimacy will also likely question the version of Islam it is trying to promote in the absence of a broader effort to generate trust through reform and measures to tackle marginalisation. These efforts risk alienating conservative or religious segments of the population which, in turn, could look to support or join more ‘welcoming’ groups. [107]

Returnee dilemmas  

Many of the issues highlighted above are taking on new dimensions given the concern of Tunisian authorities over the return of ‘foreign fighters’. Already, between 600 and 800 Tunisians who joined violent groups in Syria, Libya and Iraq are thought to have returned home. [108] Other fighters from these groups may well return in increasing numbers and organise violent operations in Tunisia. Specifically, individuals and families who travelled abroad to establish and contribute to life under a caliphate may hold the same objectives in their home country. [109]

The debate on how best to respond to this challenge has generated controversy. Specifically, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced at the end of 2016 that “those who come back will be arrested immediately after their arrival on Tunisian soil and will be judged under the anti-terrorism [sic] law.” [110]

This raises concerns on several levels, not least because Tunisian prisons require reform and have in the past proved fertile ground for the growth of violent movements. [111] Due to an excessive preventive detention policy, which was bolstered following the adoption of the 2015 CT law, prisons are severely overcrowded. In this environment, condemned prisoners and detainees awaiting trial are not separated and live in dire conditions. [112]

While of concern in themselves, these elements have also facilitated recruitment of people by violent groups. [113] According to the Tunisian General Directorate for Prisons and Reeducation: “Overcrowding will […] cause frustration, violence and tension, which [leads] to prisoners seeking protection by joining or belonging to violent extremist groups, as they will provide the psychological and material care that is absent from the prison administration”. [114] As one person told us: “Some people go in for minor offences, and come out as terrorists.” [115] Moreover, while it can be hard to prove whether individuals have committed crimes, some returnees have been put under house arrest and closely monitored by the police [116], a practice which some find concerning given it is taking place outside a legal framework and in the broader context of emergency security measures.

Steps in the right direction? 

Nevertheless, some progressive measures have been put in place to respond to certain drivers of instability in Tunisia. Notably, a recent step consisted of amending the repressive law on narcotics (Law 52) that imposed a year in prison for anyone caught using or in the possession of even a small quantity of drugs, including cannabis, and a minimum sentence of five years for repeat offenders. [117] This punitive law significantly contributed to prison overcrowding and had devastating impacts on young people especially. [118] An amendment, which grants judges the power to impose alternative sentences, has now been adopted to prevent young people from spending time in prison. [119] This is crucial: former detainees cannot access education and certain types of employment if they have spent more than three months in jail; and after release, stigma can prevent young ex-convicts from enjoying social and family life, making it harder to marry and start a family. While this is a positive step, an anti-corruption expert told us that some within the judicial and security sectors were opposed to efforts to reform the narcotics law because they benefit from it, including in the form of bribes received for turning a blind eye in certain cases. [120]

In spite of increased pressure on CSOs, they have been playing an important role in monitoring and holding the government to account. Some people we spoke to have suggested that despite government hesitancy over substantive engagement with CSOs on sensitive matters, there is a willingness to engage civil society on how to address security concerns. However, others saw this less as willingness to allow CSOs to help shape security approaches, than as an effort to co-opt civil society in the service of state-driven CT strategies. For instance, some questioned whether their involvement in a recent workshop organised by the National Counter-Terrorism Commission on community-based reintegration of returning ‘foreign fighters’ was merely a box-ticking exercise. [121]

Ways forward

Although positive steps have been taken, much remains to be done to address the problematic behaviour of the state and tackle key drivers of future instability. Some efforts have been made as part of the transition process, but the security situation has apparently been used to justify delays. Many people we spoke with pointed to the unwillingness of some within the government, especially within the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to embrace reforms, leading to the return of repressive practices. Specifically, some ascribe resistance to change to fear that the democratic transition will threaten the privileges which corruption and impunity provide. 

After the revolution, a transitional justice process was set in motion to investigate gross human rights violations by the Tunisian state from 1955 until 2013. This was meant to mark a break with the past. [122] However, organisations monitoring this issue confirm that torture is still being used – especially against terror suspects. [123] And while officials praised a reduction in torture cases, these organisations believe the reduction in complaints filed merely reflects the climate of impunity and a fear of reprisals. [124]

Corruption is a critical issue for Tunisian peace and security: it negatively impacts people’s perceptions of and relation with the security sector, and can easily undermine the effectiveness of efforts designed to address violence. Despite recognition of corruption as a critical issue for the country, a civil society actor told us that corruption within the police tended to be overlooked because of their role as the primary bulwark against ‘terrorism’ and ‘violent extremism’. [125] However, in many ways, corruption is a boon to violent groups. According to a Tunisian anti-corruption expert: “Violent groups depend on smuggling for their financial and material survival, and smuggling cannot take place without state corruption.” Referring to the weapon arsenals which have been found in Tunisia in past years, he went on to say: “They have had to go through numerous customs, army and police controls, and cannot have done so without official collusion.” [126]

While the international community has provided security support to the Tunisian government through this challenging period, there have been important shortcomings in Tunisia’s CT approach that are impacting on issues that pose risks to the country’s stability. It is crucial that international actors use their leverage as strategic partners to promote and support efforts to respect human rights, tackle corruption and ensure accountability, and do everything in their power to encourage the government and civil society to build a consensus on the progress that is needed in these areas.

Header photo: A Tunisian guard during the 2014 parliamentary elections, Tunis. Photo: Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue


76. Strasser F (2017), ‘Aid Remains Key to a Counter-ISIS Plan, Tunisia Says’,  USIP Analysis and Commentary, 16 March

77. Ibid. ; Meddeb H (2017), ‘Precarious resilience: Tunisia’s Libya predicament’, op. cit. p 6

78. Amnesty International (2017), ‘“We want an end to the fear”: Abuses under Tunisia's state of emergency’, 13 February

79. Telephone interview with a civil society representative, June 2016

80. Tunisian Report to the UN Human Rights Council (2017), ref A/HRC/WG.6/27/TUN/1, 20 February, p 13

81. Amnesty International (2017), ‘“We want an end to the fear”: Abuses under Tunisia's state of emergency’, op. cit. 

82. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, October 2016

83. Human Rights Watch (2016), ‘Tunisia: Abusive House Arrests’, 24 October

84. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, December 2016

85. Human Rights Watch (2015), ‘Tunisia: Arbitrary Travel Restrictions’, 10 July

86. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, October 2016

87. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, October 2016

88. Interview with Judge, Sidi Bouzid, January 2017

89. Agence France Presse (2016), ‘Tunisie: les autorités appellent aux dons pour la lutte contre le terrorisme’, 12 March

90. Kapitalis (2014), ‘Les médias lancent une campagne contre le terrorisme’, 23 July

91. Interview, Tunis, March 2017

92. Projet de loi n° 25/2015 relative à la répression des atteintes contre les forces armées

93. Letter sent to Members of the Assembly of the People's Representatives (2017), ‘Appeal to the People's Representatives to Abandon Consideration of the Draft Law on Prosecution of Abuses Against the Armed Forces’, 26 July

94. Human Rights Watch (2016), ‘No to Terrorism, Yes to Human Rights’, 28 April

95. For instance, see: the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (2017), Civic Freedom Monitor: Tunisia, 27 July; Nadhif A (2017), ‘Tunisia cracks down on NGOs’, 23 June

96. Interview, Tunis, December 2016

97. Meddeb H (2017), ‘Precarious resilience: Tunisia’s Libya predicament’, op. cit. p 7

98. Focus group discussions and interviews, Medenine, January 2017

99. For instance, see: International Crisis Group (2013), ‘Tunisia’s borders: Jihadism and Contraband’, Report 148, 28 November

100. Tunisie Afrique Presse (2014), ‘Tunisie : Arrêté républicain déclarant zone militaire fermée les monts Chaambi’, 16 April; Amara T (2013), ‘Tunisia bombs Islamist militants in mountain hideouts’, 12 August

101. Hamza Meddeb (2017), op. cit. 

102. Nadhif A (2017), ‘Tunisia’s poor population face death by terrorists’, op. cit.

103. Strasser F (2017), op. cit.

104. International Crisis Group (2017), op. cit.

105. Interview with a Tunisian government official, Tunis, March 2017

106. Ibid.

107. Fahmi G, Meddeb H (2015), op. cit.

108. Argoubi M (2016), ‘Tunisian foreign fighters to be dealt with under anti-terrorism law: PM’, 30 December

109. Interview with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

110. Argoubi M (2016), op. cit.

111. Djilali E (2017), ‘Tunisia: Returning jihadists highlight desperate need for prison reform’, 28 February

112. Avocats Sans Frontière (2015), ‘Detention in Tunisia: Sanctions that go beyond deprivation of liberty’, 13 April; Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor (2016), ‘Tunisia guilty of medieval practices in prisons, detention centers’, 6 October

113. Djilali E (2017), op. cit.

114. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (2016),  ‘Handbook on the Management of Violent Extremist Prisoners and the Prevention of Radicalization to Violence in Prisons’, p 12

115. Interview with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

116. Gall C (2017), ‘Tunisia Fears the Return of Thousands of Young Jihadists’, 25 February

117. Human Right Watch (2017), ‘Tunisia: Amend Draft Drug Law’, 19 January ()

118. Human Rights Watch (2017), ‘Tunisia: Events of 2016’, World Report

119. HuffPost Tunisie (2017), ‘Tunisie-La loi 52 a été amendée: "Une étape considérable franchie" se félicite l'avocat Ghazi Mrabet’, 25 April

120. Interview with civil society representative, The Hague, July 2017

121. Hedayah Centre (2017), ‘Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters Workshop in Tunisia’ 

122. UNDP (2014), ‘Tunisia launches Truth and Dignity Commission’ 

123. Organisation mondiale contre la torture (2016), ‘L’impunité, pourquoi ? Analyse des dossiers juridiques’, Annual report, December 2016, pp 20-21

124. Telephone Interview with a civil society representative, June 2016

125. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, December 2016

126. Interview, July 2017