Tunisia is connected to global dynamics, and international actors play a role in shaping the country’s trajectory through the assistance they provide to the government and CSOs. In that sense, when prioritising CT and CVE [127] in Tunisia, international support “influences the understanding of the phenomenon and the responses put in place in the country”, as noted by a Tunis-based analyst whom we met during our research. [128]

In addition, western actors’ efforts to deal with security threats at arm’s length impacts both the type of support offered and how it is provided. Their interventions thus aim to build the capacity of Tunisian security and justice institutions while supporting state and non-state entities perceived as relevant to reducing recruitment into violent groups. 

Then European Parliament President Martin Schulz delivers a speech at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, Tunisia. Photo: European Union 2016 – European Parliament

Then European Parliament President Martin Schulz delivers a speech at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, Tunisia. Photo: European Union 2016 – European Parliament

Security first

Since 2014-2015, western actors [129] such as the US, the UK, France, Germany and the EU, have ramped up their security assistance to Tunisia. [130] They have provided training and equipment to the Tunisian police and military, including for border control, intelligence and strategic planning to strengthen the government’s CT capacity and prevent a spill over from the conflict in Libya. While this assistance is welcomed by many in Tunisia, members of civil society criticised the interventions of western actors in Tunisia for their lack of coherence and long-term vision, which risks them unwittingly reinforcing some of the dynamics they intend to address. In their view, foreign assistance should not merely reinforce the capacity of the Tunisian government but also exhort it to become more accountable, transparent, respectful of human rights, and compliant with the rule of law. [131] As such, many highlighted the failure of the international community to urge and encourage the Tunisian state to embrace meaningful reforms as part of a coherent political strategy. 

By prioritising capacity building over reforms, western engagement risks emboldening or overlooking the problematic behaviour of some state actors which has exacerbated tensions and contributed to the appeal of violent action. This does not mean that enhancing the capacity of the state to protect its citizens and people on its territory is not necessary: it is, as the ineffective response to the Sousse attack illustrated. [132] However, the international community must also recognise the Tunisian state’s role in perpetuating grievances on which violence builds, be it through repressive policing and CT measures or limp efforts to address marginalisation, poverty and inequality. 

Unfortunately, the “exceptional” support provided by western actors to Tunisia [133] to an extent legitimises the government’s actions. In particular, security institutions, which receive considerable assistance, are benefiting from this support although they are among those resisting reform the most. For instance, several internationally sponsored security sector reform (SSR) programmes have reportedly been halted because of government blockages. According to some, this is because the Ministry of Interior (MOI) benefits from the current status quo and “is strong enough to maintain [it].” [134] In particular, we were told of the fragmentation within the ministry, where different clans are looking to protect their interests and achieve their own objectives. [135]

Many, including western actors, have highlighted the importance of reforming the MOI to achieve greater transparency, accountability and respect for human rights. However, in the current context, where securing the country is the utmost priority, “[SSR] in the deeper sense is not foremost on anyone’s agenda.” [136] As such, according to many interviewees, the international community “provides equipment whether or not reforms are carried out because it does this for intelligence first and foremost.” [137] A Tunisian security sector analyst also noted: “The provision of training and equipment, i.e. what the Tunisian government is after, is a way for the international community to buy influence, which is problematic.” [138]

This is not to say that no positive efforts have been put in place. For instance, community policing programmes [139] and innovative peacebuilding projects [140] have been supported in different localities throughout the country and are a good way to encourage more accountable security provision focused on people’s concerns. However, insufficient pressure on the government to pursue structural reforms is robbing international support of vital coherence. Individual or localised interventions designed to change the behaviour of the security sector cannot erase the overwhelming support that western actors are providing to the status quo. As short-term security responses take precedence, the prime importance of longer-term peacebuilding and development including economic opportunities is all too easily under-recognised and undermined. This could well prove counterproductive in the long run – as it often has elsewhere. [141]

While many Tunisian officials and foreign diplomats have commended the mainstreaming of human rights across international interventions [142], anti-torture experts expressed concerns that “a few PowerPoint presentations on human rights” would not bring about the required changes within the security forces. [143] And whereas corruption has been widely recognised as a critical challenge in the ‘fight against terrorism’ [144], a Tunisian anti-corruption expert noted that western actors have failed to place anti-corruption front and centre of their interventions. [145] For some civil society actors, this lack of coherence amounts to hypocrisy. As a Tunis-based civil society anti-torture specialist argued: “What is the point of supporting youth in marginalised areas when these young people are not able to travel outside of their regions because their movements are limited by procedure S17, or they get thrown into prison for smoking a joint?” [146]

Military presence in the centre of Tunis. Photo: Wassim Ben Rhouma

Military presence in the centre of Tunis. Photo: Wassim Ben Rhouma

Vying for access

Beyond jeopardising Tunisia’s long-term stability by prioritising stability over meaningful change [147] western states operating in Tunisia also undermine the coherence of their efforts by competing with each other. 

Diplomats are required to follow ‘the political imperative’ stemming from their capitals, in particular due to public pressures at home. [148] This can be apparent in a tension between the political and operational units of foreign missions in Tunisia, where the political imperative (i.e. security) can dominate the design of interventions. [149]

Pressure from headquarters also exacerbates competition and incoherence between international actors, with pressure from capitals cited as a key contributory factor. [150] Since security assistance is a means to access valuable information, donors often compete for privileged relationships with the Tunisian government. Several units with different foreign backers have been set up within the MOI and Ministry of Defence. [151] The fact that “international aid is fragmented” and different actors sometimes “attempt to undermine the projects of others” risks leading to duplication and unsustainability. [152]

However, coordination has increased thanks to the establishment of the G7+ mechanism following the Sousse attacks. In this framework, the EU, the UK and Germany each chair working groups (on CT/CVE, tourism and protection of critical infrastructure, and border security respectively). Interestingly, some within the government are reportedly frustrated at this move as they can no longer go to different states with a “shopping list of demands.” [153]

Yet, despite these coordination efforts, the rapid and frequent changes in context and personnel contribute to a confusing and opaque environment. [154] Considering the multiplicity of actors involved, the fluidity of the environment and the domestic interests at play, civil society actors have questioned the transparency of international assistance, and have criticised the opacity of foreign governments who work with implementing agencies for failing to coordinate with local civil society actors. [155]

CVE: addressing, reinforcing or ignoring drivers of violence?

Some western actors are attempting a more preventive approach, in particular by supporting CVE actions. These are often presented as a softer approach to CT since they do not focus on hard security measures. CVE is spreading in Tunisia through “increased funds offered by the UK, US and EU [which] are leading a growing number of organisations to focus on so-called alternatives to terrorism.” [156] But this has led to CVE being perceived as imposed from the outside, generating mistrust. A Tunisian civil society governance expert explained: “It starts with international non-governmental organisations and then leads to Tunisian organisations focusing on such programmes.” [157]

A consequence of the CVE approach is the securitisation of governance and development work, where non-security programmes are perceived as vectors through which to advance CT and CVE objectives. While some western actors perceive CVE simply as an additional outcome of “the kind of work that we would have done anyway” [158], it is not certain that the CVE focus actually contributes to advancing genuine governance, education or human rights goals – as it narrows the scope of projects. Addressing people’s problems only “in as far as they seem relevant to stopping [them from] joining violent groups” can significantly contribute to further marginalising and stigmatising individuals and groups. [159]

For instance, a Tunisian health professional recounted having been asked to take part in a cultural project for poor and marginalised youth: “but my contribution to this project was in fact aimed at profiling young Tunisians, with a view to identifying people who could potentially turn to violence.” [160] This type of distortion of well-meaning activities can lead to mistrust and anger among the beneficiaries and be detrimental to the image of those who put them in place. Also, we were told that some organisations lack the expertise to carry out CVE activities but are nonetheless receiving funding to do so. Considering the risks of doing harm with clumsy CVE programming, this is worrying.

Given the significant funds now available for CVE activities, some are concerned about CSOs being co-opted to support state-driven and western-imposed approaches to security as opposed to tackling the drivers of instability of greatest concern to Tunisian people. While engagement between civil society and the government on security issues has increased – notably in the context of the tripartite dialogue between the EU, the Tunisian government and civil society to discuss matters of security among others – several people noted that CSOs are not able to engage meaningfully in security discussions. A human rights activist told us: “The government doesn’t understand civil society and wants to control it.” [161]

The narrow focus on CVE has led to targeting the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. Trying to disturb the recruitment chain, including at the individual level, does not necessarily provide responses to the big issues that people see as potential drivers of future instability. Some CVE projects actually focus on producing ‘alternative narratives’ to guide people away from ‘radical discourse’. [162] However, referring to an internationally-sponsored project that she came across, a Tunisian activist told us: “Projects to prevent youth from being radicalised don’t work. You don’t promote resilience by distributing tote bags.” Instead, she argued, “Those projects should focus on providing young people with social, educational and economic opportunities.” [163] Similarly, an activist expressed amusement at the idea that a Facebook campaign could prevent young people from joining violent groups, who actually put a lot more effort into their recruitment strategy. [164]

“Projects to prevent youth from being radicalised don’t work. You don’t promote resilience by distributing tote bags”.

However, even if they are well designed, CVE actions when conducted in parallel to CT interventions, as is the case in Tunisia, cannot erase the downsides of the CT approach. Without addressing the repressive aspects of Tunisian governance, efforts to address marginalisation and unemployment, for instance, could prove inadequate. 

Anger at western governments’ policies in Tunisia and beyond

According to several Tunisian interviewees, the abuses committed with impunity by western states in Muslim countries especially in the context of the ‘war on terror’, are a reason why some people in Tunisia support and join violent groups: “As long as the international rules of play aren’t in place, feelings of injustice and anger will continue”. [165] If western actors are unwilling to behave according to international norms and standards, admit mistakes, provide reparation and strive to develop just solutions to the challenges faced by people across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the claims of violent groups to be offering a path to justice will remain very appealing within Tunisia and beyond. [166] Resentment against the West ought to be taken seriously, as this global dimension of the problem could persist, no matter how positive international interventions in Tunisia may be.  It is therefore essential for western actors to strive for more coherence, transparency and accountability in their foreign interventions. One suggestion offered by another Tunisian expert was for western actors to address the financing of violent groups, preventing businesses from contributing to those flows, applying political pressure on countries of origin and also increasing the sharing of financial information.

Tunisia needs long-term, comprehensive and coherent engagement in support of sustainable peace. Instead, as shown in this section, it seems clear that international actors have adopted a short term, narrow and overly securitised focus on CT and CVE – hampered further by an unhealthy dose of competition where there should be cooperation. In adopting this approach, international actors are at best neglecting but at worst reinforcing drivers of future instability in the country. The next section outlines a series of forward-looking recommendations for sustaining a peaceful society in Tunisia.

Header photo: Tunisia is setting up barriers, watchtowers, and moats along its Libyan border to prevent the infiltration of arms and terrorists. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty


127. While ‘preventing violent extremism’ (PVE) is increasingly being used instead or alongside ‘CVE’, we believe that in practice they pose similar questions and entail the same risks. Therefore, in this report, we will only refer to CVE for the sake of brevity.

128. Participant in workshop with civil society organisations, Tunis, March 2017

129. Non-western actors are also active in Tunisia, in particular Turkey, Algeria and Gulf countries. The scope of this long read does not extend to analysing the role that those actors play in Tunisia, as the research focused on that of Western actors, in particular the EU, US, UK, Germany and France. Nevertheless, this long read acknowledges the involvement of other actors and the need for Western states to coordinate their efforts with them in order to ensure coherence in international support to Tunisia.

130. British Embassy Tunis (2016), ‘UK Support for Tunisia 2016-2017’, 14 October; McInerney S, Bockenfeld C (2016), ‘The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2017: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East & North Africa’, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), April 2016

131. Interviews with civil society organisations, Tunis, October 2016 – March 2017

132. Grierson J (2017), ‘”Cowardice” to blame for delayed response at Sousse attack’, 8 February

133. Interviews with Tunisian government officials, October and December 2016

134. Interviews with a civil society representative, Tunis, October 2016

135. For more information: Aliriza F (2015) ‘Tunisia at Risk: Will counter-terrorism undermine the revolution?’, Legatum Institute, 16 November

136.  ibid. p 13

137. Interviews with a security sector expert, Tunis, October 2016

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

139. For instance, see: UNDP (2014), ‘Model police stations launched in Tunisia’, 5 June

140. For instance, see the work conducted by International Alert in Tunisia

141. See Saferworld work on the dilemmas of counter terrorism

142. Interviews with Tunisian government officials and international donors, Tunis, December 2016

143. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

144. For instance, see: Transparency International (2015), ‘Tackle instability and terrorism by fighting corruption’, 4 February; Ndung’U I (2015), ‘To fight terrorism, fight corruption first’, Institute for Security Studies, 9 October 

145. Interview, July 2017 

146. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016 - NB: this comment was made in October 2016; since then, the law on narcotics (Law 52) has been amended after years of civil society advocacy on this issue – see section 3 for more information.

147. Kubinec R (2016), ‘How foreign aid could hurt Tunisia's transition to democracy’, 19 December

148. Interview with international donors, Tunis, October 2016 - March 2017

149. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, March 2017

150. Interview with an international donor, Tunis, October 2016

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

152. Ibid.

153. Interview with an international donor, Tunis, December 2016

154. Interview with an international donors, Tunis, October 2017

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

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

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

158. Interview with an international donor, Tunis, March 2017

159. Attree L (2017), ‘Shouldn’t YOU be countering violent extremism?’, Saferworld, 14 March

160. Interview with civil society representative, Tunis, March 2017

161. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

162. Interviews with civil society representatives and international donors, Tunis, March 2017

163. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

164. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

165. Interview with civil society representative, Tunis, October 2016

166. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016