If Tunisia is to remain a positive example of what the Arab uprisings were meant to achieve, there is important work ahead. As a Tunisian civil society actor told us: “The process is ongoing and the required elements are there but a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that the transition achieves its democratic objectives.” The Tunisian government, with support from the international community and civil society, therefore needs to focus on delivering the democratic transition process to address the longstanding grievances of Tunisians – but also show that change can be achieved through a peaceful revolution and not only through violent means. As such, the priority of western actors in Tunisia should be on consolidating the democratic transition and building a sustainable future rather than simply on countering terrorism.
Addressing grievances, once and for all
Over six years since the uprisings, there is a strong sense of disillusionment with the government, as it is perceived to be unable or unwilling to fulfil the promises of the revolution, including reducing economic inequalities, enhancing social justice, and guaranteeing human dignity. However, while the government is struggling amid a serious economic crisis and a fragile political situation, it needs to demonstrate that it is serious about change, and provide concrete improvements to people’s lives. To do so, it must meaningfully engage with communities and individuals throughout the country and adopt strategies that comprehensively address their needs and grievances. If it fails to do so, there is a risk that discontent and instability will grow. As recent Tunisian history has shown, discontent could lead to instability, providing the conditions that enable violent groups to make further advances.
Specifically, social and economic reforms are urgently needed to address the disparities between the different regions of Tunisia, and ensure the development of peripheral, marginalised areas like Medenine, Sidi Bouzid and Sidi Hassine. This requires the government to invest and encourage investment in these areas, through positive discrimination policies for instance, but also to improve the quality of education and provide courses and traineeships that take into account local realities and correspond to labour market needs.
Respondents to our research also emphasised the need for better public services, with some expressing hopes that this will be achieved with the election and establishment of regional councils following the municipal elections that will take place in December 2017.
Finally, these measures need to be accompanied by efforts to open up real opportunities for people from marginalised regions, especially unemployed youth. In that sense, the amendment of the narcotics law is a step in the right direction to alter patterns of discrimination.
Security and governance reforms are also needed to improve state-society relations. Whether they were concerned with police behaviour or requested increased security presence to prevent crime and violence, most respondents expressed the need to reform the security sector. Specifically, they called for an end to corruption and impunity when abuses are committed and for security provision to be more responsive to people’s concerns and compliant with human rights. In this regard, people we spoke with highlighted the importance of encouraging civil society’s role in monitoring security institutions to hold them and the government to account.
Supporting agents of positive change
Governance weaknesses and abuses have had negative consequences on peace dynamics in Tunisia. In this context, western actors must think strategically about how they provide support to state and non-state institutions. Their future engagement could be enhanced by being configured around a shared long-term vision for peace based on a realistic assessment of capacities and incentives. This should include ‘milestones’ for progress on which to base further support. Bearing in mind the lack of willingness from some within the government to undergo reform, several Tunisian CSOs have suggested that ‘train and equip’ support, for instance, be tied to state officials taking serious steps to meet their commitments on democracy, human rights and rule of law in the context of a ‘more for more’ approach. This would be particularly important regarding support provided to the MOI and to ensure that the international community is focusing on addressing endemic corruption, shortcomings in policing and CT practices, dire conditions in prisons, and so on.
To strengthen the democratic transition, western actors in Tunisia should consider ways to support and reinforce check and balance mechanisms, such as the independent bodies working to support the reform agenda. The civil society actors we consulted warned that all the necessary safeguards are not yet in place in Tunisia and many lamented a lack of political will on behalf of some within the government to see these accountability mechanisms operate effectively. International interventions in Tunisia should therefore strengthen the setup of those independent bodies, and enhance their potential to meaningfully engage with the government and contribute to improving state-society relations.
In addition, western actors can play a constructive role by empowering civil society, which is critical to ensuring the success of Tunisia’s democratic transition. In particular, instead of imposing a CVE lens, the framing of which prevents civil society from being impartial and challenging the state to improve, they should redouble investment in peace, rights and governance efforts focused on pushing for progress on the issues that matter most to Tunisian communities.
Western interventions in Tunisia should also seek to broaden debates on security, supporting the engagement of a diverse range of civil society and community actors in discussions on what the response to security threats should look like and how the security sector should improve. Ensuring security debates are more inclusive is crucial for developing relevant and sustainable solutions to insecurity in Tunisia.
This research also highlights the eagerness of youth from marginalised areas to contribute to shaping their country’s future. Participants in focus group discussions thanked us for having given them a chance to discuss important issues and expressed their “need to be listened to”.  In view of increased disillusionment and hostility toward the state, reaching out to young people and demonstrating that their views count and are taken into account should be the number one priority of both the government and its international friends. Political exclusion is one of the key grievances of marginalised Tunisian youth, and their willingness to contribute to a fairer society is one of Tunisia’s key strengths in the current context.
Overall, there are no shortcuts to achieving Tunisian and western security objectives in Tunisia. As there remains a strong constituency for change and valuable space for debate, the focus must be to address drivers of instability that are priorities for people. As such, Tunisian and international stakeholders must strive for more coherent strategies that support long-term peace and stability in Tunisia. Tunisians deserve no less.
Header photo: 3D mosaic in Tunisia. Photo: Walid Mahfoudh
167. Focus group discussions, Sidi Bouzid, Medenine and Sidi Hassine, January-March 2017