Nearly five years into the democratic work in progress and in the immediate wake of a bomb explosion that killed twelve in the capital, demands for and promises of US support for “the Arab Spring’s sole success” appear increasingly tired and misguided.

As demands continue for more support to Tunisia and the country reels from its third terrorist attack this year, one has the sense that recent history is stuck on replay. Barely two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Tunis for the second Strategic Dialogue to discuss the main axes—economy, governance, security—of the Tunisia-US partnership. In the meantime, various specialists, diplomats, and officials have called for Congress to increase foreign assistance to Tunisia as senators and house representatives hurry to finalize the budget for fiscal year 2016.

Support Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s sole success, Chris Coons. Congress Blog.
Support Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s sole success, Chris Coons. Congress Blog.
Want to Beat the Islamic State? Help Tunisia, Christian Caryle. Foreign Policy.
Want to Beat the Islamic State? Help Tunisia, Christian Caryle. Foreign Policy.

Bolstering support for Tunisia
The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) is a Washington-based organization with a mission to “strengthen the constituency for U.S. policies that peacefully support reform in the Middle East.” In the weeks leading up to the first Strategic Dialogue in which President Obama and former Prime Minister Jomaa convened in Washington in April 2014, POMED published an open letter to Secretary Kerry: 65 reputable diplomats, entrepreneurs, and researchers signed to encourage the US to “deepen” and “bolster” its support for Tunisia’s democratic gains.

A letter published last month by POMED called for stronger U.S. support for Tunisia through increased aid. Addressed to four US senators and house representatives, the letter criticized Congress’ failure to grant the full funding—134.4 million dollars for fiscal year 2016—requested for Tunisia by the Obama administration:

While we recognize budgetary constraints, we also note with concern that House and Senate appropriators did manage to fully fund or exceed the administration’s budget request for all authoritarian U.S. allies in the Arab world…

Among the 114 individuals who signed the letter are Stephen McInerney (POMED), William J. Burns (Carnegie Endowment), Tamara Cofman Wittes (Brookings Institution), Barbara Slavin (Atlantic Council), Radwan Masmoudi (Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy), Mohamed Malouche (Tunisian American Young Professionals), Juan Cole (University of Michigan).

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Will counter-terrorism undermine the revolution?

In the global fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), the United States needs to support Tunisia and its democratization and stop supporting authoritarianism. Attributed to Daniel Brumberg during the panel discussion on Countering Terrorism in Tunisia, 16 November 2015.

Three days after Kerry’s visit to Tunis, a panel on Countering Terrorism in Tunisia: Prospects for Security Sector Reform took place in Washington, D.C.. Organized by POMED and the London-based Legatum Institute, participants characterized Tunisia’s security apparatus and discussed how US and international actors can assist security sector and ministerial reform. A report Tunisia at Risk: Will counter-terrorism undermine the revolution? by Legatum Institute Visiting Fellow Fadil Aliriza served as a springboard for the discussion.

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This paper argues that a shift is taking place in Tunisia’s politics, from a narrative of reform to a narrative of counterterrorism. Not only is this change anti-democratic, it is counterproductive. Paradoxically, Western aid provided to help Tunisia fight the war on terrorism may be helping to achieve the opposite of what is intended.

Examining the evolution of the country’s security apparatus through the revolution and transitional period, Aliriza formulates conclusions and recommendations for the country’s politicians and allies. He describes the “culture of danger” which enabled the Ministry of the Interior to occupy a central role in the State under President Ben Ali, and suggests that the revolution represents a missed opportunity for greater civilian control of the security apparatus. After 2011, the Interior Ministry regained power through the media, shaping public perception about violence and threats to national security. With the Chaambi Mountain attack in 2013 and electoral campaigns in 2014, “vigorous but ultimately incompetent counterterrorism tactics” were carried out by security forces while politicians employed counterterrorism discourse to link terrorism with political opponents.

A “republican police” which has remained unaccountable to the citizenry as well as a lack of coordination among security forces has led to a disjointed security apparatus which failed to respond effectively to the Bardo and Sousse attacks. The President’s declaration of a state of emergency in July 2015 set the stage for infringement on freedoms of expression and association. Describing the “dangerous tactics” employed by security forces, Aliriza points out how prolific and arbitrary arrests (100,000 Tunisians, or one percent of the population, were arrested in the first half of 2015, according to the Ministry of the Interior) and the torture of suspected “terrorists” and detainees may fuel radicalization.

«But although a large portion of foreign assistance to Tunisia takes the form of security assistance», Aliriza concludes, «security sector reform in the deeper sense is not foremost on anyone’s agendaOperational achievements at a tactical level do not necessarily achieve much if dysfunctional state institutions, corruption, and divergent interests and goals with a security apparatus are not also addressed».

A familiar course of events
Official response to Tuesday’s attack provides a case-in-point for Aliriza’s analysis. The course of events following the explosion was familiar: a panicked flurry of rumors and contradictory reports, the aggressive dispersal of journalists who showed up to cover the incident, and the Presidency’s immediate announcement of a state of emergency and curfew between the hours of 9pm and 5am. On Twitter and in press releases, foreign allies have mechanically condemned the violence and expressed their solidarity with Tunisia.


While officials and diplomats continue to call for increased foreign assistance to Tunisia, researchers and ordinary citizens are increasingly aware of the difference between the quantity and quality of assistance provided.