February proved to be a particularly tumultuous month in Tunisian politics, with the assassination of a prominent leftist politician and the resignation of the country’s prime minister. French- and English-language media tended to frame these events as the latest in a binary narrative that pits Islamist “hardliners” against members of a secular opposition. Though such ideologically oriented and sometimes alarmist coverage attracted readers, it failed to shine light on more substantive challenges—namely those of security reform and the rule of law—that made the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid on February 6 the latest in a string of destabilizing security breaches. 

Reestablishing security has been a key challenge for the new Tunisian state. Deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali relied on a top-down network of informants to provide intelligence and used law enforcement officials to arrest, imprison, and torture thousands of real and imagined regime opponents. The revolution upended Ben Ali’s authoritarian pyramid, disrupting chain of command structures at the national and municipal levels. Looters and criminals rushed to exploit the void, and many average citizens intent on protecting their property formed neighborhood militias. But more than two years after the revolution, the Tunisian state has yet to reclaim its monopoly on security. Local citizens’ groups, including some Salafis and members of Leagues to Protect the Revolution (a controversial nationwide association ostensibly committed to defending the revolution’s goals from old regime elements) have operated as self-styled militias both within and outside Tunisia’s capital.

On one level, the continued security breaches that have plagued Tunisia recently—including reported increases in theft, sexual harassment, attacks on political figures and Sufi shrines, and (most famously) the September 14 attack on the U.S. Embassy—are functions of decentralized state power. The revolution shattered the myth of the all-powerful state, leaving Tunisians with “no fear,” as graffiti around the country proclaims. 

While fragmentation of state power has increased freedom of political and religious expression in Tunisia, it has also generated a certain amount of instability and criminality which reflect the state’s weakness and inability to implement the rule of law. Many breaches of personal and state security—including theft, vandalism, attacks on secular and Islamist politicians, and the like—have not been met with swift, ethical, and transparent law enforcement. Like the embassy attack, Belaid’s assassination and the massive public protests that followed made foreign investors and local businesspeople wary of planning for long-term investments in the country. For Tunisia to achieve the revolution’s core demands—socio-economic dignity and real, lasting freedom—it must redouble its efforts to reform the security sector. 

Broadly speaking, the obstacles to security sector reform in Tunisia fall into three categories: institutional, political, and practical. The Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the country’s internal security forces, inherited a dysfunctional legacy from the Bourguiba and Ben Ali eras. Tunisia’s post-colonial rulers sidelined the army—relying instead on the police and national guard to bolster their power. Under Ben Ali, exchanges between and within ministries were limited to maintain control. This was particularly true of the Interior Ministry, which Ben Ali manipulated as a kind of personal praetorian guard. As a result, mechanisms for efficiency, transparency, and internal communication within the Ministry of Interior had atrophied long before the revolution. 

Developing a coherent understanding of how this “black box” ministry was organized—let alone articulating strategies for national security reform and communicating transparently with the Tunisian public—has therefore proven to be a massive challenge. Some progress on communication has been made, as evidenced by the increased visibility of Ministry of the Interior spokesman Khaled Tarrouche and the appearance of a weekly radio show called Le Forum de la Sécurité, which allows Tunisians to phone in and pose questions to an official from the ministry. Still, transforming the Ministry of the Interior from an instrument of oppression into a transparent institution that upholds the rule of law remains a monumental and unfinished goal. 

Conflicts of interest and mindsets among the ministry’s staff represent another institutional obstacle. While a number of top figures—notably the Interior Minister himself—were reshuffled to different posts within the ministry or dismissed altogether following the revolution, the bulk of present-day employees worked in the ministry prior to January 2011. These “old regime” personnel often feel besieged from all sides—from international actors calling persistently for reform to average Tunisian citizens shouting “wizara dakhiliya, wizara irhabiya” (“Interior Ministry, terrorist ministry”) outside their windows, to the current government of Islamists from Ennahda—which the Ministry of the Interior brutally oppressed before the revolution. Ennahda member Ali Laarayedh, who served as Interior Minister from January 2012 to February 2013, was himself held in solitary confinement and tortured within the ministry’s basement during his imprisonment, which lasted sixteen years. Many speculated whether Laarayedh—whose knowledge of the ministry seemed limited to its basement torture chambers—could command enough authority amongst old regime employees to make change a reality. 

Political obstacles also stymie security reform efforts. The process of drafting Tunisia’s constitution has taken longer than expected. Ministry officials argue that pursuing a detailed reform plan in the absence of clear legal architecture is impossible. Many would prefer to adopt a “wait-and-see” approach—holding off on detailed reforms until the constitutional framework is in place and the next elections are held. Another political challenge is the potential fallout of adopting a radical reform plan within the ministry itself. This is a transitional period, and many Tunisians are eager to see old regime officials kicked out of office and called to account for their past actions—or both. However, this is also an election year, and opposition figures are likely to castigate Ennahda as overly authoritarian if the party dismisses too many pre-revolutionary officials without establishing an independent vetting commission—particularly in an institution as sensitive as the Ministry of the Interior. 

Finally, practical obstacles (like lack of experience and resources) stand in the way of meaningful security reforms. Ministry of the Interior officials—many of whom were juggled from one post to another and none of whom spearheaded security reform in a democratic state—have struggled to keep up with post-revolutionary security challenges and simultaneously find time to craft comprehensive reform strategies. Adding to these difficulties was the fact that a large number of courts, police stations, and police equipment were destroyed during the revolution. A handful of security-focused international organizations have successfully partnered with the Ministry of the Interior to improve communications and human rights training for law enforcement officials. Still, major needs regarding infrastructure, equipment, training, and legal reform remain—including reform of Law No. 4 of 1969, which allows police to use disproportionate violence at public protests. 

The phrase “security reform” doesn’t pique public interest in the same way that words like Islamism and Salafism do; security sector reform is a technical and long-term process particularly ill-suited to hit-and-run reporting. The handful of truly knowledgeable security reform experts in Tunisia work in sensitive conditions and are understandably hesitant to be interviewed on the record. Moreover, media editors generally eschew “dry” institutional coverage for flashier frameworks guaranteed to stir public interest. In Tunisia, this generally means analyzing every issue through the tired Islamist vs. secularist dichotomy. Realistically speaking, though, Chokri Belaid’s death—and the ongoing instances of impunity and security-related unrest in Tunisia—have more to do with weak institutions than conflicts of ideology. Complex bureaucratic logistics and institutional inertias obstruct security reform and rule of law in Tunisia. These challenges are fundamental to Tunisia’s transition, and deserve far more public attention than they are receiving. 

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. She lives in Tunisia.