Fakhreddine Louati, a junior researcher at the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES).
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi hoped naming Youssef Chahed to head the government would successfully bring about the national reconciliation embodied in the Carthage Agreement, which sought stability through winning the war on terror and fighting corruption.
The run-up to Chahed’s term in office had been marked by a worrisome security situation. In 2015, three major terrorist attacks took place: the Bardo National Museum attack on March 18, the Sousse beach shooting on June 26, and the bus bombing on Mohamed V Avenue on November 24. On March 7, 2016, a terrorist assault on the town of Ben Guerdane near the Libyan border claimed the lives of eleven soldiers and seven civilians. Meanwhile, strikes and protests occurred on a nearly daily basis, and Tunisia faced the looming specter of returning Tunisian jihadis—according to UN figures, there are over 5,500 abroad, including 3,000 in Syria, while another 30,000 have been prevented from traveling to fight.
This context has forced the Chahed government to move quickly to put together a comprehensive strategic security and defense plan that can protect Tunisia and its interests, as stipulated in the country’s new constitution. First, the Tunisian National Security Council ratified the National Strategy for Resisting Extremism and Terrorism on November 7, 2016, which was based on four foundations: prevention, protection, tracking, and response. The government has continued to work on capacity building within the military and security establishments, while developing intelligence agencies to be more aggressive and proactive against terrorists, instead of waiting for them to attack. At the beginning of 2017, Chahed’s government also launched an “alternative dialogue platform” within the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights—aiming to safeguard against extremist ideology by bringing civil society more into the picture. With these efforts, the Chahed government, for which security is the cornerstone of economic growth and social stability, has chosen to combine hard and soft power in tackling the war on terrorism.
However, the government’s success in curbing terrorist strikes and its ability to contain the war on terrorism to the areas around Mount Chambi and Mount Samama, fortify its borders, has weakened its ability to deal with other security issues. Security forces have poorly handled social unrest, as seen with the protests in El Kamour in May and June, during which the army was deployed to protect oil and gas facilities from demonstrators. The rising tension forced the prime minister to show Tunisians a glimmer of hope even outside the war on terrorism, leading him to swim against the dominant political current and use the state of emergency to launch a war on corruption to mollify public sentiment. Meanwhile, if left in place the state of emergency could threaten Tunisia’s emerging democracy.
Chahed has been able to score victories in the short term, but the challenging economic situation will make it more difficult to handle pressing issues such as dealing with returning jihadis, implementing a national strategy on extremist ideology, coordinating between overlapping government agencies, and continuing the crackdown on smuggling, corruption, and organized crime—especially given how interwoven these threats are. Tunisia badly needs coordination, including through an intelligence coordination agency able to act preemptively over the long run and put together a strategy for confronting its threats both domestic and foreign.