Ambush kills four Tunisian soldiers
An ambush on a military checkpoint near the town of Sbeitla in the Kasserine region has killed four soldiers and injured six. State news agency TAP said around 30-35 militants were involved in the attack. Kasserine lies near the Algerian border at the foot of the Chaambi Mountain, where numerous attacks have taken place against soldiers and police since 2012.
In a Newsweek article on terrorist groups in the region, Kasserine’s popularity as “an informal headquarters” for the jihadi movement in Tunisia is linked to its “proximity to the porous Algerian border”, “alliance between the two criminal activities” of jihadism and trafficking, and “the hardship faced by those who live there.” Kasserine is one of the poorest cities and regions in Tunisia, with unemployment roughly two times higher than the national average.
Bardo attacks: arrests continue
Since our last blog, Tunisia suffered the shock of a brutal terrorist attack on one of its key tourist and historic sites, Bardo Museum in Tunis. The horrific attacks killed 21 foreign tourists and a Tunisian policeman and unleashed a wave of national mourning, with tens of thousands joining the march against terrorism on Sunday 29th alongside world leaders.
Questions have abounded around how such an attack could have taken place on such a prominent national monument, right on the doorstep of the National Assembly. The government has responded by firing a number of security officials and stepping up security around national sites. Security forces also launched a raid on members of the Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, thought to be behind the attacks, killing nine militants including one of the leaders of the group, Algerian Loqman Abu Sakhr.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, but it is unclear whether the Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, previously allied to Al Qaeda, had sworn allegiance to Islamic State.
Security forces have also arrested 46 militants suspected of belonging to two terrorist cells involved in the attacks.
Trial of ambush suspects adjourned
The trial of 77 people for involvement in an armed attack that killed eight soldiers in 2014 was adjourned on Monday to give the defense more time to prepare. Defendants include Seif Allah Ben Hassine, also known as Abou Iyadh, the Tunisian jihadist leader who has fled to Libya. 70 of the defendants, including around 50 Algerians, are being tried in absentia.
Eye on the Assembly
Last week, the Assembly flexed its monitoring muscles as it called in the Prime Minister and his government for a “dialogue session” with deputies, 58 days into the new government’s mandate. Prime Minister Essid set out the difficult economic situation, stating that the trade deficit is at 13.7 billion dinars and national debt at 53% of GDP. Public service funds are suffering from a deficit of 1.1 billion dinars. The government is prioritizing infrastructure projects, with 13 highway projects and the construction of 622km of rural roads in the works.
Ministers were questioned on a range of issues, with concern focusing mainly on terrorism. The Prime Minister informed the Assembly that his government had carried out an exhaustive investigation on the circumstances of the Bardo attacks and that security forces have taken action to shut down a number of terrorist cells and arrested dozens of militants.
The Assembly is due to begin discussions this week on the new law on terrorism after it was approved by the Council of Ministers. The Assembly is debating the option to set up “consensus committees” overseen by the Assembly President, to facilitate the process of agreeing on contentious points.
The new law seeks to replace the existing 2003 Law on Terrorism, address gaps in the legal framework and introduce a more precise definition of terrorism to reduce broad and vague powers that threaten rights. However, the draft has been criticised by some human rights groups for violating international human rights standards.
Truth and Dignity Commission
The Truth and Dignity Commission announced that it has received over 10,000 cases. The Commission has hit back at recent calls for an “amnesty” on business figures from the old regime subject to travel bans since 2011. In a statement on its website, the Commission stated that the bans were imposed by the government back in the beginning of 2011 and that it has no legal mandate to sanction individuals. The Commission does have powers of “mediation” and “reconciliation”, which means that individuals with pending corruption cases can solicit the Commission to mediate for them, so that corruption charges are dropped in exchange for the individual making due reparations.
The Commission’s President, Sihem Bensedrine, argues in the statement that a blanket amnesty against business figures charged with involvement in corruption would “far from reconciling Tunisians, contribute to dividing them further and producing more tensions and violence…Transitional justice is the guarantor of the transition, and those who seek to empty it of content work against the interests of Tunisia”.
Baccouche Makes His Mark
Most new ministers seek to make their mark and distinguish themselves from their predecessors. Taieb Baccouche, new Tunisian Foreign Minister, has certainly made his mark this week, with a series of surprising and unexpected policy announcements, causing a diplomatic incident and rebuttal by the President.
At a press conference last Thursday, Baccouche announced that Tunisia would restore diplomatic relations with Syria, with plans to open a consulate and welcome a Syrian ambassador to Tunisia – in violation of Arab League resolutions. This was news for President Essebsi – “he said that??” he asked incredulously, when France 24 journalist Taoufik Mjaied asked about Baccouche’s announcement. President Essebsi rebuffed Baccouche’s statement, declaring, “it is for the President of the Republic to define the foreign policy of the country”.
In the same press conference, Baccouche also launched an attack on Turkey, accusing it of “facilitating the movements of terrorists” to Syria and Iraq.Turkey has responded by summoning Tunisia’s ambassadorto Turkey to explain the remarks.
Baccouche also provoked public scepticism recently when he announced that Tunisia was in “talks with the European Union with a view to removing entry visa requirements”, at a time when the EU is further tightening up border and visa controls.
The long-running strike by teachers has finally come to an end after hundreds of thousands of pupils were caught in the middle of disputes between teachers’ unions and the government over pay and working conditions. Representatives of the secondary teachers’ union signed an agreement with the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Youth and Sports on professional and remuneration issues on Monday after weeks of negotiation. The agreement sets out plans to establish three new teachers’ rankings and to increase the monthly stipend to teachers introduced in 2013 by an extra 150 Dinars, to be disbursed over three installments (July 2015, January 2016 and January 2017). The parties have agreed to organise a national dialogue on reforming the national education system and to establish a joint committee to address the phenomenon of paid private classes, which a majority of students in Tunisia attend.
187 Unauthorised Mosques to be Shut Down
The Ministry of Religious Affairs has announced plans to shut down 187 mosques built without official authorisation. Chokri Beji, a ministry official, announced that the plans would be overseen by a joint committee composed of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Authority for State Properties, Ministry of Justice, and regional and municipal authorities.
Political Party News
Preparation for Nidaa Tounes congress held up by local conflicts
Nidaa Tounes is due to hold its first party congress between June and September of this year. However, preparations have been stalled by conflicts at regional and local levels. Local party branch meetings to prepare for the first congress were suspended or postponed in a number of localities, including Kairouan, El Kef, and Menzah 1, according to Almaghreb newspaper.
Union Patriotique Libre – from “liberal” to “social” party?
On the orders of its President, Slim Riahi, the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) is setting up an internal committee for structural reform to produce a new strategy for the party, according to Almaghreb newspaper. The committee has issued a number of recommendations including changing the party’s direction from a “liberal party” to a “social party”, holding a party congress in April, and establishing a new party institution to carry out charitable and social work.
World Bank: The impact of Libyan middle-class refugees in Tunisia
The World Bank highlights the little-studied phenomenon of Libyan refugee flows to Tunisia, and the impact of the settlement of over a million Libyans – 10% of Tunisia’s population – in the country. The author, Omer Karasapan, notes that “tensions have remained largely under control”. Nevertheless, the sudden influx and Libya’s continuing instability have placed strains on an already fragile domestic situation in Tunisia. Before the recent deterioration of Libya’s internal situation, it used to provide more than 25 percent of Tunisia’s fuel needs at subsidized prices. Libyan oil exports are now down to 200,000 barrels a day from 1.3 million barrels in 2011. Tunisia’s economy has also been hit by the return of 100,000 Tunisians previously working in Libya, whose remittances represented 0.6 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. Karasapan concludes that assistance to Tunisia is urgently needed to help it meet these new challenges – “Neither the Tunisians, the Arab world, nor the Europeans and the rest of the world can afford to jeopardize this still evolving success story.”
Carnegie Endowment: The Reckoning: Tunisia’s Perilous Path to Democratic Stability
In an in-depth and masterful analysis of current and historic political developments in Tunisia, Anouar Boukhars, nonresident scholar at Carnegie, analyses the “the hard political work of reconciling a deeply polarized society” that lies ahead in Tunisia. He identifies two major perils facing Tunisia’s democratisation – “the temptation of crude majoritarianism” and “the inability to deliver the essence of what people expect from their government”. He analyses several challenges and characteristics of Tunisia’s transition, from jihadism and organised crime, populism, and the old regime to divisions within and between major political actors including Nidaa Tounes, Ennahdha and the UGTT.
Boukhars’ analysis of regional polarization and class divisions and their historical roots is particular interesting. He notes, “ideological antipathy and social schisms that divide the north and south have their roots in old divisions that tore the nationalist movement for independence of the 1950s into two regionally divergent ideological and political interests… The 2014 elections laid bare the concerns of the old establishment in the north, which fears that any electoral power shift might prove destabilizing and detrimental to its economic interests, as well as the aspirations of the provincial masses of the south to gain a political voice and improve the standing of their region.”
Carnegie Europe: Tunisia’s Difficult Road to Security and Diversity
Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe,analyses Tunisia’s progress and praises the “major institutional achievements” achieved in a relatively short time and “political maturity” of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha Party for choosing to cooperate for the sake of stability. However, significant hurdles remain including a polarized society, security threats, security sector reform and finding permanent mechanisms for managing diversity and achieving consensus.
On the issue of European assistance, he argues the EU has a problem of methodology – “Europeans must draw lessons from the mistakes of the past… cooperation between the EU and its member states, on the one hand, and Tunisia, on the other, should cover all relevant sectors—not least security, which was not previously a part of bilateral cooperation… the EU’s cooperation methodology should be inclusive…All stakeholders should be involved in an inclusive and transparent manner, which is also in the interest of Tunisia’s government and parliament as they try hard to decide on critical reforms.”
Sarah Bush: The Taming of Democracy Assistance
A new book about to be released, The Taming of Democracy Assistance: Why Democracy Promotion Does Not Confront Dictators by Sarah Bush (senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute) looks at the survivalist traits of non-profit organisations in Jordan and Tunisia. The Taming of Democracy Assistance provides an analysis of foreign influence and moral actors in world politics and their impact on democracy in the Middle East.
CSIS: Getting out of Limbo in Tunisia
Carolyn Barnett, fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.,analyses Tunisia’s economic challenges. She writes, “Tunisia has an opportunity to fix an economy that grew around structures that maintained an authoritarian system. To move forward, the government will need to articulate and communicate a clear and ambitious vision for Tunisia’s economic model. Most of the major political actors share a basic view of what kind of economic structure Tunisia should have: more open to the world, more dynamic, and more equitable, with the state as a strategic regulator. But they disagree on how to get there.”
Fifth edition of “Tunisia Investment Forum (TIF 2015)”: “Invest in TUNISIA, Join the Growing Success” to be held on 11th -12th June 2015 in Tunis – El Mouradi Hotel – Gammarth.
The fifth edition of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy is due to take place in Tunis on 14-17 May 2015, focusing on active citizenship and participatory democracy.