Oussama Romdhani: La Tunisie, l’Occident et le « printemps arabe »

Bien que la Tunisie continue à bénéficier d’un préjugé favorable à Washington, il est peu probable que cela puisse se traduire par l’octroi d’une assistance à même de permettre au pays de surmonter les défis économiques et sécuritaires auxquels il est confronté.

 

 

Oussama Romdhani

D’aucuns à Washington, et dans le monde occidental en général, estiment que la Tunisie est l’exemple de ce que le « printemps arabe » aurait pu apporter. Pour d’autres, le cas de la Tunisie a parfois représenté le seul argument pouvant être invoqué pour justifier les attentes optimistes suite aux soulèvements qui ont secoué le Moyen-Orient et l’Afrique du Nord après 2010.
L’expérience tunisienne est restée un cas à part malgré les généralisations impétueuses au sujet d’un invraisemblable effet de domino démocratique dans le monde arabe. Le Président tunisien Béji Caïd Essebsi a lui-même réfuté cette tendance. « Il n’y a pas ‘de printemps arabe’, a-t-il dit, « en fait, il n’y a qu’un début de « printemps tunisien ».
Pour la plupart des occidentaux, le cas de la Tunisie vient tout simplement rappeler, a contrario, les guerres, la violence et la dévastation qui continuent de ravager nombre de pays de la région depuis 2011. 
Aujourd’hui, la question qui revient à l’esprit de la majorité des Américains et des Européens est de savoir pourquoi la transition pacifique qui a été possible en Tunisie ne l’a pas été dans d’autres pays arabes.
La réponse, qui échappe toujours à de nombreux Occidentaux est que, depuis son indépendance voire même depuis le XIXe siècle, la Tunisie a connu une évolution différente de celles de la plupart des autres pays arabes. En 2010, la société tunisienne était nettement en avance par rapport au régime politique en place; et c’était seulement la réticence du pouvoir d’introduire les réformes idoines qui avait précipité la révolution. Pareilles conditions n’existaient pas dans d’autres pays arabes et leur absence ne pouvait être compensée ni par les interventions étrangères ni par les violences. Celles-ci ne pouvaient qu’aggraver la situation, chose qu’elles n’ont pas tardé à occasionner.
Tout en bataillant pour préserver ses acquis, la Tunisie n’est pas pour autant au bout de ses peines. Elle cherche toujours les moyens lui permettant de remettre son économie sur les rails, de donner de l’espoir à sa jeunesse mécontente et de protéger le pays du terrorisme.
Les responsables et experts américains savent pertinemment les nombreux défis devant être relevés par la Tunisie. Seulement, les Américains, comme les Européens, sont trop absorbés par leurs propres préoccupations internes pour envisager une initiative majeure de soutien économique à la Tunisie.
De toute évidence, le temps des Plans Marshall est définitivement révolu.
S’il est vrai que pratiquement toute la classe politique et les experts US souhaitent voir la Tunisie réussir sa transition démocratique, il faut vraiment chercher longtemps pour trouver parmi eux quelqu’un qui soit disposé à prôner la prise en charge de la facture des défis économiques et sociaux en Tunisie.
Aussi paradoxal que cela puisse paraitre,  il est relativement décevant pour certains que la transition démocratique et paisible en Tunisie soit en fait une exception et non un modèle pouvant être dupliqué dans le reste de la région.
Dans le discours politique américain, l’on peut déceler des traces du  « Freedom Agenda » du président américain George W. Bush ou des autres incarnations connexes de l’ère Obama.  Mais désormais face aux situations actuelles de crises et de conflits, les décideurs politiques européens et américains sont de plus en plus enclins à se contenter d’objectifs moins ambitieux que la promotion de la démocratie. La recherche de la paix et de la sécurité est désormais un objectif plus réaliste et suffisant.
Bien que l’expérience tunisienne trouve toujours une place importante au cœur du débat sur l’engagement américain dans le monde arabe, la nature du débat lui-même a cependant beaucoup changé. La détérioration de la situation dans la région depuis 2011 a engendré une quête non avouée d’hommes forts pouvant au moins maîtriser les événements. Il fait dire qu’une telle tendance se constate aussi bien au sein de la classe politique en Occident que dans de nombreux pays arabes.
La politique libyenne de l’Occident en est la meilleure illustration. La priorité, pour les Etats-Unis et l’Europe, serait de trouver quelqu’un ou quelque chose à même de contrecarrer les risques de l’immigration illégale et de la contagion djihadiste. De nombreux Libyens voudraient eux-aussi trouver quelqu’un ou quelque chose qui leur rendrait la vie supportable. Pour l’instant, les citoyens de la Libye, ainsi que ceux de la Syrie, de l’Irak et du Yémen, sont beaucoup plus préoccupés par leur survie plutôt que par la promotion de la démocratie. 
Face à l’expérience tunisienne, de nombreux défenseurs occidentaux de la démocratie sont plutôt déçus de constater qu’une transition démocratique réussie ne se soit pas révélée être un antidote efficace contre l’extrémisme et le terrorisme ; d’où leur incapacité à comprendre comment un pays qui a reçu le prix Nobel de la paix pour avoir réussi sa transition démocratique soit en même temps un pays exportateur de terroristes.
La relation entre la Tunisie et l’Occident n’est pas sans autres paradoxes.
Tout comme les Américains et les autres occidentaux qui arrivent à peine à dépasser leur conviction simpliste que l’expérience tunisienne pourrait être d’une façon ou d’une autre reproduite à travers la région, les Tunisiens sont en train de se libérer doucement de l’idée chimérique que l’Occident viendrait à leur secours avec des moyens conséquents.
La Tunisie ne doit pas, et ne devrait pas, s’attendre à ce que les Etats-Unis ou l’Europe viennent la sauver.
Bien que la Tunisie ait encore un long et difficile chemin à parcourir, elle est cependant en mesure d’arriver à bon port en comptant sur ses propres ressources, et ce, tout en prenant en compte certaines considérations.

 

 

 

 

– Une vue générale des équipements militaires offerts par les Etats-Unis à la Tunisie- REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Il est du devoir de la classe politique en Tunisie de concentrer son énergie sur la bataille de la transition socio-économique — bataille qu’elle peut remporter — plutôt que sur les querelles intestines inutiles.
Toutefois, la relance économique en Tunisie d’une manière durable est tributaire dans une large mesure d’une solution permanente au problème libyen. C’est justement là où les Etats-Unis et l’Occident pourraient apporter leur aide à la Tunisie en redoublant d’effort à l’échelle internationale pour arriver à un règlement permanent et réel de la crise libyenne.
Les Etats-Unis disent appuyer l’initiative des Nations Unis en Libye conduite par le médiateur libanais Ghassan Salamé. Fort du soutien de l’opinion US, Washington semble aussi déterminé  à entrer en action en Libye si « l’Etat Islamique » relève trop la tête de nouveau en Libye. Une enquête récente du Middle East Institute à Washington a indiqué que 82% des Américains interrogés seraient favorables à l’entrée en guerre des Etats-Unis contre « l’Etat Islamique ».
Même si les Etats-Unis décidaient de s’engager davantage en Libye pour faire face à une résurgence de « l’Etat Islamique », il est peu probable que cela puisse mener à un progrès tangible sur la voie d’un règlement durable du conflit en Libye. Comme ce fut le cas pendant l’Opération “ Odyssey Lightning ” en Libye en 2016 et, comme c’est le cas actuellement en Syrie, l’engagement américain est essentiellement militaire et fait la distinction entre efforts militaires et efforts politiques nécessaires pour une solution globale du problème. Les Européens, quant à eux, avancent en rangs dispersés et dans le sens de leurs propres intérêts nationaux.
Pourtant, une solution en Libye apporterait la paix aux Libyens et une meilleure sécurité pour l’Europe. Pour la Tunisie, cela se traduirait en frontières plus sûres, davantage d’emplois et de plus grandes opportunités en matière de commerce. « Nous estimons que la crise en Libye aurait contribué à hauteur de 24%  dans la chute du taux de croissance économique en Tunisie pendant les cinq années de 2010 à 2015 », relève la Banque mondiale dans un récent rapport.  C’est justement cette relation entre conditions socio-économiques et considérations sécuritaires qui devrait motiver les Etats-Unis et l’Europe pour aider la Tunisie.
Toutefois, la Tunisie ne peut pas se permettre le luxe d’attendre jusqu’à ce que les Etats-Unis et l’Europe perçoivent un tel objectif comme étant une priorité ou qu’ils se penchent sérieusement et constructivement sur le règlement du dossier libyen.
Des facteurs régionaux et locaux font que la Tunisie aura à mener elle-même sa  bataille pour s’assurer que les transformations politiques déjà réalisées puissent mener à des changements socio-économiques tout aussi significatifs. Des succès socio-économiques en Tunisie garantiraient à long terme la sécurité et la stabilité de la Tunisie ainsi que celles des autres pays de la Méditerranée. Mais, aujourd’hui, aussi bien l’Europe que l’Amérique ne sont préoccupées malheureusement que par le court terme.
Le pire des scénarios pour la Tunisie et l’Occident serait que les pays occidentaux n’optent pour l’indifférence à l’égard de l’avenir de la Tunisie et que les Tunisiens sombrent quant à eux dans le désenchantement. Mais, quoi qu’il en soit, le « printemps tunisien  » ne saurait être que la résultante de l’effort des Tunisiens eux-mêmes. Le soutien occidental viendra après.

Oussama Romdhani

Rédacteur-en-chef de l’hebdomadaire The Arab Weekly

Une version anglaise de cette analyse a été précédemment publiée par le site du think tank américain The Atlantic Council.
Source : The Arab Weekly et Leaders / Afrique-Asie.fr
http://www.leaders.com.tn/article/23444-oussama-romdhani-la-tunisie-l-occident-et-le-printemps-arabe

 

The Sousse terrorist episode and the Tunisian exception

—   —   —   By Oussama Romdhani *.

 

Tunisia could still be the exception as a successful democracy in the Arab world, but that requires success on the economic and security fronts.

TUNIS – Friday, June 26th, at noon marked one of the saddest moments in the history of Tunisia. For a fateful half hour, the city of Sousse was no longer the “Pearl of the Coast” as it is often referred to in Tunisia.

The postcard image of the Tunisian Riviera was tragically shattered. On that gloriously sunny day, the blood of European tourists seeped gruesomely into the sea and into the pools of one of Sousse’s top hotels. The lives of 38 British, German and other Western holiday-makers were brutally interrupted by a Kalashnikov-wielding terrorist.

His shooting was random but there was a pattern to his madness. The 23-year-old Tunisian terrorist conspicuously spared the lives of other Tunisians. Much like the perpetrators of terrorist acts that day in Kuwait and Paris, he was blinded by a monochrome vision of humanity that sees no value in the lives of people of other faiths, sects or creeds.

He was also committing the ultimate hypocrisy by sparing Tunisian lives while destroying the livelihoods of some 400,000 Tunisians who depend on tourist dollars.

But the economic fallout is part of a deeper and multifaceted terrorism threat.

Seifeddine Rezgui, the perpetrator of the Sousse attack, is representative of a lost generation of young Tunisians drawn to the jihadist narrative of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda through mosques and, above all, the internet. Not many years ago, he was a breakdance enthusiast successfully pursuing graduate studies in electrical engineering. He was an assiduous student not known to have even travelled abroad.

Why? That is the anguished question that keeps coming up in Tunisia these days. Politicians are expediently blaming each other for the situation. Points of contention include the government errors committed during the last four years. The most serious of them were unfortunate political decisions that led to the fraying of the security system.

After 2011, especially under the rule of the Islamist-led government, Salafists were allowed to take advantage of the country’s new freedoms as well as of the power vacuum that emerged in neighbouring Libya after the fall of despot Muammar Qaddafi. That vacuum facilitated the transit of weapons and Tunisian would-be jihadists across borders. Security sources told Reuters on June 30th, Rezgui is “likely to have trained in a Libyan camp”. About 4,000 young Tunisians are estimated to have travelled to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq.

It should have surprised no one that the same Salafist networks eventually promoted jihad at home. The mosques that served as venues for recruitment and radicalisation of Tunisia’s foreign legion helped brainwash people like Rezgui. No fewer than 80 mosques remain under the sway of radical preachers. Tunisian authorities have promised to take control of them within a week. A number of non-governmental organisations are suspected of channelling funds to Salafists. They are also being investigated.

But it is not just the mistakes of the last four years. There was increasingly a fertile ground for radicalisation well before; in the decades of socioeconomic development that were out of sync with reality; in the failed education policies that have not taught young people to value life, much less work; in the unfulfilled promise of modernity; and in the propensity of Tunisians to believe they will always remain an “exception” in the Arab region.

Such failures led desperate young people to take to the streets, in 2010, demanding jobs and dignity and toppling the regime on their way.

The Tunisian cultural exception has been atrophying for decades now. Artists and activists are trying today to fight back. But for at least a fringe of the population, the Bourguiba-bred values of moderation and openness have proved to be no match to the onslaught of religious extremism brought about by Middle Eastern preachers and amplified by satellite television and the internet.

Like the breakdancer who mutated into a mass murderer, thousands of successful, often middle-class students have chosen to become suicide bombers and brutal killers in Iraq and Syria.

Mass communication has proven the ultimate homogeniser of Arab youth. Too many young Tunisians have ended up being possessed by the same demons as their other Arab brethren. The same bellicose interpretation of Islam. The same reactionary spasms. The same anti-Western impulses. The same conspiracy theories to explain the world.

Inadequate development polices, corruption and ineptitude led to growth of the so-called informal economy, a euphemism for a trafficking activity that finances terrorism and does not provide unemployed young graduates with a reliable income.

For many years already, the instinct of self preservation had lost its meaning for thousands of ill-educated and impressionable young Tunisians who fell prey to utter despair. From taking their chance on rickety boats to Europe to seeking false martyrdom in foreign lands, it has been a thin line to cross.

The Sousse attack has left Tunisians feeling despondent and confused. But past the initial shock, Tunisians must take ownership of their problems. More than four years after having risen against an authoritarian regime that had outlasted its welcome, it is time for Tunisians to start building a normal state where security and sound economic management buttress democratic governance.

Tunisia could still be the exception as a successful democracy in the Arab world, but that requires success on the economic and security fronts. In the short run, the poster child of the “Arab spring” has to find the means and the adequate strategy to defeat terrorism without reverting to authoritarianism; the same way it has to defend freedom without letting extremists take advantage of it. Tunisia has also to stabilise its economy and put it on the path to recovery.

In the absence of such conditions, the democratic process will be in jeopardy. Terrorism and economic failure could kill democracy.

The Tunisian political class is generally viewed with scepticism because it has not been able to shed its divisiveness even as terrorists are hammering at the gates. National unity has yet to replace political sniping.

In Iraq and Libya, ostracised and persecuted former elites have sought revenge by providing support to jihadists. But Tunisia’s former elites never resisted regime change and have shown no affinity with the jihadists. Senior civil servants who served competently under the previous regime await a national reconciliation process that will allow them to contribute once again to their country and help it meet its challenges, including terror.

Other countries should stop selling Tunisians a pie in the sky. The Deauville and the Schloss Elmau Group of Seven summits did not send Tunisians the strong message of hope they wanted to hear. Disappointment with the West is widespread. So is the sense among Tunisians of being left on their own. The security challenge posed by regional dynamics of radicalism and terror is beyond Tunisia’s own capacity. The army, for instance, is still in need of helicopters and other equipment to effectively fight terrorists in the country’s forested mountains. Final delivery of some of that equipment will incredibly have to wait till 2018.

If there is ever going to be a real and lasting Tunisian exception, Tunisians will have to work hard to earn it. They will be obviously able to do so only with the help of friends. The strong sense of shame Tunisians feel today over the senseless deaths of foreign guests in their midst might be a clue that they have already started on that arduous path.

http://www.thearabweekly.com/?id=969

*Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.

Libya sparks Tunisia’s summer of concern

* By Oussama Romdhani.   —   —   —

 

 

The village of Metouia, in the Tunisian southeast, in an unlikely late summer destination. Chemical pollution on the nearby coast and continued neglect of its date tree oases, since the 1970’s, have led to a steady decline of its appeal to outsiders. Throughout the years, it has been visited mainly by its native sons, who have emigrated to the capital, Tunis, and to foreign lands such as France. Revisiting my birthplace for the first time in three decades, I was personally uncertain of what to expect.

 

Getting there involved a 140 kilometer drive on a one-lane-road. Along the way towards Gabes, Metouia’s province capital, one has to watch for speeding tanker-trucks and luggage-laden cars of Tunisians returning from abroad all in a hurry to reach their destinations before nightfall. A seemingly endless string of lamb-roasting restaurants and smuggled gasoline stations compete for the attention of drivers on both sides of the road.

 

It seems that security patrols gave up cracking down on smuggled gasoline merchants long ago. Even before the 2011 uprisings, jerrycans of gasoline smuggled from across the Libyan and Algerian borders used to be on display in many of the road intersections throughout the Tunisian south. For the discerning minds, they constituted early warning signs of inadequate socioeconomic policies breeding unemployment and marginalization. Since the fall of Qaddafi, traffickers have taken advantage of the growing anarchy in Libya as well as the fraying of security in Tunisia to boost revenue from smuggled goods and hard currency trafficking. Now, the conspicuous rows of canister stands are creeping up much further north and now include makeshift pumps to accommodate the heavier flow of customers. As you cross into the border of the Gabes province, the sale of smuggled gasoline mingles cozily with various legal and illegal commercial activities. “Molokhia, Henna, gasoline and currency exchange available,” reads a sign twenty miles north of the province capital.

 

Many of the cars on the road bear Libyan license plates, a reflection of the growing number of travelers from south of the border. But conversations in Metouia show the degree to which the relationship between the region’s population and its Libyan guests has changed since the heydays of the uprisings in both countries. Bedouin-like hospitality towards Libyans right one saw after the fall of the Qaddafi regime has given way to a more cautious attitude. “Now they have to pay first,” says Salem, a Metouia dweller reflecting the disappointment of the locals over what they describe as the unreciprocated generosity by Libyans once they went back home.

Added source of concern

 

Recent developments in Libya itself are an added source of concern for many in Metouia, who fear a spillover of armed conflict from their neighbor’s territory. In some instances, villagers’ minds wander off even further east, finding reason to fret over ISIS advances across Syria and Iraq. The heavy toll suffered by the Tunisian army last July, after terrorist ambushes in the western mountains, seems somehow to heighten the fear of ISIS-like scenarios. “Trust me, we might be a brave people but we are peaceful and would be no match for them,” says Abdelhamid, a civil society activist, alluding to ISIS fighters. With wide access to the internet and satellite stations, he and others think they know whom to blame. “The U.S. has created this monster. Hillary Clinton has confessed to this in her memoir,” they volunteer to tell you, quoting widely-circulating media reports.

 

In Metouia, home to a population of less than 10,000, not much goes on in the hot days of summer with the exception of coffee-shop chats and nighttime weddings. Both venues offer a view of the paradoxical social conditions that women continue to face more than five decades after the introduction Personal Status Code by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Marriage celebrations can be misleading at first to outside observers. As if by some unspoken license, young ladies can be seen strutting their stuff in miniskirts and modern hairdos till the wee hours of the night. But in daytime, conservative decorum reigns supreme. Women do not venture much out into the streets, and almost never into the men-only coffee-shops. And in spite of the undeniable popularity of both fermented and unfermented “Legmi” (a local drink made from date palm sap), social life is still punctuated by mosque attendance. Religious conservatism has given the whole Tunisian southeast the reputation of being an “Ennahdha-land,” a reference to the country’s main Islamist party. Indeed, many of Ennahdha’s leaders hail from small villages around Gabes. During the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections, the party swept the province’s vote. Today, the Islamist formation does not seem to have lost its appeal among its hardcore loyalists. But coffee-shop chats offer an insight into the disenchantment of villagers who have not seen their lives improve since 2011, a period which included two years of Islamist-led rule. Some of the locals say they resent being taken for granted by Ennahdha because of their religiosity; and seem to be looking for greener political pastures outside Islamist lines. “Nida Tounes,” the main secularist party, is mentioned as an alternative even though it is criticized for failing to reach out to them like most other non-Islamist parties. Budget-strapped political formations have been generally reluctant to work the vote in the smaller communities of the southeast, not sure of the electoral yield from their investment. They will have to wait till next month’s elections to be able to draw a clearer political map of the country.

 

Much more than interest in party politics, it is the fierce commitment to the independence of civil society that is perhaps the most striking feature of the new social order in Metouia. No less than 50 associations, active in such fields as local development, protection of the environment and protection of the handicapped, compete for funding and other support. They do not see themselves as beholden to any political party and are determined to keep it that way. “Don’t worry,” Abdelhamid reassures me. “We know how to fend off for ourselves.”

 

The relationship with the state is a bit more complex. NGO leaders are no longer wary of possible meddling by the state. Sometimes, much like other village dwellers, they even seem to bemoan the weakness of public authorities and their inability to help. They also seem to express less critical views of the pre-2011 regime. But I could not really tell however whether their views constituted a sober assessment of the post-revolutionary governments’ performance or an uncalled-for deference to a member of the former regime to whom they were talking.

 

A few weeks before the start of the electoral campaign, Metouia is not unique in the ambiguities it offers. Unfettered discussions are not a clear predictor of the way elections will go. With the common man in the street not necessarily swayed by party narratives and the political establishment’s disconnect from many parts of the land, uncertainty about voter intentions will continue to reign supreme until Election Day.

 

 

*Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country’s international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com


La réconciliation en Tunisie préalable à l’union contre le terrorisme

Dans le papier qu’il publie dans le “World Affairs Journal”, Oussama Romdhani* (photo) estime que rien n’illustre mieux l’évolution du danger terroriste en Tunisie que les opérations terroristes menées simultanément le 16 juillet à Mont Chaambi contre deux cibles militaires tunisiennes. L’attaque a fait 15 morts et une vingtaine de blessés parmi deux groupes de soldats tunisiens, qui se préparaient à rompre le jeune pendant le mois de Ramadan. Un seul élément terroriste a été par contre tué. Ce bilan, remarque Romdhani,  est « le plus lourd jamais subi par l’armée tunisienne dans une opération de ce genre depuis l’Independence ». Pour la première fois, aussi, remarque-t-il, les terroristes ont usé de lance-roquettes antichar (ou RPG) contre des cibles militaires tunisiennes.

Le surgissement d’AQMI

L’auteur estime que le véritable tournant s’était opéré en Mai dernier, lorsqu’un groupe armé a attaqué le domicile familial du ministre de l’intérieur Lotfi Ben Jeddou à Kasserine,  causant la mort de quatre agents de sécurité. Aucune perte humaine n’a été enregistrée du côté des assaillants. A l’issue de cette attaque, Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) a pour la première fois depuis la chute du régime de Ben Ali en 2011, réclamé la paternité d’un acte terroriste en Tunisie.  Dans sa déclaration, l’AQMI a mis en garde les autorités tunisiennes contre « le cout élevé » que comporterait une “guerre ouverte » que mènerait le gouvernement «  en vue de satisfaire l’Amérique, la France et l’Algérie ”.

Selon l’auteur, les deux attentats de Juillet et de Mai ont reflété un changement dans le mode opératoire des djihadistes en Tunisie. « Leurs attaques n’auraient pas été possibles sans un plus haut niveau de préparation tactique, notamment en matière de collecte de renseignements, et une plus grande synchronisation des opérations entre Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) et les membres du groupe ultra-salafiste local Ansar Al Chariaa de Tunisie”.

Les réseaux sociaux à contribution

Plus que toutes les activités terroristes précédentes en Tunisie, les deux attaques étaient caractérisées par la recherche du “spectaculaire” et des effets de propagande. En plus de la déclaration de responsabilité publiée  par l’AQMI, les assaillants ont « irrigué » les réseaux sociaux (à partir de la mi-juillet) de photographies et de messages vantant “la bravoure” des combattants djihadistes. Par le timing des attaques exécutées en Juillet 2014 (ainsi que celui de l’embuscade meurtrière de janvier 2013), les groupes terroristes opérant au Mont Chaambi ont tenté d’exploiter “la symbolique religieuse” du mois sacré des musulmans et de l’anniversaire de la bataille de Badr, menée au cours du mois de Ramadan 624 (ap. J-C) par le Prophète Mohamed. Il est par ailleurs significatif que la responsabilité des attaques contre les soldats de l’armée tunisienne ait été attribuée par l’AQMI à une “brigade” portant le nom de “Okba Ibn Nafaa”, général musulman qui avait dirigé la campagne pour la conquête du Maghreb en 670 (ap. J-C).

En analysant les raisons derrière l’aggravation du problème terroriste en Tunisie, l’auteur met en exergue l’enchevêtrement de facteurs régionaux et internes. Il estime que les groupes terroristes dans la région ont exploité un certain nombre de facteurs favorables dont notamment l’anarchie régnant en Libye depuis la chute du régime de Kadhafi et la perméabilité continue des frontières, qui a permis un trafic d’armes de tous genres vers la Tunisie.

Complots régionaux

Avec la détérioration de la situation sécuritaire en Libye, plusieurs dirigeants gouvernementaux et politiques ont mis en garde les Tunisiens contre les risques de « complots régionaux » qui viseraient à entraver la bonne marche des élections présidentielle et législative prévues en automne. Certains analystes, note l’auteur, spéculent même qu’Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique chercherait à intensifier ses actions “spectaculaires” pour damer le pion aux sympathisants de l’Etat Islamique en Irak et au Levant (EIIL) qui chercheraient à la concurrencer en Afrique du Nord.

Romdhani souligne cependant que les racines du mal terroriste à l’intereur du pays sont désormais mieux reconnues par les responsables et les experts tunisiens, surtout après l’attaque du 16 juillet. Partout on s’accorde à dire que même le “danger régional” que pourrait encourir le pays serait lié en fait au rôle prépondérant  joué par les éléments tunisiens au sein des différentes filières terroristes à l’extérieur du pays. Les chiffres officiels parlent de pas moins de 8.000 candidats au djihad empêchés de quitter la Tunisie en 2013. Beji Caid Essebsi, dirigeant de Nida Tounes,  principal parti « moderniste » tunisien, a récemment rappelé aux téléspectateurs que 11 des terroristes qui avaient attaqué en Janvier 2013 l’installation gazière algérienne de In Eminas étaient de nationalité tunisienne.

Le gouvernement intérimaire de Mehdi Jomaa chercherait en fait à tarir les sources de soutien dont semblent bénéficier les terroristes à l’intérieur du pays, indique l’auteur. Les opérations de ratissage après l’attentat du 16 juillet ont couvert des zones de l’Ouest tunisien où les djihadistes tunisiens semblent jouir de complicités. Les autorités ont également décidé de suspendre les activités de plus de 150 associations soupçonnées de soutenir le terrorisme, de fermer 21 mosquées sous le contrôle des salafistes radicaux ainsi que des chaines de radios et de télévision opérant sans autorisation. Le ministre de la défense a de son côté reconnu que 25 des terroristes qui avaient attaqué le domicile du ministre Ben Jeddou en Mai dernier étaient originaires de Kasserine même. Les lacunes en matière d’équipement militaire et de stratégie de lutte anti-terroriste font aussi désormais partie du débat national.  Romdhani écrit que la Tunisie a besoin d’un équipement militaire adéquat mais aussi “d’une approche sécuritaire intégrée” et d’une mise à niveau des efforts en matière de renseignements, de formation et de coopération internationale, et ce  “afin de rattraper le retard accusé pendant une longue période d’hésitation à confronter le terrorisme.”

Union sacrée ou réconciliation nationale

L’auteur estime aussi que pendant les quelques mois menant aux élections le pays restera confronté au risque de nouveaux attentats terroristes. “Le cauchemar hantant les esprits des Tunisiens est de voir les terroristes substituer des cibles civiles dans les zones urbaines à leurs cibles sécuritaires et militaires actuelles”, écrit il.Selon l’auteur, la question terroriste est désormais entrain “d’émerger en tant que facteur de polarisation politique et élément déterminant de la prochaine campagne électorale”. Si les dirigeants d’Ennahdha, principal parti islamiste du pays, se plaignent de la « manipulation injuste” de cette question à leur dépends, les politiciens et commentateurs libéraux et de gauche font assumer aux islamistes la responsabilité de l’aggravation du problème, remarque-t-il.

D’autres voix se sont élevées pour prôner une « union sacrée » face au péril terroriste, sans considération des appartenances partisanes ou politiques.  Romdhani estime cependant que « les appels à la création d’un “front uni” contre le terrorisme resteront un vœu pieux tant qu’un vrai processus de réconciliation nationale n’aura pas été mis en place. »

*Ancien diplomate et communicateur, Oussama Romdhani était chargé entre 2007 et 2010 sous le régime de Ben Ali de l’élaboration d’un rapport mensuel gouvernemental sur le terrorisme dans le monde. 

La version originale cet article est accessible sur : http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/terror-and-politics-tunisia?

Terror and Politics in Tunisia

—   —   *By Oussama Romdhani.

 

For the second year in a row, Tunisia’s usually peaceful observance of the holy month of Ramadan has been marred, this year by murderous terrorist attacks on Army troops near the western border with Algeria, one in the Chaambi Mountains and another in the town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef.

Since April 2013, a total of 34 Tunisian soldiers have been killed and scores injured in deadly attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters operating in the mountains, 140 miles west of the capital city of Tunis. But the toll of the July 16th incident was the heaviest ever suffered by the Tunisian Army in any terrorist attack since the country’s independence in 1956. At least 15 soldiers were killed and more than 20 injured in simultaneous attacks against two encampments of young troops breaking the daylong Muslim fast. Ten days later, two more soldiers were killed 60 miles farther north.

In slightly more than a year, terrorist tactics have grown in lethality and have become dramatically more brazen. A “qualitative shift” was already evident by the end of May when armed assailants attacked the family home of Minister of the Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou, in the city of Kasserine, by the Chaambi Mountains, killing four policemen on sentry duty. AQIM’s Chaambi attack was the first time terrorists used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) against Tunisian targets.

Carrying out the May and July attacks seemed to require a higher level of tactical preparedness, especially prior intelligence gathering about intended targets and greater synchronization between AQIM and Tunisia’s “Ansar Al Sharia of Tunisia.”

In both attacks, there was also a quest for the “spectacular” and for propaganda dividends. After the May attack, AQIM issued its first claim of responsibility for any attack in Tunisia since the 2011 uprisings that toppled the Ben Ali regime. In its statement, the group warned Tunisian authorities that “an open war on Islam and Muslims, aimed at pleasing America, France, and Algeria, will be quite costly.” Furthermore, there was a daily trickle of propaganda photos on social media, in the wake of the Chaambi attack.

In an attempt to manipulate “religious symbols,” the July attacks (much like a similar strike, last year) were timed to coincide with the month of Ramadan and the anniversary of the Battle of Badr, a military expedition by the Prophet Muhammad in 624 AD. In Algeria (but also in Iraq) al-Qaeda affiliates had in the past sought to carry out terrorist operations during Ramadan and to dub some of their suicide attacks “Badr raids.” In conformity with its self-assigned mission of “restoring” a purist vision of Islam to the region, AQIM named its group of fighters the “Uqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade,” after a Muslim general who led the conquest of the Maghreb in 670 AD.

During the last three years, Salafist radicals seized the opportunity of post-revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia to organize. Lawlessness in Libya and porosity of borders in the region allowed them to establish training camps in the country’s backyard. As terrorist and trafficker networks intertwined,they could more easily smuggle all kinds of weapons, including RPGs and MANPADS, into Tunisian territory.

Since the beginning of the year, according to Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, no less than one thousand terrorism suspects have been arrested and a dozen attacks on borders posts thwarted.

If there is any silver lining in all of this, especially after the July 16th attack, it is that Tunisians seem to be coming to terms with the indigenous roots of the terror problem. In an implicit admission of the domestic background to terror activities, the government moved in July to freeze the activities of 157 associations suspected of supporting terrorism. It also closed down 21 mosques under the control of fanatical preachers while also shutting down unlicensed radio and television stations and kindergartens. The geography of ensuing arrests and mop-up operations after the Chaambi attack reinforced the suspicion that homegrown jihadist constituencies were involved. The minister of defense even took it upon himself to acknowledge that 25 of the terrorists who had attacked the home of the interior minister last May had come from Kasserine proper and only six from the Chaambi Mountains.

In the midst of these attacks, Prime Minister Jomaa complained that security forces are stretched too thin as a result of protests and disturbances they have been obliged to monitor. The military is sorely underequipped. “If our forces had the right equipment, we could have avoided the casualties incurred during the last attack,” he said. Many suspect the country’s anti-terrorism effort to lack more than just adequate equipment. Experts see a need for a more integrated security approach and enhanced intelligence, training, and international cooperation programs to make up for a long period of hesitation to confront terrorism.

As all of these domestic and regional risk factors are likely to persist if not worsen, the next few months leading to parliamentary and presidential elections this fall will be fraught with dangers. The (not altogether unlikely) nightmare scenario in the minds of many Tunisians is that tactically sophisticated terrorists will shift from military and security targets to civilian targets in urban areas.

Political leaders have warned against outside “regional plots” that would aim at disrupting the democratic process. Some analysts surmise that competition between al-Qaeda’s local franchises and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the same jihadist turf in North Africa could lead to a surge in terror across the region. But politicians have increasingly acknowledged the role played by Tunisians within this regional nexus of terror. Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the main secularist political party, Nida Tounes, recently pointed out that 11 out of 32 terrorists who attacked the In Amenas gas installation (south of Algeria) in January 2013, were Tunisian. A troublingly disproportionate number of Tunisians have often taken part in terror incidents around the world, including the killing of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan on the eve of the September 11th attacks and the 2004 Madrid train bombings. For decades, Tunisian authorities have acted as if this was someone else’s problem. But when Nizar Naouar, a Tunisian émigré in France, rammed a gas tanker truck into a Djerba synagogue, in April 2002, he dispelled the illusory notion that chickens don’t have to come home to roost. With terrorists trickling back home, initial complacency and short-sightedness about Tunisians taking part in jihad in Syria, Iraq, Mali, and elsewhere have mostly given way to a deep anguish about the distinct possibility that droves of war-hardened fighters will one day return to Tunisia. Government figures show that 8,000 Tunisians have been prevented from joining jihad in Syria just in the last year. Scores of smuggling rings for aspiring jihadists have also been dismantled in recent months.

Terrorism is emerging as a politically polarizing issue and a potential determinant of the coming electoral campaign. The intense debate over who is responsible for the country’s mounting vulnerability to terrorism will surely not abate soon. On it could hinge the November and December elections, and political protagonists know that. If leaders of Ennahda, the main Islamist party, are expressing concern over the “unfair” exploitation of the terrorism issue at their expense, leftists and liberals are not shying away from putting the onus on Islamists. “Ennahda needs to rid itself of the advocates of extremism within its ranks at any cost,” Zied Krichen, a secularist columnist, recently wrote.

A few political voices are trying to galvanize common resolve against terrorism across party affiliations. This is useful. But without meaningful and genuine national reconciliation, calls for a “united front” against terrorism will likely continue to ring hollow to many, leaving uncertainty hanging over Tunisia’s transition. It remains to be seen whether concern for national security can prove to be a stronger pull than electoral jockeying or political polarization.

*Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication. Between 2007 and 2010, he oversaw the preparation of a Global Terrorism Report for the government of Tunisia. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States from 1981 to 1995 and is currently an international media analyst.


Why radical change in Algeria isn’t so attractive anymore

—   —   —   *By Oussama Romdhani.

 

Many Americans probably heard of Algeria for the first time in the 1975 movie “Dog Day Afternoon” where Al Pacino, trying to negotiate his way out of a bank robbery, asks the police to provide him with an airplane that can take him to Algeria. The movie reflected the popularity of Algeria in the early 70’s as a safe haven for global revolutionaries.

Four decades later, Algeria is a long way from that kind of radical mystique. For the country’s rulers and the general population, stability and incremental reform are much more appealing than revolution. This mindset could well define the coming period in Algeria following the re-election of President Bouteflika last week.

After January 2011, much of the pundits’ speculation focused on whether Algeria was going to be the next country to go the way of the Arab Spring. Even in the wake of the April 17th presidential elections, a lot can be said about the many challenges still facing Algeria as it attempts to tackle the uncertainties of political transition, the restlessness of unemployed youth and the evolving terrorism threat. But the “cascaded domino logic,” inspired by Arab Spring uprisings, has become largely irrelevant in the case of Algeria.

Preemptive measures

As waves of discontent were sweeping over the region, Algerian authorities took preemptive measures to absorb the ripple effects of the uprisings. Tapping into their vast resources, they increased public spending by about 25% to improve public service salaries, create new job opportunities and provide more public housing.

———

The unappealing prospect of radical regime change in Algeria provides the young and well-endowed Maghrebi nation with a precious window of opportunity for comprehensive reform; an opportunity which Arab Spring regimes in the region foolishly chose to squander.

Oussama Romdhani

——-

 

That did certainly have an appeasing effect. According to The Arab Barometer, the regional spinoff of the Global Barometer Surveys, the number of Algerians who were satisfied with their country’s economic performance doubled from 32% in 2011 to 66% in 2013.

But that does not by itself explain why radical regime change was never an attractive option for Algerians before and after the Arab spring, as shown by successive surveys carried out between 2006 and 2013.

The percentage of Algerians in favor of gradual reform increased even more after the uprisings which toppled the regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. In 2011, slightly more than half (54%) shared the view that “reforms should be implemented little by little.” Nearly eight-in-ten people (78%) held that opinion in 2013.

Algerians weary of radical alternative

Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer, believes that after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, “many Algerians may have tempered their desire for massive changes, instead preferring gradual reforms of the existing system.”

Since the Arab Spring, Algerians have kept watch of developments in their neighborhood. They saw Libya descend into chaos as the NATO-led campaign felled the Qaddafi regime. The ensuing security vacuum there led to a dangerous outflow of weapons and fighters from Libya to Mali and elsewhere.

In January of last year, 40 people were killed by terrorists in the In Eminas gas plant, south of Algeria. Algerians saw the attack as directly connected to the deteriorating security situation in the region. The bloody showdown was also a painful reminder to Algerians of their 1990’s “black decade” when nearly 200,000 people died in confrontations between the army and Islamist terrorists.

Algerians, who are traditionally among the most frequent visitors of Tunisia, have been directly aware of the serious economic and security crises faced by Tunisia since the Arab Spring. Their country’s western neighbor eventually needed Algerian support to counter the threat of Ansar Al Sharia and other al-Qaeda-linked factions. Comparative perspectives have become part of Algeria’s new official narrative.

“Look at the neighborhood around us, make a comparison,” Abdelmalek Sallel, head of the Bouteflika re-election campaign, was quoted as saying by Reuters earlier this month. “Algeria is like an island of peace.”

U.S.-Algeria cooperation

Algerians’ sense of satisfaction with their government is probably cemented by the increasing dependence of the West on their country. Faced with mounting security challenges in North Africa and the Sahel, Americans and Europeans have continuously underlined the high stakes they have in the stability of Algeria and the operational readiness of its military and intelligence services.

In early April, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, at the opening of the second session of Algeria-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, his country was “very grateful” for Algeria’s “constructive role in regional stability not only in the east but to the south also.” Algeria’s huge gas reserves, which are vital to the West’s energy needs, have become even more so since the Ukraine’s recent events.

About a year ago, counter terrorism expert Ghaffar Hussein predicted that “Algeria has the potential to emerge from the Arab Spring as a regional power. It has a well-equipped military with counter-terrorism expertise, large energy reserves, a growing economy, and, more importantly, it is stable. This may be good news for western states concerned about the rise of jihadist groups in the region and trade, but it is bad news for Arab revolutionaries.”

Today, with the re-election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the unappealing prospect of radical regime change in Algeria provides the young and well-endowed Maghrebi nation with a precious window of opportunity for comprehensive reform; an opportunity which Arab Spring regimes in the region foolishly chose to squander.
_____________________

*Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country’s international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com


Tunisia at the Crossroads

—   —   By Oussama Romdhani*.

 

 

On April 4th, Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, who took office in December, will visit Washington to meet with President Obama. He will seek greater US support to his country, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, as it strives to combat terrorism and salvage the economy.

With a stagnant economy, continued political uncertainty, and a terrorist problem, Tunisia encapsulates the problems that have emerged from the uprisings of three years ago. Whatever happens in Tunisia, however, will not stay in Tunisia; and so it behooves Washington and Tunis—as they launch their Strategic Dialogue this week—to seek the best possible outcome together.

A UN report, released in March, revealed that Tunisian authorities have seized “Libyan MANPADS and other short range surface to air missiles” smuggled across the border from Libya. As battle-hardened jihadists from across North Africa return from Syria, Tunisia and its neighbors alike face serious peril from terrorism. While the Tunisian government has shown greater resolve in recent months, the country simply does not have the capacity to handle the problem alone. It needs assistance from friends in order to upgrade its forces and effectively monitor jihadist activities on its border and beyond.

 

 

In February, US Secretary of State John Kerry described Tunisia as a country “that has an opportunity to show the path, to point the way,” for Arab Spring nations engulfed in turmoil. His words were justified. About 10 percent of Libyans have taken refuge in Tunisia. Whereas political violence continues in Egypt, Libya, and, of course, Syria, Tunisia’s vying factions were able to reach a compromise enabling ratification of a progressive constitution and the appointment of a technocratic government. Free and free elections should be held by the end of the year.

Nothing is certain, however. Prime Minister Jomaa continues to face daunting socioeconomic challenges. Tunisia’s youth still yearn for greater job opportunities and better living standards, three years since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. In recent weeks, the Jomaa was quite open with the Tunisian public on the extent of the country’s economic plight. Bloated government spending has led to mounting debt and a soaring national deficit. Sooner or later, Tunisian governments will have to introduce the kind of fundamental economic reform that can spur growth and employment. But cutting subsidies and freezing salaries will be difficult before elections.

Most Tunisians are aware that many post-revolutionary wounds were self-inflicted. Political polarization, identity wars, and score-settling campaigns took a terrible toll and did not leave much time for interim governments to fix the economy. Ideological hang-ups and government inexperience helped enable forces of terror and extremism. Today, politicians still have to work hard at reconciliation and inclusive democracy. They seem however to be exorcizing their destructive demons and changing their focus to the future.

Tunisia needs help. It has been nearly three years since the Group of Eight promised $20 billion in aid to the Arab Spring countries, including Tunisia, to foster democratic transition and economic reform. But they have not fulfilled their pledge. Achieving the type of “post–Berlin Wall” transformation to which the G8 alluded to at the 2011 Deauville summit would have required granting Arab Spring countries the same kind of support received by newly liberated East European nations. In recent weeks, Ukraine has received $27 billion in aid pledges from the international financial institutions, Europe, and the US. Tunisians may be forgiven for wondering whether only Europeans are eligible for the kind of transformational help their country needs.

Tunisia could become the driving engine for democracy and economic growth south of the Mediterranean. Successfully completing the transition would not only help Tunisia, but also mitigate corrosive instability and radicalization whose reverberations might be felt far and wide. Tunisians expect the international community to be more forthcoming with them in the current juncture. The United States should show the way.

*Oussama Romdhani is an independent columnist and a former senior official in the Tunisian government.


Mr. Jomaa Goes To Washington: A Breath Of Fresh Air From Tunisia’s ‘Arab Spring’ Revolution

—   —   By Ellen Laipson and Oussama Romdhani*.

 

When the Prime Minister of Tunisia, Mehdi Jomaa, visits Washington on Wednesday, it will be a welcome respite from the relentless bad news coming from the Arab world. Tunisia, where the Arab “spring” began in late 2010, is farther along the process of democratic transformation than the other countries where the demand for change was equally compelling — Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. The U.S. government is right to acknowledge the notable milestones achieved by Tunisia toward completion of this transition. Sustaining Tunisia’s successes will require continued commitment to inclusiveness among the political parties, and more financial and political support from the U.S., Europe and Tunisia’s neighbors.

Jomaa’s appointment has been the source of measured optimism in Tunisia, following the remarkable decision in January 2014 by the Al-Nahda Party to relinquish power in the face of public disapproval, and accept an interim technocratic government. The transfer of power to Jomaa palpably eased the polarization between the secular and Islamist camps, and put the country on the track towards power-sharing and reconciliation. It also brought to power a non-partisan government that can focus on meeting the twin challenges of terrorism and economic recession.

The Jomaa government faces an uphill battle in the pursuit of these objectives, but it can rely on the country’s proven tradition of political moderation, derived from the legacy of its first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba. Tunisia’s “founding father” set the country on a rapid track to modernization, with strong secular, education and gender equality orientations. Tunisia’s second president since independence, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, was toppled in January 2011 when unemployed young people took to the streets demanding “jobs, freedom and dignity”. Elections were held in October 2011 giving a plurality of seats to Islamists. Interim governments have not since been able to mitigate the lingering socio-economic difficulties of Tunisia. But after decades of autocratic rule, newly-gained rights allowed citizens freedom of expression and the practice of democratic customs.

Unfortunately, Salafist radicals took advantage of the new political climate by engaging in violence and terrorism. But their popular appeal has proven to be marginal. A recent University of Michigan survey showed than 93 percent of Tunisians condemned the September 2012 Salafist attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis.

 

Mehdi Jomaa

 

Tunisia also benefits from its Mediterranean climate and location, ethnic and religious homogeneity, and its early recognition of the need to diversify its economy, given its modest endowments of oil and phosphates.  France, Tunisia’s former colonial power, still constitutes the country’s first trade partner — its cultural influence and attractiveness as a destination for Tunisian immigrants have traditionally added to the strong bonds between the two countries.  But the relationship has not proven sufficient to pull Tunisian out of its recession, especially considering Europe’s continued economic slowdown.

During its two years in power, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Al-Nahda, has not provided answers to the country’s economic woes, but it has proven to be attentive to the mood of the electorate. Islamist leaders overcame pressures from party hardliners to introduce explicit references to Islamic law and roll back the rights of women in the new constitution. They eventually stepped aside when newly empowered citizens became frustrated with their poor performance in government; and after the bloody events in Egypt last summer, they were convinced of the risks of clinging to power for too long.

“Nida Tounes,” Tunisia’s main secularist party, has played an important role in shaping the consensus that ended the deadlock. Down the road, it could also play an even greater role in the building of a stable and inclusive “two-pole” system.

Since assuming office, Jomaa has diagnosed the serious economic problems the country faces with realism. Under his watch, the government has shown greater determination in fighting terrorism instigated by “Ansar al Sharia” Jihadists. But it cannot tackle the two daunting tasks without domestic and outside support. To have any chance of success dealing with the lingering socio-economic difficulties, the Jomaa government must receive the help of the country’s strong trade union and business federation.

In recent days, prominent friends of Tunisia have urged the U.S. to deepen its engagement in Tunisia’s transition, recommending, for example, loosening travel warnings and security restrictions for U.S. diplomatic personnel in the country, increasing economic aid substantially beyond the current $30 million annual outlay, and supporting a free trade agreement and other measures to strengthen Tunisia’s private sector.

Given Tunisia’s size, the U.S. should also develop a more effective regional strategy that supports Tunisia’s economic and political stability in a larger context. This should be, in fact, one of the priorities of the U.S.-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue set to be launched during Jomaa’s visit. Encouraging a regional approach based on greater security coordination and economic cooperation would be an important stepping-stone to regional stability.

While Libya suffers now from a profound security vacuum, it could in the future be a major employer for Tunisia’s job-seekers and a potential partner for Tunisian enterprises. Joint ventures with Algeria and Morocco can also provide mutual benefits.

Indeed, Tunisia has long favored a more integrated region.  While politics in the larger neighboring countries have prevented much progress, the U.S. can encourage this trend as a way to support Tunisia’s leadership and its strategic interests. It is also the smart way to expand interest and opportunities for the U.S. business community, and to create more effective markets for trade and innovation for both countries.

*Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of the Stimson Center. Oussama Romdhani is an independent analyst and former Tunisian government official.

What can U.S. ‘strategic dialogues’ bring to the Maghreb?

—   —   By Oussama Romdhani*.

 

 

United States Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the launch of a U.S.-Tunisia “strategic dialogue” next April. This third “dialogue” of its kind with a Maghreb country illustrates the growing U.S. attention to the region. But what can it bring?

Strategic dialogues reflect an enhanced relationship.

Ellen Laipson, president of the Washington-based Stimson Center, told Al Arabiya News, the purpose of such dialogues is “to elevate a relationship beyond the purely bilateral” and give cooperation a “broader geographic basis.” As they look at “the long term,” these dialogues “are meant to show a commitment and an expectation that this relationship has value to both parties over time.”

Recently launched in the Maghreb, strategic dialogues have been going on for a while, with China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, South Africa and others. Such “dialogues” can guarantee high level U.S. attention to the Maghreb, a region often complaining of “benign neglect” by Washington.

After the inaugural sessions of U.S. “strategic dialogues” with Morocco and Algeria held in 2012, second rounds were scheduled for last November. They were however postponed as John Kerry headed instead to Geneva for nuclear talks with Iran. New dates are expected soon.

U.S.-Maghreb expert Mark Habeeb told Al Arabiya News that with “strategic dialogues,” the U.S. and their north African interlocutors “can make sure their policies are in are in sync, especially on important national security issues, such as terrorism, but also in the areas of trade and commerce.”

Over time, dialogues can evolve into “strategic partnerships,” although Morocco has already had elements of such a partnership, including a Free Trade Agreement, designation as a major non-NATO ally, and a “Millennium Challenge Corporation” compact.

Regional security

Considering new environments brought about by the 2011 uprisings in north Africa, it is no coincidence that one of the foremost issues in these dialogues is regional security. Post-revolutionary turmoil and the ensuing porosity of borders facilitated the flow of weapons and fighters from Libya; and elicited terrorist flashpoints in Algeria and Tunisia.

Attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions in Benghazi and Tunis, in September 2012, particularly brought new security risks to US attention.

Considering new environments brought about by the 2011 uprisings in north Africa, it is no coincidence that one of the foremost issues in these dialogues is regional security. Post-revolutionary turmoil and the ensuing porosity of borders facilitated the flow of weapons and fighters from Libya; and elicited terrorist flashpoints in Algeria and Tunisia.

 

Oussama Romdhani

 

Security challenges in the Maghreb are likely to be examined against a geographic setting mostly defined by the footprints of home-grown jihadists. “The Maghreb is part of the Middle East, but it is also part of Africa. Trends in the Maghreb affect the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, and dynamics to the south affect the Maghreb,” noted the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies in a document published last year.

There are large stakes for both the U.S. and the Maghreb in security-based dialogues. Algeria, which boasts the largest army and the most experienced counter terrorism program in Africa, has actively collaborated with the U.S. on terrorism issues since Sept. 11, 2001.

Long engaged in an existential struggle against al Qaeda, it continues to face security challenges at home and in the region. A terrorist attack at the In Amenas gas plant killed 39 foreign workers. In its southern backyard, it had to keep pace with the French military campaign against extremist factions in northern Mali.

On the eastern borders, it continues to monitor any overflows from the uncertain situation Libya and lend support to Tunisia as it combats terrorist activities. Richard Schmierer, a senior State Department official told the Senate last November that the U.S. has “ encouraged Algeria to continue to expand its regional leadership role to help stabilize neighboring states, which struggle to address terrorist threats, loose weapons, and porous borders.”

The U.S. has praised the results produced by Tunisia’s anti-terrorism efforts since the appointment of a new technocratic government last month. But international cooperation remains a logical postulate of the “war on terror” for Tunisia or Morocco, which have been actively contributing to de-radicalization efforts in Mali and West Africa.

Economic ties

Despite traditionally close relations with the EU, Maghreb countries are also seeking expansion of economic ties with the United States. Diversification of trade and business partnerships makes sense for Morocco and Tunisia at a time of a European economic slowdown. In view of the difficulties of its transition, Tunisia might be in pressing need for the materialization of a broader strategy for success, something recently mentioned by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Asked about prospects of additional support to Tunisia beyond the $400 million allocated since 2011, a senior administration official recently told reporters, “I think Congress, like the administration, has taken note of the positive developments and will want to support them.”

Economic objectives are likely to be different for Algeria. In any dialogue, its position will be bolstered by already-substantial business and trade interests with the United States. The annual trade volume of $18bn a year and recent $2.7 billion deal with General Electric illustrate Algeria’s strong posture.

Can dialogues encompass trans-Maghreb considerations beyond immediate security concerns? “You can get more attention from Washington if there are joint efforts or willingness to do things on a regional level,” thinks Ellen Laipson.

But agreeing on a pan-Maghreb vision and overcoming such obstacles as the decade-old Western Sahara dispute will anticipate the launch of a real strategic dialogue among Maghreb nations themselves.
_____________________

*Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country’s international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com


Turning the tide of Tunisia’s war on terror

—   —   *By Oussama Romdhani.

 

The month of February has been the month of “qualitative” changes on Tunisia’s terrorism front. Such changes indicate the war on terror will be long; but is winnable.

On Feb. 4, anti-terror squads were able to track down a terror cell in the northern suburb of Raoued, near the capital city, Tunis. Seven dangerous terrorists were killed, including Kamel Gadhgadhi, the presumed assassin of leftist politician Chokri Belaid who was killed last year. It was the largest number of casualties inflicted by Tunisian security forces upon terrorists in any one single day since 2011. Furthermore, 800 kilos of explosives were seized.

A second blow to terrorists, presumed to be affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia of Tunisia (AST), was to come five days later, in the Borj Louzir district, a few miles away. Eight terrorist suspects were arrested, among them Ahmed Melki, a.k.a. “al Somali”, thought to have been involved in the murder of pan-Arabist politician, Mohammad Brahmi, last July. The arrests pre-empted “spectacular” terrorist operations in the making, including a suicide-truck attack on the Mornaguia central prison and a raid on local police barracks. Terrorist were also plotting to take over “Hay al Tadhamon” and “Duwar Hicher,” two working class districts on the outskirts of the capital. Counting on the support of local Salafist militants, AST members were planning to plant landmines in the entrance of the two districts and use residents as human shields.

Reprisal attack

On Feb. 16, terrorists managed to carry out a reprisal attack. Borrowing a page from Algerian civil war annals, they setup a fake security checkpoint in one of the back-roads of the province of Jendouba, in the country’s northwest. They killed three security officers and a civilian in the ambush.

“Terrorists never had a chance at winning the hearts and minds of Tunisians.”

Oussama Romdhani

As brazen as it was, the attack was no game-changer. Causing mass casualties, as terrorists were planning in Borj Louzir, would have been. Leaked interrogations of arrested suspects point to the failure of terrorists on two accounts. By moving some of its fighters to the capital area, AST wanted to ease the pressure on fighters operating in Mount Chambi. But bombardments have gone on uninterrupted. Through assassinations and large-scale operations, “Jihadists” wanted to further their agenda of propagating anarchy as a prelude to carving out Islamic “princedoms” for themselves. In that, too, they failed.

Tunisia’s war on terrorism remains an uphill battle. It is a war where Tunisians have not had much experience since independence. The frayed security apparatus and the freer -but at times complacent- political environment, since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, allowed Salafist radicals, including AST members, to set up their networks, using charities and mosques as covers. The same security vacuum allowed thousands to travel Syria, Mali and Libya for “Jihad.” The “returnees” of such wars are already trickling back. The paths of traffickers and terrorists remain intertwined; and the situation in Libya is a source of continued concern.

Turning tide

But the tide might be turning, at least on the home front. Security forces are showing greater determination and better organization. Authorities are considering the creation of specialized intelligence and security agencies. The political climate has also changed. The 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and the 2013 murder of two political leaders on the hand of AST–connected assassins, served to highlight the proclivity of radical Salafists to terror. Incidents made mainstream Islamists reconsider their ties to Salafists.

Terrorists never had a chance at winning the hearts and minds of Tunisians. Increased support for the anti-terrorism effort is palpable. In recent weeks, there have been a few cases of citizens handing over terrorism suspects to authorities. With the public on their side, authorities should make good on their vow to retake control of 200 mosques still under the sway of Salafists.

But fighting terrorism is a costly endeavor, especially when it comes to equipment acquisition. Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou says security forces are awaiting new gear to pursue terrorists in their mountain hideouts. Despite economic constraints, defense and security budget extensions were voted in the 2014 budget. If recent international expressions of support are any indication, it is a sound bet the Tunisian government will be able to count on foreign partners for additional resources. Algerian, Moroccan and French governments have stated readiness to help. During his stopover in Tunis, recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was convinced that “with more capacity” Tunisians will “have a great ability to do what is necessary” in the fight against terrorism. He announced that security cooperation will be among the main topics of discussion in the soon-to-meet “Tunisia-U.S. strategic Dialogue.”

Considering the regional ramifications of its terrorism problem, Tunisia will look for continued international security cooperation in the war on terror. Such cooperation is necessary to monitor the lurking threat beyond its borders. However, it will never replace national unity and non-partisan resolve at home.

___________________

*Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country’s international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com