Security Sector Reform a Key Issue to Watch in Tunisia

Middle East and North Africa

As the Obama Administration looks to engage with the winner of the upcoming presidential run-off election in Tunisia, which is between the current interim President Moncef Marzouki, a former dissident, and Beji Caid Essebsi, a former foreign minister, security sector reform in Tunisia will likely be a key future issue. Earlier this year in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, many prominent experts argued that the United States needs to deepen its commitment for security sector reform in Tunisia. Other experts have stressed that security sector reform is essential to securing peace and a sustainable democratic transition.

Since national protests against the authoritarian rule of former President Ben Ali sparked a revolution in Tunisia in December 2010, which led to the Arab Spring, the United States has increased both its economic and security assistance to Tunisia. According to Security Assistance Monitor research, the U.S. government provided an estimated $185 million in U.S. security and justice aid to Tunisia from FY 2011 to FY 2014 through at least eight U.S. security aid programs (see related chart).* This number is higher than indicated in our military aid database because of a new report showing elevated numbers from two of the U.S. aid programs. The State Department also requested approximately $36 million in security assistance to Tunisia for FY 2015.

Of the total $185 million in U.S. security assistance to Tunisia from FY 2011 to FY 2014, the United States allocated about 20 percent (or $42 million) for security sector reform efforts. This $42 million includes U.S. training of about 134 Tunisians from the security forces, ministries or civil society on courses directly related to security sector reform from various U.S. security aid programs. In August, the White House also announced that Tunisia would be one of the six African states selected to receive a portion of the total $65 million devoted to the new Security Governance Initiative (SGI), which could increase security sector reform aid to Tunisia in the future.

According to various State Department reports, the majority of U.S. security sector reform assistance to Tunisia is through the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) program, which is aimed at “reorient[ing] the criminal justice sector and its police forces from a culture of regime protection to one of citizen support.” In particular, INCLE funds support activities such as enhancing oversight and management of law enforcement and prison services and improving the "capabilities of the judiciary, prosecutorial service, defense bar, in partnership with civil society.”

While the United States has clearly put an emphasis on security sector reform aid to Tunisia, security experts have been urging the United States and other donor countries to deepen their efforts to push for such reform as the “window of opportunity for SSR [security sector reform] is closing.”  According to an Atlantic Council report from October, Tunisian protestors pushed for the revolution because of police abuse and corruption, but so far there has been little real change in diminishing police abuse and impunity. Improving citizen-police relations are also key to helping Tunisian authorities identify and prevent Islamic extremists.

Although there are Tunisia national groups still pushing for security sector reform in Tunisia, including NGOs, journalists and police unions, few, if any, Tunisian political parties are calling for such reform at the moment. It is also unclear whether President Marzouki, a former human rights activist, or Essebsi, who has closer ties to the established government elite, would be able to implement security sector reform more effectively.

As a result of the critical need for reform and the particular political dynamics, some experts are calling on the United States to deepen their commitment for security sector reform in Tunisia. This would include U.S. support to “reshape the legal framework for law enforcement and ensure that security forces respect human rights.” Others are recommending that the United States and other donors condition some or all their security assistance on improvements in political will for security sector reform. As the new Tunisian president enters office, security sector reform will be an interesting and important issue to follow.

* Although the State Department has indicated in its annual foreign military training report that around $310,000 was provided to Tunisia through both the Section 1004 and the Peacekeeping Operations account, the $310,000 is not included in the total $185 million as there are inconsistencies in some of the U.S. government’s reporting for these accounts to Tunisia.