Although Tunisia stands out in a turbulent Arab world for its relatively peaceful transition, justice and security must be bolstered to ensure long-term stability.
Tunisia: Combatting Impunity, Restoring Security, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns that Tunisia still faces serious challenges that could threaten its progress. Although real headway has been made since Ben Ali’s regime was overturned, unsolved problems are causing unrest and endangering stability. Genuine transitional justice is on a slow track and the struggle against impunity has become a rallying cry.
“Tunisia still lacks a shared, unified vision of transitional justice”, says William Lawrence, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director. “The judicial system is not yet fully capable of addressing victims’ rights and overcoming the bitterness of the past. It needs coherence and direction to handle the expanded workload and mounting demands”.
In contrast to the experiences of other Arab countries, Tunisia began its transition in relative harmony, with consensus on certain democratic rules of the road. There have been successful elections, freedom of expression is manifest and truly independent civil society is engaged in the democratic process. But the past is not easily forgotten. The disconnects between central and peripheral regions, between Islamist and secular forces, and between heirs to the old regime and supporters of the new order remain ever present. The country regularly experiences violent flare-ups, security is fragile and victims of the dictatorship are demanding justice and protesting against impunity.
The current and future Tunisian governments will have to resolve these problems through broad-based dialogue and compromise. Moving forward, priorities should include balanced security force reform and accountability for the dictatorship’s past misdeeds with an eye to overcoming the still palpable distrust between police and civilians. This will need to go hand-in-hand with judicial reform in order to strengthen both its independence and its capacity. Finally, authorities ought to recognise the social and political rights of long-neglected peripheral regions. On virtually all these matters, the international community – and notably those who have undergone their own democratic transitions – can help with technical and financial assistance, even as the burden falls primarily on Tunisians.
“The key to success remains broad participatory dialogue”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Ultimately, the goal should be to facilitate reform of the security forces without provoking a destabilising backlash; ensuring accountability for the dictatorship’s crimes without triggering a witch hunt; and ensuring justice is done efficiently while bearing in mind the limits of the existing judicial system”.