From Algeria to Libya to Sudan, North Africa has been roiled by protests and fighting in recent months not seen since the 2011 Arab uprisings. Those uprisings were sparked in Tunisia, which has continued a steady, if uneven, democratic transition in the years since. Despite the challenges posed by this regional turmoil, the small Mediterranean nation must continue to focus on domestic problems, said Tunisia’s defense minister, Abdelkarim Zbidi, this week at the U.S. Institute of Peace. What happens in Tunisia in the years to come will be important for the entire region.

Voters wait their turn to cast their ballots at a polling site in a school in Tunis, Tunisia, on Oct. 23, 2011. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)
Voters wait their turn to cast their ballots at a polling site in a school in Tunis, Tunisia, on Oct. 23, 2011. (Moises Saman/The New York Times)

North Africa’s Upheaval

To Tunisia’s west sits Algeria, where longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika was recently ousted after 20 years in power. And on Tunisia’s eastern front, Libya has been in a state of constant upheaval since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Qaddafi in 2011. What impact will this have on Tunisia?

Zbidi drew a sharp distinction between the protest movement in Algeria and the fighting in Libya. In Algeria, he said, the political crisis will not likely have larger regional implications. He also pointed to the importance of Algeria’s army, which is well regarded by the people, for managing the ongoing crisis.

Despite his confidence that the situation in Algeria would not significantly impact Tunisia’s security, the defense minister said there is still the possibility that terrorist groups operating along the northwestern Tunisian-Algerian border could exploit the situation to sow further chaos. But, he said, Tunisian and Algerian armed forces will continue their close collaboration to maintain stability.

The situation in Libya is vastly more complicated, with significant implications for not just Tunisia and the region, but also for European and global security, said Zbidi in an interview at USIP after his remarks. Unlike in Algeria, Libya has no state institutions that are recognized or respected like the Algerian army.

Libya’s anarchy has directly impacted Tunisia’s security, leading to flows of terrorism, illegal immigration, and various forms of trafficking (drugs, weapons, human) coming from the chaotic country. The surge of Libyans fleeing to Tunisia has even impacted the cost of residential rents. With U.S. and German support, Tunisia has deployed a surveillance system along its border with Libya—an effort that has helped “contain the terrorist threat,” Zbidi said.

The ongoing battle between the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar, has reignited regional and international interest in Libya, and not necessarily for good. “A fundamental point aggravating the situation in Libya is external intervention,” noted Zbidi.

Abdelkarim Zbidi
Tunisian Minister of Defense Abdelkarim Zbidi at USIP, May 1, 2019.

Ultimately, “Tunisia is committed to helping Libyans come to a peaceful, inclusive solution,” he said.

But it’s not just Libya that threatens the region's security. Indeed, Tunisia sits in a dangerous neighborhood. The security situation in the Sahel—to the country’s southwest—continues to deteriorate and the region is increasingly seen as the next haven for extremist groups.

Tunisia is often able to punch above its weight on the international stage. As Zbidi noted, his country is at once Arab, Maghreb, Mediterranean, and African and has a unique position in Arab, African and European diplomacy. And, perhaps most importantly, Tunisia stands as a model of a nascent democracy.

Tunisia’s Transitional Challenges

While the rest of the region grapples with this instability, Tunisia is “slowly but surely” succeeding in its transition to democracy, Zbidi said. But, that doesn’t mean its immune from turmoil or terrorism—more Tunisians per capita have left home to join ISIS than from any other country. And like many countries, devising just and effective means for reintegrating ISIS fighters is a challenge for Tunisia.

The defense minister noted how important the fight against terrorism is for the country’s economic growth. Tourism and foreign investment are the backbone of Tunisia’s economy. A series of terrorist attacks between 2014-2016 led to a dramatic slowdown in both sectors. In an interview at USIP, Zbidi said that during his tenure as defense minister he was able to re-allocate resources to tamp down the terrorist threat. He noted that Da’esh, or ISIS, had been defeated in Tunisia.

For Zbidi, Tunisia’s socio-economic and political challenges are the most important priorities for the country. An effort to decentralize governance—in order to better address Tunisians’ concerns and needs—has been a key component of Tunisia’s democratization. Held last year, the country’s first-ever local elections were a critical step in this process, despite low voter turnout.

Zbidi acknowledged that country is still grappling with providing jobs for its citizens and improving the overall economic picture. But, he believes, Tunisia is on the right path. “A democratic transition,” he said, “always requires an economic transition.”

A Strategic Partnership

The U.S.-Tunisian bilateral relationship spans centuries: Tunisia was one of the first countries to recognize the independent United States and the U.S. was the first major power to recognize Tunisian independence in 1956.

Today, the U.S. provides political, economic, diplomatic and security support to Tunisia. At the crossroads of the Arab world, Africa and Europe, the U.S. sees Tunisia as a pivotal ally—one that “deserves our support,” said USIP Executive Vice President Bill Taylor.

While in the U.S., Zbidi’s delegation went to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the Tunisian armed forces have a long-standing partnership with the state’s national guard. This strategic partnership goes beyond military matters; for example, Wyoming’s national guard has trained the Tunisian armed forces on humanitarian and disaster relief efforts.

Zbidi said that he had the chance to meet the late Senator John McCain on several occasions and “[He] reassured me that the U.S. would always be on Tunisia’s side.”

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