North Africa – between security and democracy

By: Umberto Profazio

A rebel stands guard as another places a Kingdom of Libya flag at a state security building during a protest against Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi March 8, 2011. The flag which was used when Libya gained independence from Italy in 1951, has been used as a symbol of resistance against Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi in the recent protests. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)

Photo: Flickr under creative commons license.

Recent security developments in North Africa show how terrorism is gradually spreading in the region. On 20th August one police officer was killed in a terrorist attack in Sousse, Tunisia, and the very same day a car-bomb exploded near a courthouse and a national security building in Cairo, injuring 29 people. The attack in Egypt was claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, also known as Wilayat al-Sinai (province of Sinai), the local branch of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation. Despite that its roots can be tracked to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi succeeded to expand even on the shores of Mediterranean Sea, taking advantage of the faltering security conditions and of the political instability that emerged after the Arab Spring.

IS expanded in particular in Libya, where the political transition after the fall of Gaddafi régime resulted in a stubborn stalemate between the internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli. As a consequence, chaos and instability are the dominant factors in the country today, mainly due to the overwhelming role of different militias and the ongoing struggle between the two governments. The expansion of IS in Libya was a natural consequence: despite the ouster from the stronghold of Derna, where strained relations with the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade led to clashes between these two groups and the subsequent IS evacuation of the city at the beginning of July, the group was able to make further gains. In August IS took control of Sirte, where it gained a foothold in late 2014 and where it enjoys considerable support from Ansar al-Sharia. Sirte, hometown of Gaddafi, also offers IS the opportunity of a collusion with the former régime officers, as much as in Iraq where the strategic alliance between IS and the Ba’athists created a lethal blend.

Failing or failed states like Libya are clearly the main targets of the jihadists. The ongoing clashes between HoR and GNC gave IS the opportunity to expand its control on the territory and to apply the classic rule of divide et impera among different tribes and militias. Furthermore, the complete lack of a national security force in Libya is easing IS operations in the country. Previous governments’ policies to enlist different Libyan militias in the national army resulted counterproductive, making several tribal leaders and paramilitary groups more powerful and less accountable in front of domestic and international justice. As a result, the government in Beida, which is supported by HoR, is asking the help of the international community, in terms of an easing to the arms embargo and a foreign intervention by the Arab League to carry out air attacks against IS positions in the country.

The Libyan case shows the importance of proper security sector reform as a decisive step in the political transition after the Arab Spring. To a less extent, these conditions apply also to other states in the region, where national security forces are already in place. This is the case of Tunisia, where the difficult transition from the dictatorship to a democratic government is currently threatened by security issues. The terrorist attacks at the Bardo museum on 18 March 2015 (19 victims and more than 40 injured) and at the Marhaba Imperial Beach Hotel in Sousse on 26 June (39 victims, mainly British tourists) were apparently lone-wolf operations aimed at affecting Tunisian economy, heavily dependent on the tourism sector. More important are the consequences on a political level: on 25th July the Tunisian parliament approved a new counter-terrorism law. While the bill includes new and important provisions against the money laundering, human rights groups criticized the law’s broad definition of terrorism and the increasing power of police in suspects’ surveillance and custody, considering them as possible signs of a return to an authoritarian state. Moreover, the extension of the state of emergency for two months from the 3rd August risks altering the delicate balance of the Tunisian transition. For example, emergency powers have been used to jail thirteen activists for two weeks protesting against unemployment in Gafsa region.

Similar developments occurred in Egypt where President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi signed a controversial counter-terrorism law, which was criticized by journalists and media workers for the limits imposed on the freedom of information. Moreover, on 29th August three al-Jazeera journalists accused of collusion with the banned Muslim Brotherhood were given a 3-year sentence for spreading false news. While these laws are gradually restricting the political freedom and civil liberties in both countries, it is unlikely that they will seriously affect IS activities, as shown by the attacks on 20th August. Furthermore, they lay a radicalization risk in both societies, in particular among those already emarginated by the current political developments.

More generally, government decisions in Tunisia and Egypt are reinforcing the simplistic narrative that discriminates between Secularists, often associated with the ancient régime apparatus, and Islamists, frequently equated to terrorists. A more comprehensive solution to this fake dilemma should be to reform and strengthen the security sector and its intelligence apparatus, while respecting human rights and enhancing inclusiveness.[1] This is particularly true for Tunisia, where investigations on terrorist attacks in Bardo and Sousse can be considered controversial. Despite the initial claiming by IS, the Tunisian government blamed the attack in Bardo on the al-Qaeda affiliated Okba Ibn Naafa Brigade.[2] After the attack in Sousse and the enquiries by Metropolitan British police, Tunisian authorities acknowledged that the perpetrators of both attacks were presumably trained in the same camp run by Ansar al-Sharia in Sabratha, Libya, and released 8 people that had been detained since March. These men were part of a cell belonging to the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, which also claimed the 20th August killing of the police officer in Sousse.

The reform of the security sector in transitioning societies is a delicate operation, but it should be preferable than curtailing civil freedom and fundamental rights. This solution is adoptable in Egypt and Tunisia, where effective governments are in place. For Libya options are more restricted: the presence of two rival governments and several militias created the opportunities for the expansion of the IS. While a comprehensive peace deal between the two main Libyan factions is still far from being reached, the possibility of a foreign intervention in the country is gradually increasing.

Umberto Profazio is a PhD researcher in History of International Relations at the University of Rome “Sapienza”, where his thesis focuses on Libya after independence. He is currently an analyst for the NATO Defence College Foundation and author of its Maghreb Strategic Trends. You can follow him on Twitter @profazio.

[1] Réforme and stratégie sécuritaire en Tunisie (International Crisis Group, Rapport Moyen-Orient/Afrique du Nord, N.161, 23 juillet 2015).

[2] Maghreb Strategic Trends (NATO Defense College Foundation, March 2015).

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