Although much has been made of Tunisia’s political transition, there has been negligible improvement to the democratic control of the security and defense sectors that are essential to its durability. Without steps to include more stakeholders in security and defense discussions and to build the capacity and defense expertise of civilian authorities such as parliament, the transition will remain fragile.

In 2014, parliament took initial steps to oversee and manage the sector by dividing its old defense committee in two, one for legislation and one for monitoring—yet these have not been any more efficient than their predecessor.1

The first, the Committee on Administrative Organization and the Affairs of the Armed Forces (COAAFA), is tasked with drafting legislation to oversee the public sector, administrative decentralization, and the military. Because the legislative committee deals with numerous topics, including the organization of the Tunisian administration as a whole, it has made little contribution to reforming the security sector over the past four years. Since 2014, parliament has ratified sixteen laws drafted by the committee, yet only six of these were related to the security sector. Of these, five made minor amendments to existing security sector laws, such as adjusting retirement guidelines for officers and updating the list of military decorations, and only one—Law 44 of 2017—can be considered a reform. With this law, Tunisia ratified the Revised Kyoto Convention on the Simplification and Harmonization of Customs Procedures, which obliges customs agents, seen by many Tunisians as the most corrupt members within the security forces, to adhere to international standards regarding transparency.

Parliament’s second committee, the Committee on Security and Defense, is tasked with monitoring all security and defense related issues, including holding discussions and hearings with government security officials to implement national security policies or to hold them accountable. It can research and suggest reforms to COAAFA and help them draft proposals regarding both military and police institutions, but cannot vote on COAAFA’s bills before they head to parliament. Yet its output since 2014 has mostly been to question the ministers of interior and defense—responsible for security and defense, respectively—and a few retired officers. Most of the hearings were in reaction to an emergency or a major event that generated discussion in the media and among citizens, such as terrorist attacks or allegations that surfaced in June 2018 that former Minister of Interior Lotfi Brahem had been planning to orchestrate a coup.

The committee’s focus on reactionary hearings may largely be explained by its members’ lack of the knowledge necessary to understand technical military affairs, complicating efforts to tackle security sector reform. According to the former Colonel Mahmoud Mezoughi, president of the Association of Retired Officers of the National Army (AAOAN), members of the committee are not qualified enough to reform the sector, noting that “in Western democracies, the defense and security committee members have deep knowledge of security affairs. They are usually retired military or police officers or scholars who study geopolitics and security strategies at well-known think tanks.”2

To overcome the committee’s lack of knowledge and expertise, the ministry of defense’s think tank, the National Defense Institute, provides the security and defense committee with a one-week overview of the army’s role and hierarchy. Yet this training still does not impart enough knowledge to think about reforms strategically and critically, and members of the committee, who rotate every year, are chosen more for their willingness to advance their party’s agenda than for their own interest or expertise. Although the Committee on Security and Defense does solicit research and publications from the institute, it is reluctant—as is COAAFA—to accept the association’s efforts to follow up on research recommendations by helping draft relevant laws, perhaps unwilling to meet with retired officers who are not affiliated with the governing coalition.3

Additionally, there is a high risk that the committee might become more politicized and begin to enact laws or policies to strengthen a particular party’s influence over the military. According to Mezoughi, when consulting with retired officers regarding such issues as granting the right to vote to the military and police, the committee reached out only to those affiliated with the ruling coalition, which most prominently includes Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. And because the composition of the 21-member committee is determined by a partisan quota, the majority of members are affiliated with the ruling coalition, potentially helping prioritize short-term efforts to entrench these parties’ power at the expense of long-term reforms.

These issues prevent the two parliamentary committees from making progress on urgently needed security and defense reform, first and foremost to restructure the Tunisian armed forces to adapt to new threats. Before the revolution, Ben Ali’s coup-proofing tactics had marginalized the army in favor of the police. The army primarily contributed forces to UN peacekeeping missions, though it did also work to secure the border with Algeria during its civil war in the early 1990s. New and increased threats from terrorism, smuggling, and illegal migration require increased military presence in all border regions, perhaps in coordination with the National Guard, and the centralized capacity to coordinate border operations. This would also necessitate appointing a new chief-of-staff of the armed forces—responsible for coordinating the efforts of the army, navy, and air force—a position that has been empty since Rachid Ammar resigned in 2013.4

Moreover, the two committees lack the technical knowledge to oversee changes to the national service law, last updated in 1974. The armed forces have witnessed an unprecedented decrease in the number of conscripts, largely due to lack of enforcement. All Tunisian citizens are required to serve one year in the military when they reach age 20, although there are exemptions and deferments. In one loophole, some potential conscripts, including civil servants, can opt out by claiming they are serving “individual assignments” and simply pay a monthly fee. To increase the interest in national service and the army as a whole, the ministry of defense is currently debating a new national service law it hopes to present to COAAFA. This bill would reduce exemptions, open conscription to both women and men, and establish alternative forms of service. Notably, it would also provide incentives, such as guaranteeing the minimum public-sector wage, to encourage volunteers to join as well. This could reduce youth unemployment, even if only temporarily, and allow both conscripts and enlistees to gain valuable knowledge and experience for future careers—particularly in engineering, agriculture, business management, and other sectors that could help contribute to rural development.

In addition, the continued prevalence of human rights violations in the security sector, including torture and suspicious deaths, indicate that the police code of conduct likewise requires reform. The Tunisian Organization for the Fight Against Torture (OTLCT) documented 153 cases of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in 2016. Although the law prohibits such practices, there are no groups tasked specifically with monitoring police conduct, making it difficult to hold officers accountable for violations. Lacking transparency and rife with bribery, the police system is seen by Tunisians as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country. Although citizens increasingly trust the security forces instead, according to Transparency International’s 2016 defense index, the military is also at “high risk” of corruption, especially when it comes to procurement and recruitment. Therefore, the security sector’s current legislative priorities might also include establishing bodies to investigate allegations of human rights violations and corruption, as well as increasing detainees’ legal protections. 

To address these urgent concerns efficiently, it might be more effective to reform the parliamentary committees themselves. First, combining the legislative and oversight roles into one single committee on security and defense—while splitting it off from time-consuming public administration reform—would allow members to use time and resources more efficiently. Adding more detail to the consolidated committee’s legal framework would give it more legitimacy and provide mechanisms to evaluate members’ qualifications and hold accountable for carrying out their duties. For example, giving the committee an investigative role—beyond the Committee on Security and Defense’s current ability to summon officials for questioning—would enable the committee to address corruption and human rights violations committed by internal security forces in particular.

Ideally, this framework would restrict membership in the committee to parliamentarians with relevant backgrounds to ensure it can conduct technical research on reforming the security and defense sectors. As members have all been choosing to rotate to other parliamentary committees every year,5 lengthening their terms to a mandatory five years would enable them to develop and build on their security knowledge, and most importantly to work on mid- to long-term strategic plans. Parliament could also appoint representatives from each branch of the military and police to jointly work with the committee and offer their expertise to address specific reforms and challenges, as the French Parliament does. Such reforms to the structure of the committee would help it establish a detailed timeline for addressing urgent issues based on a clear vision of how to implement the reforms.

Hamza Mighri is a Fulbright scholar at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse university.

1. Interview with Leila Chettaoui, member of the Committee on Defense and Security, Tunis, July 18, 2018.
2. Interview with Colonel Mahmoud Mezoughi, Tunis, June 13, 2018.
3. Ibid.
4. Interview with a former Colonel Major who prefers to remain anonymous, Tunis, June 2018.
5. Interview with Abdelatif Elmaki, head of the Committee on Security and Defense, Tunis, June 20, 2018.