This paper was launched at a joint event with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington, DC on Monday, 16 November 2015 [Details & Video]


From the outside, the story of Tunisia is one of an Arab Spring success. Four Tunisian organisations won the Nobel Prize for conducting what was, particularly by regional standards, a remarkably inclusive political process. Civil society groups are active and vocal. Many Tunisians are fighting to make sure the revolution stays on the right path. The past four years have been tumultuous, but rebuilding a country after a revolution is never easy.

Tunisia’s progress has been made even more complex by genuine security threats. Home grown jihadists have assassinated civilians, politicians, and security forces. Libya, Tunisia’s immediate neighbour, is awash with weapons. The Tunisian government has appealed to the international community for military equipment and training, which it cannot afford without support. Its allies are sympathetic, not least because they do not want to see yet another North African country succumb to lawlessness and terrorism.

But although Tunisia has made progress towards building a more democratic system, the old security sector is fiercely resisting reform. For those who want to preserve the status quo, the fight against terrorism has turned out to be a very convenient tool. In a classic vicious circle, terrorism serves as an excuse to crack down on freedom of speech and association. This crackdown, in turn, helps keep a corrupt, mismanaged, and incompetent security force in place, possibly even increasing the risk of terrorism.

This paper argues that a shift is taking place in Tunisia’s politics, from a narrative of reform to a narrative of counterterrorism. Not only is this change antidemocratic, it is counterproductive. Paradoxically, Western aid provided to help Tunisia fight the war on terrorism may be helping to achieve the opposite of what is intended.


The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.