Friday,22 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Friday,22 June, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Tunisian arms trophy

The influx of weapons from abroad and threats to national security may be derailing Tunisia’s democratic transition, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmed in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

If Tunisians agree about one thing, it is that arms have been inundating their country since the January 2011 Revolution and that civil war could break out if the process of democratic transformation that is currently underway fails.  
The discovery of large caches of arms in the border areas with Algeria and in the western suburbs of the capital Tunis has aggravated such anxieties. Who is promoting the influx and storage of these weapons? Where do they come from, and what is their destination? What are the intentions of the smugglers, or of those controlling the smuggling operations? And what does this flood of all conceivable types of weapons, on a scale unprecedented since the country’s independence from France in 1956, signify for Tunisia’s future?
These are the questions that have been haunting public opinion, the media and social networking sites, and they have yet to receive clear answers. The Tunisian minister of the interior stressed in a press conference in December that the situation had been brought under control, though he did not supply details, especially with regard to the movements of arms-smuggling rings.
The Tunisian and foreign media have demanded clarification, but these demands have gone unanswered. A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior merely said that the ministry was too busy restoring security to the country to provide media briefings.
Meanwhile, security has been stepped up at sensitive locations throughout the country and on major thoroughfares. More and more armed security patrols have been observed, and more and more checkpoints set up at which cars and trucks are stopped, drivers and passengers asked to show their identification papers, and vehicles searched.
Other patrols have been combing Tunisia’s western and eastern borders in the search for illicit arms depots, such as one that was recently unearthed in Jebel Chaambe in the Kasserine governorate. There have also been raids on homes, such as that which occurred on New Year’s Eve in Douar Hicher in the Manouba governorate that resulted in the discovery of dozens of Kalashnikovs, the death of the wife of the owner of the house and the wounding of her husband, who was taken to hospital in critical condition.
Observers expect further developments of this nature in the coming days and weeks. According to observers, though this has not been confirmed by official sources, extraordinary quantities of weapons have been found in the country recently, many of them entering during the security breakdown following the revolution.
The situation was aggravated as a result of the revolution in Libya and the opening of arms stores in that country. Other unconfirmed but widely circulating reports have indicated that weapons are still entering Tunisia in large quantities, but that the country may not be so much the destination as a thoroughfare for weapons to be sent on to desert areas and particularly to Mali.
However, many observers speculate that a considerable portion of these arms has remained in Tunisia and that the weapons are being accumulated by rival political forces that may be planning to subvert the country’s democratic transition. Depending on which political force the observers have in mind, the aim may be either to throw the country back to the Middle Ages or to pave the way for a new type of colonialist occupation.
According to leaks said to come from sources close to the ministries of the interior and defence, the types of weapons confiscated have been different from those stored in Tunisian arsenals. If true, this would refute claims that the national security agencies have somehow been compromised, but they have not stilled rumours of the infiltration of the security forces that have followed the deaths of soldiers or police officers.
One recent incident of this kind was the death of sergeant Badri Al-Tlili, who died following investigations into armed groups in Jendouba along the border with Algeria. The incident, occurring on 29 December, sparked widespread controversy, and although army spokesmen have claimed that Al-Tlili committed suicide, family members claim that he died as the result of torture.
An official autopsy had been conducted twice, each time confirming that death was caused by asphyxiation by a rope. Observers have also remarked that Al-Tlili’s death occurred just two days before the raids on the homes in Douar Hicher.
Tunisian analysts say that arms smuggling and the activities of terrorist groups in the country are related to developments in the Middle East and North Africa as a whole. There is particular concern regarding the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which now controls much of northern Mali.
Both Algeria and Tunisia have begun to take military action against what have been described as recently discovered terrorist training camps in the border strip between the two countries.
Algerian newspapers have indicated that Algiers and Washington have held talks over the possibility of mounting an offensive against AQIM in Mali, but that Algiers has so far refused to take part in such an effort. There have also been reports of US plans to set up a military base in southern Tunisia to organise such an offensive, but these reports have been denied by the Tunisian authorities.
The US long regarded the regime of the deposed former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali as being a bulwark against the spread of terrorism in North Africa. Following Bin Ali’s flight in the 2011 revolution and the arrival of the Islamists in power shortly afterwards, there has been an unprecedented surge in Islamist militia activity.
Some Tunisian analysts believe that the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda Movement has been too lax with regard to jihadist Salafist groups, despite its rhetoric supporting a secular state and despite the ferocity of the security forces’ assaults on weapons smuggling rings.
Tunisian opposition forces and civil society organisations are demanding that guarantees be given of the neutrality of such state agencies as the ministries of defence, the interior and foreign affairs, especially now that the formation of a new government may be at hand following elections scheduled for 14 January.
There is agreement that the most important route towards averting armed confrontation in Tunisia and the rest of the region is to accelerate the process of democratic transition and to hold the line of national solidarity against attempts to drag the country into a maelstrom of violence and counter-violence.

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