Divergent Post-Arab Spring Trajectories in Tunisia and Libya: Hard Lessons Learned

Written by | Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021

Although they are neighbours, Tunisia and Libya have experienced different trajectories following the Arab Spring in terms of armed forces’ defence reform and parliamentary oversight. While the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has struggled in the past decades to institutionalise civilian leadership and oversight over the defence sector, Tunisia’s path to defence reform and parliamentary oversight of the security sector is singular: improvements have indeed been made on both fronts since 2011. Since the revolution, the Tunisian Army has had to take on increased roles and responsibilities, due to concrete challenges oftentimes emerging as a result of the Libyan conflict. While the conduct of parliamentary oversight still lacks competencies and enforcement, the progress made can provide important avenues for cross-country learning and influencing, towards a wider adoption of good practices for governance and accountability.

Libya, on the other hand, followed a much different trajectory in the aftermath of its revolution: conflict erupted when the military was deployed against protesters by the Gaddafi regime. Built to serve the latter’s interests, the Libyan military suffered from decades of chronic hybridization and lack of oversight – beyond that of Muammar al-Gaddafi himself. Moreover, the country’s institutional divide since 2014 prevented the development of functioning oversight mechanisms on a nationwide scale. Divided governance structures at all levels of authority – including legislative, executive and the military structures – coupled with the spread of armed groups and their gradual infiltration of security sector institutions on both sides of the country paved the way for a return to a decentralized, localised locus of governance. This means that any defence reform plan will have to reckon with two factors: the immediate need to re-establish parliamentary and governmental legitimacy and the long-term implications of hybridity on institutional weakening.

Tunisia’s military, previously relegated to a secondary role, benefited from the political transition generated by the 2011 revolution: the army was able to strengthen its role within Tunisian society, in turn improving civil-military relations. In political terms, the efforts of Tunisia’s new leaders to move away from Ben Ali’s police control system brought a gradual rebalancing between the military and the internal security forces. The lean size of the Tunisian armed forces, as well as its composition, history, and conscript nature, are in many ways guarantees of its allegiance to the people and the values of the democratic state. Several external factors have also contributed to the changes in the Tunisian armed forces. The challenges related to terrorism, as well as the inherent regional instability, have shaped their role and development: for economic and security reasons, Libya has become a major national concern for Tunis and Libya’s challenges have “exposed deficiencies at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of Tunisia’s defence capabilities.” Yet, during the recent COVID-19 crisis, the military’s role in supporting the enforcement of health directives has been judged rather positively, primarily owing to their efforts in sustaining citizens’ welfare, and thanks to the trust they enjoy.

With the Tunisian Constitution asserting the legislative and financial oversight powers of Parliament (ARP) over the security sector, the Tunisian case brings with it several lessons learned, notably regarding the mandate of the ARP. In a political landscape characterized by fragmentation and infighting among different parties, the military does not enjoy particularly constructive relations with the two parliamentary committees charged with oversight of military affairs, whose members not only lack competencies in military affairs and the committee staff also lack technical expertise in security sector reform. This capability gap has an impact on budgetary control, yet, without a clear vision for Tunisian national security, it is nearly impossible to conduct valuable financial scrutiny of the sector’s spending. Hence, it is essential that, to improve the ability of the ARP to initiate reforms and conduct oversight of the sector, sufficient resources are allotted to fulfill its constitutional roles effectively.

Libya’s post-2011 trajectory varies greatly from that of its neighbour. Crippled from the onset by a hybridized defence sector designed to protect Gaddafi and his rule, Libya’s attempts to establish an efficient and overseen defence sector in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution were hampered by a hostile and largely transactional politics and security situation. While parliamentary oversight bodies have existed on paper throughout the years, their efficiency was always curtailed by the general absence of political – and coherent – will for reform writ large. In this scenario, Libya’s consecutive and divided authorities face a core challenge: how can legislative oversight structures properly operate in a context that is hostile to their very existence?

The Libyan conflict bears similarities with others in the region: oversight institutions are side-lined from any form of relevance as the country’s security sector becomes progressively hybridized due to intensified conflict. The logical response to enhance parliamentary legitimacy, as well as security sector accountability, would be the creation of oversight institutions and mechanisms. However, this is not sufficient if complementary measures to ensure their full success are not taken. The mandate of oversight bodies remains a key issue, which is linked to what such mandates entail for existing power structures and armed groups wishing to avoid interference in their daily operations. A great deal of legal work has been done – in the forms of laws or decrees – in the aftermath of Libya’s revolution. However, the contradictory nature of decrees issued by successive authorities over the course of time, as well as their lack of enforcement on a nationwide scale given the absence of a unified parliamentary body, shows that a harmonized normative hierarchy is still missing. The adoption of a constitution is seen by many as the first step towards addressing this gap. However, our experience reveals that restoring legislative coherence and establishing transparent and efficient oversight structures can’t stop at a constitutional text, even though it is a fundamental step.

Key learning points can be identified from the different trajectories of Libya and Tunisia after 2011. On the one hand, Tunisia’s efforts to strengthen the legal frameworks supporting parliamentary oversight of the security sector could provide a roadmap for other countries wishing to inscribe defence oversight into a process of civilian control. On the other hand, Libya’s efforts towards institutionalizing parliamentary oversight of the defence sector in a hostile context can provide useful insights for other conflict-affected arenas, as it exemplifies both the need for holistic and innovative reform approaches and the urgency of laying the legal foundations for long-term SSR processes.

For Tunisia and Libya, it is time to kick-off clear processes of identification of external security threats and institutional mechanisms to respond to them: the establishment of a national security strategy involving both civilian and military institutions is essential in this context, as it could also provide a space to adequately rebalance civil-military institutions. Constitutional and normative drafting processes are crucial towards the democratization of the defence sector: they set the stage for military forces serving democratically elected, civilian institutions and providing security to the population, rather than to the political/military leadership. While Tunisia has made significant progress on both fronts, the same has yet to happen in Libya – though some hope is vested in the political process that may lead to the upcoming December 2021 elections.

‚Lessons From Post-2011 Trajectories in Tunisia and Libya‘ – Commentary by Andrea Cellino and Roberta Maggi – Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.

The Commentary can be downloaded here

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