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Massinissa Benlakehal

Tunisia's security improvements remain relative, says senior military figure

Tunisia extended the state of emergency for a further three months [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 27 February, 2017

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Tunisia's state of emergency has been extended amid continuing threats from armed groups.

Tunisia's security situation has significantly improved, but such gains remain relative, a former Tunisian brigadier-general has told The New Arab

The north African nation extended its state of emergency for another three-month period on February 16, with President Beji Caid Essebsi signing the extension amid persistent threats from armed groups.

The renewal flies in the face of government assurances of improved security across the country. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on Wednesday that the state of emergency would "definitely" be lifted in three months' time.

Mohamed Meddeb is a former brigadier-general in the Tunisian army who retired from the service in 2012. Meddeb believes the renewal of the state of emergency is justified.

"I believe the country's security situation has achieved some improvements. However, we're still far away from a normal situation," he tells The New Arab. "It requires decades to definitely have a real stabilised situation."

Having said that, "to say that the security situation has improved - that's relative, though".

Emergency measure spreads fear

The extension is likely to keep foreign tourists away from the country, observers believe.

According to official records, the number of tourists increased in January 2017 by 10 in comparison with January 2016.

Tourists from the Maghreb countries represent the laregst proportion of visitors, with 58.4 percent. Europeans comprised 12.6 percent of the country's visitors in January.

Britons hungry for a splash of winter sun made up only 3.8 percent of the total European arrivals in January.

The use of excessive force during demonstrations, including assaults on journalists, and torture and other ill-treatment, especially in pre-trial detention and during interrogations continue to be reported



Since the state of emergency was first decreed in November 2015, following a series of high-profile attacks, the police and the army have benefited from special powers.

Many NGOs say human rights abuses are becoming more prevalent.

"Abuses continue to take place," Minister of Justice Ghazi Jeribi reportedly told Amnesty International.

Amnesty went on to report: "The use of excessive force during demonstrations, including assaults on journalists, and torture and other ill-treatment, especially in pre-trial detention and during interrogations continue to be reported." 

 
Read more: Bad habits die hard in Tunisia's security services



Mehdi Ben Gharbia is the minister for relations with constitutional bodies, civil society and human rights.

"The Tunisian government is committed to safeguarding human rights and standing up to extremism in line with the law," he told The New Arab.

The government is investigating alleged human rights infringements, Ben Gharbia added, in response to AI's latest report.

A legal framework applicable to the state of emergency is still in the pipeline, he announced.

The country remains under threat from armed groups, despite official statements insisting on improvements in terms of safety across the main cities.

Brigadier-General Meddeb says the country's president based his decision to extend the emergency law on intelligence relating to actual threats collected on the ground.

The president's decision is also based upon an appreciation of the general security situation, and the potential consequences of the renewal for the country's image abroad.

Security forces crack down yet further

Dozens of people have been arrested by security forces across the country in the past year for alleged terrorism-related links, according to statements from the Ministry of Interior.

In Tunis, as well as in other main population centres, security forces remain on high alert.

Last week, the capital's counter-terrorism unit arrested a young man who authorities say is a member of a local "terrorist cell" based in Douar Hachem, a Tunis suburb.

The return of Tunisian nationals who joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in Syria, Iraq and Libya is another issue the country has to deal with.

We have more than 800 Tunisian jihadists who have returned from conflict zones since last year... Some are in prison, others are under control

More than 800 Tunisian militants have managed to return back home from conflict areas in the past year, the interior minister told parliament in December, and were being tracked or had been jailed.

In an interview with local media, Tunisian military expert Mokhtar Ben Nasr added: "We have more than 800 Tunisian jihadists who have returned from conflict zones since last year... Some are in prison, others are under control."

Ben Nasr, who chairs the Tunisian Centre for Global Security Studies, also said "the return of the jihadists is inevitable - it is not a choice but a reality".

Britons advised to stay away

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has labelled the terrorism threat in Tunisia as "high".

"Further attacks remain highly likely, including against foreigners," the FCO says on its website. "Although we have had good co-operation from the Tunisian government, including putting in place additional security measures, the intelligence and threat picture has developed considerably, reinforcing our view that a further terrorist attack is highly likely."

The FCO advises Britons not to travel to some of the country's more risky areas. This means tourists can struggle to get travel insurance, which puts many off.

"On balance, we do not believe the mitigation measures in place provide adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia at the present time," the FCO explained.

The state of emergency was first declared on 24 November 2015. It will next be reviewed in May 2017.

Follow Massinissa Benlakehal on Twitter: @mbenlakehal

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