London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Minister of National Defense Ghazi Jeribi highlighted Tunisia’s efforts against terrorism, acknowledging that the war on terror is an asymmetrical war that requires patience.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Jeribi said that Tunisia is on course for “true democracy,” citing the Tunisian military’s commitment to political neutrality as one of the reasons for this development. He also acknowledged that the Tunisian military establishment is facing a number of tests, not least confronting terrorism and protecting the country’s borders, but said that the military will be able to meet challenges.
In a rare interview, the Tunisian Defense Minister spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the country’s war on terror, Tunisian attempts to secure its borders with Algeria and the recent resignation of Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Salah Hamdi.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The success of the Tunisian political experience can be attributed to the military, which distanced itself from political decision-making and is committed to the principle of political neutrality. But how long can the military keep up with this political neutrality? Is it time for change?
Ghazi Jeribi: The Tunisian military establishment is committed to defending its independence from politics and politicians and is committed to complete neutrality and remaining equidistant from all political parties and factions in the country, and as far as possible from political debates. This is because it has remained steadfast and committed to its primary mission according to the law and national duty. Moreover, this is a positive neutrality based on defending legitimacy and protecting the country from all internal and external threats.
Consequently, the military has contributed to a large extent to protecting the first stage of democratic transition by guaranteeing the normal course of life, socially and economically, as well as protecting state institutions and vital installations . . .as well as protecting Tunisia land and sea borders and airspace.
The military can also be credited with safeguarding and guaranteeing the National Constituent Assembly elections which today is working with the same determination [as the military] to complete the second stage of democratic transition after Tunisia has made great strides on its democratic course. Tunisia now has a constitution, an Independent Electoral High Commission and a set date for the next elections. I believe that all this paves the way for real democracy and the establishment of a state of law, freedom, justice and citizenship in Tunisia.
Q: Does the resignation of the head of the Tunisian army Mohamed Salah Hamdi have anything to do with the controversy surrounding the army’s performance?
Army Chief of Staff Mohamed Salah Hamdi’s submitted his resignation for personal reasons and I took the decision to accept this based on Chapter 27 of the military code on the basis that he has passed the retirement age and had been granted two one-year extensions to his military career on an exceptional basis.
I would like to take this occasion to express my thanks and appreciation to all officers, non-commission officers and soldiers who have served their country with sincerity and loyalty. The appointment of new army Chief of Staff Ismail Al-Fathali comes within the framework of changing positions and because change in strategy sometimes requires a change in personnel. The new Chief of Staff meets the conditions and capabilities required of him and have the attributes and capabilities to succeed in this post.
Q: Is Tunisia’s military establishment successfully coping with the demands of the war on terrorism, particularly given the human losses that it has suffered?
The war on terror is not a traditional war between two regular armies; it is an asymmetrical war between a regular army and extremist organizations that rely on surprise. This requires a review of organizations and strategies until these extremist organizations are being combatted in the appropriate manner . . .including forming new combat units and taking advantage of the experience of fraternal and friendly countries that have passed through the same ordeal.
Overall, the war on terror requires a lot of patience and the losses that we have suffered should not discourage us from uprooting the scourge of terrorism.
Q: Has Tunisia intensified its cooperation with security agencies in the recent period, in line with the increasing terrorist presence in the country?
Cooperation with security agencies is ongoing and has been strengthened in response to the nature of the threats we are facing during the current period. We have put in place new mechanisms to guarantee close coordination and facilitate intelligence sharing. As for field operations, new specialized units have been created to intervene in urban and non-urban environments to combat terrorism. Recent operations have confirmed the efficiency of these new specialized units.
Over the past few weeks, a number of changes have taken place within the military institution, including strengthening counter-terrorism intelligence gathering; creating a special unit to monitor terrorist groups; creating a unit to look at ways that these gangs recruit members; and using recently acquired armored vehicles in operations.
Q: Tunisia’s borders with Libya are increasingly porous, particularly given the escalating security unrest taking place in the neighboring country. To what extent can Tunisia’s military secure the border region?
It is difficult for any country to completely and absolutely secure its land borders. Following the security deterioration in Libya, Tunisia’s military establishment has been able to put into place a security mechanism that allowed it to secure its borders, despite the difficulties caused by the influx of refugees [from Libya] in the recent period.
The transformations taking place in the region, as well as the high frequency of smuggling, increasing rates of organized crime and cross-border infiltration and terrorism, has created a complex security situation on the Tunisian-Libyan borders. In addition to this, Libya is still in the process of a difficult transition phase, trying to stabilize the political scene in the country. We are all committed today to resolving the issues that arose during the 2011 revolution, and the subsequent arms smuggling, to put in place an effective and vigilant military and security system and make the border region safe.
Q: There is talk about security cooperation between Tunisia and Algeria to confront the border issues together. Have any military or security pacts been signed?
Tunisian-Algerian military cooperation is being looked at with great interest from both sides. We have worked to support and develop this and move towards true partnership in the fields of training and exchanging experience, including responding to the requirements of the two national armies and enhancing their operational capabilities.
In response to the nature of the current stage, a security agreement was signed between Tunisia and Algeria in May in the fields of combatting cross-border terrorism and organized crime. This agreement revolves around four points; securing control of the border; coordinating field operations and establishing operational coordination over border security; establishing partnership in the fields of sharing information and intelligence; exchanging experience and expertise in the fields of border security and increased specialized training.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally published in Arabic.