Tunis raid
Special units of the Tunisian National Guard stand guard near a building in the Tunis suburb of Raoued in which armed militants were holed up on Feb. 4, 2014. AFP

A few weeks ago, in a coastal suburb of Tunis known as Raoued, the government of Tunisia set the stage for creating an NSA-style spy agency to monitor telecommunications and Internet activity, including by its own citizens.

That day, the nation’s counterterrorism police fanned out through the normally quiet residential area as special forces armed with automatic weapons surrounded a large house, inside of which heavily armed militants were believed to be hiding. Onlookers were cordoned off at a distance.

The operation unfolded slowly over the course of 24 hours. When police finally issued orders by loudspeaker for those inside the building to give themselves up, there was silence. Then suddenly a firefight broke out, and by the time it was over, seven militants and one national guardsman were dead.

The government would later proclaim the successful raid a victory for the people, made possible by its increasing ability to monitor terrorist groups and prevent attacks before they happen. Underlying those claims was a subtext that has often been cited by American intelligence agencies and the Obama administration in recent years: that monitoring the activities of private citizens is essential to counterrorism efforts.

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, that approach has a particular resonance, because the protests in 2011 were in part sparked by the authoritarian government’s spying on its own citizens. As Tunisia prepares to create an agency known as the Technical Agency for Telecommunications (abbreviated ATT), some are concerned that the country is headed back in the direction of where the trouble began.

Jillian York, director of the San Francisco-based International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, noted that the ATT “is entirely inspired by the NSA, and in much the same way, there’s the justification for spying on a state’s own citizens using legitimate security concerns.”

Others inside Tunisia are more critical. Tunisian lawyer Kais Berrjab accused the government of “voyeurism” and claims the establishment of the ATT represents a “battery of legal irregularities related to unconstitutionality and illegality.” Berrjab added that what little official documentation exists regarding the ATT is obfuscated and fails to properly define the organization's relationship with judicial authorities, and that there is no legal framework for providing civilian accountability over the agency's actions.

The day after the attack on the house in Raoued, on Feb. 3, 2014, Tunisia’s minister of the interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, released a photograph of one of the slain men wearing a belt laden with explosives. The man was Kamel Gadhgadhi, a senior member of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia.

Gadhgadhi had been wanted for some time, and his death was considered more significant evan than the much-publicized government crackdown on Ansar al-Sharia. Gadhgadhi was the main suspect in the assassination of popular left-wing politician Chokri Belaid last year, an event that plunged the country into new political turmoil, from which it has only recently recovered.

Belaid had been an outspoken critic of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial Tunisian regime and the Islamist Ennahda movement then leading the country’s ruling coalition. Though partisan, Belaid was respected across the political spectrum, so when suspicions surrounding his assassination fell on Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, the government's reputation suffered. Belaid’s assassination was seen by many as evidence that the Ennahda government was incapable of providing security for its own citizens, while others suspected that it was secretly encouraging extremists like Ansar al-Sharia.

The killing sparked a general strike and protests in which as many as a million people, or around 10 percent of the population of Tunisia, took to the streets. Demonstrators flooded the central thoroughfares and economic heart of the city, Avenue de France and Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The anger was palpable. Business and day-to-day life ground to a halt. The following month, then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was forced to resign.

Six months later, a second secular opposition figure, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated under strikingly similar circumstances. Tunisians again took to the streets, and this time anger with the government reached a higher pitch. Popular pressure then set in motion a chain of events that led to the dissolution of the entire cabinet and the appointment of a new, technocratic prime minister from outside Ennahda. So when the Interior Ministry announced that it had killed Gadhgadhi – the man accused of pulling the trigger that started it all – they wasted no time in declaring the operation a victory for the people.

“Gadhgadhi is the one who carried out the political assassination of Chokri Belaid... this is a gift to the families of the martyrs,” Interior Minister Ben Jeddou said in a national press conference.

“Inspired by the NSA”

With the anniversary of Chokri Belaid’s murder marked by Gadhgadhi’s death, and the country having recently passed a new constitution widely praised for achieving consensus between secular and Islamist camps, Tunisia’s new prime minister, Medhi Jomaa, is in an enviable position among North African leaders.

Neighboring Libya is gripped by militia violence, and Egypt’s political system and economy are in shambles, yet Tunisia’s reputation in diplomatic and international business circles remains good despite recent setbacks. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went so far as to describe Tunisia as “a model to other peoples seeking reform.”

Beneath this hopeful veneer, the relationship between Tunisia’s government and its people is uneasy, and unstable. And the fight against extremism remains a sore spot. Some Tunisians (including the widows of Belaid and Brahmi) pushed the government to account for how they had discovered his whereabouts, and though the government has offered few details, it has acknowledged that a captured member of Ansar al-Sharia, Mahjoub Ferchichi, gave up the location of the militants’ house.

Intelligence of the kind that led to security forces tracking down Gadhgadhi had previously been gathered by two separate organizations based in the Interior Ministry’s imposing building: the General Directorate for Specialized Services, and the General Directorate for Technical Services.

Now, Tunisian authorities are creating a new, more professional spying service and establishing a single centralized intelligence agency that will include the kinds of mass-monitoring of telecommunications and Internet traffic that made the NSA so controversial in the U.S.

Rights advocates and observers fear that in the government’s desire to ameliorate popular dissatisfaction and secure the state against extremists like Gadhgadhi, it will return to the authoritarianism of the past. York pointed out that the head of the ATT will be directly appointed by the government’s Ministry of Information and Communication, making it difficult to argue that the agency is independent of the central state.

The group Reporters Without Borders has also heavily criticized what some call “Tunisia’s NSA,” arguing that it revives unwelcome memories of Ben Ali’s security state. “This violates the principles that should govern Internet surveillance mechanisms, above all control by an independent judicial authority and the principles of need, relevance and proportionality of surveillance measures, as well as transparency and monitoring by the public,” the organization said in a release, which also noted that the government plans to exempt the ATT from legal obligations of transparency that are required of other agencies, and that doing so “endangers respect for fundamental freedoms.”

Part of the impetus for the new surveillance program is to prove to Western allies that Tunisia can monitor terrorist communications on its own, according to Monica Marks, an Oxford University researcher based in Tunis. “The government was embarrassed by the fact that the CIA managed to get information on Brahmi’s assassination before they did, after the Americans had sent a notice to Tunisia’s interior ministry letting them know Brahmi was potentially in danger,” Marks said. “The Tunisian government wants to plug security gaps by building a new intelligence facility with well-trained employees and more-sophisticated technology.”

Doing so will not only reassure allies; it will help galvanize Tunisia’s position in the eyes of a wary international business investors that the country will continue to be more stable than its neighbors.

International Pressure

Signs that Tunisia is expanding intelligence operations, including the operation against Gadhgadhi and a subsequent raid in the suburb of Borj Louzir that resulted in the capture of Ahmed Malki (a suspect in the Brahmi case), are most welcomed by international observers in counterterrorism. A Western diplomat in Tunis told IBTimes that during the past few months European countries have been pushing their contacts in the Tunisian government to accelerate plans for an upgrade to its intelligence services. The International Crisis Group has also advised the Tunisian government to improve counterterrorism operations and crack down on smuggling. And when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Tunis to meet with Tunisia’s new prime minister, Medhi Jomaa, on Feb. 18, he publicly pledged American support for the country’s security program.

“No democracy can survive or prosper without security,” Kerry said in a speech at the U.S. embassy in which he praised the “very significant arrests that were made and the breakup of Ansar al-Sharia’s cells in the last weeks.”

Immediately following the visit, the U.S. agreed to provide Tunisian police with a mobile command and control vehicle and a forensic laboratory.

The West is not alone in its encouragement. Tunisian authorities are shoring up relations with neighboring states that have long since mastered the art of internal surveillance. Earlier this month, Jomaa visited Algeria for two days of meetings with high level officials there. Algeria’s shadowy security apparatus is known to be accomplished in both counterinsurgency operations and communications surveillance, and after the visit, the two countries agreed to set up three military surveillance systems along their joint border.

And, for better or worse, Tunisia has no shortage of people with experience in operating mass communications surveillance technology. Under Ben Ali, the country was a regional pioneer of state surveillance and a testing ground for surveillance products of U.S. origin, such as SmartFilter, technology created by McAfee that has been used in Tunisia since 2002 to block access to parts of the Internet.

Opacity at all levels

“Especially since the Snowden scandal, the commitment of Tunisians regarding net-freedom and privacy is strong,” said Moez Chakchouk, chair and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), which was previously in charge of national cyberspace investigation but has since been superseded by the ATT. Chakchouk was responsible for reforming the Tunisian state’s Internet policies after the 2011 revolution, when transparency was the major goal. He is known for bringing bloggers and activists together in a cooperative drive to end the era of the state as Internet censor and monitor.

But since the establishment of the ATT, the role of Chakchouk’s organization has changed. He has been sidelined, and whatever progress his reformist agenda achieved will have little bearing on the actions of the ATT. He also has grave doubts about the future of Tunisian citizens’ freedoms.

“The benefits, if they exist, are about the fact that for the first time surveillance has a form, an agency, and we are no longer in the era of Ben Ali where monitoring was done without anyone knowing who practiced it,” Chakchouk told IBTimes.

Though Tunisia’s former information minister, Mongi Marzouk, claims the ATT was inspired by the model of countries such as Peru and Sweden, Chakchouk says he has his doubts. “There is a risk to users’ data protection, transparency, and in the composition of the ATT’s board -- it isn’t nonpartisan,” he says.

Berrjab said he also has concerns about “the opacity of the agency at all levels, the lack of audit mechanism or neutrality, and impartial technical control over the work of the ATT, and the fact that its officers are not sworn,” which he said means citizens have no assurances that their rights and freedoms will be respected.

Representatives of the Tunisian government did not respond to requests for comment on the role of the ATT, but fears persist that it could be overzealous in its effort to track down militants like Gadhgadhi, and to allay Tunisians’ desires for security.

As York put it, “Starting with legitimate concerns about security, the state can then push beyond that and you see surveillance used against political dissidents or just in violation of basic privacy. This isn’t a total regression for Tunisia back to the days of dictatorship, but it is certainly very concerning.”