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In Tunisia, is it an Era of Democracy or Terrorism?

Tunisia terrorist attack in Sousse
Tourists observe a minute of silence for the victims of the terrorist attack on the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, 3 July 2015. Photo Chedly Ben Ibrahim / Demotix

“The beacon of hope is dying.” “The Arab Spring’s exception was not that exceptional.” It was with words like these that news of the 26 June 2015 terrorist attack in the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse was received. The Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba massacre, which left 38 people dead, was by far the bloodiest attack in the country’s recent history. It reflected a rise in religiously-motivated violence, following the Bardo Museum attack on 18 March, which killed 22 people, but it also served as a stark reminder of the impact of instability across the Libyan border and the fragility of Tunisia’s burgeoning democracy.

Regarded as relatively safe compared to its Arab Spring neighbours, Tunisia was able to move through three electoral phases (Constituent Assembly, legislative and presidential – in two rounds) and it was thought that its December 2014 presidential election had closed the transitional chapter. The country was then declared a member of the group of democracies, acclaimed around the world. Analysts pointed to security and economic weaknesses, but both the support of the international community and the “wisdom” of Tunisia’s civil society and political elite were seen as bulwarks against any misdemeanour.

The country has long struggled with terrorism, but the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 exacerbated the threat. Extremists have since killed more than 60 security and military troops, especially in the mountainous Chaambi region near the Algerian border. Yet despite reports of failed attacks on civilian and tourist facilities (two in 2012, one of them in Sousse), Tunisians residents as well as foreign visitors and expats were not considered to be in danger. The Bardo Museum shootings were an unpleasant wake-up call for many.

On 18 March, two days before Tunisia’s Independence Day, two gunmen stormed the country’s National Museum in the Bardo parliamentary compound. They killed 22 people, mostly tourists, before being shot dead by police. The gunmen were said to have been trained and armed in Libya. At the time it was Tunisia’s worst terrorist attack. Heads of states and representatives from dozens of countries visited the capital Tunis to show their solidarity. The government announced a series of security measures, and declared the country safe again.

tunisia Sousse: foto of the alleged killer
An image of the 23-years-old Tunisian student who opened fire on the tourists of the Marhaba Imperial Hotel in Sousse, Tunisi. Photo Flikr

Three months later, on 26 June, a lone gunman walked calmly onto a beach in Sousse and opened fire on European holidaymakers. According to eyewitnesses, he fired for more than 30 minutes, killing 38 tourists, the majority British. In the wake of the massacre, the United Kingdom declared Tunisia an unsafe destination and advised its citizens to leave. The UK’s decision was shortly followed by Ireland and Denmark. Tunisian authorities later claimed that Seifeddine Rezgui, the 23-year-old assassin, had also received training in Libya.

The Sousse attack exposed three problems. The spill-over from the civil war in Libya was an obvious one, but it also highlighted the spread of radicalism and the poor organization of the security forces.

A few days later, the government announced a plan to build a defensive barrier between Tunisia and Libya. It would be composed of trenches, sand walls, watchtowers and other fortifications, and would help Tunisia to control its land borders. Neither the length of the so-called Jefara Wall (named after the area between Libya and Tunisia) nor its costs are known, as official statements differ, but construction work is said to be underway.

The plan was not widely welcomed, especially by Tunisia’s southern inhabitants who rely heavily on informal trade with Libya. Others raised concerns that the wall would break cross-border family and personal ties. Libya Dawn – one of two rival governments vying for power in Tripoli – responded to the announcement by issuing a communiqué. It accused the Tunisian authorities of attempting to redraw the borders and steal Libya’s oil and threatened to retaliate.

Yet while the unrest in Libya is certainly a problem, it masks an internal issue: most of the terrorists in Tunisia are Tunisian nationals, so even though they cross the border to train in Libya, they have the right to return home. Rather than keeping a danger out, the Jefara Wall will likely keep one in. Radicalization, the causes of which are complex, is growing among the younger population.

Indeed, youth radicalization is becoming Tunisia’s biggest challenge. Educated under an ideology-free dictatorship, many Tunisian youngsters did not develop any sense of belonging to the Tunisian state. In fact they grew up resenting it, and when the Revolution began they were its fuel. Their discontent was not extinguished with the overthrow of Ben Ali, as they continued to feel side-lined and even betrayed by the political elite.

Of the approximately 800,000 unemployed people in Tunisia, 50% of them are youth. Marginalized regions are particularly hard hit, with souring unemployment in the Jendouba, Kasserine, Gafsa and Tozeur governorates. Moreover, young people with a university degree are the least likely to find a job. With no improvement in their socio-economic situation after the Revolution, their anger intensified. It is this hopelessness that terrorist groups like ISIS are taking advantage of in order to expand.

Security forces seem incapable of containing these threats. A corrupt police force employs the same brutal tactics used under the dictatorship: random arrests, torture, a disregard for the rule of law. It is feared that these methods are accelerating total political collapse and pushing many to seek an alternative in Islamic State, the “Kingdom of Heaven”, which is even more brutal but claims to be more just.

The Tunisian police is also badly trained, and lacks strategic and organizational tools. The fact that two attacks as devastating as Bardo and Sousse could be carried out in such highly guarded areas raised serious questions about training efficiency and leadership capabilities. In its travel advice issued after the Sousse attack, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office stated that they “do not believe the mitigation measures in place provide adequate protection for British tourists in Tunisia”.

As the storm clouds gather, Tunisians need the support of the international community more than ever. An inability to move beyond recent events could jeopardize not only the country’s democracy but also its very existence as a state. A failed Tunisia will only add fuel to the fire ignited by the war in Libya, just kilometres from southern Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.