The Cradle of Secular Parliamentary Democracy Faces Daunting Obstacles. A risk to become a potential epicenter of a new wave of terrorism.
The so-called Arab Spring started in Tunisia. On December 17, 2010. Mohamed Bouazizi, an underemployed, fruit vendor set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzeid. He was protesting a personal humiliation by a city official. He died in hospital a few weeks later, but his self-immolation seemed to capture the frustration of a large part of the country, particularly the secular and educated middle and upper classes.
The anger erupted in mass demonstrations against the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He, many of his ministers and family members were accused of fraud and theft on a large scale. On January 14, 2011, they fled the country. This was the beginning of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia. It was the first chapter of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. For a few weeks, it seemed like the Arab people had finally found their voice, resonating from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya and Syria. While the revolts have failed in a massive way, exposing ethnic and religious fractures, Tunisia still has hope. Democracy still has a fragile chance. Tunisia has managed to maintain its secular identity within an emerging representative democracy and shared, which began after Ben Ali was deposed. The country has had seven prime ministers since 2011, the current one being Youssef Chahed (since August 2016). He leads a broad coalition of parties including secular leftists (Nida Tunis) and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood related Ennahda party led by Rashid Ghannouchi. He will need much support to manage the effects of the austerity he needs to address the concerns of major foreign lenders as well as the powerful unions.
At first it seemed that the revolt that began in Tunisia represented the hope of a new, free and democratic Arab world. Instead, the secular democratic spirit of the protest was exploited by the much better organized Islamist parties and organizations.
By 2012, the ‘Arab Spring’ had degenerated into civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Instead of democracies, some countries like Egypt have become even more repressive. Others like Libya are still trying to rebuild institutions in the wake of institutional atrophy. Others still like Syria are still fighting a brutal internal war that is a microcosm for the tensions that persist in the entire Middle east and North Africa region. The social and political turmoil has also led to economic collapse. Wars and terrorist attacks in the region have decimated tourism, one of the main sources of income. In other words, the essential motivations of the Arab Spring remain; they are as pressing as ever.
All things considered, Tunisia, has fared better than most in maintaining the original democratic spirit of the ‘Spring’. But, its political situation remains highly compromised. Five years after the revolution, democratic Tunisia, celebrated throughout the world as a unique transition in the Arab-Muslim world, is economically sick and socially fractured.
Official statistics suggest the economy is growing at a higher pace than many EU economies. In the first half of 2016, the gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a rate of 1.2%. That was higher than the 2015 average of 0.8% but below the yearly target of 1.8%. This pace is largely insufficient to contain mass unemployment, which is likely much higher than the official statistic of 15.6%, especially among young people with post-secondary education (over 30%). This is most troubling as they were the people who led the 2011 revolution in the first place. This is one of the socio-economic factors that threatens the progress of democracy in Tunisia, while also weakening regional and international security. Many young Tunisians have gone to fight with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Last November there was an important international conference to address Tunisia’s economic problems, attended by major donors such as the EU and the Gulf States. The Sheikh of Qatar offered a substantial aid package to help the country rebuild. The European Union, in the wake of the post sub-prime financial crisis of 2008, reduced investment and aid. But, France, as the former colonial power, has confirmed a strengthening of bilateral aid. In January, Paris announced a plan to deliver a billion euros by 2020; the French Development Agency said it would invest least 250 million euros each year. All together the European Union said it would double its financial support in 2017, which makes Tunisia is now second only to Palestine as the beneficiary of European funds in the Middle East and North Africa region. But, it’s clear that reviving the economy is essential to sustain Tunisia’s budding democracy. Indeed, last January 14, rather than celebrate the end of the dictatorship in 2011, many Tunisians marked the anniversary of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ with a series of protests over the difficult economic conditions and unemployment affecting the country. It was the biggest social protest that Tunisia has experienced since the fall of the Ben Ali’s dictatorship in 2011.
It is no coincidence that the town of Ben Gardane, which until 2010 was a town best known to travelers from Libya on their way to the nearby island of Djerba for a resort vacation, has become one of the main supply sources for foreign fighters to conflict in the Middle East and North Africa. In March of 2016, at least 45 people were killed by security forces in Ben Gardane. The Tunisian government had reason to fear that groups claiming allegiance to ISIS, filtering from the nearby Libyan border, wanted to set up an enclave in Ben Gardane.
Ben Gardane has become a microcosm of Tunisia’s economic difficulties and its most extreme social effects. While there are no accurate numbers, the Tunisian government has estimated that some 3,000 of its citizens have left to become jihadists in Syria since 2011. The United Nations suggests an even higher number, closer to 5,500-6,000. The Syrian government has confirmed that many of the ISIS and other Islamist fighters it has captured were Tunisian citizens. Tunisia will face the unenviable task of having to absorb many of these fighter, who return home as ISIS is being challenged on all fronts, as the Syrian and Iraqi governments have taken back control of major towns like Aleppo or Mosul.
There is some optimism. The key sector of tourism has started to recover. In 2016, almost six million tourists visited Tunisia, which suggests the country has started to recover from the terrorist attacks of 2015. Before the events of Sidi Bouzeid, tourism accounted for more than 10% of GDP. But, foreign tourists stopped going to Tunisia in 2012 in the wake of the revolution. The security situation deteriorated and a series of terrorist attacks in 2014 and 2015 caused tourism to crash. Official statistics showed that tourism’s share of GDP dropped to less than seven percent. Rather than French, Italians and Germans, the bulk of visitors contributing to the welcome rise came from Algeria and Russia. Chinese tourists have also started to discover Tunisia, which after Morocco has become a favorite travel destination. Nevertheless, the return of Islamists represents the biggest threat to tourism. In the early 1990’s, the Algerian ‘Arab Mujahedin’ returned to Algeria after having fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. They transferred their combat experience to serve the various fighting forces that splintered from the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), fueling the Algerian civil war of the 1990’s that killed tens of thousands.
Algeria had – and has – oil as a major resource. Tunisia relies on tourism and agricultural exports. In other words, Tunisia can ill afford to invest in the kind of social welfare programs that have helped manage social tensions in some of its neighbors. Oil income did not help Libya’s dictatorship in 2011, but that society broke along more tribal than socio-economic lines after having survived for over 40 years.
The Tunisian Interior ministry fears that of almost a thousand Tunisian citizens fighting alongside ISIS/Islamic State in Syria, Iraq or even Libya have returned to Tunisia already. The government plans to build a maximum-security prison, specifically for the insurgents, to confront the problem. But, given the porosity of Libyan borders, it’s difficult to identify and capture them while the conditions that led them to join ISIS in the first pale persist. Ideology is but one incentive, a bigger one might be that ISIS pays salaries. The challenges are vast and Tunisia remains a paradox. It is the cradle of the Jasmine Revolution, an example of democracy for the Arab world and beyond, but it’s also the potential epicenter of a new wave of terrorism.