Tunisia

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By Veronica Baker

Tunisia, a country undergoing democratic transition, needs strong leadership in the wake of the Bardo attack. Source: Amine Ghrabi
On March 18, Tunisia suffered a large and tragic attack. Gunmen stormed the Bardo Museum, a site of national heritage adjacent to the Tunisian parliament building, and took the lives of 21 victims. Over 40 more were wounded.The international media promptly jumped to connecting the attack to the world’s enemy du jour: ISIS. Initially, ISIS did not claim responsibility for the attack, releasing only a statement of support. The following day, the group pivoted and claimed responsibility. Their delayed reaction suggests that ISIS was not actually behind the attack.Terrorist claims of responsibility are notoriously unreliable. Association with a successful attack can increase prestige, attract recruits, and further goals of perceived worldwide infiltration. Such motivations are so strong that large terrorist organizations sometimes take credit for attacks carried out by domestic groups, or at least claim affiliation as part of a decentralized network.ISIS does not have an established presence in Tunisia, and the attackers did not come from abroad. It is far more likely that a small cell of extremists within Tunisia organized the attack, and ISIS later decided to indict itself. The objective of terrorism, and what differentiates it from other forms of political violence, is the creation of fear for the purpose of gaining power. ISIS would have little reason to issue a statement of support, and later switch its position to a claim of responsibility, unless it was not the culprit.Not surprisingly, the mass media is asking the wrong questions. The Bardo attack is not significant for its supposed relationship to ISIS. The importance of the attack lies in its root causes and its ability to shift domestic political priorities, particularly at the senior level.Considering the Roots of Extremism in TunisiaTunisia’s political transition has succeeded in being inclusive and balanced for most Tunisians, but one group that has not been properly re-integrated is the Islamists. The mass pardoning of jailed and exiled Islamists upon former dictator Ben Ali’s departure opened the floodgates of extremism without proper consideration of future consequences. Islamist party Ennahda’s victory in the elections for the first transitional government suddenly put a number of these ex-convicts, many of who had received no higher education, in positions of power.

Predictably, Ennahda did not have the proper public policy experience to successfully lead the Tunisian transition. It stepped down two years after the election and handed power to a nonpartisan government. This failure to lead has contributed to the frustration of many Islamists who already had a history of disenfranchisement and exclusion.

Moreover, in the eyes of religious conservatives, Ennahda did not manage to sufficiently push for Islamist ideals in the transitional process. Much of the proposed Islamist legislation was dropped, and Ennahda has largely tried to distance itself from extremists. This has further contributed to the isolation and desperation of extremists, making violence all the more attractive as a vehicle for recognition and power.

Lastly, the conditions of economic inequality so often connected to terrorism are also present in Tunisia. Despite nationwide increases in education, unemployment remains disproportionately high in southern and western regions, sometimes outpacing unemployment in developed regions by more than 2:1. Tunisia’s impoverished regions, which have been asymmetrically affected by decades of corrupt economic policy, serve as breeding grounds for extremism. Youth unmotivated by the religious elements of extremism are instead being swept up by promises of wealth and glory.

Feeling betrayed by Ennahda’s failure to remain in power, lacking political agency, and suffering economically, Tunisia’s Islamists are desperate. In order to slow the spread of extremism, Tunisia must focus on promoting a national discourse of inclusion and political voice through democratic institutions for all communities while allocating funds to development and employment projects in the rural governorates.

 "I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us," said Essebsi following the attack. Source: Guillaume Paumier.
“I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us,” said Essebsi following the attack. Source: Guillaume Paumier.
The Long-Term Significance of the Bardo Attacks
Moving forward, it will be important to recognize this event as a highly significant one in the course of Tunisian history. Tunisia suffered, proportionally, similar losses to those of the United States on 9/11. This event has the power to dramatically shift Tunisian domestic and foreign policy, bringing issues of security and terrorism to the fore at an unprecedented level.The attacks may also give new President Beji Caid Essebsi a much-needed rallying cry. Some Tunisians have complained that since his election, Essebsi has hidden away in the Presidential palace and failed to act as a visible and inspiring leader. The Bardo attack has reignited national patriotism and unity in a way that Essebsi may capitalize upon in the coming months.At the same time, Essebsi runs the risk of pursuing the type of reactionary and narrow-minded politics that often flourish after a terrorist attack. His vow to wage a “merciless war against terrorism” recalls the Bush-era tunnel vision that led to un-winnable wars against an invisible enemy.Tunisia is in need of strong leadership and anti-terrorism policy. President Essebsi’s rhetoric may simply be designed to serve these needs and strengthen national unity. On the other hand, it may lead the country down a dangerous road of justifying state violence in the name of security. The way in which the threat of terrorism is handled will be a turning point as Tunisia continues to define itself, and its politics, in the course of its transition.

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By Veronica Baker

In the modern history of the Middle East, freedom has been scarce. With the advent of democracy in Tunisia, however, there is a new example by which the Arab world may follow.

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report for 2015, released last week, gave Tunisia a “free” rating, the first time it has done so for any Arab country in four decades. The last was Lebanon, prior to its civil war.

Tunisia’s new “free” rating comes from a jump in its political rights score, which measures electoral processes, political participation, and functioning of government.

The other half of Tunisia’s freedom rating, the civil liberties score, did not budge. Tunisia’s civil liberties score puts it equal to Mexico, India, and Ukraine concerning freedom of expression, associational rights, individual rights, and rule of law.

For Tunisia’s political rights to have increased from the very worst possible ranking in 2011 to the best possible ranking in 2015 shows commendable strength and effort on the part of Tunisian lawmakers and the groups that helped them along the way. However, the comparatively slow change in civil liberties in the same time period poses a threat to Tunisia’s future as a free country.

In the past four years, Tunisia has seen the victory of Islamist party Ennahda, followed by the voluntaryresignation of that party two years later amidst political crisis. It witnessed the signing of a constitution praised for its compromise between secular and Islamist values and its progressive focus on human rights. Tunisians recently voted in a secular-majority parliament, and elected a president seen by many as a father figure of the country.

Tunisia has also experienced political assassinations, uncovered domestic terrorist plots, and failed to make significant economic progress. Police brutality continues as Tunisia struggles to fight terrorism while respecting the rule of law. Police officers themselves are victims of attacks, weakening the country’s security. Arrests violating freedom of speech demonstrate the need for judicial and legal reform.

Tunisia’s future will depend upon its commitment to civil liberties. Patience for slow growth and instability will not continue if the government fails to give Tunisians the rights that will enable them to feel heard.

In 1787, when asked what kind of government the U.S. Constitutional Convention had created, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “A republic, madam. If you can keep it.” The same can be said of Tunisia. The country now has the governmental structure to build a functioning democratic society. If the government allows its people to speak out, organize, and publish what they want without fear of arrest, Tunisia’s newfound freedom will strengthen and endure.

 

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