Under the Sword of Damocles: Tunisia in the face of extremism

Hope dies last. This so often reiterated proverb has inspired many across the world to continue the struggle for their cause regardless of how realistic its implementation may be. Alas, to many who believed in what is referred to as the Arab Spring, that hope is long dead. Libya, Syria, and Yemen have all plunged into chaos, Bahrain’s uprising was crushed and in Egypt the clock seems to have been rolled back.

Amid this atmosphere, Tunisia constitutes an exception. Neither was the uprising struck down nor did the Islamist Ennahda Party’s ascension to power pave the way for a theocracy or a military coup. The murder of Chokri Belaïd on February 6, 2013 and the ensuing turmoil were resolved through dialogue and transition. In this respect, Tunisia’s post-revolutionary performance can be considered exemplary.

A Lack of Perspective

Despite these positive developments, hope in Tunisia began to make room for disenchantment, especially among the young. The recovery many had wished for failed to emerge. The country’s unemployment rate is now estimated at about 15%. Economic hardships in addition to austerity programmes sparked dissatisfaction.

Due to such despair, many young men have travelled to Syria, Iraq and neighbouring Libya to join extremist groups, among them the self-declared Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Attempts undertaken by the government to prevent their travel, although successful, could not achieve their overall goals. According to a report by the Soufan Group, around 6,000 Tunisian citizens have travelled abroad to join terrorist organisations.

With ISIS being pushed back on all fronts, these men are once more left without perspective. As a result, they focus on new targets at home and the West. In 2015, Tunisia was struck twice by terror attacks against the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the tourist resort Port El Kantaoui in Sousse. A year later, Europe itself was hit twice in Nice and Berlin where trucks were turned into weapons.

The latest attack occurred in Ben Gardane, a small town in southeastern Tunisia close to the border with Libya, where two men who had started a firefight with security forces were killed. One was shot, the other blew himself up after being surrounded. Ben Gardane had hit the headlines two years ago due to another attack against security forces and an ensuing shootout that left 55 people dead, 36 of them Jihadis, 12 members of the security forces and seven civilians. The town epitomises the predicament the country is in. Located in the southeast, along with regions in the west it constitutes a large area where people feel neglected by central government – so offering an ideal breeding ground for extremism. The government’s response, although carried out with the necessary intensity, focuses almost solely on military and security and is unlikely to bring change in the long term if applied alone.

A Vicious Circle

With these factors in place, the situation will hardly change, leaving Tunisia and Europe in direct danger. The fear of terror attacks in Tunisia make it unlikely the country’s tourism industry will improve to a satisfying extent that would grant a little economic relief and thus reinvigorate hope.

David Kampmann is a specialist in the Middle East and North Africa.