In Tunisia, Seeds of Terror Attacks Come from Within

Tunisians and tourists commemorate the 38 victims of the terrorist attack outside the Imperial Marhaba Hotel. Sousse, Tunisia, July 3, 2015. (Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

When 20 foreign tourists were killed by a terror attack on Tunisia’s Bardo Museum in March this year, I argued in the Global Observatory that Tunisians were under no illusion it would be the last such violence they would face. Three months later, terror struck again in the beach resort town of Sousse, 90 miles south of the capital Tunis. This rampage by a lone, cold-blooded gunman left in its wake 38 tourists dead and as many injured.

Tunisians are shocked, angry, sad, and disoriented. They are in utter disbelief that their country, hailed as a model of peaceful democratic transition in a region in turmoil, could produce young killers capable of such murderous acts—the Sousse attacker, Seifeddine Rezgui, was just 23. They cannot fathom why it took the security forces over 30 minutes to respond to the carnage.

The horrific attack prompted thousands of holidaymakers to leave the country, causing several hotels to shut down and forcing hundreds of workers out of a job. The massacre is a huge blow to Tunisia’s tourism industry, which accounts for up to 7% of the economy.

After an emergency meeting on the very day the killing took place, Prime Minister Habib Essid, after acknowledging failures on the part of his government, announced a series of measures aimed at preventing similar attacks. Among them were the closing of 80 mosques judged to be operating illegally and suspected of spreading extremist ideologies. Other measures included the recall of army reservists, the designation of several regions on the Algerian border as closed military zones, the arming of tourist police in hotels and along the beaches, the holding next September of a national dialogue on counterterrorism, and the full application of laws already in place relating to the operations of political parties and associations, including tracing the funds they receive.

Eight days later, President Beji Caid Essebsi, after some initial hesitation, declared a state of emergency for a renewable 30-day period, in accordance with article 80 of the country’s new constitution. This declaration grants special powers to the police and army and had not been in place in Tunisia since March 2014, after having been renewed several times since January 2011, in the wake of the popular uprising that put an end to the former regime of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

“The continued threat we face leaves the country in a state of war. We have to use all measures necessary,” Essebsi said in a televised address to the nation.

Many Tunisians, including political leaders and human rights advocates, are already questioning whether the emergency declaration was necessary. The additional mobilization of military assets it calls for will undoubtedly burden a national budget already in the red. There is also the gnawing concern that under pressure to show results, the government may revert to the repressive policies of past regimes and sacrifice on the altar of stability the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution.

The police have already come under sharp criticism by ordinary citizens and the media for the heavy-handed manner with which suspects are treated. Security officers seem to be more concerned with shutting down coffee shops to enforce the fasting traditions of Ramadan than establishing constructive relationships with citizens that will help prevent violence.

The Roots of the Problem

There is a pervasive fear among most Tunisians that the country may be drifting dangerously towards greater instability, particularly if terrorists start targeting public buildings housing state institutions. The recent calls from various quarters for urgent actions to address the underlying factors that seem to drive and sustain terrorism and violent extremism are putting a premium on preventing, rather than responding to, violence. There is an undeniable realization that security measures alone, however well calibrated, will not be sufficient to stem this destabilizing tide. On the contrary, in the absence of parallel mitigating or preventive measures, they may unwittingly exacerbate the very conditions that gave rise to terrorism.

There is also an increasingly public recognition that many of these underlying factors are of Tunisians’ own making. They are the result of past misguided policies that concentrated power and riches in the hands of a few at the expense of vast impoverished regions in the interior. Tunisians are gradually coming to terms with the fact that the massive and prolonged incarcerations and torture of political opponents and dissenters of all stripes under the previous regimes have transformed the country’s jails into extremism universities.

Following their release, many of the graduates of these incubating prisons have found their way to training camps in Libya and Syria. As many as 3,000 of them have reportedly joined the so-called Islamic State. It is hoped that the national dialogue on counterterrorism that Essid announced for September will devote sufficient time to delve into these underlying root causes and galvanize the nation, citizens and communities behind a robust prevention strategy. It is equally hoped that the ongoing work of the National Commission on Truth and Dignity tasked to bring to light past egregious human rights violations should help address impunity and pave the way for national catharsis and reconciliation.

Equally urgent is the need to put Tunisia’s financial and economic house in order. Over the past three years, the government’s focus on the political transition has led to a neglect of the economy that resulted in several downgrades of Tunisia’s credit rating. One of the pressing reforms is to reduce the cancerous growth of the untaxed and unregulated informal sector, which accounts for nearly 50% of the economy, robbing the government of badly needed revenues.

The cost of state subsidies to oil-and-gas products and foodstuffs has rocketed by 270% over the last three years. The budget deficit was 7% in 2013, estimated at 9% in 2014, and is expected to rise even higher in 2015. Foreign debt has risen by 38% over three years to over 50% of gross domestic product. Striking a balance between reducing subsidies and maintaining social stability has troubled successive governments over the last decade.

The unemployment rate for young people hovers around 40%. Two out of five Tunisians are out of work. Palliative measures such as recruiting some of them to the already bloated public sector have had only marginal, short-term effect. In a report released earlier this year by the OECD, youth unemployment in Tunisia was described as “a true social tragedy that urgently needs to be addressed, demoralizing and financially starving young generations by depriving them of opportunities to participate in the economy.” Unemployment also disproportionately affects women and those living in certain parts of the country, causing an array of social issues arising from gender and regional inequality. Left unattended, these dire economic realities, when set against the existing security concerns, could well derail the fragile democratic gains and exacerbate the overall sense of drift.

The other sector that requires urgent attention is the state. Its institutions, with rare exceptions, are weak and dysfunctional. They are not service-oriented and do not enjoy the trust of the citizens. The only shining light in an otherwise depressing governance landscape is the active vigilance and courageous contributions of a number of non-governmental organizations such as Al Bawsala (the Compass), as well women’s associations and citizen networks that have become, by necessity, a watchdog with which successive governments have had to contend. A relatively free press and a consensual parliamentary composition have created additional safeguards without which the country would have fallen into the abyss.

In a message to his fellow Tunisians, the former governor of the Central Bank, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, had this to say following the tragic events of Sousse: “Yes we are at war, we have a common enemy, which is terrorism. But we must act in a way…where citizenship, cohesion and hard work remain supreme values…We need not change our living styles nor sacrifice the freedoms which we’ve have so painstakingly acquired”. His statement echoes the one by the President of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, Saida Rached, who said, “the fight against terrorism is won through the creation of a democratic state, free of corruption, embezzlement and trafficking… A state that provides social services to all… [in which] being a suicide bomber is not a real choice, it’s an act of desperation

Tunisia can be saved only if and when its leaders and citizens decide to take their destiny into their own hands and address its ills from the inside out. The voices of men and women such as Kamel and Saida give hope that all is not lost, that it is possible for Tunisia to wrench one more time from the jaws of adversity yet another lease on life. Will it succeed to remain an exception in a region where tyranny, bloodshed, and strife are all too common? There lies the ultimate challenge to which Tunisians must rise.