Springing forward, falling back?

Remember when we were all inspired by the grassroots efforts made across North Africa and the Middle East in the name of freedom and democracy?  And how these movements were going to change the region and the world?

Without wanting to denigrate the sacrifices made by millions, I think we can conclude that – for the moment  – the “Arab Spring” did not lead to the revolutionary resculpting of several societies.  You only have to look at the situations in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and other nations to see that it is not going well.

But then there’s Tunisia, the place where it all started in December 2010, when a fruit and vegetable vendor killed himself following humiliating treatment by the police.  His death led to mass protests which culminated in the flight of President Ben Ali and new elections (there have been two rounds since 2011 and a peaceful change of leadership).

So kudos to the Tunisians and their remarkable transition to democracy.  They truly serve as a role model for what can happen in an Islamic country.

But there are at least two dark spots on the horizon.

The first relates to the Truth and Dignity Commission that is looking into atrocities committed during the Bourguiba and Ben Ali years.  The stories coming out are truly horrendous (see an example here) and as more and more is revealed it will be important to see what this impact has on society (lots of other countries have created truth and reconciliation bodies though so there is hope).

The second one is much more serious.  The largest single contributor to the foreign fighter waves in Syria and Iraq is – Tunisia.  More than 3,000 Tunisians are believed to be fighting with one extremist group or another.  At least 400 have returned and are probably keeping the security forces busy.

But here is the stat that really concerns me.  Tunisian authorities have prevented 8000 citizens from leaving to fight.  8000!!!   That is an astronomically high figure.

Now I am not saying that all 8000 are potential terrorists – each case will have to be judged on its own merits.  But the potential is there.

We here in Canada are justifiably concerned when 10 young Quebecois are stopped at the airport trying to go to Syria.  Imagine stopping 8000!

And we have the all too real experience at what happens when you stop those who want to fight and maybe die: they can turn their attention inward (both Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Martin Couture-Rouleau, who carried out terrorist acts last October, had their plans to leave Canada foiled by authorities).

So the future of Tunisia hangs in the balance.  The next few years should tell us whether it descends to the hellish conditions found next door in Libya or whether Tunisia will enjoy the fruits of its revolution.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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