Is Tunisia sliding back into the abyss?

If there is one shining light in the aftermath of the Arab Spring it is Tunisia.  Not that the competition is very tough.  Egypt went from an elected Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government to a military one under General Sisi.  Bahrain’s short-lived revolution is no more.  And as for Syria, well I really don’t think I have to go there.

But Tunisia seemed to be doing things right. It is after all the place where it all began, when fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight after his goods were confiscated and he was slapped/insulted by a policewoman.  The ensuing demonstrations quickly escalated and within a month the government fell and the ‘power of the people’ in Tunisia spread across the Maghreb and throughout the Middle East.  Elections were held – real elections – and an Islamist party came to power only to step down when it was defeated in a second vote a few years later.  This seemed to put to rest the criticism of Muslim parties in office that they were only interested in ‘one  man, one vote, one time’.  The country still faced significant challenges but it also appeared to be on the path to transparency and true democracy.

Well, it now looks like maybe the old days of corruption and unrepresentative governance may be edging back.  According to US scholar and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Sarah Yerkes, recent developments bode ill.  Cabinet shuffles have brought in cronies of the former Ben Ali regime, elections have been postponed – again – and some Tunisians now feel that the ‘old guard is back’.  For many the bloom is off the democratic rose.

For me there are other concerns as well.  Tunisia has been rocked by several terrorist attacks in recent years, including a June 2015 incident at a tourist resort in Sousse in which 38 people died, including 30 Brits (Tunisia’s beaches are very popular with UK vacation goers, in part because of very cheap flights).  The Tunisian army is engaged in regular clashes with terrorists in the country’s mountainous south and west and Tunisia lives in a rough neighbourhood with the chaotic Libya to the east and Algeria, in many ways the original home of Islamist extremism in North Africa, to the West.

In addition, thousands of Tunisians left their homeland to join Islamic State: some estimates are as high as 6-7,000.  Many are probably dead but many analysts are very worried about the return of some of them.  Even if 5-10% were to successfully come home and only 10% of those were to be tasked with carrying out attacks (or figure this out on their own) the country’s security forces will be sorely tasked.  In other words, we can expect more terrorist action in Tunisia.

What is more disturbing is what I learned on a visit to Tunis back in June.  A fellow conference participant noted that on top of the thousands of Tunisians who succeeded in hooking up with IS, there could be as many as 20,000 who failed to do so (stopped by security forces, did not have the financial resources to do so, etc.).  Let me repeat that number: 20,000.  It is important to note that this figure was given by a person I do not know – this was what we in the intelligence business called a single uncorroborated source of unknown reliability.  Nevertheless, I have read other material where the estimate of failed foreign fighter is 12,000.  This is a very scary number.  We can safely assume that some of these will plan attacks.

The descent of Tunisia back into unrepresentative government or frequent violent attacks would be a tragedy indeed.  I want to echo Ms. Yerkes advice that we in the West need to provide help to the government and gently remind it that a commitment to democracy is the real only way forward.

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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