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The What and Why of Tunisia. And Why It Has A Chance…

By Tim Marshall.

There are no silver linings in the clouds of death brought by Seifeddine Rezgui in Sousse last week. There are however, reasons to believe that despite the slaughter, and its precursor in March at the Bardo Museum, Tunsia can still be the only country caught in the upheavals in the Arab world since 2011, which has a chance of becoming a genuine democracy.

Getting around by camel

Tunisia is a clearly defined geographic entity with a homogeneous society, which has mostly resisted attempts to inject the poison of jihadist ideas into the body politic.

Of its 11 million people 98% are Arabs, and of those 99% are Sunni Muslim with no deep sectarian divisions. There are no meaningful separatist movements.

This cohesiveness, and the fact there is still a functioning state gives Tunisia the basis for stability, even if the foundations could crumble under a sustained assault.

The Ben Ali dictatorship (1987-2011) crushed most attempts by Islamists, jihadist or otherwise, to gain a foothold through ruthless suppression. When it was overthrown, in the first of the Arab upheavals, the ensuing chaos gave the salafists an opportunity.

With the Interior Ministry temporarily weakened, money and ideas found the gaps in security. For long periods of time there were often no police on the streets of rural towns at all. The collapse of neighbouring Libya helped Tunisian militant groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade secure a foothold.

The following year the first signs of a growing terrorism movement emerged, especially in the Kasserine region that borders Algeria, itself a hot bed of violent Islamist activity. The capital, Tunis, was not spared sporadic bouts of violence.

The first election following 2011 saw an Islamist party, Ennedha, come to power. Ennahda does not support violence, but nor did it take a hard line on the increasing spread of salifist ideas. However, the Interior Ministry and other branches of the state were busy recovering their concentration, and by the time a new Government was elected late last year they were in a position to increase pressure on the militants.

The government is led by the Call for Tunisia party, which, for better or worse, includes a number of politicians from the Ben Ali years including Prime Minister Habib Essid who was a former Interior Ministry official in the dictatorship. It has been smart enough to allow Ennahda positions in a unity coalition government.

Hot air ballooning over the Sahara

So, the building blocks are in place for Tunisia to be able to hold off the terrorist challenge from Daesh inspired gangs, however, it will be a formidable challenge and the country will need help. 15% of the economy is tourism based. Given that this is now taking a battering, the knock on effects for the one in ten of the workforce employed in tourism, and their families, will exacerbate existing problems.

The moment you leave the urban areas, poverty and unemployment rates, rise (dramatically) and literacy rates fall in what are usually the more conservative regions of Tunisia. This is fertile land for the terrorist ideologues to sow their propaganda.

There will be more terrorism in Tunisia, indeed in almost every single Arab country, but compared to Libya, Iraq, the Sinai region of Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere, it can probably be better contained. If so,Tunisia, the poster boy of the misnamed Arab spring, has a chance.


9 Comments on "The What and Why of Tunisia. And Why It Has A Chance…"

  1. Stacey McGill | 1st July 2015 at 10:25 am | Reply


    To quote Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” The reverse is also true – democracy and the democratic spirit are obstacles to intolerance. That is why, in real democracies, the stated strategies of terrorists and terrorism will always eventually fail (even if they sometimes have tactical successes).

  2. Mahatmacoatmabag | 1st July 2015 at 11:50 am | Reply

    ‘Tunsia can still be the only country caught in the upheavals in the Arab world since 2011, which has a chance of becoming a genuine democracy.’
    You are an optimist Tim, optimism is a good thing but sometimes harsh reality overwhelms optimism. I take a different view, IMO Islam & Democracy are incompatible. That is because democracy as we know it today is a product of 2000 years of Judaeo-Christian values, such core values have yet to show any sign of taking root in Muslim countries in the bulk of the population & sadly are also lacking in the many millions of Muslims born in the West in free & democratic societies as increasingly they return to an uncompromising version of Islam that is at odds with democratic values & tolerance of others.

  3. But Mr Mahat, Tunisia has secular parties in gov, and trade unionists, and moderates. It has a chance. In Turkey Erdogan’s attempt to overturn Ataturk’s reforms has stalled. In Singapore no-ones running around screaming Allah Akbhar whilst murdering women for ‘sorcery’.

    • Mahatmacoatmabag | 1st July 2015 at 4:43 pm | Reply

      Yes Tim it has a chance & I have a chance to win the Lotto, with odds of 50 million to 1 stacked against me, still that’s a better chance than Tunisia becoming a fully fledged western style democracy. BTW what have you got against Singapore with a population of 5.47 million ( including 1.8 Mil. resident non-citizens ) and Muslims comprising 820,000 of Malay & Indian origin around 15% of the population ? I sincerely hope they are not running around screaming Allah Snack Bar whilst tourists are having diner & sorry if I am not a Wizard with figures ( pun on sorcery intended )

  4. Mahatmacoatmabag | 1st July 2015 at 4:53 pm | Reply

    And for todays good news – ISIS has attacked Hamas in the Gaza strip, yes that’s right not only is ISIS slaughtering Egyptian troops in Northern Sinai which is very bad news but the good news is that ISIS has extended the conflict it had with the Palestinians ( both Hamas & various PLO factions ) in a refugee camp in Damascus to taking on Hamas in the Gaza strip, true its only a few dissidents from Islamic Jihad & other factions that have joined ISIS in the Gaza strip but its a big blow to Hamas’s prestige as ruler of Gaza

  5. Well, I wasn’t arguing it would be Switzerland, I didn’t even say Liberal Democracy, I just think it has a chance of being a democracy. Good luck with the lottery btw.

  6. Mahatmacoatmabag | 1st July 2015 at 6:24 pm | Reply

    Thanks Tim, as always you are a fair and balanced man , with a sense of humour something many of your peers in the media lack.
    I guess if Tunisia remains stable we must be thankful however the large number of Tunisians who have flocked to fight for ISIS in Iraq & Syria will one day return & are unlikely suddenly to become peaceful productive & tolerant members of society.
    BTW Democracy is in fact endangered by Liberals because inside many so called Liberals is a Totalitarian waiting to get out

  7. David McCaughey (DC) | 17th August 2015 at 4:29 pm | Reply

    Very pleased in deed to find you Mr Marshall – you just disappeared off Sky – their loss – hope to keep in touch with your Thoughts through this site – well done
    Best Wishes David

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