Tunisia could still be the exception as a successful democracy in the Arab world, but that requires success on the economic and security fronts, writes Oussama Romdhani.
Friday, June 26th, at noon marked one of the saddest moments in the history of Tunisia. For a fateful half hour, the city of Sousse was no longer the “Pearl of the Coast” as it is often referred to.
The postcard image of the Tunisian Riviera was tragically shattered. On that gloriously sunny day, the blood of European tourists seeped gruesomely into the sea and into the pools of one of Sousse’s top hotels. The lives of 38 British, German and other Western holiday-makers were brutally interrupted by a Kalashnikov-wielding terrorist.
His shooting was random but there was a pattern to his madness. The 23-year-old Tunisian terrorist conspicuously spared the lives of other Tunisians. Much like the perpetrators of terrorist acts that day in Kuwait and Paris, he was blinded by a monochrome vision of humanity that sees no value in the lives of people of other faiths, sects or creeds.
He was also committing the ultimate hypocrisy by sparing Tunisian lives while destroying the livelihoods of some 400,000 Tunisians who depend on tourist dollars.
But the economic fallout is part of a deeper and multifaceted terrorism threat.
Seifeddine Rezgui, the perpetrator of the Sousse attack, is representative of a lost generation of young Tunisians drawn to the jihadist narrative of the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda through mosques and, above all, the internet. Not many years ago, he was a breakdance enthusiast successfully pursuing graduate studies in electrical engineering. He was an assiduous student not known to have even travelled abroad.
Why? That is the anguished question that keeps coming up in Tunisia these days. Politicians are expediently blaming each other for the situation. Points of contention include the government errors committed during the last four years. The most serious of them were unfortunate political decisions that led to the fraying of the security system.
After 2011, especially under the rule of the Islamist-led government, Salafists were allowed to take advantage of the country’s new freedoms as well as of the power vacuum that emerged in neighbouring Libya after the fall of despot Muammar Qaddafi. That vacuum facilitated the transit of weapons and Tunisian would-be jihadists across borders. Security sources told Reuters on June 30th, Rezgui is “likely to have trained in a Libyan camp”. About 4,000 young Tunisians are estimated to have travelled to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq.
It should have surprised no one that the same Salafist networks eventually promoted jihad at home. The mosques that served as venues for recruitment and radicalisation of Tunisia’s foreign legion helped brainwash people like Rezgui. No fewer than 80 mosques remain under the sway of radical preachers. Tunisian authorities have promised to take control of them within a week. A number of non-governmental organisations are suspected of channelling funds to Salafists. They are also being investigated.
But it is not just the mistakes of the last four years. There was increasingly a fertile ground for radicalisation well before; in the decades of socioeconomic development that were out of sync with reality; in the failed education policies that have not taught young people to value life, much less work; in the unfulfilled promise of modernity; and in the propensity of Tunisians to believe they will always remain an “exception” in the Arab region.
Such failures led desperate young people to take to the streets, in 2010, demanding jobs and dignity and toppling the regime on their way.
The Tunisian cultural exception has been atrophying for decades now. Artists and activists are trying today to fight back. But for at least a fringe of the population, the Bourguiba-bred values of moderation and openness have proved to be no match to the onslaught of religious extremism brought about by Middle Eastern preachers and amplified by satellite television and the internet.
Like the breakdancer who mutated into a mass murderer, thousands of successful, often middle-class students have chosen to become suicide bombers and brutal killers in Iraq and Syria.
Mass communication has proven the ultimate homogeniser of Arab youth. Too many young Tunisians have ended up being possessed by the same demons as their other Arab brethren. The same bellicose interpretation of Islam. The same reactionary spasms. The same anti-Western impulses. The same conspiracy theories to explain the world.
Inadequate development polices, corruption and ineptitude led to growth of the so-called informal economy, a euphemism for a trafficking activity that finances terrorism and does not provide unemployed young graduates with a reliable income.
For many years already, the instinct of self preservation had lost its meaning for thousands of ill-educated and impressionable young Tunisians who fell prey to utter despair. From taking their chance on rickety boats to Europe to seeking false martyrdom in foreign lands, it has been a thin line to cross.
The Sousse attack has left Tunisians feeling despondent and confused. But past the initial shock, Tunisians must take ownership of their problems. More than four years after having risen against an authoritarian regime that had outlasted its welcome, it is time for Tunisians to start building a normal state where security and sound economic management buttress democratic governance.
Tunisia could still be the exception as a successful democracy in the Arab world, but that requires success on the economic and security fronts. In the short run, the poster child of the “Arab spring” has to find the means and the adequate strategy to defeat terrorism without reverting to authoritarianism; the same way it has to defend freedom without letting extremists take advantage of it. Tunisia has also to stabilise its economy and put it on the path to recovery.
In the absence of such conditions, the democratic process will be in jeopardy. Terrorism and economic failure could kill democracy.
The Tunisian political class is generally viewed with scepticism because it has not been able to shed its divisiveness even as terrorists are hammering at the gates. National unity has yet to replace political sniping.
In Iraq and Libya, ostracised and persecuted former elites have sought revenge by providing support to jihadists. But Tunisia’s former elites never resisted regime change and have shown no affinity with the jihadists. Senior civil servants who served competently under the previous regime await a national reconciliation process that will allow them to contribute once again to their country and help it meet its challenges, including terror.
Other countries should stop selling Tunisians a pie in the sky. The Deauville and the Schloss Elmau Group of Seven summits did not send Tunisians the strong message of hope they wanted to hear. Disappointment with the West is widespread. So is the sense among Tunisians of being left on their own. The security challenge posed by regional dynamics of radicalism and terror is beyond Tunisia’s own capacity. The army, for instance, is still in need of helicopters and other equipment to effectively fight terrorists in the country’s forested mountains. Final delivery of some of that equipment will incredibly have to wait till 2018.
If there is ever going to be a real and lasting Tunisian exception, Tunisians will have to work hard to earn it. They will be obviously able to do so only with the help of friends. The strong sense of shame Tunisians feel today over the senseless deaths of foreign guests in their midst might be a clue that they have already started on that arduous path.
Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.