Will Tunisia’s fragile democracy survive?
The only state to have come out of the Arab Spring with genuine democratic institutions, after popular discontent toppled the autocratic Ben Ali regime in December 2010, is the north African nation of Tunisia.
But will this last? Recent events make the prognosis problematic.
Tunisia has struggled to contain an insurgency along its porous border with Algeria, where Islamist militants have been increasingly present.
A greater problem stems from Ansar al-Shariah, whose leaders are members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and are now based in Syria and neighbouring Libya, and connected to the Islamic State.
It shares the goals of cleansing north Africa of Western influence and instituting Islamic law.
The chaos unfolding in Libya has created large areas where extremists train, and a ready source of weapons for them from the armouries of former dictator Muammar Gadhafi.
And Tunisia itself, a country which produces 80,000 university graduates a year but has around 20 per cent unemployment, provides fertile soil for the disappointed.
Three thousand Tunisians now make up the biggest foreign fighter contingent in the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Last December, a group of Tunisian Islamists in Syria asked their compatriots to rise up against their own government in the name of an Islamic Caliphate. Clearly, some have responded to the call.
This year, the country has been victimized by a series of terrorist incidents, mainly aimed at foreign tourists, and designed to cripple that segment of is economy.
Among Tunisia’s tourist attractions are its capital of Tunis, the ancient ruins of Carthage, the Muslim and Jewish quarters on the island of Jerba, and various coastal resorts along the Mediterranean Sea.
On March 18, an attack by three gunmen on the National Bardo Museum in Tunis killed 21 foreign tourists. The Islamic State declared that they had struck “citizens of the Crusader countries.”
One week later, a soldier killed seven other troops in an attack at the Bouchoucha military base in Tunis.
Then, on June 26, another shooter murdered 40 people, most of them British, on a beach between the Soviva and Imperial Marhaba hotels, in a tourist complex near Sousse, along the Mediterranean.
Prime Minister Habib Essid, appointed by President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi on Feb. 5 to lead a coalition government whose members include the Islamist Ennahda and the secular Afek Tounes parties, has announced the closing of 80 mosques being investigated for extremist links.
Tunisia must take back the terrain of religion that it surrendered to extremists, contends Sami Brahem, a researcher at Tunisia’s Center for Economic and Social Studies and Research.
On Jan. 27, 2014, then President Moncef Marzouki signed the country’s new constitution, adopted a day earlier by a constituent assembly. “With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship,” he said in a speech, waving the victory sign. Perhaps he spoke too soon.
A boy holds a Tunisian flag as he stands near bouquets of flowers laid at the beachside of the Imperiale Marhabada hotel, which was attacked by a gunman in Sousse, Tunisia, June 27.