Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:
Just over a year has passed since the Bardo Museum terrorist attack in Tunisia last year, and yet the threat of extremist continues to loom over the country. Caught within a destabilized and violent region, Tunisia has struggled to keep their developing democracy safe and secure from radicals. Tunisian politicians, in order to enhance security, have enacted major national security laws. In addition, outside actors, particularly the United States, have supplied the Tunisian government with military means and political backing. Unfortunately, in the process of making the region’s lone democracy more secure, Tunisian and international leaders are returning the country on a path of civil repression.
One cannot help but note the subtle irony in that Tunisia, the Arab Spring’s sole case of successful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, has become one of the region’s greatest sources of extremism. Although it has enjoyed a relatively peaceful and constructive democratization process, Tunisia has also produced several radicalized individuals who have gone on to join terrorist movements like ISIS and al-Qaeda. By mid-2014, many analysts considered Tunisia to be the largest source of foreign fighters to the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. Scholars and analysts have attributed this trend to several factors. These include the marginalization of conservative young males amidst the national political transition, increased opportunities for radical clerics to express themselves due to loosened restrictions on speech and public expression, and sparse socioeconomic opportunities and systemic poverty among young adult males in particular. Whatever its exact causes, the outflow of radicalized Tunisians has provided manpower and ideological traction for ISIS and similar organizations in North Africa and beyond.
Ordinary Tunisians themselves have become all-too-familiar with the consequences of such extremism on their own security. The Bardo Museum attack of March 18 last year killed 24 people after gunmen tied to ISIS stormed an art museum in Tunis. A similar attack in the resort-town of Sousse, just three months later, eroded any remnant of Tunisians’ sense of security and struck a blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry. And just last month, 52 people were killed in an attack by ISIS fighters in the town of Ben Guerdane. These are just the most brazen examples of extremist activity disrupting the lives of ordinary Tunisians and highlighting the country’s precarious position in an ideologically heated region. On a broader scale, these attacks represent the potential for terrorism to degrade the country’s overall security and stability and throw its delicate political and civil consolidation into disarray.
For these reasons, both Tunisian and U.S. officials are determined to protect the Arab Spring’s sole success-story from destabilization. In the immediate wake of the Sousse attack, the Tunisian parliament passed a sweeping national security bill that enhanced security forces’ counterterrorism authority and capabilities. Since then, Tunisia has increased its counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S. American drones have regularly conducted monitoring missions and airstrikes against extremist forces along Tunisia’s border with Libya in a broad effort to insulate Tunisia from becoming more vulnerable to radical attacks from its unstable neighbor. Additionally, the U.S. is projected to provide Tunisia with $140 million in foreign aid, including military funding. In the short term, these steps may prove critical to protecting Tunisian government and civil society against extremism both within and outside the country’s borders. The increased aid and political support from the U.S. might especially help Tunisia’s efforts to protect its citizens from future attacks and enhance its fighting abilities throughout the region as a whole.
Unfortunately, such measures may ultimately come to haunt the prospects of a resilient and dynamic Tunisian democracy. In the process of adopting stricter security measures, policymakers in Tunis risk constricting their own citizens’ fundamental rights. Observers have already accused President Beji Caid Essebsi and national lawmakers of imposing a police state reminiscent of the one in place prior to the 2011 revolution. Human rights advocates have decried the major counterterrorism law enacted in the summer of 2015 for lacking safeguards against abuse of powers related to surveillance, arbitrary detention of terror suspects, and opaque terror trials. The government’s increasingly oppressive actions have also deteriorated its accountability to the public regarding counterterrorist operations. In some cases, Tunisian politicians have even manipulated public concerns over terrorism in order to advance their electoral prospects over their opponents. In their desire to keep their country’s young democracy safe from extremism, Tunisian leaders risk reverting to the very sort of oppression that sparked the Arab Spring in their country.
The culpability for Tunisia’s backslide extends to the U.S., whose material and political support may enable Tunisian leaders to commit repressive activities. Despite the return of civil restrictions, U.S. officials have only deepened their solidarity with Essebsi. The U.S.’ designation of Tunisia as a major non-N.A.T.O. ally last summer only paves the way for increases in provisions of defense equipment and funding. The major non-N.A.T.O. ally designation may prove especially crucial in this regard: it allows U.S. officials to reduce stringent Congressional oversight over the aid and gives Tunisia a counterterrorism prioritization over other recipients. This may have repercussions on Tunisian civil liberties by reducing logistical and legal obstacles before increased security capacity. When asked by Foreign Policy why the U.S. would continue enabling Tunisian security enhancement despite awareness of Tunisia’s democratic backsliding, a State Department official replied, “we consider a wide variety of factors when evaluating our foreign assistance to other countries.” The non-response reveals an unsettling implication: just as Tunisia is trading democracy for security, so is the U.S. more interested in securing its strategic objectives for the region than holding its ally accountable to democratic consolidation.
The good news is that there is still time to redirect Tunisia onto a democratic course. The challenge moving forward is to deemphasize restrictive security measures in favor of reaffirming the liberal principles upon which the country’s democratic transition was founded. It will also require restoring ordinary Tunisians’ faith in their political and civil systems and fostering their sense of ownership and civic engagement in the country. Such objectives require concerted and committed action from Tunisian leaders and the international community alike. Tunisian officials and lawmakers need to take concrete steps to address not only repressive security measures, but the bureaucratic corruption and marginalization of certain demographics that have also contributed to democratic erosion. International allies, for their part, need to shift their focus from supplying military assistance to encouraging economic development and political accountability. Such a focus would incentivize Tunisian leaders to be more responsive to their people’s concerns and needs and stem the sense of disillusionment that has permeated among the country’s citizens.
Tunisia has seen its political and civil transformation rocked by extremist threats both within and beyond its borders. Fearful of the potential for destabilization, the country’s leaders have instituted sweeping security measures while international partners have poured in military assistance. While this may make Tunisia more secure from terrorism and regional conflict in the short run, it also risks chipping away at the very democratic ideals that drove its political transition in the first place. Building true, substantive peace and security will require Tunisia and its allies to pursue a better balance between strong counterterrorism capabilities and embedded protections for civil liberties and social pluralism. Charting this sort of course will invariably be difficult and may expose the country to greater immediate dangers. The alternative, though, might risk upheaving Tunisia’s democratic experiment at its very roots.