Tunisia's darkest hour

The attack on the Bardo Museum has put Tunisia's young democracy to a crucial test. Conservative forces demand a severe crackdown against Islamists and thereby threaten to limit basic rights and freedoms. Attempts to address the real causes of terrorism are increasingly being overlooked in the process - with devastating consequences. By Ilyas Saliba

By Ilyas Saliba

The bloody attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which left 22 dead, has cast a dark shadow over Tunisia's democratic achievements since the country's successful Jasmine Revolution. Although the primary victims of the terrorist attack were foreign tourists, the real aim of the gunmen was to destabilize the country's democratic transition and its main political parties.

The success of Tunisia's democratic transition depends on whether the executive branch, supported by the country's security apparatus, decides to respond unilaterally or if a broad-based social coalition can emerge. After the attack, Tunisian civil society and, in particular, human rights organizations in the country are calling for a decisive response from society as a whole, yet one that does not limit newly attained freedoms and civil rights.

The urge to engage in a severe crackdown – and thereby revert to authoritarian tendencies – appears to be especially prevalent among elements of President Essebsi's governing party. Immediately after the terrorist attack, hardliners within his Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party began issuing bellicose statements. In his first speech after the attack, Essebsi declared "an uncompromising fight against terrorism." Prime Minister Habib Essid (independent) promised to take "resolute and merciless" measures against those responsible.

Präsident Beji Caid Essebsi während einer Ansprache nach dem Terroranschlag auf das Bardo-Museum; Foto: Reuters/Z. Souissi
Der Impuls zu einem harten Durchgreifen – und damit zu einem Rückfall in autoritäre Muster – scheint besonders in Teilen der Regierungspartei von Präsident Essebsi groß zu sein. In seiner ersten Rede nach den Anschlägen kündigte Essebsi einen „erbarmungslosen Kampf gegen den Terrorismus“ an.

United against terrorism

Despite this, the will to undertake measures against terrorism exists across the political spectrum. Even the conservative Islamic Ennahda party has joined the political appeal for unity and has categorically condemned the terrorist attack. In addition, the party has demanded the calling of a summit meeting to develop a national strategy against terrorism. Such an initiative could also lay the groundwork for a comprehensive discussion on political measures to combat terrorism.

Operations by the security forces, especially in the regions bordering Algeria, must comply with fundamental, constitutionally anchored rights. Justice based on revenge, as took place in the wake of the upheavals in Egypt, could erase the achievements of the Tunisian revolution. Any attempt to relativize the rule of law or limit the civil liberties won in the Jasmine Revolution as a means of dealing with Islamic terrorists must be absolutely avoided. An increase in state repression would simply lead to a further radicalization of militant Islamic movements and thereby result in violence.

Tunisia's security apparatus, which formed the backbone of the former regime under Ben Ali, requires extensive reforms. Up until now, however, this process of reform has moved at a very slow pace. As a result, the structures of Ben Ali's police state have not been adapted to the new constitutional realities. The security forces continue to operate without transparency in their command structures or chains of responsibility.

Due to its key role, any comprehensive strategy against terrorism would require a restructuring of the security sector, making it more transparent and effective. This is because the fight against terrorism should only be conducted within the limits set out by the constitution. In addition, the war on terrorism would do best to focus more on the causes that lead to an emergence of this phenomenon. Poverty and unemployment leave many young Tunisians particularly susceptible to fundamentalist religious ideologies, especially when they face increasingly dismal occupational prospects while simultaneously being offered financial assistance from extremist movements.

Polizist bei der Wiedereröffnung des Bardo-Museums in Tunis nach dem Anschlag; Foto: AFP/Getty Images/F. Senna
Der Sicherheitsapparat Tunesiens, der bereits das Rückgrat des alten Ben-Ali-Regimes bildete, bedarf tiefgreifender Reformen. Die Sicherheitskräfte operieren nach wie vor großenteils ohne transparente Verantwortlichkeits- und Kommandostrukturen.

Deprive terrorism of its breeding ground

The desolate economic situation in Tunisia's rural regions and the dramatic level of unemployment among young people (currently hovering around 40 per cent) – whereby those under 25 make up 40 per cent of Tunisia's total population – offers an ideal breeding ground for the mobilization of fundamentalist groups in Tunisia.

With a population of 11 million, Tunisia is the least populated country in the region. Despite this, Tunisia has supplied the "Islamic State" (IS) with at least 3,000 jihadists, the largest number of volunteers among international fighters. Without any economic prospects, young Tunisians will continue to be easy prey for extremist demagogues. Education, of course, can help, but it is equally important that basic social and economic hardships are taken into account.

An economic upturn, which might offer the country's youth better prospects, appears more than doubtful in the wake of the terrorist attack and the resulting expected drop in tourism. Although some experts and political observers have already hastily proclaimed the failure of Tunisian democracy and attest to the definitive end of the Arab uprisings, the Tunisian government is, in fact, holding the cards in its own hands. European governments should therefore not simply stand by and observe events, but rather actively support the government in implementing its reform policies. Economic assistance will cost money. This, however, is now especially urgent in order to effectively prevent an eruption of terrorism in Tunisia.

The terrorist attack in Tunis should be perceived as a warning signal that the new model student in democracy, despite good grades so far, still faces a challenging journey ahead. Tunisia lies wedged in between a disintegrating Libya to the east and an authoritarian Algeria to the west. Transnational Islamic terrorism has not just become a transnational problem with the emergence of IS. In terms of security policy, the state cannot successfully fight violent groups in the peripheral border regions on its own. Under the circumstances, containing these groups is the most that can be hoped for.

Wiedereröffnung des Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Foto: AFP/Getty Images/F. Belaid
Dass in jeder Krise auch eine Chance liegt, gilt auch für Tunesien nach dem Bardo-Attentat. Die Regierung wäre gut beraten, eine nationale Koalition zu bilden und eine nachhaltige Strategie zur Terrorbekämpfung zu entwickeln.

Regional cooperation – in particular with Algeria – is imperative in order to minimize the number of safe havens available to violent groups. International support and cooperation is required for Tunisia to tackle the roots of this security problem. At present, the country's poorly equipped and opaque security apparatus does not appear able to effectively counter the armed groups.

Seeing the crisis as an opportunity

As the saying goes, in every crisis lies the seed of opportunity. This also applies to Tunisia following the attack on the Bardo Museum. The government would be well advised to form a national coalition and develop a long-term strategy on combatting terrorism. The attack could thereby provide the impulse needed to restructure the training and equipping of the security forces as well as to place the security apparatus under civilian control with a transparent command structure and chain of responsibility. The yet-to-be-passed new anti-terrorism law should thereby not serve as a vehicle to annul fundamental civil rights and freedoms. Parliamentary control mechanisms are therefore important to avoid such an improper use of the law.

In this darkest hour, Tunisia requires more than just encouraging words from European politicians. Above all, what is needed is close political and economic cooperation with the government in Tunis. So much is certain: When the lighthouse of the Arab uprising is extinguished, the southern shore of the Mediterranean will plunge into darkness. Of course, this support will also cost money. But we should seriously ask ourselves just how much democracy in North Africa is worth to us Europeans.

By Ilyas Saliba

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated by John Bergeron

Ilyas Saliba is a research associate at the Democracy and Democratization Research Unit of the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). His focus is on the stability of autocratic regimes during the recent Arab uprisings