Commended, admired and supported by many Western countries for overcoming obstacles and successfully transitioning away from dictatorship after the 2011 Arab Spring, Tunisia has demonstrated that a Muslim country long under autocratic rule can succeed and thrive in a democracy. Tunisians have drafted a new constitution and gone on to conduct democratic legislative and presidential campaigns and form a government. Despite the security hurdles encountered in the past four years, Tunisians of different factions and parties have put up a united front against terrorism and instability and have committed to resolving their differences through democratic and peaceful means. Therefore, it appears that Tunisia is on the right path towards democracy, but can this small North African country of 11 million people be immune to the turmoil surrounding it by neighboring Algeria and Libya?
The truth is that Tunisia is far from declaring victory over its monumental list of challenges. Its biggest one to date is the surge of radical thought in the minds of its youth. Some reports say that more than 3,000 young Tunisians have joined ISIS to fight in Iraq and Syria and possibly wreak havoc in nearby Europe. Along with Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, sociologists are rallying around youth and spreading awareness to their families in an effort to prevent further ISIS recruitment. According to Ben Jeddou, 9,000 Tunisians have recently been stopped from traveling to Syria, but they have not been further monitored by government or youth counselors and therefore pose a threat in the spread of extremism and radicalism. Other sources quoted by the Al-Chourouk Tunisian newspaper mentioned the existence of 400 ISIS sleeper cells in Tunisia.
Furthermore, the investigation into the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack has shed light on the role Tunisians played in both the planning and perpetrating of the crime. A Tunisian-French joint investigation found ties between the perpetrators of the attack and the Tunisian terrorist Abu Bakr al-Hakim. There are also reports of the Kouachi brothers receiving military training in Tunisia in 2012 before following Abu Bakr al-Hakim first to Libya and then back to France. The investigation into the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has also revealed that the weapons used in the attack were smuggled into France from Libya through terrorist recruiting networks in Tunisia. As reported by Al-Chourouk, recent intelligence reports of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi fleeing Mosul for Syria and handing over leadership in Mosul to his trusted Tunisian Abu ‘Ubayda further highlight ties to ISIS both in Tunisia and abroad.
All this, however, has only strengthened Tunisia’s determination to fight terrorism. There has been full cooperation with North African and European nations to share intelligence and join efforts to foil attacks and arrest suspected terrorists. This kind of effort has led to the thwarting of a major terrorist plot targeting airports in Tunisia and Algeria. Further anti-terrorism success stories include the detention of Abdallah al-Gharbi who is accused of taking part in various terrorist activities in Tunisia and of coordinating operations between Libya and Tunisia, increasing the threat of future attacks.
The challenges Tunisia faces are immense, but the country’s determination seems unwavering. Today some young Tunisians regard the election of President Beji Caid Essebsi last December as a bitter reminder of the past regime and a blatant disregard to their revolution. Other factions of society are angered by newly-nominated Prime Minister Habib Essid’s decision to exclude the moderate Islamist Ennahda from the new government. Meanwhile, human right activists are outraged by the military court’s verdict convicting blogger Yassine Ayari to a year behind bars for Facebook comments he had made against the Tunisian army.
These are only a few of the challenges a defiant Tunisia faces – many of which may be considered normal political dispute that could take place even in a Western democratic country. The greatest feat is in precisely keeping the dispute political and the solutions democratic, in the confines of existing institutions. The billboards commonly seen on the streets of Tunisia that read “Terrorism is not for us” seem to be a good slogan to remind Tunisians that only through a good combination of sound policies, proper education and international support can Tunisia steer clear from the dangers it faces.