By Rory Maccarthy
23 December 2016
Another terrorist attack in Europe brings more alarmed finger-pointing at Tunisia. Have we entirely misread the story of the small Mediterranean nation whose people’s bold protests for dignity and social justice sparked the Arab Spring six years ago? It is a deeply troubling puzzle. Here is a nation known by most in the West for its languid tourist beaches; but one which has also produced a group of individuals now linked to a string of terrorist attacks.
Anis Amri, the man suspected of the Berlin lorry attack, grew up in a small town near Kairouan, 60 miles south of Tunis and then, like thousands of his countrymen, took a boat to the Italian island of Lampedusa in early 2011 in search of a new life.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man behind the lorry attack in Nice in July that killed 86 people, was born in the Tunisian town of M’saken and later moved to live in France. One of the men linked to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015 was Boubaker al-Hakim, a French citizen of Tunisian origin who spent many months in Tunisia after 2011 before travelling to fight in Syria, where he was killed in a US air strike last month.
As many as 7,000 Tunisians have left their country since 2011 to fight alongside extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, particularly with Isil. There are more Tunisians among the ranks of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria than any other nationality. Tunisian radicals have also been behind a series of attacks in their own country, a low-level insurgency against the Tunisian military near the Algeria border, plus political assassinations and attacks on foreign tourists at the Bardo museum in Tunis in March 2015 and on the beaches of Sousse in June of the same year.
There are two stories to tell of contemporary Tunisia. One is of a fragile but promising transition away from years of authoritarian rule towards a fledgling democracy. Two parliamentary elections have been held since 2011, and when the previously victorious Islamist movement al-Nahda lost the second vote it gracefully conceded power and sought a role in coalition with its adversaries. In recent weeks, the Truth and Dignity Commission has been televising live accounts from many victims of abuses committed under the former regimes in testimony that has gripped the country. Their tales are shocking and dignified in equal measure. This is the story of Tunisia that we rarely hear.
The second story is of how over many years a generation of young men and women was marginalised and exposed to radicalisation, and this is a story that many in Tunisia are still reluctant to admit. They blame an international radical jihadism for poisoning the minds of this young generation. One Tunisian newspaper columnist yesterday called these extremists “les fils maudits”, the accursed sons who harm their country.
But problems have been growing in Tunisia since the 2000s, with mounting unemployment and despair and humiliation among the young. Some of them have turned to radical Salafist movements, inspired by satellite television preachers and driven by anger at the Tunisian regime’s attempts to impose an official vision of Islam. Many were jailed, only to be freed in 2011 after an amnesty. They rapidly took advantage of the political and security vacuum that came with the Arab Spring to preach their views and mobilise support. Some were paid thousands of dollars for every young Tunisian they could recruit to fight in Syria and Iraq. Communities such as Ettadhamen, in Tunis, found that entire groups of young men had disappeared to fight abroad.
The fall of the Ben Ali regime gave thousands of young Tunisians the chance to flee their country, to head to Europe in search of a better life. For some, like the Berlin suspect, radicalisation came only once they were in European jails: Anis Amri spent four years in an Italian cell before moving to Germany. His case is evidence of an increasingly common link between criminality and radicalisation; the two communities often overlap in recruitment. Only more recently has the Tunisian government imposed restrictions on young men trying to travel abroad.
But in Tunisia the conditions that pushed these young people to flee have changed little. Unemployment remains high. Beyond Tunis and the wealthy coastal cities and tourist resorts, there have been continuous protests, strikes and industrial disputes. Several hundred individual or collective acts of protest are being recorded every month, though they are rarely acknowledged by the Tunisian media or political elite. They may remain atomised social protests and may never constitute a second revolution, but they reveal how much has still to be achieved in the new Tunisia.
Rory McCarthy is a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and is writing a book on Tunisian Islamism