Once again Tunisia, the country that launched the Arab Spring, is seeing uncertain days. People have taken to the streets across the country protesting high unemployment and poverty, sometimes violently. Much like in 2011, they are demanding immediate action from the government. One man set himself on fire, an echo of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked the protests in Tunisia that toppled Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and led to the Arab Spring.
But what do these new protests mean five years later amid a much more unstable and dangerous Middle East? And how is ISIS taking advantage of the situation?
Some speculate that this recent unrest is unlikely to lead to a call to overthrow the government, because Tunisians supposedly aren’t looking for a revolution. This time it’s just about economic concerns.
But it’s important to remember that, although also about political freedom and authoritarian rule, the revolt in 2011 was also largely about unemployment and poor living conditions in the face of government corruption. Ben Ali and other political elites were known to be living in luxury while the Tunisian people languished. Economic woes very well could spark a revolt for a people who have proven themselves very comfortable with civil disobedience.
We Want a Stable Society to Materialize Overnight
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid pleaded with the Tunisian people to be understanding that the transition to democracy takes time and that “solutions exist but some patience and optimism are needed.” Patient is just what the people are not. As Al Jazeera reports, they are demanding “immediate” relief of unemployment and “poor economic conditions.”
This is a sign the Tunisian people haven’t internalized much of what it means to live in a free society. Since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has enjoyed the fruits of its rebellion, such as open elections. But changing the economy takes time. Tunisians have yet to understand that replacing the regime and opening the country to elections isn’t a cure for economic woes—or corruption.
To make matters worse, in the last few months, the parliament has seen mass resignations from the ruling secular party, Nida Tounes, in protest of the president’s son being appointed party chief. This has led to Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, gaining the majority in parliament.
The unrest and impatience of the Tunisian people, plus the parliamentary upheaval, could expose the country to threats that didn’t exist in 2011—namely, ISIS. Essid warned that “dirty hands” are provoking and encouraging these demonstrations. As the protests spread and an indefinite nationwide curfew is put into place, leaders worry that radical elements are taking advantage of the anger Tunisians are feeling toward their government. Unfortunately, this is not just speculation or a distraction from the legitimate economic protests. It’s a real threat.
ISIS Seeks to Move In
On Thursday, ISIS released several videos calling on Tunisians, Moroccans, Algerians, Malians, and Libyans to join in an effort to overthrow the “apostate” governments of Tunisia and Morocco. ISIS is accusing these two countries, who have retained close ties to France, of trying to “westernize” Muslims in the face of their Islamic traditions. They are calling for an Islamic regime to be put into place and the reinstatement of Sharia law.
One video encourages Moroccans and Tunisians to rise up and launch Paris-style attacks in their respective countries. The jihadist in the video points out how much easier an attack of this nature would be to execute in North Africa than in a European city. And he’s right.
Unfortunately, Tunisia is no stranger to terrorist attacks in recent months. In 2015, Islamist terrorists struck the country on three separate occasions. First was the shooting at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, where 21 were killed, primarily European tourists. Next, a gunman killed 38 tourists, mostly British, at a beachside resort in Sousse. In both instances, the attackers are thought to have trained in Libya and ISIS claimed responsibility. These two attacks were clearly aimed at the Western culture that runs throughout these Muslim-majority countries.
In November, however, an attack of a different nature took place. A suicide bomber targeted the Tunisian presidential guard, killing 12. Rather than explicitly attacking a Western hot spot, this attack was aimed at the government. More than just going for anti-western symbolism, ISIS is serious about spreading its influence and control into the Maghreb. It doesn’t mean merely to menace the state; it means to undermine it.
ISIS already has a strong foothold in Libya, which collapsed into chaos after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. They are poised to extend their influence into the Maghreb, just a stone’s throw from Europe.
Tunisia Could Become an ISIS Launch Pad
Although it might seem like these attacks couldn’t bring down the country, the president of Tunisia is aware of the danger they pose. After the Sousse attacks, he warned that another such event would “cause the country to collapse.” If the Arab Spring proved anything, it’s that the will of the people can topple a government. The power vacuum this leaves can be volatile—and violent, as it was in Libya.
Regardless of whether the takeover of Tunisia is actually feasible, there is little doubt that ISIS can destabilize the country. This could in turn allow it to become a harbor for ISIS and other Islamist groups and a launching pad for further attacks on the European continent.
However, ISIS isn’t just trying to extend its territory into North Africa. The Islamic State has long found Tunisia to be a fruitful recruiting ground—and not just for launching attacks at home. ISIS boasts more foreign fighters from Tunisia than from any other country.
It’s a grim reality to find that the one supposed success story of the Arab Spring should be home to so many ISIS supporters. This demonstrates that just because a country has had a democratic revolution doesn’t mean that everyone in the country embraces it.
Victimhood Breeds Violence
The Tunisian people need to be patient and understand that the transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy will take time, if it’s even possible. Just like many Americans, Tunisians are under the false impression that the government can just create jobs for them.
If the Tunisian people cannot patiently wait out these transitional years while demanding transparency from their government, they will find themselves in a constant state of political upheaval. This shaky state of affairs will make them vulnerable not just to ISIS, but also to the Islamist parties from within who may promise jobs in exchange for religious concessions.
The “success story” of the Arab Spring is showing signs of how tentative that achievement was. The ousting of Ben Ali and his corrupt government was an important start. But that was only one battle in the war.
The real challenges are to instill democratic principles in a people that have known only authoritarian governance, and to root out the alarming number of ISIS supporters in this Western-leaning country. Whether these two things are possible remains to be seen. In the meantime, Tunisia is exposed and vulnerable, to enemies both foreign and domestic.