Tunisia has been seen as the little North African success story of the Arab Spring after it recently completed its first free presidential election. Then the Bardo museeum attack happened. Terrorism was now considered the biggest threat to the process of consolidating the transition to democracy. On social media, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham claimed responsibility for the killings but did not cite any evidence. They warned that it was just the “first drop of rain.”
The response was quick; ‘We don’t have terrorism, it’s all imported!’ Tunisia’s president said. Yet, both gunmen were Tunisians. So, something went terribly wrong, somewhere between the ‘imported ideas of radicalism’ and the Tunisian system they grew up in. The security concerns are real, but they are not the only urgent issue that Tunisia has at the moment. The attack challenged not only the democracy but it also illustrates the lack of a relation between the new state and its society.
In response to the attack, a crisis cell convened, conducted by Prime Minister Habib Essid, the Minister of Interior, and the Minister of National Defence. Some of the measures that were decided during the meeting included strengthening control of the Libyan borders, closure of mosques built without permission, state control over mosques preaching extremist ideology, stronger collaboration between security, military and judicial institutions, and reinforced security in tourist areas across the country.
“The security concerns are real, but they are not the only urgent issue”
Nowhere during this meeting or any other meeting in the aftermath did the government discuss what made these young men carry out this horrific attack. Nowhere did they ask why? International media immediately drew the links to Libya and the training camp where ISIS had established a growing presence. Rafik Chelli, the secretary of state for security, said that the two ‘terrorists’ had slipped across the Tunisian border illegally in December where they had received weapon training in Libya. He did not say a word about where these men grew up or what school they attended. He did however mention the locations of several suspected training camps. There has been a wide range of speculations regarding the various links between ISIS, extremist groups in Tunisia and abroad. But at no point has the links between state, society, empowerment and community been debated.
We need to take religion and terrorism out of the equation for a moment and bring back the debate about the state. Because the biggest challenge the new government is facing in Tunisia is not to secure the borders, but rather to mobilize within them. Radical Islamism is partly an outcome of the immature post-revolutionary political culture, but that is not the whole story. Political Islam is as much about empowerment as religion. So, what is it in the Tunisian state that made these young men feel so powerless?
Radicalism in any form is empowering and it is fulfilling; through radicalism the imaginary structure of the world is endless. The social conditions before the revolution were catastrophic and they haven’t improved much in the aftermath either. Hopes and aspiration is often crashed by the harsh reality. More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight in Syria. Fighting for a caliphate is more tempting than fighting for stable institutions, a secure state and democracy. It was thus easier to imagine a more fulfilling reality in a warzone than at home. How could the idea of a state loose so much appeal?
The history of the modern state in Tunisia is a relatively new one, citizens have never had the opportunity to actually engage in state building and the Tunisian state under Ben Ali did not represent the whole society, only a very small elite. Empowerment came into the picture for the first time when Tunisians took to the streets and overthrew their authoritarian leader; it did not only empower the Tunisian society but the whole region. By calling for freedom, dignity and democracy, people got a sense of empowerment; the hopes went up only to slowly fade with time.
What Tunisia needs now, apart from better security, less weapons and fewer trained radicals from Libya, is to bring back that sense of empowerment. The new government has to engage the public, not shut them out and promise they will protect them from evil terrorists. This will take a big dose of will power, patience and sacrifices. The mutual trust between society and the state has never really been there and that initial social contract was only signed by a few and they were always suspicious of each other. Local governments play an important role in this process. Instead of spending all these money on closure of radical mosques, they should be invested in the communities. If the local governments can engage their citizens through meaningful education, welfare and political participation, they will not have to travel to Iraq, Syria or even Europe to get a sense of empowerment.