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Jihadists and activists: Tunisian youth five years later

Refocusing attention on activist youth helps clarify the complexity of this historical moment we have variably called the 'Arab Spring' or 'Arab Awakening'.

Chedly Ben Ibrahim/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Over the past couple of weeks I have received messages from family, friends, and colleagues across the globe expressing bewilderment and frustration over the latest attack against tourists in the beach town of Sousse in Tunisia.

I suspect that the fact that the victims of this brutal incident were foreigners was related to the especially speedy and detailed mediation of the event and the unfolding of solidarity campaigns both for the families of victims as well as Tunisian society and economy.

Everyone around me here in Tunis, including myself, has mourned the latest attack even more intensely than the last, which took place in March at the historical Bardo museum in the capital. This attack was and more lethal than the first, resulting in the death of 39 tourists, the overwhelming majority of whom were British. General public opinion and sentiment finds this second incident even more worrying in geopolitical terms and more deeply disappointing in social terms.

A single assassin, a 23 year-old university student from the interior of the country, shot at foreign sunbathers with a loaded Kalashnikov for thirty minutes before being restrained by Tunisian police with a bullet to the head. In response to this attack, later claimed by ISIS, the President of the Republic, Beji Caid Essebsi, declared a state of emergency on Saturday 4 July.

The state of emergency entails a series of preventative measures against suspected terrorists including monetary compensation for their denouncers, but also the suspension of industrial action, surveillance of public gatherings, plans to build a wall along the borders with Libya, and the prohibition of travel for Tunisians aged below 35 to specific countries.

The violent occurrence itself as well as the declaration of another state of emergency—the last one had only come to an end in March 2014—are especially shocking for post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Since January 2011, after 65 years of illiberal regimes and 75 years of colonialism before that, the country has managed to complete the drafting of a new democratic constitution and successfully carried out two rounds of elections in 2011 and 2014. Among its impressive achievements is the synthesis of a coalition government composed of the two main political opponents, Nida’ Tounes and Ennahdah, which represent, in broad strokes and for reasons of brevity, the ‘anti-islamist’ and ‘islamist’ visions of contemporary Tunisia respectively.

All this in sharp contrast with the majority of the states in the region, which have translated widespread popular upheaval and the toppling of undemocratic regimes into either mutated dictatorships or outright civil wars. 

The efforts by varied media outlets to describe and explain the events in Bardo and Sousse—porous frontiers with a fragmented Libya, a number of Tunisian mosques with questionable missions, the undeniable circulation of ISIS ideology if not funding, a national police force poorly prepared to respond to such acts—have established the vocabulary and images through which both the Tunisian as well as the international public are trying to handle such occurrences.

The images, besides those of the unfortunate victims, depict predominantly armed young men who are more often than not deceased before they communicate their motivations. These motivations are automatically linked to religious conviction and rage; a pairing systematically associated more with Islam than with other religions.

Even within the country, the violent actions of these young ‘jihadis’ overshadowed their individual stories and their socio-cultural and economic context, thus leaving ample space for more clear-cut narratives of national security versus threats predominantly construed as external. As things stand, these narratives risk rallying support for less than democratic and less than human rights-sensitive legal decisions in a recently established democracy.

I have never personally met any of the 3000 Tunisian young men and women who are presumed to have joined the ISIS army in Syria and Iraq, just like their agemates in France, Britain, Canada and elsewhere, either because they shared the vision of the radical utopia they name the ‘Islamic State’ or for material purposes—rumour has it here that soldiers and in case of martyrdom their families are well compensated.

In the last couple of years, however, I have had a lot of contact with other Tunisian youth through my engagement in training programmes inside civil society. These activities revolve around democratisation and focus on ideas and practices of citizenship as a set of social, political, and economic rights and duties.

This personal contact, which comes after almost a decade of work with Moroccan high school and university students and sustained communication with young activists from the rest of the region, has convinced me that the most important space of the Tunisian transition as well as that of the wider region is to be found in locations other than the bloodied floor of the Bardo museum and the death-stricken hotel resorts in Sousse.

It has also reassured me at hard times like this that the protagonists of transition are not those whose faces feature on international news broadcasts as wanted, or, more often, as the already perished enemies of democracy, civilisation and progress.

My attempt to refocus attention on these activist youth, a different repertoire of people and actions, can gain broader purchase—and this was my impetus for writing this article—not only as ‘the other side of the coin’ but, more significantly, as a chance to clarify the complexity of this historical moment that we have variably called the ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Awakening’.

Such complexity cannot be summed up by the terms ‘religion’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘security’ nor a 140-character Tweet issued either by ISIS-owned accounts or the myriads of security experts and political commentators on the region.

Ever since my first visit in Tunisia in 2013, I had the opportunity to meet an impressive number of young people who work incessantly and tirelessly on the various axes of democratic transition. Some of them are professionals in civil society with the mission to organise activities every day and night and every single weekend to promote their specific causes.

Others are volunteers dividing their time between their activism and their studies, and more often than not at the expense of their studies, or of a daytime job that ensures some kind of subsistence. Numerous high school students launch campaigns during afternoons or school holidays to make visible and advocate for the most urgent social and cultural issues the country faces.

Among the objectives of this effervescent activity are: the renovation of political parties through young people that are adequately prepared to participate in electoral and governmental work; the shaming and elimination of corruption from all levels of political and economic activity; and the informing and participation of citizens regardless of region, age, gender and education in electoral processes.

They are equally concerned with the attribution of justice to victims of state oppression, from the time of Bourguiba to the regime of Ben Ali and the period after the revolution, in the hope that this will enhance social cohesion and create trust between state and citizens.

The youth organise and facilitate training workshops aimed at tackling socio-political tensions through dialogue and debate, and at correcting the structural inequality that sustains class divisions. The latter are partly the result of an unequal and out-dated educational system and partly the product of the long-term marginalisation of certain identities and even regions of the country.

The qualifications ‘incessantly and tirelessly’ are neither exaggerated nor metaphorical. These workshops and campaigns require long and tiresome trips across the country for both trainers and participants, lasting between two and seven days, sometimes starting at eight and finishing at seven in the evening, with homework for the next day.

Many trainers take time off their paid jobs—some joke that they have not had a holiday since the time of the revolution—and participants regardless of age and educational level join in with energy to the activities scheduled.

The atmosphere of these workshops, organised by Tunisian citizens for Tunisian citizens both of whom are usually aged between 16 and 35—namely the age group that the state of emergency has designated as a risk group—is as mature and as unconventional as it should be. I am referring here to the kind of unconventionality that is necessary when organisers and participants try to imagine anew as much the technique as the meaning of education, paying attention to equality and respect for diversity.

In this environment, differences of opinion that on the official political scene have in the past caused considerable linguistic, psychological, and even physical injury, become objects of discussion and chances to know ‘others’ as humans and as citizens.

There are many stories of reconciliation brought about by contact and new knowledge that resound in these youth circles when they passionately discuss their experiences with funders, journalists, and stakeholders, the latter of whom sometimes help them and sometimes make their lives more difficult. The same stories circulate more informally among them when they relax, coffee or tea and for some a cigarette in hand, at the end of an exhausting day of civic as well as other work. 

Things are far from rosy, however, and besides the success stories, their discussions mostly revolve around the challenges to which they have to respond. An important one is how to negotiate the opportunities given to them by the global visibility of Tunisian democratisation, the opportunities for funding to materialise their ideas and invest in their professional development that unavoidably come with the geopolitical and cultural ambitions of other states, from the US to Qatar.

This negotiation entails a fair amount of compromise from the side of these youth. This compromise however pairs with their strategic handling of sexy terms such as ‘capacity building’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ in every funding application and in every conference they attend as ‘young leaders’, where veterans of older mostly western democracies introduce them to the values of pluralism and tolerance—values that have hypothetically been legislated and are respected by western states and public spheres.

Another concern they have is that such attention has a short timespan, and it is up to them to build more sustainable structures that will continue the work of political and social change in the country. Yet how can they start building such structures, they wonder, amidst political competition that exacerbates the socio-cultural anxieties of the population in order to ensure power?

I am referring here to anxieties concerning the place of religion in public life and state institutions, and the way to connect an as-yet partially known past to visions of the future. And all this at a moment when the state is transforming itself along the principles of a free market democracy, which gives the priority and authority of decision-making not quite to a democratically elected government, with all its teething problems, but to the global market. This global market, as seen elsewhere in the region and beyond, has shown little interest in democracy, having cooperated so smoothly with technocrats and oligarchs the world over.

Economic concerns are crucial for the young activists with whom I have spoken for three basic reasons. The first and most straightforward is that a large number of them need this international attention in order to support themselves and their projects financially.

I am not referring here to an elite that would otherwise spend its time in expensive bars and restaurants or charitable events organised by their parents’ businesses, but for people from all social strata that saw in the revolution not only a social mission, but also a path for their own economic integration.

Some have been working for the last five years without compensation, but others consider civil engagement valuable work experience that will help them get absorbed in a more inclusive job market in the near future. In a country with unemployment rates that have hovered around 30 percent before and after the revolution, this type of ambition is to be both expected and respected.

The second reason is that this youth have a hard time counting on the state with which they must cooperate in the long-term, and for good reason. Despite considerable change, decision-making in the county still appears to be the field of the economic giants of the past, who have traditionally excluded many, especially youth, from deliberating on crucial matters such as the creation of a more equitable economic landscape.

This landscape could be the product of youth contributions to new political movements and of a radical reform of the public education system that for some decades now has functioned to reproduce unemployment. The sense of powerlessness that comes with unemployment is aggravated inside socially accepted patriarchy, which is independent of religious convictions and attempts to silence even the most dynamic young Tunisian men and women.  

The third reason, which takes us back to the events of Bardo and Sousse, concerns the feeling of abandonment through which many, and not only the most materially marginalised strata of society, experience the state. The long history of repression of the left-leaning and religious leaning opposition has incurred deep social consequences and, for some, debilitating economic hardship. Yet a sense of economic inequality is also dominant in many neighbourhoods, towns, and regions that still lack basic amenities such as running water, roads, schools, and doctors.

In some of these spaces, where the post-revolutionary state has not yet managed to adopt a different face than that of the police force, it is not hard to imagine how dissent through the rhetoric of ISIS keeps gaining ground. It is not necessarily gaining ground as an alternative religious imagination but as what may feel like the only chance for integration into a collective.

The activist youth I work with are acutely aware of the stories of these other Tunisian youth who are their friends, neighbours, and sometimes members of their families. They try hard to seize the moment and the opportunities it brings their way to build something different from their ‘radicalised’ agemates, while also contesting what they inherited from the previous generation.

In fact, they are in constant dialogue with the previous generation from the benches of parliament all the way to the family table, where, with a lot of rigour and some useful insolence, they debate the form and meaning of rights, convictions, and civic engagement.

Five years after the Tunisian revolution, it is their opinions and practices that strengthen my resolve to resist zooming in on the more sensational violent outbursts of the young ‘jihadis,’ and instead testify to the quotidian civic engagement of the youth to realise democratisation.

An earlier version of this article was published in Greek in the online magazine Chronos (chronosmag.eu).


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