North Africa, West Asia

Economic reform: tackling the root causes of extremism in Tunisia

A combination of political consensus, religious inclusion and economic stability is vital to combat the alienation, deprivation and chaos that lead to extremism.

Boutheina Ben Yaghlane
30 December 2015
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Shutterstock/Anton Kudelin. All rights reserved.The recent terror attacks in Tunis and Paris have shown once more the need for a comprehensive strategy in dealing with violent extremism. Although there is no overarching model for combatting extremism, there are similar elements underpinning every attack, and whether politically, socially, or economically marginalised, the people most at risk of radicalisation are disenfranchised youth.

The offer presented by extremism is in part about identity, and even though Tunisia now has a developed and transparent political system, the lure of extremist groups claiming to provide a better vision for the future remains convincing to some. As a moderate Islamic party, Ennahdha have long argued that one of the main antidotes to the abuse of Islamic religious texts by violent extremists is moderate Islam. A holistic approach grounded in comprehensive, balanced and open religious and civic education for those most at risk of radicalisation is central to combatting extremism. As a member of the party and also Deputy Finance Minister in the Tunisian coalition government, this is an idea to which I strongly subscribe, but there are also many other factors at play.

The only way to combat the divisive narratives espoused by groups such as Daesh is to remove the causes of alienation, deprivation and chaos that we continue to see across the region. Indeed, the combination of political consensus, religious inclusion and economic stability is vital, and remains the strong foundation of Tunisia’s democratic journey over the last five years.

After years of dictatorial rule by Ben Ali, Tunisians rose up in favour of democracy, social justice and human rights. Ennahdha worked alongside other political groups and civil society movements to create a constitution that places people at the heart of governance and protects their rights, thus giving them a stake in their future for the first time. Yet across the MENA region the aspirations expressed in the Arab awakening have yet to be realised. The turn towards polarisation and chaos and the collapse of the state in several countries is benefiting extremist groups, who are exploiting this environment.

Despite the progress we have made over the last five years, including the creation of a new constitution and free and fair elections, plenty more work needs to be done in Tunisia. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize recognised our progress, but it was also an intimation of the path Tunisia must continue on, in light of continued instability in the region.

Following attacks at the Bardo Museum, in Sousse and Tunis earlier this year, the Tunisian people are only too aware of the effects of terrorism. According to the World Bank, estimated GDP growth in Tunisia for 2015 was one percent and with unemployment now at around 15 percent (even higher for graduates) there is a real risk that our economy will not be able to support our fragile democracy.

These attacks were a deliberate attempt by extremist groups to undermine the success of the Tunisian model. Their strategy is to trigger huge losses in the tourism sector, a sector that contributes up to 7 percent towards our economy, whilst strengthening their own warped narrative. This strategy cannot be allowed to succeed, and extremists should not be given the chance to reverse or even halt the democratic and economic progress made so far.

There is a real risk that our economy will not be able to support our fragile democracy.

High levels of youth unemployment can only be countered by a strong economic climate that can create stable, well paid jobs. As such, our approach needs not only to head off extremist threats, but simultaneously to bolster our economy and provide similar levels of hope that the country sought five years ago.

Out of 580,000 job seekers in Tunisia, 241,300 are university graduates, with a respective unemployment rate of 31.4 percent. This means our best and brightest find it hardest to secure suitable jobs. The government is tackling this challenge from multiple angles. For example, we are developing a customisable programme to help upgrade job seekers’ skills through assessment, coaching, training and internships, making them more employable in the jobs currently vacant in Tunisia.

In addition, we plan to promote entrepreneurship as a way for individuals to improve their lives, developing new training and mentoring schemes, introducing flexible funding systems and creating a one-stop shop for administrative functions. Through initiatives like these, we hope to empower individuals to realise their potential and see a brighter future in Tunisia, tackling the despair and exclusion on which extremist discourses feed.

The benefits of a healthy economy are far reaching and will be a key factor in stabilising our country. We are therefore working hard to implement a number of economic reforms as part of our five-year plan, including a new 2016 finance law that was adopted on 10 December 2015, which aims to stimulate Tunisia’s economy to grow at a rate of 2.5 percent. This process will be complemented by the 2013 banking audit that sought to restructure and recapitalise our banks, further tax reforms, and a new investment code, which will help open up the country to increased foreign investment.

To help reach this objective, the Tunisian government is organising a large investment conference in March 2016, which is aimed at attracting greater investment. The Tunisian government has also signed agreements with the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) to promote social peace, and thus ensure a healthy climate for growth and investment.

There is a lot of pressure on these reforms to work. Disaffection and uncertainty in Tunisia’s economy will only leave our vulnerable youth to the influences of extremist groups. After decades of bad governance, we are working hard to combat corruption, strengthen democratic institutions, build capacity at all levels, and effectively decentralise power to local government.

As we have seen over recent months, the phenomenon of fighters from different countries joining terrorist groups abroad highlights the need for of a global response to terrorism. Terrorism does not respect geographical borders and cannot be addressed within a single country. Tunisia does not operate within a vacuum, and we cannot counter terrorism, meet the expectations of our youth, and continue our democratic transition without the support of the international community.

To this end, we have estimated that Tunisia needs in the region of $5 billion a year over five years to meet the scale of challenges ahead. Such assistance would support trade and investment, improved infrastructure, job creation, training, strengthening civil society, and government reforms. Building infrastructure, particularly in previously neglected regions of the country, will create much-needed jobs and stimulate economic activity. This will improve the quality of life for whole swathes of the country and help create a new sense of optimism.

Visible support from our allies, both in words and in action, is key to helping Tunisia transition to a stable democracy and provide a clear alternative to the extremist vision of Daesh. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Arab awakening, it is important to understand that young people in our region desperately need hope and an alternative vision for a better future for them, based on dignity, justice and development. Daesh claims it is their model that can deliver this. As the success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is working to show that democracy is the only and best means to a better future.

We must show that extremist narratives cannot succeed and that an inclusive system built on respect for human rights, rule of law and political and economic inclusion is the best way forward. 

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Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

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Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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