Tunisia, bridging the gulf

The terrorist attack in Tunis highlights the challenges facing Tunisia's new government and underlines the need for western support in meeting them.

Francis Ghilès
23 March 2015

The murderous attack on foreign tourists visiting the Bardo museum in Tunis on 16 March 2015 has made clear in the worst possible way how crucial is the fate of Tunisia to the wider region. Both the death-toll, twenty cruise-ship visitors from six nations and a local policeman, and the location - the museum is part of a historical palace complex lying on the outskirts of Tunis, which also houses the national assembly - underline the symbolic and political as well as human impact of the operation. The assault on tourism, a vital part of an economy in great need of reform, makes this moment even more challenging.

It would be churlish to argue that the incident is solely the result of the chaos into which neighbouring Libya has descended since the Nato-backed intervention in 2011 ("a huge mistake on the part of the international community and the Libyans", one of the alliance's most senior officials told a delegation of senior Algerians in Brussels in February). But violence of this kind can be counted as in great part a spillover effect of Libya's turmoil. In the wake of the Libyan conflict, tens of thousands of weapons and military vehicles belonging to the former dictatorship were seized by local tribesmen and different militias, and from there fell into the hands of hardline salafi groups. The same process allowed jihadi groups to overrun northern Mali, thus forcing a French military intervention. Up to 1.6m refugees fled into Tunisia, 1m of whom were Libyan; over 500,000 of them remain in Tunisia today.

Tunisia has lost control of its south-eastern border to ever more violent groups of smugglers. Its army, though woefully under-equipped, is working closely with its Algerian counterpart to contain small groups of terrorists who are well entrenched in the Chaâmbi mountains and further south on the border between the two countries (between the Tunisian town of Kasserine and the Algerian town of Tebessa). Tunisian forces often rely on the Algerian airforce to bomb jihadi positions and on Algerian sappers to get rid of mines.

A crisis of security

Tunisia has thus been at the eye both of the Libyan storm and of wider regional insecurities. Yet the international community, in particular the United Nations, has done virtually nothing to help a country which was already struggling to contain the political, social and economic fallout of its own revolt which in January 2011 had toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

Since that tumultuous period, violence has been an ever present threat. A crowd attempted to burn the American embassy in Tunis in September 2012; two leading left-wing deputies were assassinated in 2013; many Tunisians have become increasingly apprehensive of the terrorist cells which they knew existed in the capital. An estimated 3,000 Tunisians - more than from any other country - have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight in a "holy war", something the Islamist governments which ruled Tunisia in 2012-13 tended to ignore. In addition, a number of French converts travelled through Tunisia on their way to joining ISIS and its offshoots.

Tunisia's governments were then keen to promote sharia. They allowed fundamentalist salafis to commandeer mosques throughout Tunisia and invited hardline preachers from the Middle East to pursue the work of indoctrination, while doing little to try and arrest Abou Iyadh, the head of the domestic extemist group Ansar el-Sharia. More than forty Sufi shrines were torched, including the famous one at Sidi Bou Said near Tunis. The climate of fear in Tunisia was palpable and certainly contributed to the rise of extremism. In targeting foreign tourists, moreover, there were precedents. It first happened in August 1987 in Sousse and Monastir, and was followed by a bombing of the synagogue on the island of Djerba in southern Tunisia in April 2002 (wich killed twenty-one people, including five Tunisians). Some of the Islamists who morphed into the Ennahda party seemed to consider such targets as legitimate.

Tunisia is today a lynchpin of regional security in the central part of the Mediterranean. Europe and the United States are desperate to avoid the chaos in Libya spreading further west. The Libyan coast is in the hands of militias who are complicit in pushing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean towards the shores of southern Italy; many drown before reaching their destination. Libya is split between competing government and armies, each with foreign backers: Egypt and Saudi Arabia support the legitimate government in Tripoli, Turkey and Qatar its rival. Leading western countries, and Algeria (whose diplomats are playing an active role), argue that Libya must remain one and that all groups sit down to talk. Though some negotiations continue, peace is unlikely to return any time soon.

For its part, Tunisia needs a broad security rescue plan and as much help as it can get to seal its south-eastern border. It needs help in training its rapid intervention (or SWAT) forces, which - in contrast to the police - did a good job during the Bardo outrage. The police ranks swelled during the Ben Ali years, and are three times the size of the army, but are poorly trained and equipped. The weakness of the army helps explain why guerrilla forces were able to settle into the Chaâmbi range. This is an area where Nato, the European Union and individual European states could make a real difference.

The newly appointed government led by Habib Essid can count on the army, whose refusal to repress the people during the protests of 2010-11 gained it further credit. The Garde Nationale, similarly, was far less compromised with the former dictator than the police. But major reform of the security forces as a whole is still needed, and is not going to be easy. Will the new government be up to the task? Tunisia and its elected president, Béji Caid Essebsi, have an ally here in neighbouring Algeria, a country with its own recent experience of armed jihadism.

A reform agenda

But security, important as it is, is only part of the answer. Tunisia also needs financial and economic support. Although economic activity has help up reasonably well in the post-2011 turmoil, the big picture is tough: foreign debt has increased, trade balances have deteriorated, foreign investment has dropped, and prices of staples have risen. The new government has yet to announce its economic programme. It needs to tackle seriously the crony capitalism which affects Tunisia. Why should the local manufacturer of Coca Cola have access to subsidised sugar? Why can a major international company not be allowed to form a joint venture with the state phosphate company and relaunch investment in a vital extractive industry?

Subsidies, costly and wasteful, are part of the problem: those on cement were removed in 2014 but more needs to be done. Then there is the army of 600,000 civil servants, 5.4% of the population, which is well over twice the percentage of a developed country; their salaries account for 56% of budget expenditure, and there fifty-six of them for every 1,000 inhabitants (compared to 2.6 in Japan). Loans and bonds raised on international capital markets should not be used to pay a bloated civil service but to improve infrastructure and education. The tax system must be reformed and the rich (who flaunt their wealth in the residential suburbs of Gammarth and La Marsa) made to pay their share. If the government of Habib Essid does not tackle these challenges head on, and sell them honestly to younger Tunisians, it may at best buy time. But when that runs out, it will be too late and greater violence is then inevitable.

The litany of unsustainable figures could be pursued, but what is obvious is that comprehensive action is needed to save Tunisia from deeper economic woes. This includes a very radical reform of the country’s administration; a serious attempt to curb crony capitalism, steps to decrease inequality, and greater opportunities for employment among young people (many of whom did not vote in 2014's general and presidential elections, seeing no difference between the major parties). Without these, no extra security measures - and certainly no amount of repression - will save Tunisia.

A binding plan

Tunisia is unlikely to recover the bulk of property, shares and gold that the Ben Ali clan salted away in France, Switzerland and the US. The west, complicit in this corruption, has a key responsibility. The credibility of the ethical and democratic principles it repeatedly proclaims would be greatly strengthened were it to support Tunisia’s economy to the tune of $15bn over the next four years with a mixture of loans, investment and, why not, a measure of debt write-off. That said, Tunisia must respect its side of any bargain. 

Tunisia's path towards pluralism has been bumpy. Yet the historical context, the country’s pressing needs, Europe's vital interests - and the west's legacy of mistakes - make a case for strong support. The European Union should recall that Tunisia is neither a religious nor a military autocracy, something of an exception in the Middle East today. It has a substantial middle class, still attracts over 6m foreign tourists annually and hosts thousands of foreign companies. It has enjoyed close links with Europe for centuries; its then ruler granted his people the first modern constitution in the Arab world in 1861, twenty years before the French colonised the country; and it was the first Arab country to give women equal rights (in 1956, the year of independence).

Will Europe’s deeds, for once, live up to its oft proclaimed ambitions? Conversely, will Tunisian leaders grasp the enormity of the gulf between the sumptuous villas of the northern shores of Cathage and the poor districts of southern Tunis - let alone the poverty which consumes much of the country's west and south? Tunisian leaders should expect more help from Europe, but Europe is entitled to ask for deep economic reforms in exchange. What is needed is plain talking followed by a hard-headed bargain in which all have a stake: the EU and the World Bank, Tunisia's government, entrepreneurs and trades unions. Only such boldness can secure the future of a country which still promises so much.

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