Tunisia's dangerous drift

The massacre of foreign tourists in the coastal resort of Sousse highlights the mismatch between perception and reality in Tunisia.

Francis Ghilès
1 July 2015
Farewell messages to hotel attack victims, Sousse.

Farewell messages to hotel attack victims, Sousse. Demotix/ Chedly Ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.For many years before the surprisingly swift collapse of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali  in January 2011, Tunisia was held up by the World Bank and senior European officials as the economic wonder of the Arab world. Here was proof, if that were needed, that Islam, equal rights for women and a model economy were compatible. No "Barcelona process" conference was complete without endless cheerleading of the Tunisian model.It came as a surprise, then, to foreign diplomats and international donors - but also to many Tunisians living in the capital, Tunis, and coastal cities like Sousse - to discover the true extent of social deprivation in large parts of this small country’s western and southern hinterland. In Tunis and parts of the coast, tourism, manufacturing and a speculative construction boom had accumulated wealth. For those who fell into the trap of believing that hotels in Hammamet and Port El Kantaoui were the "real" Tunisia, the poorer regions around Siliana and Gafsa could have been on another planet.An equally damaging trend has been the recent propensity of western politicians and media to heap praise on the exceptionalism of Tunisian democracy. True free elections were held in Tunisia in 2011 and 2014, and the country is far more democratic than under Ben Ali; but as the security climate and the economy deteriorate, many of those who rose up against him in December 2010 have failed to see any improvement in their living conditions or their chance of getting a job. Staple food prices have increased; a small class of politicians bicker; a once responsible trades union (UGTT) resorts to demagoguery; and a once efficient civil service is beginning to buckle under the weight.Tunisia needs a war cabinet to govern the country led by a man who dares speak the truth and has charisma. Hamid Essid, the prime minister appointed in January 2015, has greater powers than any of his predecessors thanks to the new constitution; but he lacks such qualities and appears to be drifting - like the country he is supposed to be governing.A critical momentTwo factors contributed to the rise of hardline political Islamism. The first results from the failure of the western-led coalition which toppled Muammar Gaddafi in September 2011 to rebuild the Libyan army, which had disintegrated. The lessons of Iraq had not been learned. Nor did the coalition do much to stem the flow of modern weapons from the former ruler’s arms dumps. The contents of these spread over the whole region, leading to the near collapse of Mali and an unprecedented attack on the Algerian gasfield of In Amenas in 2013. Many weapons found their way to Tunisia where over a million Libyans now reside. The border between the two countries has turned into a sieve: weapons, hard drugs, cheap goods from Asia and unregulated immigrants offer rich pickings for increasingly young and tough gangs that are pursuing much higher economic rewards than erstwhile smugglers. Amidst the growing confusion, it is often impossible to tell who is a jihadist and who a smuggler.The second domestic factor was the encouragement of salafism. The Islamist-dominated governments which ruled in 2012 and 2013, and the Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, viewed the salafists as errant brothers who must be allowed to operate in the open, thus allowing them to appreciate the benefits of democracy. The United States and Britain bought into this narrative until it backfired spectacularly in September 2012, when the US embassy in Tunis was nearly torched by a mob of Islamists. This was followed by the murder of two prominent left-wing deputies. By then it was too late: the Islamist genie was out of the bottle, fuelled by the return of some of the 3,000 Tunisians who went to fight in Syria. Today, small groups of guerrilla fighters are proving very difficult to dislodge from the mountainous Algeria-Tunisia border, despite the combined efforts of both armies.The Islamist governments did nothing to address the pressing economic challenges facing the country. In opposition they had never debated the problems posed by a modern economy, a trait they share with other Islamist parties across the Arab world. They added thousands of new jobs for their cronies to an already bloated civil-service payroll. Strikes crippled the state phosphate company, a key foreign-income earner. Meanwhile ill economic winds from Tunisia’s major economic partner, the European Union, hit tourist and export receipts. Foreign investors grew disenchanted. Peugeot’s decision to invest €500m in a new car plant in Morocco rather than Tunisia suggests a worrying trend. As Tunisia increasingly relies on money borrowed from international donors, the economic indicators are all turning red.In the west, meanwhile, one cliché replaced another. It insisted that Tunisia was the exception to the bloody mayhem and brutal civil strife into which the Arab world has descended since 2011. This is true, but only up to a point. In autumn 2014, the main opposition party Nida Tunes won a plurality of votes and its leader, the veteran politician Beji Caid Essebsi, was later elected to replace the demagogic Moncef Marzouki. At that time, only six months ago, hopes were high that the government he appointed would face up to the new challenges facing Tunisia.

Where security is concerned, they are doing their best, though the Sousse massacre shows how much needs to be done. Where the economy is concerned, they are not. The west, and the European Union in particular, should be more generous financially. But Tunisia can be saved only if and when its leaders decide to take their own destiny into their own hands. That spells a new prime minister, a smaller cabinet and the willingness to take very tough decisions.

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