26 Jun 2015

Why Islamic State is an issue for Tunisia

In the west, Tunisia is seen as a model of democratic transition since its Arab Spring uprising. But it is also a place where secular politicians have been murdered and tourists killed.

Tunisia is one of the more secular countries in the Arab world, popular with European tourists for its beaches, nightclubs and tolerance of alcohol. The killing of tourists today is the second time this year that foreigners have been targeted in attacks in the country.

Tunisia has been in a state of high alert since March when Islamist militant gunmen attacked the Bardo museum in Tunis. In total, 22 foreign tourists were killed. At the time it was the deadliest terrorist attack in Tunisian history. Today, it is the second after at least 28 people, including foreign tourists, were killed at a beach resort in Sousse. Suspicion for the attack has already fallen on Islamist militants.

The Soufan Group, which provides intelligence services to governments, says that about 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight in Syria – significantly more than any other country. Of these, some have died, and some have returned to Tunisia. Others have received training at militia camps in neighbouring Libya and returned to carry out attacks in Tunisia. The two gunmen who killed tourists at the Bardo museum earlier this year had received training in Libya, according to the Tunisian secretary of state for security.

The recent bloody attacks in the country are partly a consequence of what happened in Tunisia during the Arab Spring. In 2011, Tunisia was the first of several states to overthrow its leader who had been in power for 24 years. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country with his family on a private jet to Saudi Arabia in January 2011. Soon after, the governments in Libya, Egypt and Yemen were toppled and a bloody civil war broke out in Syria.

During his time in power, Ben Ali’s secular government heavily controlled the people with a security service which was about five times larger than the army. It banned women from veiling their faces and cracked down on Islamists. In October 2011, years of secular rule ended as a moderate Islamist party became the largest in the Tunisian assembly. The new democratically elected Islamist-led government relaxed laws and granted more religious freedom.

At the same time as many Tunisians were granted greater freedom to practise their religion, so militants have had the opportunity to preach and recruit more openly. Their task is made easier by the high number of disaffected young people, frustrated that political change in the country has made little difference to their lives.

Young country

Nearly 40 per cent of the Tunisian population is under the age of 24. 30 per cent of people under the age of 29 are unemployed, and of the 3,000 Tunisians fighting in Syria – many for Islamic State – most will be under the age of 30.

Some of those people have died and some will remain in Syria but some have also returned home.

Before this year’s terrorist attacks, there were also attacks on secular Tunisian politicians.

In 2013, gunmen shot dead the leader of a leftist Tunisian opposition party in Tunis. Mohammed Brahmi was a critic of the Islamist-led government. His death followed the killing of Chokri Belaid, like Brahmi, a member of the leftist Popular Front coalition. It was announced that the main suspect for both the murders was a member of the hardline Salafi movement which is associated with a strict approach to interpreting Islam.

The tension between those who are secular and religious conservatives, kept simmering during the years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, has boiled over to the streets of Tunis and the beaches of Sousse. Tunisia’s reputation as a safe destination for tourists has been damaged, perhaps irreparably, and, for the second time this year, the country has been plunged into mourning.