By Anouar Boukhars
More than six years after the revolution that ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s border regions remain hotbeds of social discontent and agitation.
More than six years after the revolution that ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s border regions remain hotbeds of social discontent and agitation. Aggrieved youth increasingly express their anger through fiery protests, street violence, and in some cases violent extremism. In response to this ongoing social unrest and terrorism, the Tunisian government has developed hardline security policies, whose effects often exacerbate social tensions, political violence, and militancy. Breaking this vicious cycle requires Tunisia’s government to rethink its approach to the border regions.
The State of Tunisia’s Fragile Borders
- Many youth in Tunisia’s border regions have lost confidence in the democratic transition and have developed feelings of deep frustration, anger, and hostility toward state authority.
- Years of protests are hardening into demands for a new social contract that would produce a more equitable redistribution of state resources as well as a transparent and inclusive process to manage Tunisia’s natural resources.
- The state’s inability or unwillingness to reform its modes of governance—as well as its tendency to attack and stigmatize protesters as troublemakers, smugglers and terrorists—has contributed to the growing politicization and radicalization of youth.
- The prolonged disconnect between the state and Tunisia’s marginalized regions is dangerous, threatening to plunge the country into violence that could see the country slide back into repressive authoritarianism.
Recommendations for Tunisian Authorities and the International Community
- Acknowledge the border regions’ decades-long experiences of socioeconomic discrimination and political abuse and validate their historical figures, symbols, and contributions to Tunisia. If accompanied by a genuine regional development program, such gestures can contribute to reconciliation between the aggrieved periphery and the dominant eastern Mediterranean coast.
- Support strategies that increase agricultural competitiveness, reform landownership, and improve the management of natural resources. The investment of a fair portion of the profits from local resources into local projects can improve the livelihoods of local communities.
- Reform the internal security apparatus and criminal justice sector, and design rehabilitation and reintegration programs for the hundreds of Tunisian fighters returning from foreign theaters of conflict.
- Support and empower the work of the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption (INLUCC) and the Truth and Dignity Commission. Reducing corruption, restoring justice, and providing compensation to victims of repression will bolster lasting and sustainable stability.
Social inequality and regional asymmetries are deepening the chasm between Tunisia’s restless periphery and its eastern Mediterranean coast, with the potential to undermine the country’s democratic transition. Tunisian coastal elites fear and misunderstand the bitter resentment in the border communities, making it harder to secure the country from continuing terrorist threats. The violent extremist groups based in these communities feed on a deep well of disillusionment with the democratic transition and prey on the growing sense of emasculation, disempowerment, and helplessness among Tunisian youth. The Tunisian government’s narrow focus on combating extremist ideology is distracting from addressing the real drivers of radicalization. Studies show that the lure of violent extremist groups, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, has more to do with the promise of empowerment and restored dignity than with ideology or religious conviction.1 Since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia has experienced an evolving array of security threats, particularly along the country’s fragile borders. This paper will evaluate Tunisia’s security-based approaches to border control and provide recommendations for addressing the dangerous divide between the youth in Tunisia’s border regions and the state.
Dynamic Threat of Militancy
Since the end of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule in January 2011, the Tunisian government has been playing catch up against a continually shifting terror threat. The Tunisian revolution greatly disrupted the security landscape, initially marked by political disorientation andregional upheaval. The postrevolutionary period provided disparate Salafi groups with a sudden opportunity to sow the seeds of another revolutionary movement in the soil of poor neighborhoods and allowed them to take advantage of the widespread disillusionment among the youth, particularly in the border regions. Salafists of every stripe came to the fore, but it was the so-called Salafi jihadists who most took advantage of the political transition. Powered by the release of hundreds of Salafists from prison and the return of several prominent sheikhs to Tunisia from their sanctuaries in Western Europe, they began spreading their roots in the poor and marginalized areas where state authority was lacking.2
One of the challenges that faced the Salafists was how to transform the heterogeneous Salafi-jihadi networks into a fixed structure with a central authority and identified leadership. Many radical Salafists coalesced around the hardline group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), founded in late April 2011 by former prisoner Seifallah Ben Hassine, known as Abu Ayadh. Abu Ayadh prioritized central control over the growth of Salafi jihadism, fearing counterproductive actions might hurt the movement.3 These concerns were quickly realized when the movement became mired in controversies over vigilante violence against art shows, mausoleums, and liquor stores.4 Despite claims by Abu Ayadh that Tunisia was no longer a land of jihad, Salafi proselytizing and violent discourse became increasingly combative toward other Tunisians whose lifestyles the Salafists rejected.
The rise of this violence reached its culmination in September 2012 when raging mobs set fire to the U.S. embassy and the American Cooperative School of Tunis. Salafi vigilantism proved destructive to the movement as Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, which led a governing coalition from October 2011 to January 2014, hardened its security approach, targeting AST’s structures, grassroots organizations, and social activities. The tougher approach prompted the Salafi jihadists to shift their focus away from aggressive, sometimes violent, proselytizing to directly challenging state authority and attacking its key institutions. By doing so, the Salafi jihadists hoped to weaken the credibility of the state security forces by proving to disgruntled Tunisians that their government was unable to stop the Salafi-jihadi attacks.
This attrition strategy escalated in 2013, with a vicious cycle of provocation, retaliation, and repression. Tunisia’s then prime minister, an Islamist named Ali Larayedh, blamed AST militants for the assassinations of two Tunisian political figures and the killings of several members of the security forces.5 Nationwide reprisal operations against suspected militants’ hideouts and safe houses revealed weapon caches for future attacks. In the midst of this escalating war between the state and AST, small and violent militant groups connected to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were upping the ante in the western regions bordering Algeria. After the classification of AST as a terrorist organization in August 2013 and the resultant massive security crackdown on the movement and its sympathizers, groups such as the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade (an AQIM affiliate) positioned themselves as a rampart against the state’s policy of criminalization of Salafism and suppression of dissent. They did this especially in the most disenfranchised neighborhoods and regions of the country.
The defeat of AST accelerated the fragmentation of the Tunisian militant landscape. Under the assault of state forces, AST ceased to exist by late 2014. This left behind an ideological void and a large, disgruntled constituency, whose members either went dormant, operated underground by integrating smuggling networks and building social linkages in Ben Guerdane close to the border with Libya, or joined the Syrian or Libyan theaters of war.6 Other Salafists continued the fight against the government’s “tyranny” by linking up with the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade near the Algerian border.
Up until AST’s defeat, the focus of the Salafi-jihadi movement was on destabilizing state institutions while mobilizing the legions of Tunisians dissatisfied with the democratic transition. The failure of this political strategy led to a dramatic shift in approach that embraced hitting civilian as well as military targets.7 This new strategy was amplified by the deepening reach of the Islamic State franchise into Libya. In 2015 alone, three major attacks in Tunisia were claimed by the Islamic State—at the Bardo National Museum in the capital of Tunis (twenty-two deaths), a beach resort at Sousse (thirty-eight deaths), and on a Tunisian presidential guard bus in downtown Tunis (twelve deaths). And in March 2016, dozens of Islamic State–trained sleeper cells staged a dramatic assault on Tunisian security forces in Ben Guerdane.
The Tunisian security forces successfully repelled this attempt to seize Ben Guerdane and to inflame a rebellious populace into open revolt. However, the scale of the attempt and the collusion of some Ben Guerdane residents illustrate that militant groups have the potential to expand in Tunisia’s border regions. Such an evolution requires the Tunisian government to adopt a new approach that is not limited to law enforcement and military actions. The key is to analyze the risks of militancy in the political, social, and economic context in which they occur. In Tunisia, socioeconomic triggers (alienation, discrimination, and stigmatization) and regional asymmetries are important predictors of youth violence and radicalization, particularly in the border regions.8
Anouar Boukhars – nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.