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. ***
The persistence of youth radicalization and the unyielding protest cycle challenge the government’s security-first approach, and make it crucial to dig deeper into the sources of tensions and insecurity in the border regions. To break this cycle, the government should officially recognize the border regions’ decades-long experiences of socioeconomic discrimination and political abuse.
The government should develop an initiative to validate their historical figures, symbols, and contributions to Tunisia in history textbooks, statutes, memorials, and exhibitions. Tunisia’s historic narratives have been manipulated to downplay the border regions’ significance in the intellectual and resistance movement against French colonialism. This instrumentalization of history and the coastal elite’s reproduction of a stigmatizing national discourse toward Tunisia’s border regions only deepen this divide.
The Tunisian authorities should also consider enacting positive discrimination policies that prioritize investment in social programs and public policy in the border regions. Programs that invest in the regions’ competitive strengths can have a direct impact on the livelihoods of local communities, helping to counter extremist recruitment.
Such a program requires the development of an inclusive agricultural plan that seeks the technological modernization of the sector through innovative financial mechanisms that channel resources for vocational education and training and land reform. The improvement in the management of natural resources and the investment of a fair portion of the profits from local resources into local projects are also key to addressing the needs and demands of the people.
Tunisia’s allies have a role to play in helping Tunisia establish equilibrium between security, liberty, and development. The United States, the European Union, and other donor countries and agencies should condition foreign assistance on the enactment of anticorruption and transparency reforms. They should also better target their aid and resources to benefit the broader public and ease the dire social situation in Tunisia’s border regions.
Aid that is not smartly programmed will reduce the incentives for the ruling coalition to adopt rule of law reforms and the adequate protection of civil liberties. Already, human rights associations have documented a worrying rise in abuses such as harassment of the families of terrorism suspects, excessive use of force during home raids and searches, and arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individuals inside Tunisia.
To address the hardline security approach that is causing, not alleviating, the security threat in Tunisia, the United States and its allies should prod the Tunisian government to seriously commit to reforming the internal security apparatus and criminal justice sector as well as improving governance and empowering both the work of the National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption (INLUCC) and the Truth and Dignity Commission.
Reducing corruption, restoring justice, and controlling police abuse will help relieve mounting social pressure in the border regions. The international community should also help the government design and finance rehabilitation and reintegration programs for returning Tunisian fighters that are based on the social and cultural context that enabled violent radicalization and recruitment into terrorism. This, combined with more effective efforts to narrow the socioeconomic divide between the coastal regions and the hinterlands, is Tunisia’s best bet for lasting and sustainable stability.
The security threats in Tunisia’s border regions are real and are recognized by the Tunisian government. Unfortunately, the response from the successive postrevolutionary governments has been misguided and failed to address the root causes that are inherently political and socioeconomic.
By overreacting to the security threats through heavy-handed measures, the Tunisian government mistakenly relegates economic development and job creation to the back burner, further isolating the young people who live in the border regions.
The war on terrorism necessarily forces an adjustment in the balance between the Tunisian people’s hard-won liberties and the state’s security imperatives. Tunisia faces the complex challenge of dealing with the return of hundreds of people who traveled to fight in conflicts in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
The fear is that these returnees will destabilize the country by bolstering domestic extremist networks or committing lone-wolf terror attacks. For some Tunisians, such a prospect conjures up the specter of the decade-long armed insurgency against the Algerian government in the 1990s, where the return of Algerian veterans from the 1980s war in Afghanistan contributed to the violence. Given such fears, the government and its security services have adopted a system of harsh policies of criminalization and intensive security monitoring of suspect communities.
The need to adopt tough security measures can have its advantages, but it should not lead to grave violations of human rights. Police continue to abuse and torture—both major features of Ben Ali’s regime—instilling in young people profound feelings of humiliation and bitterness toward state authority. These police tactics are also the best recruiting tools for terrorist groups.
Tunisian authorities need to adopt comprehensive strategies that not only improve intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities but also tackle the conditions that fueled radicalization if they are to successfully stop the threat of violent extremism. In the absence of such measures, the government’s militarization of the border and the clamping down on cross-border trade can only exacerbate the insecurity that plagues Tunisia’s periphery.
Anouar Boukhars – nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.