29 July 2019

Tunisia – abusive state, hopeless youth: the recipe for terrorism?

Claudiu Nebunu

Last week, Tunisia’s capital was rattled by two explosions, in which one police officer died and several other people were injured. One of the explosions targeted a bus transporting Presidential Guard members. The Islamic State claimed the attacks through the Amaq news agency. The attacks took place in the same day in which Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, aged 92, was hospitalized with an unspecified, but serious disease, a situation which raises the risks of a political crisis. These attacks could also have a negative attack on tourism, a critical source of income for a country with an economy already in deep crisis. And the dilemma: is it terrorism or radicalism?

Image source: Mediafax

What happened?

On Thursday (June 27), Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, was rattled by suicide bombings which caused the death of one policeman and the wounding of eight other people, including security force members and civilians in the vicinity.

The first attack was carried out near the French Embassy and targeted a police patrol vehicle. One policeman died and three civilians were injured in the attack. Shortly after, a second suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a police section in the Qarjani neighbourhood, injuring four other people. The second attack targeted a building complex where Tunisia’s National Guard, judiciary police and its anti-terrorist forces have their headquarters.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the two attacks. The authors “of the two attacks on Tunisian security forces in the capital were Islamic State fighters” said a message posted by ISIL’s Amaq news agency, according to DPA.

ISIL attacks continue …

The attacks are definitely not the first terrorist incidents in Tunisia, but they stand testament to the tendency of escalating violence inspired by ISIL. Tunisia has approximately 3,000 citizens which left for Iraq and Syria in order to join ISIL. A peak of the violent incidents happened in 2015, when terrorist attacks at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and in a station near the city of Sousse killed dozens, including numerous British tourists. In response to the ISIL-related attacks, Tunisian authorities activated a state of emergency in November 2015.

Coincidence or not …

The attacks took place in the same day in which 92-year old Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi was hospitalized with an unspecified disease, as the situation could possibly lead the country to political instability. Some rumours, proliferated on social media, suggested that Essebsi would have died, but were later proven false.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed claimed that he visited the president, and suggested that he is recovering. Essebsi, who is the currently the world’s oldest president, was elected in Tunisia’s first free and correct elections, replacing Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali, who was deposed in 2011, after more than two decades in office.

Due to the uncertainty regarding Essebsi’s health, several voices suggest the need to create a functional Constitutional Court. This would contribute to establishing a possible succession if Essebsi is too sick to continue in office and will, eventually, fail to his disease. The current political crisis is amplified by Tunisia’s precarious economic state and by the threat of further terrorist attacks from Jihadist groups.

The general image in Tunisia

Tunisia is the first North African country which was engulfed in the Arab Spring phenomenon, and was seen as one of its few models. However, this country could see turbulence again, joining Algeria, Libya and Egypt, as each of these states have their own political instability and terrorism problems, which continue to affect the Middle East region.

The recent violent incidents are concerning. Following the events of June 27, it is obvious that the country is still facing significant challenges. There are still misunderstandings on how to the treat crimes committed during the previous government, as well as on how to most efficiently recover from them as a nation.

Tunisians will return to the ballots in November 2019, but the recent attacks and high unemployment will be the subjects which will dominate those elections, even if the country is attempting to remain as a democratic model for other states fighting to balance the frequently competing requirements of liberty and security.

Several preliminary … conclusions

The current political crisis is amplified by Tunisia’s economic situation and by the threat caused by the possibility of several terrorist attacks from Jihadist groups.

Despite all this, the attacks, limited and improvised by nature, did not cause great disturbances in the everyday life of Tunisia’s citizens. After all, Tunisians have been living with a state of emergency since 2015 and are accustomed to deadly attack scenarios.

The suicide attacks are part of the similar series of attacks which have been targeting Tunisian security forces and civilians since 2015.

And what if …?

While life in the capital returned to normal several days after the attacks, they have generated an increasing number of suspicions regarding the state’s capacity to fight terrorism.

The fact that a poorly planned and executed attack made so many victims in the heart of the capital caused many to ponder whether Tunisia’s security forces are prepared to tackle other, more serious threats facing the country. The famous Habib Bourguiba boulevard, where the attacks took places, is not only Tunis’ cultural and political heart, but also hosts the Interior Ministry’s headquarters.

From the beginning of the state of emergency, instated three years ago, the presence of security forces has been extremely visible, with police patrols at every street corner. Therefore, the recent attacks have brought up questions not only on the capability of security forces, but the efficiency of increased police presence in the effort to counteract terrorist acts.

Although a security reform was one of the major demands following the 2011 Revolution, authorities were unable to make steps forward in this area in the past seven years.

There are numerous reports on the arbitrary arrests, torture and even extrajudicial killing of protesters and opposition supporters by police officers. In almost all cases, authorities made press statements denying the accusations and, sometimes, claimed that the victims died because of “natural causes”.

Besides the request for new and more efficient security measures, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi also requested the rapid adoption of a controversial project, titled “Repression of attacks against armed forces”, which would exonerate security forces from prosecution and would impede charges against police office.

Parliamentary Assembly President Mohamed Naceur expressed his support for this controversial project, and insisted that police force need additional protection against the attacks.

On the other hand, Tunsian civil society and human rights defence groups seem to be convinced that adopting the law would be another blow to the nation’s fragile democracy, and will only have the effect of legalizing police immunity. Amna Guellali, a Human Rights Watch researcher for Tunisia and Algeria, said that the bill will transform members of security forces int “super-citizens”: no one will be allowed to criticize them, film them, question their arbitrary behaviour or send them to court.

Security forces are trying to increase their powers

Police unions imposed the bill’s adoption through the aggressive lobby made by some politicians and by threatening to stop protecting MPs. The powerful sentiment of injustice, vulnerability and lack of hope within the most marginalized and poor segments of Tunisia’s population was, for a long time, and still is a major underlying cause of extremism in Tunisia.

Tunisian security forces have evaded prosecution with regards to the legality of their actions, supporting the idea that any police brutality incident is more of an exception than a symptom of corruption, incompetence, abuse and impunity. Moreover, any time they are accused of misconduct, they turn to the local press in an attempt to convince the public that their officers are fully responsible and only need closer surveillance.

Do anti-terrorist efforts cause a growth in extremism?

The government’s propensity to deal with any security threat by increasing police presence in public spaces and granting its members more competencies can impede the proliferation of terrorism, but also propels, at the same time, extremism among Tunisia’s youth.

In the absence of any form of protection against police abuses, Tunisian youth, which are increasingly becoming poorer, consider violence and extremism as their only weapon against injustice and immunities.

The return of young Tunisian fighters from other areas of the Middle East also offers a powerful tool to spread extremist ideas throughout the country. More than that, the increasingly worsening economic situation pushed Tunisian youth to express their fury and frustration, with the only way being violence.

But the state, rather than attempting to approach these base problems which determine young Tunisians to resort to violence and join other groups such as ISIL, chose instead to respond with extreme punitive measures. When state elects to deal with extremism by continually oppressing the youth and offering security forces more chances to abuse them, radicalization gains new speeds.

From the 2015 attack in Sousse, until last week’s suicide bombings in central Tunis, the authors of Tunisia’s terrorist attacks have similar stories: they are educated, poor, unemployed and upset.

Who profits from this? ISIL… and not for the first time either.

Translated by Ionut Preda