Tunisia Struggles With Militants

6 MINS READJun 29, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Tunisia Struggles With Jihadists
Tunisian men help an injured woman in the resort town of Sousse, a popular tourist destination south of the Tunisian capital, on June 26 following a shooting attack.

The challenges that militant groups such as the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State-affiliated Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade pose in Tunisia will not abate anytime soon. Tunisia simply does not have the capability to stamp out the problem. But Tunisia also has a resilience rooted in its history, geographical coherence and strong political institutions. Jihadists and Islamic State elements in Tunisia may be able to make life hard and violent for Tunisians, but they will not be able to turn Tunisia into an Islamic State province.

Tunisia was one of several countries affected by a string of unsophisticated yet deadly Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks on soft targets on three continents June 26. Two gunmen killed a reported 37 people, including tourists from the United Kingdom, Germany and Belgium, outside a popular tourist hotel in Sousse. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which was similar in nature to the March 18 attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that killed 24, and was also claimed by the militant organization. Politically, Tunisia has been the rare country able to manage social unrest stemming from the overthrow of its previous strongman and to make the transition to a functional, democratically elected government. Even so, it is not immune to security challenges that have persisted since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's fall from power in 2011

The Boon of Political Coherence

When Stratfor last published an analysis of the Tunisian political scene, it was in advance of general elections on Oct. 26, 2014. The result of those elections catapulted the Nidaa Tounes, or Call for Tunisia, party into power by granting it a plurality of seats in the parliament. Notably, the party garnered the support of the traditional power bases that enabled strongmen Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's founding president, to govern the country. Elements of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally, admirers of Bourguiba, Tunisian labor unions such as the Tunisian General Labor Union and the Tunisian Union for Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts, the military and the Interior Ministry all found common cause under Call for Tunisia's banner. The presidential election on Dec. 22, 2014, brought Call for Tunisia founder Beji Caid Essebsi — a member of Bourguiba's Neo Destour party in his youth — to power.

Essebsi then nominated Habib Essid to the position of prime minister Jan. 5. It was a significant decision, given that Essid had served in the Interior Ministry in the 1990s and early 2000s. Ben Ali, after supplanting Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, built up the Interior Ministry, using it to exert control over Tunisia, restrict civil liberties and arrest opposition leaders. Ben Ali even had more than 8,000 Islamists arrested from 1990-1992 for fear that they would challenge his rule. The harsh and capricious use of the ministry was one of the key factors that led to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. But most of Tunisia's political institutions, including the Interior Ministry, survived the change in government, coalescing into a strong political force capable of establishing a coherent rule of law.

And, unlike other countries that experienced transformative social unrest in 2011, Tunisia accomplished the arduous transition to the democratically elected government that Essid cobbled together. Rather than sidelining the Islamist Ennahda party, Essid formed a unity government, which was confirmed by the National Assembly on Feb. 5.

Since Ben Ali's ouster, Tunisia has ratified a constitution, held both legislative and presidential elections, and formed a government that represents wide swaths of Tunisian society, from political Islamists to secular Neo Destour party supporters. Furthermore, the government maintained control over the basic functions of state, as evidenced by the fact that earlier this month the International Monetary Fund granted Tunisia a seven-month extension on a standby agreement to help the country further its banking and fiscal reforms. As Robert Kaplan, author and Stratfor's former chief geopolitical analyst, has noted, such cooperation is easier in Tunisia in part because its geography is not conducive to the development of substantial sectarian or ethnic divides. The country's geographical coherence has ensured that although its name might have changed, Tunisia has existed as a political entity dating back to the ancient Carthaginian Empire of the third century B.C. Compared to countries such as Syria and Iraq, Tunisia's governing structures have proved resilient.

Tunisia's Security Concerns

However, Tunisia is not without security problems or militant activity, especially in the interior. These hinterlands are typically poorer, more underdeveloped and have had higher rates of illiteracy than the rest of the country. Right before Ben Ali's ouster, unemployment rates in the interior were almost double those in the rest of Tunisia. These are also areas that historically have been more religious and more conservative, making them an ideal place for jihadist groups to operate and grow. In 2000, two militants formed the jihadist Tunisian Combatant Group, which in 2006 was folded into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. As early as 2007, Stratfor believed Tunisia could become a fertile ground for Islamist militant operations. In the end, Tunisia's security problems were around long before the regional political chaos caused by the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of the Islamic State.

The revolution in 2011 also weakened the Interior Ministry and its ability to clamp down on unrest, enabling some of these groups to develop more freely than before. Since 2012, Tunisian authorities have fought a counterinsurgency against the jihadist Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade and Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia in the mountainous Kasserine province near the Algerian border. Political assassinations, attacks on tourists, and firefights between Tunisian authorities and jihadist cells in Tunisia's major cities, including the capital Tunis, are now part of day-to-day life because Tunisia does not have the ability to completely eliminate these groups.

These security challenges will also harm the Tunisian economy. Tourism, representing 15.2 percent of Tunisia's GDP in 2014 and providing more than 200,000 jobs, will no doubt decline after the two most recent attacks that targeted tourists. Securing foreign investment will become more difficult, and many of the key economic sectors, including phosphates and iron ore, will suffer from security issues and social unrest as well. 

However, Tunisia will manage these problems, albeit slowly and with great difficulty. The majority of its population, including the Islamist Ennahda party, is united in opposition to jihadists. Tunisia's democratic political institutions have also proved resilient and capable of governing, and Tunisia's geographical coherence and history bode well for those institutions to continue exerting control over the majority of the country. Islamic State affiliates or other jihadist groups will still find space to operate in the interior, bringing the fight to Tunisia's cities with terrorist attacks. But try as they might, Islamic State-affiliated groups ultimately will find in Tunisia an identity and culture much more hostile to their aims than in other parts of the region. 

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