Is Tunisia’s Post-Arab Spring ‘Success Story’ Only Skin-Deep?


KASSERINE, Tunisia—The blast that claimed the life of Cherifa Hilali was likely meant for a soldier, not a civilian. One day in May 2016, Hilali, 40, was out picking rosemary on Mount Semmama, an area near the border with Algeria where Islamist extremists routinely battle Tunisian security forces, when a land mine detonated. The explosion killed her and another woman and left a third woman injured. “They were walking through a trail normally used by the military,” Hilali’s husband, Makki Hilali, told me when I met him in February.

Rising up from fields of olive trees and cacti, Mount Semmama has long been a source of livelihood for those living around it. It is covered in rosemary and other plants used to make essential oils, and local shepherds take their animals to graze in the highland areas. In recent years, however, the mountain has become a battleground in the conflict against Islamist armed groups that settled along the country’s porous border with Algeria in the aftermath of Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, which toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Though the insurgents have primarily hit state security forces, they are increasingly targeting civilians, including those they suspect of helping the army. The entire population must cope with the consequences of living in what is now a military zone. The lower hills of the mountains, once lush and green, have turned yellow because of artillery bombardments and the burning of vegetation by Tunisian forces trying to reduce the areas in which militants can hide.

In the international press, the insurgency in western Tunisia has been overshadowed by a string of high-profile terrorist attacks that battered the country a few years ago. In March 2015, gunmen killed 21 foreign tourists and a Tunisian security guard at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Three months later, a mass shooting killed 38 people at the Imperial Marhaba Hotel near the resort town of Sousse. In November of that same year, a suicide bomber killed 12 members of the country’s presidential guard on one of the capital’s main avenues. Scores of other attacks have reportedly been foiled by security forces.

By comparison, the attacks in the western governorates of Kasserine, Jendouba and Le Kef are often presented as trivial statistics from a faraway war. This is partly due to the development gap between the coastal areas and the country’s impoverished interior. Most of Tunisia’s economic and political elites hail from the capital or from seaside towns built on tourism and trade, far from the areas where the conflict takes place.

Nevertheless, the violence in the west remains a steady source of hardship for the region’s population. Affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaida, insurgent groups entrenched in the mountains near the border with Algeria descend on local towns. Last July, they used machine guns and grenades to attack a National Guard patrol in Jendouba, in northwestern Tunisia, killing nine guardsmen. In December 2018, militants stole 300,000 Tunisian dinars, or $98,375, from a bank in the town of Sbiba, in Kasserine, where they also targeted and killed two soldiers from the Tunisian army in their homes. Some of these incursions don’t result in fatalities or even injuries but are rather efforts by the insurgents to sustain themselves. Earlier this year, for example, a man in the town of Thala, also in Kasserine, told authorities that a group of armed men with machine guns had entered his home and stolen food and other supplies.

Tunisia is still fragile, and armed insurgency is just one of many problems it faces.

Broadly speaking, the violence clashes with the prevailing narrative of Tunisia and its trajectory since the revolution in 2011, which kicked off the Arab uprisings throughout the region. In the aftermath of mass protests that forced the resignation of Ben Ali, who had run the country for more than two decades, Tunisia has implemented democratic reforms that have largely set it apart from other countries where popular uprisings also challenged entrenched rulers; Syria, Libya and Yemen have been mired in conflict, while Egypt has descended deeper into authoritarianism. Tunisians have approved a new constitution, enshrined civil liberties and traded in their presidential regime for a parliamentary system. They have also participated in several peaceful elections, and later this year they will be called to the polls to elect a new parliament and president. These achievements are all the more striking in light of recent events in Algeria and Sudan, where civil society is still agitating for representative governance.

Yet this surface-level comparison overlooks a sobering fact: Tunisia is still fragile, and armed insurgency is just one of many problems it faces. The country’s economic situation remains weak. Political infighting has led to a parade of governments that haven’t had the requisite staying power to implement needed reforms. Corruption, once a high-stakes game played mostly by elites, is now a daily obstacle for average Tunisians. Labor disputes in the public sector regularly paralyze government services. Economic disparities between the hinterland and the more developed coastal cities continue to breed discontent.

All the while, the protests that launched Tunisia’s revolution in 2011 have yet to fully cease. Nearly a decade after demonstrators first took to the streets, Tunisia’s nascent democracy risks being consumed by some of the very forces it unleashed.

Revamping the Security Forces

The security challenges in Tunisia are partly a product of the vast political and social changes the country has experienced. In Ben Ali’s police state, Islamists were detained and militant groups from neighboring Algeria were largely prevented from establishing a continuous presence in Tunisia. But the 2011 uprising dismantled the previous regime’s security apparatus. Demands for civil liberties allowed amnestied Islamists to mobilize and set up financing networks. Looser border security enabled them to align with their counterparts in Algeria and Libya.

The first truly democratic elections, held in October 2011, resulted in a comfortable victory for Ennahda, the Islamist party that had been banned under the previous regime. Securing 41 percent of the vote, Ennahda gained control of 90 of the 217 seats in parliament. Though it articulated moderate positions on the role of religion in society, Ennahda began courting groups with more extreme views.

One of these, the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, became a key destabilizing force after the revolution. Established by Islamist prisoners in the mid-2000s, Ansar al-Sharia expanded its influence after scores of its members were freed from detention. In 2011, the group began campaigning and proselytizing, openly backing the adoption of sharia law. From the start, Ansar al-Sharia opposed plurality in the new Tunisia, clashing with security forces and attacking art exhibitions and other forms of expression deemed to be against its puritanical interpretation of Islam. The group also directed a September 2012 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, part of protests throughout the region against a video depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Tunisian police block a street to keep demonstrators from reaching a meeting of Arab
leaders, Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019 (AP photo by Hussein Malla).

One rainy morning in February, I sat down with Alaya Allani at a roadside cafe in Carthage, a leafy suburb of Tunis that lies near the ruins of the ancient city. A professor of contemporary history at the University of Manouba and an expert on Islamism in the Maghreb, Allani believes it is impossible to dissociate Ennahda’s political rise from the violent extremism unleashed in post-revolutionary Tunisia. “Over the 2011-2013 period, Ansar al-Sharia, under the eyes of an Ennahda government, occupied the public space, taking over more than 400 mosques where it selected jihadist imams,” he said. “These imams had the role of galvanizing the base, recruiting Tunisian fighters for Syria and reinforcing the jihadist base at the center of the country. This mobilization happened during Ennahda’s rule.”

The threat of extremists to the country’s political evolution was underscored by the killings in 2013 of leftist secular politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi by Salafist gunmen in Tunis. The assassinations prompted the authorities to finally declare Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization in August 2013. After security forces clamped down on its members, many of the group’s hard-liners traveled to the battlefields of Syria and Libya, or joined the insurgency in western Tunisia’s mountain ranges.

The conflict in the west of the country has forced the Tunisian government to ramp up its investment in the military. Kept weak under both Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-colonial leader, and his successor, Ben Ali, the army has become central to the democratic transition. The Ministry of Defense has seen its budget double to more than 2 billion Tunisian dinars, or $666 million, between 2012 and 2016. The number of soldiers has also increased, from under 25,000 before 2011 to roughly 45,000 soldiers in 2016. Moreover, there is now much closer coordination between the army, the police and the National Guard.

The military strategy to combat the insurgents has focused on isolating them in the mountain ranges and cutting their access to the rural and urban areas below. This has not always worked, judging from the number of jihadist raids on towns in Tunisia’s interior. More effective have been the preventive strikes on terrorist cells and logistical support networks. These sometimes lead to confrontations: In January, two insurgents blew themselves up after security forces stormed their hideout in the town of Jilma, about 150 miles south of Tunis.

The procurement of better weapons has improved the army’s capabilities. In 2014 and 2015, Tunisia signed a total of 12 deals to acquire military equipment from the United States. These contracts have allowed the Tunisian army to buy Black Hawk helicopters, Hellfire missiles and armored personal carriers. The new aircraft in particular have become critical tools to attack Islamist strongholds in the mountains. The National Commission to Fight Terrorism, established in 2015 to address Tunisia’s security challenges, has also scaled up its freezing of assets linked to terrorism financing, which had been left largely unchecked during the first years after the revolution.

During the initial years of Tunisia’s insurgency, security forces over the border in Algeria, run by a staunchly secular military regime, were hesitant to cooperate with the Ennahda-led government in Tunis. Military sources, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, attributed the Algerians’ stance to their suspicion that some members of the government might be inclined to tip off militants before they could be confronted. Since the elections in 2014, however, which Ennahda lost to the secular Nidaa Tounes party, security coordination between the two countries has improved, helping both Algerian and Tunisian forces target insurgents along the border.

The conflict in western Tunisia has forced the government to ramp up its investment in the military.

These steps have helped the Tunisian military limit the jihadists’ capabilities. But further reducing the number of attacks and ultimately defeating them outright will require curbing their ability to recruit. “The militant groups have been able to replenish their numbers, to access weapons and continue to pose a threat to state forces,” says Matt Herbert, a security specialist with Maharbal, a Tunisia-based consultancy. “An insurgency is a race to learn and to innovate by both sides, and whoever learns the fastest comes up on top.”

Reviving a Sputtering Economy

Herbert believes that the majority of new jihadist recruits are motivated by economic incentives rather than ideology. So Tunisia’s inability to create more jobs isn’t just an economic problem; it could further corrode its security in the long term.

Unemployment in Tunisia officially stands at 15.2 percent, but that figure masks the vast amount of underemployed Tunisians who survive on seasonal or temporary work and have unstable incomes. More strikingly, roughly 30 percent of university graduates can’t find jobs. Even for those who do, a degree rarely guarantees financial security.

Mahjoub, a 47-year-old high school teacher in the town of Sbetla, in Kasserine, knows this all too well. After teaching for 14 years, his monthly salary is still a mere 1,300 Tunisian dinars, or $424. Like most of his peers, Mahjoub has been participating in teachers’ strikes regularly since 2018 in a bid to secure wage increases. “Why would you want to go to university to perform a tiring job like teaching high school kids for that amount of money?” asked Mahjoub, who declined to give his last name.

As Mahjoub’s story suggests, Tunisia’s economic problems and the grievances they generate predate the democratic transition, and can only be tackled with wide-ranging reforms.

Long before the 2011 uprising, Tunisia promoted itself as a cost-competitive industrial destination that was conveniently positioned near European markets. The country was viewed as a reliable economic partner with liberal investment laws that encouraged foreign investment. That environment attracted foreign firms to establish factories to make textiles, pharmaceuticals, automotive and aeronautic components, and other goods.

During the 2008 financial crisis, Tunisia was affected by the slowdown in European markets, but the country’s budgetary situation remained mostly stable, partly because of low debt levels. Nevertheless, 2008 saw months of protests in the southern phosphate-producing areas around Gafsa and Metlaoui, due to low pay and poor working conditions, a rare sign of dissent under Ben Ali’s dictatorship. That protest movement, which unfolded in some of Tunisia’s less privileged regions, is seen today as a precursor to the 2011 uprising.

Following the revolution, in a bid to stave off further unrest, the government inflated the number of employees hired by state firms. Some estimates put the number of excess employees hired into the public sector since 2011 at 350,000. In one extreme example, the state firm in charge of phosphates mining and processing, the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa, or CPG, hired roughly 22,000 new workers, swelling its workforce from 8,000 in 2010 to around 30,000 by 2014—despite the fact that its operations have been crippled by instability and labor unrest since 2011. Before the revolution, CPG accounted for roughly 4 percent of Tunisia’s GDP and 10 percent of all its international exports. In 2010, Tunisia’s annual phosphate production reached 8.26 million tons, and the country was the world’s fifth-largest phosphate producer. But yearly phosphate production has not surpassed 4.5 million tons in any of the past eight years.

Tunisian men on a rooftop coffee shop in the old city
of Tunis, March 28, 2019 (AP photo by Hussein Malla).

The staffing increase underscores how public pressure to address unemployment has transformed CPG and other public firms into dysfunctional behemoths. Public salaries now account for 45 percent of the national budget, according to a 2018 report by the African Development Bank, leaving little room for the government to invest. Tunisia’s debt has risen to over 70 percent of GDP, up from roughly 39 percent of GDP in 2010. The country depends heavily on foreign financing and international development institutions.

In 2016, the International Monetary Fund launched a $2.9 billion loan program for Tunisia to be implemented over four years. The program will require Tunisia to reduce government spending, resulting in greater hardships for ordinary Tunisians.

In early 2018, the unveiling of a new national budget introducing new austerity measures led to days of protests across Tunisia. One demonstrator was killed in clashes with police.

The budget is being implemented anyway. Even before it came into effect, austerity had hit Tunisians hard, resulting in price hikes on food products, gasoline and other services. By some accounts, the purchasing power of the average Tunisian has seen an 80 percent reduction over the past eight years.

Economic growth has accelerated lately, from 1 percent in 2016 to 1.9 percent in 2017 and about 2.6 percent in 2018. The government expects GDP to grow by a further 3.1 percent in 2019, and is aiming to cut the deficit from 5 percent to 3.9 percent. But hitting these goals will be tough in an election year.

Growth rates could accelerate through better governance. The current prime minister, Youssef Chahed, launched an attack on corruption and organized crime in mid-2017. The move led to the arrests of several high-profile smugglers and organized crime leaders.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s most important economic sectors have uncertain prospects. Manufacturing fell from 19.5 percent of GDP to 16.4 percent from 2008 to 2017, though this trend could reverse if industrial investment picks up again. Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of economic activity and also has the potential to grow. Tunisia is one of the world’s top three olive oil producers and also exports large volumes of dates, citrus and other goods. But the sector is unorganized and pays too little to attract young, unemployed Tunisians.

Tourism, which has long been a lifeline in Tunisia, has begun to recover in the past few years after a slump following the revolution. The string of deadly terrorist attacks targeting tourists in 2015, in particular, dealt a blow to the sector. Tourist arrivals fell from over 7 million in 2010 to 5 million by 2015. But the number of visitors rose to 8.3 million in 2018, a 17 percent increase from 2017. Tourism may be centered on Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast, but it has an impact across the economy, galvanizing construction, transport and other services.

Nevertheless, economic development still continues to favor coastal areas. Government neglect of other regions is partly to blame, but it is not the only reason. Factories and services prefer to be located near ports and transportation networks. Companies want to be close to large pools of human resources. Larger cities tend to attract more people looking for jobs and education opportunities.

The result is a country moving at different speeds. The Kasserine governorate, for instance, has double the national unemployment rate of 15.2 percent. And secondary school dropout levels, at 12 percent nationally, reach 16.8 percent in Tataouine, 17.2 percent in Sidi Bouzid and 18.9 percent in Jendouba.

A Political Scene in Flux

One morning, I joined Mourad Sellami at the Montmartre, a French-style cafe with leather benches and round wooden tables in El Menzah, a middle-class suburb north of central Tunis. Sellami, a veteran journalist and newspaper editor, had just returned from the sixth anniversary of the killing of Belaid, the prominent leftist politician.

Political dysfunction has hindered the state’s ability to address economic and security problems that sorely need solving.

Tensions between supporters of secularism and the political Islam of Ennahda, which were accentuated by Belaid’s killing, will be at the center of parliamentary elections planned for October and the presidential contest in November. Sellami told me he believes Ennahda’s supporters increasingly see it as “a party like other political parties.”

“There is an end to this idea of the party as the party of God, who is about equality, and not about favoring its own people,” he said. “In a way, Ennahda has descended back to earth.”

Ennahda has certainly come a long way since its days as a clandestine organization under Ben Ali. Though the number of seats it holds in parliament fell from 90 to 69 in the 2014 elections, it still has a say in most political affairs and maintains a strong base of support. The party is still trying, though, to convince everyone that it has distanced itself from its past ties to extremists. In 2016, Ennahda’s longtime leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, announced that the party would separate its political activities from its preaching. But Allani, the University of Manouba professor, disputes the significance of that move. “This is merely a technical distinction, because the groups that focus on preaching come back to vote for Ennahda and bring their supporters at the time of an election,” Allani told me.

The secularists of Nidaa Tounes, meanwhile, are going through a period of turmoil. Established in 2012, the party brought together secularist forces under the same umbrella, including some former members of Ben Ali’s party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally. Prime Minister Chahed was inaugurated in August 2016 after his predecessor, Habib Essid, was ousted through a no-confidence vote in parliament. A 43-year-old former minister of local affairs, he is the longest-serving prime minister in post-revolutionary Tunisia. His rise, however, has been accompanied by the fragmentation of the party that brought him to power.

Much of the crisis that has engulfed Nidaa Tounes was caused by its founder, Beji Caid Essebsi, the country’s current president. The 92-year-old has been accused of attempting to elevate his son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, to lead the party. This has alienated many in Nidaa Tounes who see the party’s leadership as too personalized already, and some have opted to defect. The struggle gave way to an open rift between Essebsi and Chahed, who was suspended from Nidaa Tounes in September 2018. Chahed’s ability to stay on as prime minister is thanks to support in parliament from Ennahda.

In January, this infighting and fragmentation led to the establishment of a new party, Tahya Tounes, made up of Nidaa Tounes defectors and other politicians who support Chahed.

The elections later this year will help bring some clarity to the political landscape. One big question is whether Tahya Tounes will be able to secure the mantle of the largest secularist party, or if the split of Nidaa Tounes will weaken Tunisian progressives and allow Ennahda to regain its previous standing.

As the country prepares for the vote, political debate in its newly liberated media has adopted a puerile streak. A mix of facts, rumor and slander fills Tunisian radio and television shows. “The media atmosphere is chaotic,” Sellami told me. “People go on television debates, say openly untruthful things, and they are not corrected.”

A similarly chaotic dynamic exists between government officials and politicians angling to take their place. “The same parties that support the government in parliament are out criticizing it on the streets the next day, because they want to show they are with the people,” Sellami said. This lack of support for the government by the political class creates an environment in which, he believes, “the political class does not support the enforcement of law.” This dysfunction hinders the government’s ability to address the economic and security problems that sorely need solving.

Reforms From the Ground Up

Back at Mount Semmama, some people are not waiting around for politicians to get their act together. After he lost his wife in the land mine explosion, Makki Hilali became a forest guard, doing rounds on foot along the base of the mountain to alert authorities to any activity that might indicate the presence of militants.

Among the cacti and olive tree plantations, a group of local residents, with the financial backing of the Fondation Rambourg Tunisie, a family-owned philanthropic association established after the revolution, have set up the Semmama Cultural Center for Arts and Crafts. The center, built around a courtyard, has sports activities, a small library, a cinema room and an amphitheater for staging theater performances. Since its inauguration in late 2018, it has become a meeting point for the kids who frequent the nearby school at the base of the mountain.

When I visited, some of the children were practicing human pyramids, dance moves and a singing performance for government officials who were set to visit from the capital the following day. Others were playing basketball or testing their balance on a unicycle. Uniformed members of Tunisia’s National Guard, armed with machine guns, patrolled the premises.

Children prepare a dance performance at the Semmama Cultural Center for Arts and Crafts
near Mount Semmama, Tunisia, Feb. 8, 2019 (Francisco Serrano).

As I shook the hand of one of the center’s founders, Adnen Helali, 44, we realized that we had already met. In the summer of 2011, after the revolution, I had accompanied Helali and a group of other teachers and activists to the nearby town of Sbetla as they visited the office of the local tourism delegate, a Ben Ali official, to force him to resign. “That was a tumultuous summer,” Helali said, smiling at the memory.

Helali hails from this part of Kasserine, and he wants the center to focus on the region’s cultural heritage and agricultural traditions. Besides providing entertainment and education options for children in an area where there aren’t many, he sees the project as an effort to take a stand against terrorism’s social and environmental impacts. “We are trying to reclaim this mountain and this borderland from the terrorists and smugglers.”

In this way, the center represents a small effort to confront the vast challenges that continue to bedevil Tunisia’s democratic transition—challenges that the government has so far proved unable to fully address.

Francisco Serrano is a writer, journalist and analyst. His work has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Outpost, Monocle, Weapons of Reason, The Towner and other outlets. His book, “A Captura de Abdel Karim,” about the Arab uprisings, was published in 2013.

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