Friday 21 October 2016

Carnage comes to the one nation that actually had a successful Arab Spring

Colin Freeman

Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30

A Tunisian soldier stands guard in front of the Imperial hotel in the resort town of Sousse, a popular tourist destination 140 kilometres south of the Tunisian capital following a shooting.
A Tunisian soldier stands guard in front of the Imperial hotel in the resort town of Sousse, a popular tourist destination 140 kilometres south of the Tunisian capital following a shooting.
A member of the Tunisian security forces in Sousse after the gun attack on holidaymakers

The fact that there are still tourists to attack in Tunisia tells its own story. Ever since it became the birthplace of the Arab Spring in 2011, the tiny north African nation has been the only country in the region to enjoy anything approaching stability after the overthrow of its resident dictator.

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While Syria, Yemen and neighbouring Libya are now in various stages of meltdown, and Egypt has retreated back into military rule, Tunisia has successfully staged not one but two sets of parliamentary elections, forged a constitution, and slowly moved towards becoming a proper democracy.

And, as yesterday's attack on the beach at Sousse shows, tourists have not been put off coming to Tunisia despite Isil's previous attack in March on the country's Bardo Museum, in which 19 people were murdered.

However, the process of rebuilding the country after years of iron rule under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has not been the straightforward process that it once looked like being. When Tunisians first revolted in January 2011 - following outrage over the death of a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazazi, who set himself on fire in despair at harassment by local officials over his lack of a trade permit - it seemed the Arab world was finally showing a new face.

The huge crowds who took to the boulevards of Tunis to protest were affluent, sophisticated and Western-leaning, and talked not of jihads or Western oppression, but of democracy and human rights of the sort practised in Europe.

As it turned out, Tunis's latté-sipping, Facebook-surfing middle classes were not the only ones who saw Mr Ben Ali's fall as a chance for change.

So too did Islamist parties of various hues of radicalism, whose religious agenda has earned them strong support and sometimes near-block votes in Tunisia's more conservative rural interior.

The secularists and Islamists have both now enjoyed their share of power in parliament. But while most of the time they rub along together peacefully, the country has not been immune from the extremism that has caused so much strife for its Arab Spring cousins.

Secular politicians have been assassinated and harassed, and while radical religious parties have been subjected to periodic bans and crackdowns, they continue to pose a threat.

The radical Ansar Al-Sharia group, whose Libyan namesake stands accused of murdering the US diplomat Chris Stevens in Benghazi, has been a constant challenge to the new Tunisian authorities.

Formed within months of Ben Ali's fall, it has courted support in the slums of Tunis by providing local services, and its more hardline elements have proved immune to attempts by the more moderate Ennahda Islamist party to bring it into the political fold.


Two years ago, it was banned outright during a crackdown on extremism after the killing of two leftist political leaders.

But a government still establishing its authority after years of dictatorship has struggled to stamp it out altogether, not least because of the country's porous border with Libya, where Isil militants now have a hold. And with post-Arab Spring Tunisia still suffering from painfully high unemployment, the same sense of despair that drove Mohamed Bouazazi to self-immolation is motivating plenty of other young Tunisian men to give up their lives for jihad.

Significantly, the nation of 11 million has already contributed more jihadist fighters to the conflict in Syria and Iraq than any other country.

By some estimates, the number could be as high as 3,000 out of an estimated total of 16,000 foreign fighters.

Some have interpreted that as a sign that Tunisia has chosen to turn a blind eye against its extremists, as long as they only cause trouble abroad.

Yesterday's latest carnage on the streets of Tunis may just change all that. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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