By Geoffrey Macdonald and Luke Waggoner
The October suicide bombing in the heart of Tunis demonstrated the continued need for Tunisia’s government to refine and bolster its efforts to combat violent extremism. Yet, instability within the ruling coalition threatens to undermine much-needed reforms to Tunisia’s countering violent extremism (CVE) and counterterrorism (CT) strategies, which fail to address the underlying drivers of radicalization. The public’s rising expectations for economic and social progress following Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, which deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian government, have not been met. This has fostered disillusionment regarding democracy’s efficacy and has fed the rise of anti-establishment ideologies such as Islamic extremism. Only a stable governing coalition can develop CVE/CT polices that more effectively obstruct the path to radicalization and redress the persistent governance failures that inspire violent extremism.
A Deficient Approach to CVE/CT
The Tunisian government’s existing CVE/CT policy has often focused on heavy-handed law enforcement tactics. It has closed mosques and removed imams it deems radical, actions that have sparked concerns about the state’s continuing authoritarian tactics. The national security services have used vaguely worded counterterrorism laws to arrest and jail individuals without clear evidence and have been accused of abusing those in custody. At the local level, the police have also been implicated in pervasive corruption, physical abuse of citizens, and profiling religiously conservative men. Focus group research in Tunisia suggests that these tactics have only enflamed radical sentiments.
Tunisian CVE/CT policy also focuses on the symptoms of radicalization rather than its causes, which have its roots in rising post-Arab Spring disillusionment.The prospect of democratic elections after the 2011 ouster of Ben Ali raised the public’s hope for rapid reforms. Polling data from the World Values Survey show that citizens had high expectations for the state to solve various economic and social problems in the build-up to the 2014 election, the country’s first post-revolution parliamentary election. An International Republican Institute (IRI) poll in February 2014 showed the highest number of Tunisians since the revolution saying the country was headed in the right direction, with 62% of respondents saying they expected their financial situation to improve.
However, as often occurs in newly democratic societies, Tunisia’s liberated electorate went to the polls in 2014 optimistic, but with often unrealistic beliefs, about the ability of democratically-elected leaders to address persistent economic challenges, endemic corruption, and a growing threat of violent extremism. In the lead up to the elections, personality-driven parties had made sweeping promises of forthcoming economic prosperity and improved domestic security. Yet, while these pledges resonated with an electorate yearning for change, the parties had few tangible ideas for how to deliver on these campaign commitments.
While some progress has been made since 2014, Tunisia’s democracy has struggled to deliver on multiple fronts. Socioeconomic grievances have persisted under Tunisia’s democratic government. By 2016, optimism about the country’s direction in IRI’s polls had dropped to 25%. By 2017, 61% of Tunisians were describing their country’s economic situation as “very bad,” and 89% of Tunisians said corruption was higher than before the revolution. The standard of living has decreased for many citizens amid rising costs of living, and institutional deficiencies – including corruption and inaccessibility – have further exacerbated citizen frustration.
Since Tunisia’s revolution, rising expectations and failing democratic governance in a region rife with extremist ideologies have created fertile ground for radicalization. This necessitates a multi-pronged strategy to combat violent extremism by improving government responsiveness and developing less abusive CVE/CT approaches that counter radical ideology without instigating more grievances. Tunisia’s growing political dysfunction, however, makes attaining these objectives difficult.
Growing Political Deconsolidation
Tunisia’s disappointing democratic performance – and the radicalizing grievances that emerge from it – will likely be enflamed by the Tunisian governing coalition’s recent instability. The secular Nidaa Tounes’ narrow 2014 victory pushed it into an uncomfortable alliance with the Islamist-oriented Ennahda, and the governing coalition’s ideological differences have produced legislative paralysis, particularly on politically sensitive issues like corruption, human rights, security, and economic reform. Increasingly acrimonious partisanship between the two sides has produced a policy stand-still on these, and other, challenges facing the country.
In addition, fault lines within the parties have begun to emerge. Nidaa Tounes’s ongoing internal power struggle over the process of selecting aging President Beji Caid Essebsi’s successor – coupled with a lack of ideological coherence – has destabilized the party amid declining popular support. Local elections in May of 2018, during which independent and Ennahda candidates outperformed Nidaa Tounes, were an early sign of trouble for the party. President Essebsi is also facing an open revolt among members of his own parliamentary bloc with dozens of members defecting to a new parliamentary coalition led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
Ennahda has also faced internal struggles that have been festering since 2011. The party’s governing alliance with secular parties has long bothered its more conservative members but, prioritizing the need for coalition unity with Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda’s leadership has ignored these dissident voices. However, as the ruling coalition has frayed, these voices have grown louder and stronger.
An Uncertain Future for CVE/CT
If both parties’ internal unity and the Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition collapse, the policy process will slow even more. This will further erode public confidence in elected officials and democracy in Tunisia, which will both feed extremism and undermine a coherent CVE/CT strategy.
As such, the two parties must find common ground. To achieve this, non-government mediators should play an active role. While the tenuous political consensus between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda has collapsed, labor unions maintain well-organized bases of support and are generally more popular than political parties.These unions – which constituted two of the four organizations in the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet – played a key role in the Nobel Prize-winning coalition that led Tunisia from the brink of political collapse in late 2013 and can serve an important function in helping overcome Tunisia’s political impasse.
Along with stabilizing the political situation, Tunisian officials must also reform and broaden the country’s CVE/CT strategy. Security sector reform should distance itself from strict law enforcement approaches, which are often perceived as harassment, and instead focus on building community support. Furthermore, CVE/CT policy should include a wider variety of government actors and non-governmental organizations. The Tunisian government has already expanded its fight against terrorism to include all ministries in an effort to achieve a more whole-of-government approach to its CVE/CT goals, but this is not enough. Non-governmental organizations – such as labor unions; religious organizations; and civil society organizations focused on education, media, and community cohesion – should be involved in this whole-of-society strategy.
Finally, to fully address the drivers of extremism, Tunisia’s elected officials must be more responsive to the daily challenges facing ordinary citizens. Rising prices, corruption, unemployment, and insecurity define everyday life for many Tunisians. Renewing the public’s belief that democracy can fix these issues is vital for combating radical recruitment.
Political stability, less-abusive tactics, and effective governance are essential pillars of this CVE/CT effort. Without each in place, terrorist attacks like the October Tunis suicide bombing will likely become the norm.