The Dichotomy of Tunisia

For those looking to study the impact and the challenges of revolution, one should perhaps begin to pay greater attention to Tunisia. The nation that spawned the Arab Awakening in 2011 has become a complex experiment about the expansion of liberty, highlighting the duality of personal autonomy and the risks associated with it. While the country continues to emphasize freedom and a respect for democratic principles, Tunisia also continues to flood the ranks of the Islamic State with a dizzying number of volunteers from a nation of modernity and progressive thought. The puzzle of Tunisia is not easily solved but must be watched closely by leaders around the world, for President Beji Caid Essebsi leads a nation with glaring struggles and numerous examples of hope for a prosperous future. It is academically and geopolitically lazy to label Tunisia either an Arab Awakening success or failure: Rather, Tunisia is a critical fulcrum of what democratically inspired revolution can create and also what inflammatory, militant rebuttals can inspire.

What Does Tunisia Teach the World?

The suicide of Mohammen Bouazizi shocked the Arab world and inspired a revolutionary movement that captured global attention. However, as the “Arab Spring” faded into a broader “Awakening”, pundits and people in general turned away from the Middle East as a beacon of potential liberty as events unfolded in Libya, Egypt, and later Syria and Yemen. While the United States has embraced Tunisia’s efforts at reform through hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and aid to promote governmental transparency (a bit ironic in light of recent electoral events in the U.S.), the larger narrative about Tunisia has included pondering about why it has become a recruitment haven for IS. 2015 attacks at the Bardo National Museum and a beach in the tourist-friendly city of Sousse cost the nation’s economy nearly two billion dollars and generated frustration among younger Tunisians who see their lives as one of dead-end jobs and limited opportunity for social and economic growth.[1] In June 2016, Haim Malka and Margo Balboni began to explore the Tunisian struggles at home and abroad for the International Center of Strategic, Security, and Military Studies. Their extraordinary work outlined the multitude of reasons why young Tunisians, perhaps as many as seven thousand, have fled their homeland and joined the radical Islamic State in nations around the world.[2]

The reasons as to why many young men let to fight are in line with reasons people have heard for years from nations throughout the Middle East and event the West: Lack of job opportunity, distrust of government, and a sense of isolation remedied by the pseudo-familial environment promised by radical organizations. However, within the Tunisian question is the new wrinkle of personal freedom. Individuals in Tunisia are allowed to watch videos of radical leaders with impunity, something that would have never been tolerated under the leadership of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. However, with this ability to learn of and even express combative opinions and views comes the potential of people violently acting upon what they see. Tunisia is learning a valuable lesson about the delicate nature of individual rights, but one must hope that Tunisians do not surrender their faith in democratic principles. Democracies have the ability to foster growth and prosperity in a manner more effective than any other form of government, regardless of the flaws that democracy can possess. The hopes that emerged in early 2011 are being threatened by actions of those looking to undermine freedom in the form of misguided fanaticism. The government of Tunisia must look to formulate program that address economic woes and alleviate the suffering of their next generation of citizens if their hold upon democracy is to remain.

Signs of Hope

Writing for The Washington Post in the spring of 2016, five years after throwing off the shackles of repression with the hopes of expanding the rights of its citizens, Michael Robbins found that Tunisia is a nation with a significant generation gap in terms of political opinions, but there are reasons for optimism. Roughly three-quarters of all Tunisians want closer ties with the European Union and two-thirds hope to see the same with the United States, and Tunisians readily embrace democracy with well over eighty percent of the people believing that it remains the most hopeful form of governance.[3] However, it is those under thirty-five most doubtful of the government’s ability to fix the economic struggles facing the country or address issues of corruption.[4] To this end, Tunisia is experiencing he growing pains that all democracies endure as their emit their birth scream and enter into a new political realm. The obligation of the Tunisian government, as well as all other free nations of the world, is to help the vulnerable in Tunisia to see avenues of potential success that will deter them from extremism. To this end, Tunisia has begun the unprecedented step of recognizing the darkness of its past to provide a brighter future.

The use of Truth Commissions have a long history in developing nations, highlighted by those that unearthed horrific abuses by Latin American dictators through heart-wrenching and at times grotesque depictions of torture and disappearances. Beginning in November of 2016, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, led by Sihem Bensedrine, began to hear nightmarish tales of abuse and humiliation of prisoners throughout Tunisia’s pre-Arab Awakening periods, particularly during the leadership of Ben Ali. Situated within Club Elyssa, a spa formerly owned by ben Ali’s wife Leila, the audience listened with rapt attention as those brave enough to come forward offered their experiences.[5] By exposes the abuses of its former self, Tunisia is declaring itself a nation respectful of laws and demanding justice for abuse.   By no means does this commission bring an end to the conundrum of why Tunisians are fleeing to join IS, but it reminds many who may doubt their nation, that Tunisia celebrates transparency and honesty: two pillars of democratic reform.

Tunisia stands at a crossroads of international importance. It can either continue to embody the hopes of the Arab Awakening and celebrate those who sacrificed their live sin the name of personal liberty, or dissolve back into a nation of repression, violence, and extremism. To guarantee Tunisia’s success will take a global effort, but it is one the world cannot afford to ignore. The lack of involvement in Syria, Yemen, and Libya each allowed those nations to become fully ensconced in destructive and shocking brutality, and by the time nations stopped making excuses, untold thousands lay dead or displaced. Supporting Tunisia’s quest for democratic stability is essential to reminding the world of the goals of the Arab Awakening and preventing those inspiring months from being relegated to afterthoughts of history. Tunisia is currently the Middle East’s brightest hope for the celebration of human rights and dignity, and to allow this beacon to become extinguished would bring shame to all nations who claim to cherish individualism and self-determination.

[1] Taylor, Guy. “Arab Spring star Tunisia Emerges as IS No. 1 Source for Foreign Fighters” www.washingtontimes.com 9/14/16

[2] Malka, Haim and Margo Balboni “Tunisia: radicalism Abroad and at Home” http://foreignfighters.csis.org/tunisia/why-tunisia.html

[3] Robbins, Michael. “Five Years After the Revolution, More and More Tunisians Support Democracy”. www.washingtonpost.com May 20, 2016

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gall, Carlotta. Silenced for Decades, ‘Victims of Despotism’ Air Torture Claims in Tunisia”. www.newyorktimes.com 11/18/2016

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)