Tunisian Tremors

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Tunisian Tremors

Posted on: 25th November 2015
Emman El-Badawy
Director, Extremism Policy Unit

Tuesday's attack on a bus in the heart of Tunis that killed 12 presidential guards is Tunisia's third major attack in just a year; all of them claimed by ISIS. The attack is the most recent reminder of the threat Islamist militancy continues to pose on Tunisia's democratic transition. In an effort to undermine the Arab uprisings' biggest success story, the country remains an appealing target for ISIS. Repeated economic terrorism will likely continue to place extra strain on the country's fragile transition and will remain a popular strategy for Islamist militants who seek to destabilise regional powers.

In June, Tunisia's lucrative tourism industry took a severe blow after an Islamist militant associated with ISIS opened fire on holiday-makers at a beach resort in Sousse, killing 38 tourists. Prior to that, in March, gunmen also linked to ISIS, killed 21 tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.

The rise of Islamist militancy remains the country's most pressing challenge, and despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in October for the efforts of the country's civil-society groups, labour unions and political activists in 'advancing democracy,' security threats continue to place a strain on President Beji Caid Essebsi's elected government. The country is now under a month-long state of emergency following Tuesday's attack, and a curfew has been enforced across Tunis. However, Essebsi now faces profound pressures to instil a sense of confidence among his electorate, while respecting the democratic reforms for which the country has received such glowing praise.

Despite its largely peaceful political transition, Tunisia is a deeply polarised society.

Despite its largely peaceful political transition, Tunisia is a deeply polarised society. The power vacuum created by the removal of autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali allowed a new space for varying ideologies to flourish. Immediately following the elections in 2014 that saw the secularist party, Nidaa Tounis victorious, secular Tunisians circulated a satirical map on social media that divided the country between 'Tunisia' and 'Tunistan', alluding to this apparent battle of ideas.

Islamist militant groups, like ISIS, have been seeking to deepen the fissures in Tunisian society and apply pressure on the democratic government, in the hope that it will create conditions that galvanise support for a jihadi insurgency. The mass uprisings and the initial rise of Islamists into government between 2011-13 temporarily served to undermine the jihadi rhetoric that political and social change could only be achieved through armed struggle. However, Tunisia's 2014 election welcomed back a political elite that is staunchly anti-Islamist. Essebsi's government contains many ex-Ben Ali officials, though they are keen to associate themselves more with the relatively untarnished legacy of his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, the founding father of post-independence Tunisia.

Regardless of whether Essebsi's government is influenced more by Bourguiba or Ben Ali, it represents to Tunisians a return to the old guard status quo, which offers ample opportunity for Islamist militants to exploit and undermine the democratic transition. Economic terrorism is a well-established practice of Islamist militant groups, where targets for terrorism are determined by their symbolism to a country's economic assets. In this way, Islamist militants are pragmatic in their selection of targets. All of ISIS' attacks in Tunisia this year targeted the country's tourist industry. Egypt has likewise fallen victim to attacks on economically rich targets with the recent downing of a Russian passenger aircraft near the country's most popular beach resort, Sharm el-Sheikh. With pressures to revamp their countries' sluggish economies and address the increasing unemployment rates, particularly among their youth, Essebsi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, cannot afford to lose crucial revenue from tourism.

ISIS is well aware of Tunisia's dependency on tourism and will likely continue to target such areas. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda explicitly promotes the benefits of inflicting economic terrorism on the enemy, and selecting targets that are symbolic to either regime power or economic prosperity is conducive to this. By attacking a bus filled with presidential guards, those responsible for Tuesday's suicide bomb targeted a symbol of regime power. This pattern is likely to continue.

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