In Five Years, Tunisia Has Gone From Beacon Of Hope To ISIS Hotspot
In the five years since the Arab Spring, there are few remnants of the hopeful desire and democratic spirit that existed on the streets and in the faces of thousands of Middle Eastern youth. It was hoped that the spark of the revolution – Tunisia – would lead a region out of the darkness of repressive regimes. But that hope has diminished over the years only to be replaced by a messianic terrorist organization in the form of ISIS.
Tunisia once had an economy in relatively good standing, and a political system that was fairly hospitable to the growth of democratic rule. And, unlike many of its Middle East neighbors, it does have high literacy rates.
Yet, in the last five years, Tunisia has become fertile ground for ISIS recruitment becoming one of the largest sources of foreign fighters heading to join Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Contrary to a common myth, it was not poverty, but disenfranchisement, which fostered and fed the rise of ISIS, writes Yaroslav Trofimov.
“Why do we have educated people, people with jobs, who go to ISIS? It’s not the matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t,” Moncef Marzouki, a human-rights activist who served as democratic Tunisia’s first president from 2011 and until the end of 2014, tells The Wall Street Journal.
Others contend the rise of ISIS recruits is a consequence of the government’s passive reaction to Islamic extremism. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood remains a silent partner with the government, Marzouki notes.
That passive reaction will only foster more extremists because ISIS’ rise is now having a tangible economic impact.
Terrorist attacks on government security forces and tourist sites have crimped tourism, an economic pillar. Tunisians are struggling over how to respond, maintaining security while preserving the democratic freedoms for which their revolutionaries fought. All the while, the nation’s 11 million people are hosting more than 1 million refugees from the implosion of Libya next door.
After decades of repression, Tunisia and other Arab nations remain susceptible to the allure of ISIS, asserts The Atlantic’s Rached Ghannouchi.
“ISIS has opportunistically exploited the Arab world’s problems to build its own image as an alternative. It tapped into Sunni resentment over Shiite sectarian repression to forge support in Iraq.
In countries like Tunisia, where sectarianism is less of a factor but unemployment remains at a crushing 40 percent for those under 35, it has exploited resentment at economic exclusion to appeal to marginalized youth. In this way, ISIS superimposes its global ideological narrative onto local contexts, presenting itself as the solution to local grievances,” she writes.
Any effective response not only must address those local issues, but provide a positive and equally attractive narrative, Ghannouchi advises.
Radwan Masmoudi of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, lobbies in The Hill for Western nations to intervene in some manner – whether they or Tunisians welcome that decision.
He makes the case that the promise of prosperity and democracy which young Tunisians held in their hands five years ago has disappeared and that vacuum is being filled by the allure of ISIS.
“Youth in Tunisia, who expected democracy to provide prosperous lives, are desperate – more than three-quarters of the unemployed in the country are 15-30 years of age. Some have already been lured into extremism — Tunisia endured three horrific terrorist attacks last year, shattering the vital tourism sector and compounding its poor economic situation — more will be tempted to do so as groups like ISIS tap into their resentment,” he argues.
In a the current environment and with the current administration, that is unlikely and therefore a generation of Tunisian men and young boys could be lost.