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Why Tunisia still struggles with extremists

Tom Allinson | Alla Juma
October 31, 2020

Tunisia was an early model of Arab Spring success — yet several perpetrators of recent attacks come from there. Some Tunisians in Europe may be marginalized. In Tunisia, youth are frustrated in the uprising's aftermath.

Armed and masked men in fatigues stand in front of a military vehicle before a wall topped by barbed wire.
Tunisia erected an "anti-jihadi" fence on the Libyan border in 2016.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Messara

Though details are still emerging, French media have reported that the attacker who killed three people in Nice on Thursday had recently arrived in Europe from Tunisia. That fact will stick in the mind of many in the city, where a truck attack by a Tunisian in 2016 claimed 86 lives.

For a country that is held up as a model democracy in the region, Tunisia is still struggling with radicalism, despite its success in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring. Middle East analysts have found Tunisia to be a disproportionate source of recruits for the Islamic State (IS) group and attacks that have occurred from Berlin to Brussels in recent years — as well as multiple high-profile attacks on political leaders and tourists in Tunisia.

Why does liberal Tunisia still appear to have such a problem?

Read more:Recovering but still uneasy, Nice slowly getting back to normal

French police gather on a road outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Nice, France.
Image: Daniel Cole/AP/picture alliance

'Element of radicalization'

The Nice attack came during a moment of international fury about cartoons mocking the Islamic prophet, Muhammad; the beheading of a French teacher; and the stabbing of two Muslim women who were insulted with racial slurs at the Eiffel Tower, as well as what media described as the racist beating of two Jordanians outside Paris.

In Tunisia, one lawmaker's statements condoning the beheading were met with protests from activists and academics, but, as international tensions rose, a call to boycott an upcoming Francophone summit gained broader support. 

Some Tunisians are turning to violence in reaction to acts they see as offensive to Muslims, said Abdellatif Al-Hanashi, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Tunis. For Tunisians in Europe, there is also a sense of marginalization prompted by policies they see as provoking Islamophobia, he said.

But those tensions also obscure Tunisian domestic political currents. In September, IS claimed responsibility for the stabbing of two National Guard officers in Sousse, following a lengthy dispute over the formation of a new government and a struggle between President Kais Saied and the Islamist party Ennahda. A suicide attack targeting the French Embassy in June 2019 and one at the US Embassy in March also suggest that the problem lies just as much at home.

Poor economic conditions are a main driver, but historic repression has also left its legacy in Tunisian political culture, according to Omar Safi, a researcher focusing on Tunisian security and politics at the UK's University of Portsmouth.

"That we have this prevalent element of radicalization is probably due to the fact that Tunisia has not developed the capacity to freely express its ideas," Safi said. "The types of government that Tunisia has historically experimented with have deprived the population of the chance to freely develop, and above all practice, its political consciousness."

Safi points to continued political killings and threats against politicians since the 2011 revolution as evidence Tunisians are not free to express their opinions.

Armed and masked men in fatigues stand in front of a military vehicle before a wall topped by barbed wire.
Tunisia erected an "anti-jihadi" fence on the Libyan border in 2016.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Messara

Read more: Tunisia nears zero coronavirus cases as it eyes tourism

Youth need credible alternatives

Deep economic inequality and corruption are part of this, and a source of disaffection among the country's youth.

Nearly a decade after Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring, the same horrific act became a more common form of protest among young Tunisians angry at poverty.

The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened that pain for a tourism-reliant economy. The sector has seen a 60% drop in revenue on last year and while the first wave saw 165,000 job losses in a country of 11 million, the country is now bracing for a second one.

With a youth unemployment rate that is now likely more than double the national 16%, many place little trust in the political process to provide them with opportunities.  

"Some of these organizations offer them a much more interesting alternative," Safi said. "It's a fight for narrative. We face an enemy where we need to tell a more convincing story than theirs. But for the government, providing a credible alternative in this difficult situation is a challenge."

Voter apathy among Tunisia's youth

Read moreTunisia's radicalized youth

Fragile progress

In the meantime, the government's security forces have made significant improvements in challenging violent radical groups in the country.

Five years after militant Islamists killed more than 60 tourists in two mass shootings at a Tunisian resort and museum, police in the North African state have grown far better at disrupting plots and responding quickly when attacks take place, according to diplomats quoted by Reuters.

Last year, authorities said they had cornered an off-shoot of Al Qaeda along the mountainous border with Algeria and prosecuted a significantly higher number of alleged terrorists than in previous years.

Security partnerships with the US, Europeans and regional allies such as Algeria have seen some success in helping Tunisia manage its border with Libya, where arms trafficking and the increasingly internationalized civil war next door threatens stability at home.

But, although at a low-ebb, that conflict still raises "a very real risk of destabilizing the entire region," and Tunisian police still need Western and regional help in containing violent Islamist threats, Safi said.

While Europe could indeed help further on the security side, support for development to create jobs will lead "radical change in the region," Al-Hanashi said.