ISIS and other similar group’s (primarily) economic terrorism of last year (to destroy the tourism economy and encourage smuggling/illegal trade structures) perfectly exacerbated the country’s split along pre-existing socio-economic fault lines (among other fault lines).
Now that strategy is “coming home to roost,” in particular because the corrupt business elite-police matrix (the parallel state that really runs so much of country) is both unable to reform the deeply inefficient Tunisian economy (it would undermine their interests substantially) and it is unable to protect the country from ISIS and others.
This is why I strongly disagreed with Mikhail Ayari and Crisis Group’s approach (also echoed by many analysts and EU-US government officials) that the parallel state and the police especially could somehow be convinced and invited into a (another) soft dialogue process to reform itself (they can be “canalized” to use the lingo and they certainly should not be approached with force or in a confrontational manner). One leading analyst told me that Tunisia would surely be able to “muddle through” and be a sort of corrupt, sort of democratic state… but it would survive.
There would not be another collapsed state on the Mediterranean.
From Mikhail’s report last summer: “a head-on fight between the Internal Security Forces and the political class is a dead end.” Rather than “impos(ing) their vision on the Internal Security Forces,” ICG asserted, Tunisia’s democrats needed to somehow “channel the ISF’s desire for independence,” cooperate with it and offer “encourage(ment).”
On Al-Jazeera this morning, one protester said it clearly: “I no longer feel as if this is my country.” These parts of Tunisia “have long been neglected” – of course – as the old refrain goes. But in the midst of a region on fire, and a major, collapsed state (Libya) and un-governed areas all around, these sentiments, combined with the near impossibility that the Tunisian “parallel state” (the economic-police mafia network) can actually respond efficiently and swiftly to increasing socio-economic demands of the interior/border area (and certainly will never take it upon itself to change)… all of this means the liklihood of Tunisia fracturing is growing by the day.
In the end, if enough regionally-divided Tunisians feel it really is no longer a coherent country able to provide for them – that they are not really a part of the coast and the capital’s country – and ISIS or other actors seize the initiative, we could see a particularly violent, prolonged denouement.
I wrote about this gathering storm here since March 2015:
“It’s Not Springtime in Tunisia Anymore”/Tablet, March 2015
“Another Middle Eastern State Could Collapse, and More Cash and Weapons Won’t Save It”/Tablet, September 2015
“The Problem With Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet”/Tablet, October 2015
“Why 60, 65 and 114 US-based experts are wrong in believing that more cash and weapons will help save Tunisia”/Mideastwire Blog, October 2015
All of this is also why I strongly disagreed with Laryssa Chomiak who just last week wrote this in the Washington Post:
“The 2011 revolution fundamentally changed the rules of the political game in Tunisia, and while it remains a source of contention and conflict, this achievement is irreversible. As painful testimonies and artistic representations remind us, today, unlike in 2010, Tunisians can publicly debate and disagree on their new political order. Tunisia is celebrating the anniversary of the end of silence: the irreversible effects of a revolution that has opened space for the outpouring of ideas, political ideologies, criticisms of policy and politicians, commentary and free speech. Public political space has changed radically from a controlled and repressive dictatorship to a significantly more open pitch on which a battle of ideas can be loudly debated. Rather than foretelling any democratic demise, the ongoing struggle between Tunisia’s past and future embodies the spirit of its revolution.”
ADDITION and CORRECTION: Laryssa is right on, by the way, in the intent of the piece which is to remind people that yes, things are tough, but the country has come a long way and it should be celebrated for that as well as criticized – and even having both expressions is a reflection of that progress. Her concern is the growing over-emphasis – if I understand her correctly – on negative aspects and what is missing which has a negative knock on effect for everyone involved.
Sadly, I disagree, however, with Laryssa’s idea that 1) the democratic achievements of the country are “irreversible” and 2) that warnings about the liklihood of a collapse/major breakdown is overdone – and that such approaches are in a sense complicitous in promoting instability because they promote a discourse of “absence” i.e. all that is missing and not being done in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
The events this last week and the attacks of the last year are only the beginning, it seems. Right now, much is not only reversible in Tunisia, but also open to a range of contingencies, almost none of which look particularly good.
As I wrote in September, there is a way out, but it means the EU, the US and Tunisian democrats (primarily) band together, recognize the existential threats that are gathering, and move forward with some pretty extensive steps which have not been tried to date. This would mean at a minimum 1) the long proposed “Marshall plan” of stimulus and investment in Tunisia via grants, not more loans and 2) as a part of the bargain, a root and branch dismantling of the parallel state’s top tiers through a mixed UN-Tunisian anti-corruption drive.
Clear out the top-tiers of corruption in the police, business elites and mafia, allow for subordinates and others to rise up rapidly so long as they fear and agree with the anti-corruption drive principles/permanent nature… and at the same time invest, invest, invest. As a part of this, naturally, reforming the legal structures hampering growth, fairness and justice in the country would also have to be pursued.
This is of course a major task, and one that is perhaps unprecedented in such a mixed, International-state effort.
But short of this, I don’t see how Tunisia “muddles through,” especially because the negative factors pushing for instability and violence are only apparently growing.