Excellent analysis of Ben Gardane attacks and ISIS’s Southern Strategy
George Packer would have done well to read this brief and many like these ahead of his Tunis reporting trip.
This is the best short summary I have seen unpacking Ben Gardane (thanks to Nir for sending it to me):
I wrote about ISIS’s “southern strategy” last year here:
“Trouble in Tunisia”/Newsweek, November 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
“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
Ben Gardane’s legacy as a city of virtuous struggle stretches back to Tunisia’s pre-independence period. In the waning days of the Ben Ali regime, the city was also the site of massive public protests in 2010, resulting from a series of economic decisions made during a spat between Libyan and Tunisian authorities. These included the decision to rely on a maritime shipping route between the ports of Sfax and Tripoli, serving to reduce demand for land freight between the two countries; a subsequent decision by the Libyan authorities to impose a 150 Libyan Dinar levy (€80 in 2010 currency); and finally, as retaliation, a crackdown by Tunisian authorities on the sale of Libyan goods within Tunisia, except by holders of import and export licenses. The last measure was particularly harsh on the citizens of Ben Gardane, who had long been denied access to formal licenses by the authorities in the capital, and whose livelihoods were badly affected. Protests focusing on employment rights rapidly erupted in Ben Gardane. These, alongside the 2008 protests in Gafsa sparked what would become the much broader country-wide revolution that toppled Ben Ali. This tradition of rebelliousness lived on after the dictator’s fall, as the people of Ben Gardane continued to protest their neglect by the central authorities.
Potential Fall Out?
The attacks in Ben Gardane clearly pose a real threat to Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. By intensifying public desire for stability and law and order, they could ultimately serve to bolster Tunisia’s security services. This could serve to restore the Tunisian police to its pre-revolutionary immunity from all political restraint. Seeking to find a silver lining in the cloud of these attacks, Tunisia’s security forces would welcome the opportunity to turn back the clock on the country’s progress. Emerging recently from a clash with the central authorities over members’ pay, where many members of the security services took to the streets of the capital Tunis on February 25, and openly denounced the prime minister, Tunisia’s police and the deep state are waiting in the sidelines for the opportunity to strike back. These terrorist attacks provide a golden opportunity for Tunisia’s police to present themselves as the country’s saviors, and the institution most capable of safeguarding the country from the threat of terrorism. On a regional level, too, the impact of these attacks is likely to be felt, with Tunisia now less likely to oppose international intervention in the affairs of its next door neighbor, Libya. With the stakes so high, and the possibility of ISIL’s affiliates in North Africa being allowed to roam free, it’s no wonder that many Tunisians are prepared to countenance these actions. No such actions, however, will relieve the Tunisian government of its responsibilities to put in place a strategy that prevents ISIL from being able to recruit so easily among Tunisia’s disaffected youth. For it to be successful, such a strategy must go beyond vigilance in the security sphere to also include greater development, expanded freedoms as well as the expansion of democratic praxis.