From the outside, Tunisia is perceived both as the sole success of the Arab uprisings and as a key battleground in the internationally-backed ‘war on terror’. It is a space crowded with international actors and civil society organisations (CSOs). While most arrived following the 2011 uprisings to support its transition to democracy, today many are concerned with addressing ‘terrorism’ or ‘violent extremism’. Drawing on the first-hand accounts of local and international CSOs, Tunisian officials, foreign diplomats, and people living in Medenine, Sidi Bouzid and Sidi Hassine, Saferworld’s latest in-depth looks at threats to peace in Tunisia and how they are being handled.
When you ask people in Tunisia what their main concerns are, it quickly becomes apparent that the country’s stability primarily depends on addressing inequality and injustice. Yet the Tunisian government’s failure to deal with the chronic social, political and economic marginalisation, inequality and injustice that sparked the 2011 uprising risks fuelling further violence, and enables violent armed groups to exploit people’s grievances with the state. Following the Bardo and Sousse attacks in 2015, the government declared a ‘war on terror’ and has relied on measures that are at times heavy-handed and repressive in response to security threats. This has reinforced discontent and undermined the state’s legitimacy as people denounce short-term, reactive responses and the lack of a long-term strategy.
Western actors, meanwhile, have provided unwavering support to the Tunisian government’s efforts to address security threats, with western security foremost in mind. This assistance is welcomed by some in Tunisia, but members of civil society have criticised western interventions in Tunisia for their lack of coherence and long-term vision, warning them against reinforcing the problems they most need to address. Many western actors hope they are contributing effectively to preventing violence through countering violent extremism (CVE) interventions. Yet attempts to reframe governance and development work to serve the security-driven CVE agenda can be criticised in Tunisia on a number of grounds.
This in-depth documents the shortcomings of counter-terror (CT) and CVE approaches, painting a nuanced picture of today’s Tunisia in the words of its citizens and commentators. The views of those we spoke to suggest the need for the government to rethink these approaches while renewing its focus on peace by responding urgently to the public’s hunger for faster and more meaningful reforms.
Header photo: Tunisia, Sidi Bouzid. Young people walk by burnt-out police cars in Sidi Bouzid, the hometown of Mohamed Bouazizi. On 17 December 2010 he self-immolated in a protest against the authorities who had confiscated his street trader's equipment and continually harassed him. These events led to huge protests, the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and are considered the catalyst for the ‘Arab Spring’. Photo: Samuel Aranda/Panos