We repeatedly heard that Tunisia is a space crowded with international actors and CSOs. While most arrived following the 2011 uprisings to support the transition process, today many are concerned with threats from ‘terrorism’ or ‘violent extremism’. Yet 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. 

In Medenine, a city close to the border with Libya, in Sidi Bouzid, where the uprisings began in December 2010, and in Sidi Hassine, a marginalised neighbourhood in greater Tunis, the people we spoke to did not list ‘terrorism’ or ‘violent extremism’ among their main concerns. Instead, they spoke of social and economic marginalisation and the state of institutional politics. These were the reasons why Tunisians took to the streets over six years ago. However, as we were told in “the cradle of the revolution”, Sidi Bouzid, “nothing has changed.” [34] In Medenine, people warned us that the risk of a second revolution should be taken seriously if their grievances were not. These grievances have given way to new waves of protests, sometimes violent, in 2016 and 2017. [35] And although violent groups do not enjoy widespread popular support in Tunisia, they have been able to capitalise on people’s frustration to recruit members, especially among Tunisia’s youth. [36]

Tunisia’s different worlds: haves and have-nots 

Primarily, people have suffered from a lack of employment opportunities as well as access to resources and services. The resulting sense of marginalisation is particularly strong in Tunisia’s peripheral regions which have historically been neglected in favour of the coastal cities of Tunis, Sfax and Sousse. [37] A lack of public and private investment and poor infrastructure have undermined economic development and led to high levels of unemployment, leaving many people trapped in poverty. Before the revolution, authorities promoted the coast at the expense of the interior and border regions, and recent governments have failed to deal with these disparities. [38]

People we spoke with also highlighted poor education in marginalised regions, and believe courses and trainings on offer are ill-suited to the Tunisian labour market. In 2017, national unemployment rates reached 15.3 per cent [39], but they are much higher in the periphery: in 2015, they reached 26.6 per cent in the south east and 22.3 per cent in the south west. [40] Still, even people in Sidi Hassine have not benefited from Tunis’s socio-economic development. One person told us: “When I go to work in Mutuelle Ville [a neighbourhood in the north of the capital], I feel like I am entering a different world.” 

This situation affects the young in particular: approximately 33 per cent of those aged 15-29 – over one million people – are not in education, employment or training. [41] According to the World Bank, youth not in education, employment or training constitute the most excluded group in society: “[They] exemplify youth inactivity and discouragement, a more worrisome condition than youth unemployment, which does not include disengaged youth.” [42] In a context where many young people refer to themselves as ‘living dead’, this has given way to high rates of suicide, self-harm, drug abuse and addiction. [43] Referring to individuals that have joined violent groups abroad, a health professional told us: “These young people have already suffered too much; they’ve already had to fight too much even before leaving.” [44]

Generally speaking, we heard that many young people who lack social or professional opportunities feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, seeing their options as limited to migrating illegally (legal options are not accessible to most), getting involved in criminal networks or joining violent groups to sustain themselves. “We can either join ISIS or migrate illegally”, one youth told us in Sidi Hassine. Another said: “We have two destinies: either we take the path of drugs or the path of terrorism.” [45]

Many young people who lack social or professional opportunities feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, seeing their options as limited to migrating illegally, getting involved in criminal networks or joining violent groups.

These statements are illustrative of how violent groups have been successful in rooting their action in the Tunisian context, boosting their recruitment strategy by offering financial and material benefits to potential recruits. One young person told us: “I would be ready to join a terrorist group for money; I would even be ready to kill my father for money. That is why these groups recruit specifically among poor communities.” Another said: “if they [violent groups] offer you what you need, you can’t not obey them. You and your family will directly benefit from them.” [46] Money and other material benefits have not only been used to recruit active members but also informants among local people. [47]

Demonstration in Tunis during the uprisings, January 2011. Photo: Wassim Ben Rhouma

Demonstration in Tunis during the uprisings, January 2011. Photo: Wassim Ben Rhouma

Frustration and political disenfranchisement

The frustration felt by young people is also due to the lack of space to contribute politically to Tunisia’s development. While they played a central role during the uprisings, many now feel disempowered and disillusioned as the change they called for in 2011 has yet to materialise. They are disappointed with the government’s inability, or unwillingness some argue, to meet its commitments, in particular to create jobs and provide services. People have returned to the streets, but the government’s stigmatisation of protesters has increased hostility toward the state. [48] A National Youth Congress, which consisted of dialogue between the government and young people in locations throughout the country, did take place in 2016. [49] But, according to some, the initiative did not succeed in encouraging meaningful engagement among young people, or produce significant outcomes. [50] This frustration and disillusionment also explains why young people only make up 3.3 per cent of the 5.4 million people who have registered to take part in what will be the first free municipal elections in December 2017. [51]

In turn, the lack – both real and perceived – of political avenues for improving people’s lives and fulfilling the promises of the revolution has increased the appeal of violent groups. [52] In Sidi Bouzid, a civil society representative told us: “Some people sympathise with terrorist organisations because they resent the state for its absence. This sometimes leads to individuals not denouncing concerning behaviour or actually being happy when attacks target the state.” [53]

A ‘no future’ generation in search of a purpose

Social, economic and political marginalisation of Tunisian youth has led people to talk of a ‘no future’ generation which is particularly vulnerable to the lure of violent groups. [54] This would seem to confirm the findings of a CTRET study of court records of 1,000 alleged ‘terrorists’ of Tunisian origin, which found that three quarters of them were aged 18–34 years. [55] According to a Tunisian scholar, committing to violence symbolises the rejection of a corrupt and unjust society, and it grants those who had no opportunities to survive with the sacred or glorified status of victims. [56] Many of Tunisia’s marginalised young people have little sense of belonging or purpose, and feel stigmatised for being on the margins of society. In addition, most people we spoke to were concerned by the absence of social, cultural and recreational activities which could positively contribute to young people’s development and the construction of their identity.

Therefore, another important component of violent groups’ recruitment strategy has been to appeal to people’s longing for a place and role in society, and their rejection of the state and society which have denied them these things. [57] This may help explain the success of these groups in using religion to recruit members seeking both meaningful identity and ‘moral’ state institutions. [58] 

The state’s lacklustre response 

The Tunisian state has struggled to address its citizens’ grievances. A serious economic crisis and the fragile political situation has hampered the implementation of much-needed reforms and dampened post-revolutionary fervour. [59] Cooperation between Nidaa Tounes, a party which took power in 2014 and includes Ben Ali-era elites, and the Islamist party Ennahda, which won the first elections following the uprisings, has helped sustain Tunisia’s transition. However, according to a journalist who covers the country’s transition: “[…] beyond the level of elite coalition building [there] has been no real progress in battling corruption, reforming inefficient bureaucracy, or stimulating job growth and infrastructure investments.” [60] More recently, this has been further complicated by in-fighting within Nidaa Tounes. [61]

In this context, acute corruption has specifically been blamed for slowing the transition. This is what pushed many Tunisians to take to the streets during the 2010-2011 uprisings and, six years on, corrupt practices are alive and well. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country went from rank 59 out of 178 in 2010, to 75 in 2016. [62] However, following the election of Youssef Chahed as prime minister in 2016, the government has been moving to tackle corruption. According to anti-corruption experts, this is partly due to the National Anti-Corruption Authority (Instance Nationale de Lutte Contre la Corruption, INLUCC), which, led by Chawki Tabib, adopted a national strategy and workplan to tackle corruption [63], but also to the work of CSOs which reinvigorated public opinion against corruption. In turn, pressure has increased on the government to act, and a number of officials and businessmen have recently been arrested on corruption charges. [64] However, concerns persist about the ongoing lack of transparency in elite politics, the role of the military in tackling corruption rather than civilian institutions, and the failure to tackle the system that allows corruption to thrive, rather than a handful of culprits. [65]

There are powerful actors who stand to lose out from anti-corruption efforts, meaning that reforms are lagging and the INLUCC lacks teeth. And after having tried for two years, the presidency managed to pass on 13 September 2017 a controversial economic reconciliation law that will give amnesty from criminal prosecution to state officials and businessmen accused of corruption and embezzlement during the Ben Ali era if they repay stolen assets. [66] Supporters of the law argue that these funds would generate revenue amid an economic crisis, but others are demanding accountability and question how the repaid assets would be used. [67]

Graffiti of a gavel and block with the words ‘I do not forgive’, which is the name of a movement set up to protest against the economic reconciliation law. Photo: Kloé Tricot O’Farrell, Saferworld

Graffiti of a gavel and block with the words ‘I do not forgive’, which is the name of a movement set up to protest against the economic reconciliation law. Photo: Kloé Tricot O’Farrell, Saferworld

In May 2017, the founder and director of the Tunisian news website Nawaat was harassed and questioned for six hours about an article that leaked details of the bill. As Amnesty International noted, the incident “sends a worrying signal that the Tunisian authorities are willing to clamp down on the right to freedom of expression.” [68]

While most Tunisians still support the democratic transition [69], a recent study by the International Crisis Group suggests growing corruption is leading more people to wish for a return to authoritarian rule, believing that this could limit such practices. [70] The issue has also featured in violent groups’ claims to legitimacy. As an international expert on corruption put it: “[...] radical groups will exploit grievances that go unredressed. They will enforce a rigorously puritanical code of behaviour; holding it out as the only prospect for achieving conscientious government in the interests of the community instead of the self-indulgent few.” [71]

The government’s lacklustre progress in addressing citizens’ concerns has in turn led many people we spoke with to hold it responsible for the emergence of violent groups. Some also accused it of making up the terrorist threat to divert people’s attention away from crucial problems. [72] Echoing what many people told us, one civil society representative in Medenine said: “The state’s absence in the region has led to its marginalisation and underdevelopment which are among the main reasons why young people have turned to violence and are easy prey for violent groups.” [73] It also mirrors research by CTRET which finds that a high proportion of terrorism suspects come from marginalised areas. [74]

All in all, this points to the need to address inequality and injustice – creating services, education and jobs to change the trajectory of parts of the country that have been left behind, in consultation with local populations. This has to be the priority if Tunisia is to evolve as quickly as possible into a more peaceful, inclusive and stable society. Disconnect between the state and these areas not only “[threatens] to plunge the country into violence”, it also risks “further [fostering] the conditions in which radical groups thrive, so proficient are they at harnessing social anger.” [75] As the next section explains, abusive and repressive ‘war on terror’ tactics have also increased people’s resentment towards and distrust of the state and the security sector in particular. In addition, such practices have been both provoked and exploited by violent groups to recruit new members.

Header photo: Demonstration for freedoms and against violence, Tunis, January 2012. Photo: Amine Ghrabi

Footnotes

34. Focus group discussion with civil society, Sidi Bouzid, January 2017

35. For instance, see: Al Jazeera (2016), ‘Tunisia unemployment protests spread to capital’, 22 January; Al Jazeera (2017), ‘Protests mark Tunisian revolution's sixth anniversary’, 14 January; International Crisis Group (2017), ‘Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia’, Report 177, 10 May

36. Fahmi G, Meddeb H (2015), op. cit.; Meddeb H (2016), op. cit.

37. Saleh H (2016), ‘Tunisia: after the revolution’, Financial Times, 10 March

38. Meddeb H (2017), ‘Peripheral vision: How Europe can help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 13 January, p 2 

39. Tunisian National Institute of Statistics (INS), Unemployment rates 2016-2017

40. Tunis Afrique Presse (2016), ‘Tunisie – Emploi : 26,6% de taux de chômage dans les gouvernorat du sud-est (INS)’, 18 February

41. The World Bank (2014), ‘Tunisia: Breaking the Barriers to Youth Inclusion’, Report No. 89233-TN, pp 7-8

42. Ibid. p. xiv 

43. Participant in workshop with civil society organisations, Tunis, March 2017

44. Ibid.

45. Participant in focus group discussion with youth, Sidi Hassine, February 2017

46. Ibid.

47. Interview with a civil society representative, Medenine, January 2017

48. Boukhars A (2017), ‘The Geographic Trajectory of Conflict and Militancy in Tunisia’, 20 July

49. Siebert L (2016), ‘Notes from the Ground: Tunisia’s National Youth Dialogue’, 22 December

50. Interview with civil society representative, The Hague July 2017

51. Dhouib H (2017), ‘Municipal elections: youth abstain, women to participate in greater numbers’, 22 August

52. Chennaoui H (2017), ‘Radicalisation et mouvements sociaux : même contexte, différents combats’, Nawaat, 5 April

53. Participant in focus group discussion with civil society, Sidi Bouzid, January 2017

54. For instance, see: Mersch S (2017), ‘Tunisia's ticking time bomb’, 23 January

55. Inkyfada (2017), op. cit.

56. Meddeb H (2016), op. cit.

57. Fatafta M (2016), ‘Beyond Closing Mosques and Shutting Down Facebook Pages – How Tunisia Can Address the Threat of Online and Offline Terrorist Recruitment’, DGAP Kompact 24, December

58. Meddeb H (2017), ‘Precarious resilience: Tunisia’s Libya predicament’, op. cit. p 3

59. International Crisis Group (2017), op. cit.

60. Marks M (2017), ‘Tunisia’s unwritten story: The Complicated Lessons of a Peaceful Transition’, The Century Foundation, 14 March

61. Cherif Y (2017), ‘Tunisia’s risky war on corruption’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 18 July

62. Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2010; Transparency International (2017), Corruption Perceptions Index 2016, 25 January

63. Instance nationale de lutte contre la corruption

64. For instance, see: Cherif Y (2017), op. cit. ; Le Figaro (2017), ‘Corruption : trois arrestations en Tunisie’, 25 May

65. Cherif Y (2017), op. cit. ; Chaouch R (2017), ‘Corruption en Tunisie : “Les arrestations coup de poing ne suffisent pas, il faut s’attaquer au système”’, Jeune Afrique, 30 June

66. Human Rights Watch (2016), ‘Tunisia: Amnesty Bill Would Set Back Transition’, 14 July; Saleh H (2017), Tunisia parliament passes controversial economic reconciliation law, 13 September 2017

67. Interview with a civil society representative, Tunis, December 2016

68. Amnesty International (2017), ‘Tunisian authorities must end harassment of independent media’, News, 5 May

69. Marks M (2017), op. cit. 

70. International Crisis Group (2017), op. cit.

71. Chayes S (2015), ‘Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security’, W. Northon & Company, p. 67

72. Focus group discussions, Sidi Bouzid, Medenine and Sidi Hassine, January-March 2017

73. Interview with a civil society representative, Medenine, January 2017

74. Inkyfada (2017), op. cit.

75. Meddeb H (2017), ‘Peripheral vision: How Europe can help preserve Tunisia’s fragile democracy’, op. cit. p 2