A bullet hole on a window at the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Tunisia. Photo: Getty Images
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Tunisia: a country in transition, and under considerable threat

The Tunisia that emerged from the Jasmine Revolution is under threat, from within and without. 

The sheltering sky is again broken.

For the second time in the space of few months, Tunisia, and the people that visit it have become the targets of those who play games of terror in order to achieve some absurd version of religious and political utopia. There is neither logic nor rationale for pursuing any ideal with wanton destruction to self, family, community and nation. It is undoubtedly a human tragedy, but it is also represents a bigger threat to the long-term health and prosperity of Tunisia.

Tunisia is in the middle of a grand transition. It is not only faced with a struggle of transition between modernity and antiquity as it tries to participate in the competitive global market economy. It also faces a war between fundamentalist and progressive politics from forces external to the country while trying to achieve both domestic political and economic betterment. Given the obstacles, including overcoming the injuries of corruption by a postcolonial government, the progress made on the domestic front is impressive.

This is a country familiar with change and struggle. Throughout the country is scattered the evidence of the layering of culture over the centuries, as first the Romans, the Ottomans and eventually the French imposed their infrastructure and political conflicts on a country already culturally diversified with Berbers, Arabs and Jews. The result is a heady mix of archaeological treasures and vibrant markets at the gateway between the Mediterranean and trans-Saharan trade routes. This exposes Tunisia to the pressures of globalisation while its political and economic system combats the consequences of postcolonial policies.

In 2010, decades of government corruption became more than the citizens of Tunisia could bear and civil unrest began with a dramatic self-immolation. Revolution begins when there is disquiet and discontent with the ordinary citizen. Abandoning their silent suffering, civil resistance to oppression in Tunisia surged and the Jasmine Revolution introduced a ripple of transformation across the region as the people cried out against political and economic hardship, including food prices and government corruption. As a result of the popular uprising, the government collapsed and a void of authority left the country vulnerable to social chaos.

A remarkable triumph, Tunisia survived both the revolution and the interim government, who delivered a constitution and an electoral process for selecting the current democratically elected government. A textbook example of the justification for revolution, Tunisia has reinstated itself as a credit among nations, tenuously placing itself on the road to political prosperity and economic recovery. Yet there are many hurdles to cross, including removal of censorship on the information that is transmitted though the internet and social media, critical tools in galvanising the Arab Spring, also tools in spreading the radicalisation of Islamic extremism.

The transition towards a better future is now being wrenched from the hands of the Tunisians by a dark force. Developing their new system in a period with a depressed global economy, the Tunisian economy saw some returns to again attracting investors—and tourists to the country as stability seemed certain. The tourist industry, combined with the services sector make up the majority of official economy percentages and employment figures. Critically, the future health of these sectors requires stability for operators to risk the financial liabilities of delivering sun revellers in situ and the assurances of governments that their citizens will be safe. This will now be difficult to guarantee.

The first terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum had the randomness of chance that would have deterred only a few from visiting. Tunisia was still considered safe for tourism. The second, explicit attack targeting foreigners in the places they are most likely to frequent not only assaults innocent casualties—but also the future economic prosperity of nearly every Tunisian household. The impact of terrorism in deterring tourists threatens to injure a large percentage of the Tunisian work force as tourists depart the country en mass. It will be difficult to coax them to return.

Tunisia is resting on a fragile turning point, a mere breath away from returning to the civil unrest that accompanies economic hardship and political insecurity. The new government is facing a challenge to its authority from the international threat of terrorism, a challenge even the most experienced of governments finds difficult to combat. The inability to prevent threats from terrorism will undermine their popular sovereignty, especially as terrorism directly impacts their economic well-being, a contributing factor in the initial uprising.

The citizens of Tunisia, who once participated in the protests that launched the Arab Spring, are now bravely protesting on the streets against the actions of a radicalised minority. They are protesting for the victims, but they are also protesting against the attacks on their future prosperity. The aims of agents of the Islamic State in Tunisia do not represent a popular revolution, or any alignment with the ideals of the citizens of Tunisia. Those who have perforated this crack in the sheltering sky demonstrate that their interest is not in bringing prosperity to the people over which it claims ideological sovereignty, but in merely leveraging the afflictions of authoritarianism.

The political struggle that began in the Arab Spring, first against the corruption of the postcolonial government, is now faced with a second challenge against the forces of terrorism. Now their fight begins as terrorism threatens to unravel the progress that has been made toward political and economic stability. Tunisia’s new official motto is set to be ‘freedom, dignity, justice and order’. Let it be as the people will for only this will repair their sheltering sky.

 

Corine Wood-Donnelly is a scholar of international relations, holding a Ph.D. from Brunel University in government research. 

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.