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. 

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.