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. 

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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.