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.