In the foothills of Mount Chambi lies the town of Kasserine, unremarkable and unknown before its role in the Arab Spring. A street vendor set himself on fire; a desperate protest against grinding poverty and hopelessness of life that inspired a people’s revolution in Tunisia and resulted in the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. Though Tunisia now has a new constitution, improved civil liberties and has held free and fair elections, it has also become the world’s top contributor of fighters to IS in Syria, Libya and Iraq.
The hills and empty lands around Mount Chambli and up in to northwestern Tunisia are now the areas where the army patrol – seeking out the training camps that are feeding young Tunisians to IS territories and more recently to deadly attacks on home soil.
Tunisia’s struggles with managing the nation post-Arab Spring have been laid bare in the aftermath of terror attacks on tourists. The contrasts of progressive, secular, moderate and rich Tunisia to poorer, conservative, rural and Islamic Tunisia has the country in a national state of emergency against terrorism following the March and June massacres. The fight to reign in the influence of IS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Okba Ibn Nafaa threatens to divide the secularists and traditionalists as the focus of military and policing targets the spaces and buildings where radicalization occurs: the mosque.
The effect of attacks on tourists has all but destroyed Tunisia’s tourism industry, just as it had begun to regain its position as a critical contributor to the economy, with some 15% of GDP at risk of being lost for years. Travel warnings on Tunisia and security alerts issued by various countries all warn of terrorism and attacks on westerners remaining a significant and real threat, compounding the cycle that drives the recruitment of Tunisians to IS and Al Qaeda causes.
Unemployment, oppression and economic hopelessness; the ingredients that ignited the Arab Spring are the same catalysts and drivers of radicalization. Youth in towns like Kasserine expected the revolution to deliver better living conditions, social support structures and job opportunities. Protests in the interior towns are commonplace – the state is easy to blame for everything and the opportunism of terrorists with their message of fundamentalist simplicity takes away the reason that a modern and improved Tunisia can be built on dialogue and participatory politics, not violence and jihad.
Meanwhile the government is taking no chances. Tunisian troops are receiving specialised training from Germany, the EU has committed funds to assist Tunisia with a focus on border protection to limit the flow of local and foreign jihadists and, some reports say, a silent war is taking place between the security forces and extremist groups, particularly in rural towns and villages.
That Kasserine has come to encapsulate so much of Tunisia’s recent history is not lost on those tasked with saving the nation from itself. The spirit that sparked the Arab Spring and changed world politics and power forever erupted from the same town that now offers its sons to causes that promise justice through unjust acts.
The irony that the 2011 revolution toppled Ben Ali’s oppression only to now be threatened with replacement by another more oppressive regime should not be missed on those claiming they fight for a just and fair Tunisia.
alaraby.co.uk – CNN