Few would argue that Tunisia escaped the repercussions of its so-called Arab Spring with the least damage. The recent attack on its Bardo National Museum, however, reminds us that states like Tunisia nonetheless remain hostage to their geographic locations and cultural and social environments. Tunisia is not an island, rather, an Islamic state, and during a time when political Islam is experiencing turmoil it remains under threat of unrest regardless of its own immunity, coherent institutions and tolerant and open-minded culture.
The main difference between what Tunisia is experiencing and the malaise we witnessed in Mashreq states is that the former remains a real “state” in the proper meaning of the word. Its case is like that of Britain and the way it dealt with the Troubles in the 1960s and 70s or how Spain deals with the Basque secessionists. Whereas, what we see in the Arab Mashreq—the Fertile Crescent in the north and Yemen in the south—is the complete failure of the concept of the “state”, not to mention the concept of national borders and boundaries.
This means that the authorities in Tunisia, including all the major political components, still have the advantage of tackling security issues in a direct and effective manner armed with broad national consensus regarding the importance of confronting cross-border extremism and terrorism.
Extremist and takfirist terrorism
Such a situation is fundamentally different from that of the international “war against terrorism” that is being fought today in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; because there is not much difference between the extremist and takfirist terrorist groups and the government-affiliated and status quo sectarian militias and militia they are fighting.
The Ennahda party, the most prominent Islamist group in Tunisia, was quick to openly denounce the atrocity committed at The Bardo Museum. It is clear that Ennahda—based on its own long history in the opposition as well as its short history in power—understands the reality of the situation today, perhaps more than any other Islamist group in the world. Thus, it is well aware of the danger of being viewed as an “incubator” for all terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and its ilk, in a country like Tunisia, noted for its enlightened and forward looking society.
In spite of this, we have still noticed that some Arab media outlets, in addition to all of Iran’s state-owned media, are deliberately linking Islamist rule in Turkey with the remnants of extremism and takfirism in Tunisia, as well as Libya. Whether or not there are Turkish Islamist parties that wish to establish a “system” of Islamist states in the Middle East and North Africa, saying that the leaders of Turkey—which remains part of NATO—are involved in supporting groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda is completely illogical.
What is certain is that there are parties in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya who have contributed to tyranny and incited ethnic and sectarian intolerance, destroying their countries’ political institutions and ripping apart their social fabric. After these countries had experienced periods of prosperity and economic and cultural progress during periods of tolerance, intolerance and exclusiveness reared their ugly heads to weaken any real chance of maintaining proper civil society.
The Arab region, as a whole, has been transformed into an open theater for international superpowers to settle their own private scoresEyad Abu Shakra
Subsequently, we find ourselves today facing these grim realities:
— The transformation of what was a national authority acting as the umbrella under which all other components of the nation gathered, expressing the nation’s ambitions and protecting its interests, into just another sectarian armed faction.
— The national army has become a sectarian or ethnic or tribal or partisan militia; thus, pushing all those who are frustrated or indignant by the status quo to form their own counter-forces.
— The disintegration of national borders in light of the absence of any security or military authority, along with the emergence of every armed group with different loyalties, identities and objectives operating according to agendas that have nothing to do with the demands and interests of the local people.
— The emergence of blatant interference by regional powers holding old hegemonic objectives in the above-mentioned Arab countries. Keen to settle historic scores, they are now pushing their client religious communities in these countries to conspire against their own compatriots.
— The Arab region, as a whole, has been transformed into an open theater for international superpowers to settle their own private scores with each other, while their governments make deals that go against the wishes of the afflicted Arab people and come at the expense of peace, development, prosperity and the future.
Today, for example, it would be impossible for a security solution in Iraq to succeed that does not address the dangerous political dimensions in the country; including the presence of Iran’s Quds Brigade commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani carrying out tours and “inspections” of his forces in Tikrit.
Nor can there be any solution in Syria if this is limited to a security agreement whose only goal is to hit the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its ilk, while the Assad regime—whose actions and alliances were the main catalyst behind ISIS’s emergence in Syria—remains in power. And sure enough, there is no point in any attempt to put an end to the violence in Yemen if the international community, particularly the U.S., continues to implicitly adopt the Houthis—who in turn are tied to Iran’s regional project—as a strategic ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda.
These political traps that U.S. President Barack Obama is deliberately ignoring in his dealing with the Middle East’s thorniest files, and which most recently resulted in a terrible setback for Washington with regards to the Israeli election results, are absent—so far at least—from the Tunisian file.
In Tunisia, there are no secessionist groups threatening the unity of the country. There are no sectarian or religious or ethnic prejudices, nor any partisan or provincial party seeking to monopolize rule. Rather, Tunisia’s popular culture is known for its rational and realistic vision, particularly, how it learns from the mistakes of others, including following the Libya scenario.
However, the number of Tunisian extremists fighters in Syria and Iraq (more than 3,000 according to the Tunisian Foreign Ministry) is very high, and large enough to confirm the need to develop an integrated and effective strategy to combat terrorism and extremism.
If we take into account the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi, the tense situation in the Jabal ech Chaambi and the most recent attack on The Bardo Museum, we must conclude that neither the Tunisian interior, nor the country’s borders with Libya and Algeria, are safe.
Against the threat of terrorism, vigilance and quick response are an absolute must.
This article was first published inAsharq al-Awsat on March 24, 2015.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.