While many Arab Spring countries struggle with conflicts and democratic regression, Tunisia remains a trailblazer on the path to democratization. The country has seen successful parliamentary and presidential elections, possesses an active civil society, and has embraced the most progressive constitution in the Arab world.
However, Tunisia still faces serious socioeconomic challenges that, if not addressed, could pose a serious threat to its democratic future. Perhaps nowhere are those challenges seen more vividly than in its border regions.
I recently visited the south-eastern governorate of Medenine, Tunisia’s gateway to Libya that came to attention two months ago when militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacked one of its towns, Ben Gardane. The attack was thwarted by the Tunisian army and National Guard, but unfortunately heightened concerns about security in the country among many who would have otherwise considered Tunisia a potential tourist destination.
However, this line of thinking is the opposite of how it should be viewed. It is the lack of tourism, and of other means of economic recovery, that are contributing to hurting Tunisia’s security and threatening its democratic future.
Medenine possesses some of the most dramatic geography in the country. The coastal areas enjoy sandy Mediterranean beaches, while the inland areas offer expansive, often otherworldly deserts where four “Star Wars” films were shot. However, apart from the tourism industry - which capitalizes on the area’s natural beauty - there is little else in the governorate that can create employment opportunities.
Until Tunisia is able to develop its border regions, helping with the recovery of the tourism industry is one of the most immediate measures that can be taken to support its economyLina Khatib
The ousted regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali did not offer the south development initiatives. The current government is still trying to address Tunisia’s economic challenges at large, and does not appear to have the capacity to address regional development comprehensively yet.
The uncertainty that accompanied the revolution five years ago, and the series of terrorist attacks that plagued Tunisia since, have meant that tourism in the area has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, leaving thousands unemployed. In some places in the south, the unemployment rate is around 50 percent.
During my visit to Medenine, I saw a snapshot of what this situation means in concrete terms. Spring is normally high season for desert tourism, yet the inland areas were mostly empty, apart from the odd bus of Tunisian tourists. Most shops and restaurants were closed. In the coastal towns, hotels were shutting down after years of bad seasons.
People were desperate for any employment. One NGO officer told me they advertised a position for a driver and received more than 100 applications, 90 percent of them from people who used to be employed in the tourism industry, most of them overqualified.
The stories that people told about their lives weaved a sad tale of despair. One man worked as a driver because he could not find other employment, although his eyesight meant he could not see properly in the dark. An elderly woman worked as a cleaner partly to support her daughter, who graduated from university two years ago and still could not find a job.
A man took a boat heading to Europe to try his luck as an illegal migrant, not once but three times. Each time he was caught and forced to go back to Tunisia. On one of those trips, the boat got lost in the sea for two weeks, and he had to resort to eating his leather belt to survive. Another man had his employment terminated, and told the employer he would chain himself outside the office until they rehired him.
The only business that is thriving in the area is smuggling. The smuggling of goods and petrol from and into Libya existed in southern Tunisia well before the revolution, but today, for many it is the only means of making a living.
The attack on Ben Gardane was an attempt by ISIS to capitalize on people’s grievances, as it aimed to take over the town and use it as a platform to expand in southern Tunisia. However, despite the presence of local ISIS members in Ben Gardane who facilitated the attack, the residents at large rejected the organization. For an area reliant on tourism, becoming part of the so-called caliphate was surely not the way to restore people’s livelihoods.
However, even if most people reject ISIS, Tunisia continues to supply high numbers of jihadists who are joining this terrorist organization. With ISIS present in Libya, it is easier for those jihadists to fight there than in Syria. While some are joining ISIS due to ideological conviction, many are joining out of economic destitution.
The cooperation of the residents of Ben Gardane with the army to overcome the ISIS attack is reassuring, and shows that Tunisia is not a hotbed for the group. As for terrorist attacks, Tunisia is ultimately no more vulnerable than France or Belgium, since ISIS today seeks to act whenever and wherever it can around the world. However, one cannot help but wonder how long neglected areas in southern Tunisia can hold out without the implementation of regional development.
It is not just terrorist groups that are the potential problem resulting from continuing lack of development. It is also the pervasive lawlessness that comes with relying on the informal economy.
If lawlessness becomes the norm, the social contract between the citizen and the state changes, making people less interested in democratization. Tunisia is already vulnerable because many in the south and elsewhere see their current economic woes as being directly related to the aftermath of the revolution.
Until Tunisia is able to develop its border regions, helping with the recovery of the tourism industry is one of the most immediate measures that can be taken to support its economy. The story of Medenine is but one concrete example of the socioeconomic challenges that Tunisia is facing. Those challenges cannot be resolved through mere micro-level measures, as they require an internationally sanctioned, comprehensive economic recovery plan for Tunisia.
However, we as individuals can still help to a degree. As many of us are looking forward to the summer holidays, let us consider Tunisia as a destination, and in doing so contribute to supporting its democratic process even in a limited way.
This piece first appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat on May 8, 2016.
Lina Khatib is the Head of the Middle East/North Africa Programme at Chatham House. She was previously a Senior Research Associate at the Arab Reform Initiative and director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Prior to that, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Her research interests include the international relations of the Middle East, Islamist groups, political transitions, and foreign policy. She has also published widely on public diplomacy, political communication, and political participation in the Middle East. Khatib has published seven books, including Image Politics in the Middle East: The Role of the Visual in Political Struggle (I. B. Tauris, 2013), Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism (co-edited with Ellen Lust, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), and The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication (co-authored with Dina Matar and Atef Alshaer, Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2014). Her published journal articles include “Qatar’s Foreign Policy: The Limits of Pragmatism,” “Public Diplomacy 2.0,” and “Hizbullah’s Political Strategy.” Since 2008, Khatib has been a founding co-editor of the Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication and a research associate at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. From 2010 to 2012, she was a nonresident research fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. She lectured at the University of London from 2003 to 2010.