Tunisia needs more than ‘fifteen minutes of fame’

This prioritization of conflict management over conflict prevention is breathtakingly clear with respect to Tunisia

Chris Doyle
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International attention in the Middle East seems related to three factors: how great the disaster is, does it matter and can it be resolved? No war on Gaza, so it plummets to the bottom of the Presidential in-tray. Syria is cataclysmic but international politicians engage in mass shoulder shrugging with no will or vision to resolve it. Increasingly in the crisis ridden territories of the region, local politicians say to me, “What do we have to do to be noticed, make the war worse, kill people?”

This prioritization of conflict management over conflict prevention is breathtakingly clear with respect to Tunisia. The North African state has for the most part been ignored since independence in 1956. Since 2010 it has been the recipient of short-lived bouts of international admiration and sympathy. The post-Jasmine Spring euphoria lasted but a few weeks, drowned out by the bigger noises of its larger neighbours.

Three major terrorist attacks in 2015 at the Bardo museum, a hotel in Sousse and on a Presidential convoy all triggered the customary proclamations of solidarity. President Obama was "fully committed" to the success of Tunisia, but it seems on a part-time basis.

Tunisians largely believe their country falls off the radar bouncing back for another fifteen minutes of fame and pledges of support. Tunisia needs consistent support, investment, technological help and tourism to keep its economy moving forward.

Above all, for Tunisia, it is ‘more jobs’ stupid. In a visit this month, every interlocutor, every activist and official recited this mantra to me. Protests this year underline the point. Instability is growing. The unemployment rate runs at around 35 percent. ISIS feeds off this despair.

Tunisia needs consistent support, investment, technological help and tourism to keep its economy moving forward

Chris Doyle

Optimism is limited. The state of emergency, introduced in November after a bus bombing killed 12 members of the Presidential guard in a bus bombing, has been extended until 22 June. Those used to the Egyptian or Syrian states of emergency may not recognise this version – there are no military courts and snap trials but it does show how fearful the authorities are.

So here is a plucky, moderate, pragmatic Tunisia, the driver and spark of the Arab uprisings, the one remaining beacon of the last five years struggling to hold it together.

What is the West doing then, not least Europe? Tunisia is a mere 85 miles from Sicily. There have been favorable loans and the technical support but this has yet to make much impression. France has pledged $1.1 billion over the next five years targeting job creation in Tunisia’s poorest areas, precisely where ISIS has so successfully recruited. Have others done enough? The US gives over $3 billion annually to first world economic power like Israel but just a mere $66 million to Tunisia.

Libya’s progress

Tunisia needs progress in Libya too, and the formation of an effective Libyan national government that has the mandate and capability to tackle ISIS. The 500 km of border with Libya poses a security threat beyond Tunisia’s means.

Weapons and fighters can still enter Tunisia despite the additional support from Britain that has sent 20 troops on a two-month training mission to help border security. Only on 7 March, Tunisian forces repelled a major ISIS assault on the border town of Ben Guardane.

But it is in the tourism sector that Tunisians seem to complain about most, desperate to see the return of tour operators not least in tourist dependent places like Djerba.

Some Russian tourists have opted for Tunisian rather than Egyptian resorts but European tourists are needed back. At Sousse where the June 2016 attack occurred, many hotels remain closed. Britain, that used to send almost 400,000 tourists, advises against all but essential travel to Tunisia whilst the US advice is to exercise caution in all areas.

A Tunisian hotelier complains, “Why does Britain advise against travel here but thinks it is fine in Brussels?” A fair point. Would Britain dare advise against travel to the US after 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, killing 475 people? It is tough on Tunisians because the security risk is largely not their fault.

The average time to recover from a terrorist attack is around 13 months according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. So if there are no further atrocities, Tunisia might recover lost ground later this year. Wondering across the closed Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse, it strikes me that those images of Seifeddine Rezgui killing people asleep on their sun loungers may take longer to erase from the collective memory than the attacks in Brussels or Paris.

Armed guards, checkpoints, scanners all help but at some point, European authorities have a tough decision to make. If they keep the restrictive travel advice in place, tour operators cannot return for insurance reasons.

The economic decline and joblessness that ISIS feeds off will increase. Lift it too early and they may be blamed for placing their citizens at risk. A prosperous successful Tunisia will ultimately be the most resounding defeat of ISIS and its ilk.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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