Tunisia’s misguided declaration of war
Tunisia president’s hasty response to beach attack casts doubt on the government’s ability to fight terrorism.
Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebi recently gave a speech in response to the deadly June 26 Hammam Sousse beach attack. This speech was a kneejerk reaction which casts doubt upon his government’s abilities to contain terrorism within Tunisia.
The 88-year-old president’s talk of “a state of war” is problematic on multiple levels. It represents a hasty and emotive response to an incident that should instead call for pause, wide consultation, and a measured response that does not threaten Tunisia’s democratic gains. The political action resulting from this speech will represent the first test of Tunisia’s new democratic constitution, which was drafted in 2014.
This post-revolution constitution, founded on democratic principles, has been constructed to limit the power of the executive office, so as to prevent a recurrence of the political atmosphere under the ousted dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
What Essebsi said during his speech has misinterpreted Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution of 2014. Article 80 stipulates: “In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state, the president of the republic may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances.”
A tragic act of terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world does not qualify as “imminent danger” even if it happens again, and that may be a possibility.
Article 80 adds: “The president shall announce the measures in a statement to the people.”
Essebsi did this, fulfilling the text of the article with full integrity. However, it is doubtful that Essebsi’s “measures shall guarantee, at the earliest possibility, a return to the normal functioning of state institutions and services”.
Restructuring the chain of command of the security services or deploying 1,000 gun-toting security forces along the country's sandy beaches will neither reassure fearful local populations and tourists nor hasten any return to normalcy.
Restructuring the chain of command of the security services or deploying 1,000 gun-toting security forces along the country’s sandy beaches will neither reassure fearful local populations and tourists nor hasten any return to normalcy.
Amor Boubakri, a law professor, and former serving member of the first commission for the preservation of the revolution and promotion of democracy, explains that “Essebsi misuses a constitutional facility, to the detriment of democratic consolidation”.
The ease with which Essebsi is manipulating the constitution sets a dangerous precedent.
Essebsi and his team should know better – terrorist acts must be contained on the psychological front, as well as physically, to prevent the mass spreading of fear and uncertainty throughout a population. Here, Essebsi, Prime Minister Habib Essid, and presidential advisor Mohsen Marzouk have failed dismally.
Indeed, Essebsi and his team are correct to isolate the individuals and groups perpetrating heinous acts but that should never be a pretext to over inflate the issue in order to wield more power.
Terrorism in Tunisia
That being said, terrorism is a real problem in Tunisia – there have been two serious attacks within a three month period. However, talking of war at a time when the nation’s coffers are drastically diminished only adds to Tunisia’s woes. This conflated rhetoric of war can only diminish the tourist industry further – an industry that nearly half a million Tunisians heavily and exclusively rely upon to live.
If Essebsi was speaking and acting according to his advisors’ input, then the resulting decisions reveal overly simplistic thinking.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Bardo museum in the capital, Tunis, in March of this year. It was the first instance of an attack by ISIL within Tunisia and coincided with the 100th day since the inauguration of a democratically elected president.
Since that original attack, the president and his team have had nothing but rhetoric to offer his people. He has, however, repeatedly chosen to blame the previous troika administration, rather than take on the responsibility himself. Tunisia has regrettably plunged into the “blame game” with each side, including defeated president, Moncef Marzouki, adding to public hysteria and confusion.
Essebsi also reached out to the International community during his speech – especially on the subject of an unstable Libya and its potential repercussions on Tunisia’s future.
Obviously, he was asking the outside world for some kind of coordination or backing – moral maybe, but also material.
Tackling terrorism holistically
Not much is shared about his visit a few months ago to the US, including whether or not any agreement was reached on the fight against terrorism. Regardless, Essebsi and his political allies do not seem to be keyed into recent US foreign policy.
The US, and much of the West, are resisting calls by more influential allies like Saudi Arabia to send heavy weaponry to the Kurds in their war against the ISIL. Simply put, Tunisia is not strategically important. The sooner Essebsi and company accept this reality, the sooner they will be able rethink Tunisia’s approach to terrorism.
The war must be against things like poverty alleviation, regional development, education, and youth employment, as well as the terrorists themselves and their extremist ideologies.
Terrorism may be fought successfully if it is tackled holistically. The war must be against things like poverty alleviation, regional development, education, and youth employment, as well as the terrorists themselves and their extremist ideologies. Essebsi committed to many of these things during his presidential campaign. If he truly wants to stop the influence of terror organisations within Tunisia, now is the time to deliver on those promises.
Tunisia’s post-colonial development has left many regions and communities, especially in the south and centre of the country, facing a multitude of challenges including access to employment opportunities, health care, education, and overall political inclusiveness. Communities that are not supported by mining operations or tourist dollars are being left behind.
Even water originating in Tunisia’s North West is being diverted to supply the hotels and resorts in the coastal towns, angering Tunisians who simply want a share of their own water supply. The same goes for the phosphate basin towns such as Gafsa, where people benefited very little from the income created by their own resources.
Riots have been rife in the past a few months due to the lack of state investment into employment and alternative industries to replace and mediate Tunisia’s dwindling phosphate reserves.
The legacy of this discriminatory developmental model is equally felt in Gabes, in the South-East, where industrial chemistry plants have caused widespread pollution, directly affecting the health and life expectancy of many local populations.
Tunisia’s leadership, political parties, civil society, and business community must realise that unless they act now, ISIL will bring about a war that will truly justify Essebsi’s statement. The general discontent and desperation that moves people to participate in these terrorist attacks must be addressed. Guns alone cannot stop them.
Larbi Sadiki is an academic at Qatar University where he teaches international affairs. He is author of Rethinking Arab Democratization published by Oxford in 2009 and 2011 and is editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring which was recessed in 2015.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.