How not to solve Tunisia’s extremism problem

By silencing critics and expanding police powers, authorities are pushing Tunisian youths into extremism.

Tunisia Explosion AP
A suicide bombing rocked the main avenue in central Tunis on October 29, injuring 20 people [Riadh Dridi/AP]

On October 29, Mouna Guebla, a 30-year-old unemployed English graduate with no criminal record, detonated a homemade explosive device in downtown Tunis and left 20 people – most of them police officers – injured. 

However, the attack, makeshift in nature and limited in scope, did not cause much of a disruption in the daily lives of Tunisians. After all, Tunisians have been living in a state of emergency since 2015 and are highly accustomed to the news of deadly attacks. 

Last month’s suicide bombing was only the latest in a string of similar attacks targeting civilians and security officers in Tunisia since 2015. In March 2015, armed men stormed the National Bardo Museum in Tunis and killed 21 people. In June same year, another gunman killed 38 people in the coastal resort of Sousse.

In November 2015, a bus packed with Tunisian presidential guards in Tunis was blown up, killing 12 people. More recently, in November 2017, a man attacked two police officers with a knife, killing one, near the parliament building in the capital. This year, on July 7, six police officers were killed in Ain Soltane, Jendouba, in the northwest.

The Ministry of Interior also contributed to a quick return to normalcy after the latest attack by announcing that the suicide bombing was “an isolated act” and none of the victims had any life-threatening injuries.

Moreover, during the week of Guebla’s attack, most Tunisians were either concerned over the killing of 19-year-old Aymen Othmani by customs agents or enthused about the African Champions League final between Tunisia’s Esperance and Egypt’s Al Ahly.

As a result, Tunisian authorities allowed the 29th Carthage Film Festival to hold its opening ceremony at the National Theatre, only a few metres from the scene of the bombing, on November 3.

Questioning the state’s counterterror capabilities

While life in the capital mostly returned to normal a couple of days after the bombing, the attack intensified a growing number of Tunisians’ suspicions about the state’s counterterrorism capabilities.

The fact that a poorly planned and amateurishly executed attack managed to injure 20 people in the heart of the capital caused many to question whether Tunisia’s security forces are prepared to tackle other, much more serious threats facing the country. 

The famous Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where the suicide bombing took place, is not only the political and cultural heart of Tunis, but also houses the headquarters of the much-feared Ministry of Interior.

Since the start of the state of emergency three years ago, security presence in the area has been extremely visible, with police patrols at every corner. Considering all this, the latest bombing raised questions about not only the capabilities of security forces, but also the effectiveness of heightened police presence in counterterror efforts.

Outrage over police brutality

Meanwhile, public protests and outrage over police brutality and abusive treatment of civilians continue across the country. Although the security sector reformation has been a major demand since the 2011 revolution, authorities failed to take any constructive step in this area in the last seven years.

There have been countless reports on arbitrary arrests, torture and even extrajudicial killing of protesters and opposition supporters by police officers. In almost all cases, authorities released press releases denying the accusations and at times claiming the victims had died of “natural causes”. Almost none of the police officers accused of brutality has yet been independently investigated, punished or jailed.

But despite the Tunisian people’s growing suspicions about the government’s counterterrorism strategies, state officials do not seem eager to change the way they deal with security threats. Following last month’s bombing, Tunisian authorities repeated their demands for expanding the powers of security forces to counter terrorism and control political and social unrest. On top of calling for new and more intrusive security measures, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi also called for the swift adoption of a controversial bill, entitled “Repression of Attacks against the Armed Forces”, that would exonerate the security forces from criminal liability and criminalise the denigration of police officers. The parliament assembly president, Mohamed Naceur, similarly voiced support for the adoption of the controversial bill and insisted that police forces need further protection against attacks.

On the contrary, Tunisian civil society and human rights groups appear convinced that the adoption of the law would be yet another blow for the nation’s shaky democracy and achieve nothing other than legalising police impunity. Back in July, Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia director Amna Guellali had said the law would transform members of the security forces into “super citizens”: no one will be allowed to criticize them, film them, question their arbitrary behaviour, or call for justice when they use unjustified force.

And yet, despite significant outrage and criticism, police unions have pushed for the adoption of the bill by aggressively lobbying politicians and threatening to stop protecting deputies. Now, especially after the latest bombing in central Tunis, the adaptation of the bill seems inevitable.

Tunisia’s security forces have long escaped accountability regarding their unlawful actions by claiming that any given incident of police brutality is an aberration rather than a symptom of an institutionalised culture of corruption, incompetence, abuse and impunity. Furthermore, whenever they are accused of any wrongdoing, they go on the offensive in the local media and try to convince the public that their officers are fully accountable for their actions and what they need is extended powers rather than stronger supervision.

Counterterror efforts fuelling extremism

The government’s inclination to deal with any security threat by increasing police presence in public spaces and giving abusive police officers even more extended powers is not halting terrorism, rather pushing extremism among Tunisia’s youth.

Authorities say more than 3,000 Tunisians have left the country over the past few years to fight for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other similar armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

The strong sense of injustice, vulnerability and hopelessness among Tunisia’s marginalised and poor masses have long been and still is a root cause of extremism in Tunisia. As Tunisian security forces are increasingly seen as too-big-to-reform institutions entangled in political and economic interests, an inclusive and participatory democracy that should be safeguarding ordinary citizens from police brutality is slowly suffocating. In the resulting absence of any form of protection from police abuse, more and more impoverished Tunisian youths are viewing violence and extremism as their only weapon against injustice and impunity.

The political and security vacuums in Syria and Libya and the return of young Tunisians who fought elsewhere in the region are also providing ample space for the circulation of extremist discourses in the country. Moreover, growing economic desperation is pushing Tunisian youths to express their anger and frustration the only way they can, with violence.

But the state, rather than trying to address these core problems that lead young Tunisians to resort to violence and join groups like ISIL, chose to respond with extreme punitive measures. When the state chooses to deal with extremism by oppressing the youth further and giving security forces more opportunity to abuse them, radicalisation gains speed.

From the 2015 attack in Sousse to last month’s suicide bombing in downtown Tunis, the perpetrators of Tunisia’s terror attacks have similar stories: they are educated, poor, unemployed and angry.

At first glance, Mouna Guebla appeared to be somewhat different from the previous attackers: she was not affiliated with any extremist group and she was the first female suicide bomber in Tunisia. However, at its core, the story of Guebla’s radicalisation was not any different from others’ that came before her.

She was a business English graduate who, incapable of sustaining herself and her family financially due to unemployment, was forced to work as a shepherdess. The hopelessness of her situation caused her to respond to the injustices she has been facing with violence. When she couldn’t find any other way to make her voice heard, she chose to “fight back” against social disenchantment and economic marginalisation with a bomb.

Seven years after the 2011 upheaval, the failure of successive economic reforms made the realisation of the most important demands of Tunisia’s revolution impossible. Like Guebla, a third of university graduates in Tunisia are unemployed.

A soaring inflation rate, which is currently well over seven percent, a devalued dinar and draconic austerity measures have resulted in a deteriorating purchase power and growing despair among Tunisians. Tunisia’s Western allies continue to celebrate its successful democratic transition while ignoring its economic woes.

The Tunisian government cannot solve the country’s extremism problem and bring an end to suicide bombings like the one that hit Tunis on October 29 without listening to its youth and resolving their social, economic and political woes. Marginalising an already disenfranchised population by extreme security measures and police brutality can only further damage the country’s shaky democracy. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.