Published on Arab Voices

Tunisian youth and security, five years after the revolution

Tunis-based writer Christine Petré asks why, five years after the Tunisian revolution, young people appear so susceptible to radicalization.  
Tunisian man standing in front of El Jem amphitheater in Tunisia Shutterstock l Eric FahrnerThe five-year-anniversary of the Tunisian revolution comes shortly after the Quartet accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The prize was awarded in recognition of its commitment to dialogue and consensus during one of the country’s most challenging periods. Yet the anniversary is overshadowed by this year’s three terrorist attacks. The first attack was at the Bardo museum on March 18, which was followed by the mass shooting at a beach resort in Sousse on June 26, and the latest, an attack against a military bus in downtown Tunis on November 24. All claimed by the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) and all perpetrated by young Tunisian men.
The attacks highlight a development where post-revolution Tunisia, often portrayed as a democratic success story, has generated around 3 000 foreign fighters, among the largest number in the region. In addition to their increasing presence among the ranks of IS, a large number of Tunisians are believed to be taking part in the neighboring Libyan conflict. Why is it that Tunisian youth have become vulnerable to radical influence? 
While the practice of religion was strictly regulated both under the rule of past presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the revolution put an end to decades of repression. One group which quickly took advantage of the new born freedoms was Ansar al-Sharia. The group’s founder, Saifallah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, was among the around 300 jihadists released from prison by an amnesty shortly after the revolution. Thereafter, the group gained popularity by primarily reaching out to people in the country’s marginalized areas, offering social support and humanitarian assistance. The group could operate fairly freely until it was designated a terrorist organization on 27 August 2013, forcing its members to leave the movement, flee abroad or go underground. While Ansar al-Sharia’s influence today is considered limited, the political violence, now claimed by ISIS, has created a new and urgent security concern for the young democracy.
Five years after the revolution, many are trying to understand the root causes of the growth of these radical jihadist elements and their success in brainwashing young Tunisians. While there is no clear route to radicalization there are recurring factors such as poverty, economic marginalization and lack of opportunities, in combination with a sense of injustice and repression. Many of these factors persist among Tunisian youth, even five years after the revolution, especially in marginalized areas such as the Tunis suburb Douar Hicher, or the city of Kasserine, close to the Chaambi Mountain where Al-Qaeda affiliate Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafi is believed to be hiding. The group has, on a regular basis, targeted the Tunisian security forces, causing the deaths of more than 70 soldiers.
About 75 kilometers east of Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution, has become yet another symbol of poverty and disillusionment. It was here, five years ago on December 17, 2010 that Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. The act was in protest against the country’s lack of economic opportunities and the corruption among authorities and the humiliations they visited on ordinary Tunisians. It became the spark that lit the revolutionary demonstrations that not only ousted Ben Ali but spread across the region. But since then, Sidi Bouzid has become home to a number of radicalized youth . “People are poor, they have nothing to do,” said 27-year-old Nidhal Youssif, when trying to explain why the area’s young people are so vulnerable to radical ideas. He said he understood why the ideas could be appealing to young people who have such limited prospects - especially as the radical ideas, in some cases, come with an offer of money . “Their minds can be changed in one second,” added Nidhal.    
Along with the persistence of the grievances that motivated Bouazizi, young people today also face the added burden of a fragile security situation. Militants in central Sidi Bouzid province recently beheaded a 16-year-old boy, who was kidnapped while herding his family’s sheep and accused of spying for the Tunisian state. The incident, the first of its kind, sparked outrage and fear in the surrounding villages.
" One of the reasons behind the
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But 30-year-old construction worker Khaled Hrichi is not afraid. He sees it as the new normal. “It happens everywhere now,” he said. He grew up in Sidi Bouzid and he personally doesn’t know anyone who has become radicalized. He believes that they neither understand nor are part of true Islam, and therefore has no desire to know any of them.
Mohamed Abou Lbaba, a 22-year-old student, also from Sidi Bouzid, knows one person who became radicalized. He believes that it happened at the mosque. According to him, one of the reasons behind the high number of radicalized youth is the lack of opportunities and activities for young people. But now they are building a swimming pool in Sidi Bouzid. “Perhaps that will help,” he said.
The response from the Tunisian authorities has mostly focused on security. The government declared a state of emergency and curfew after the attack in downtown Tunis; this was in addition to the increased security personnel deployed at tourist sights and beaches after the Sousse attack. Mosques outside state control are being shut down and an anti-terrorism bill has been approved. In addition, the Tunisian Ministry of Interior reported that it has prevented around 12,500 people from trying to leave the country to fight in foreign wars.
In general, the government has responded well, said Abdelhay Zair who lives on the outskirts of Tunis. However, according to the 32-year-old it has not done enough. To him, many of the grievances that caused Bouazizi’s act of desperation are yet to be addressed by the government. A priority should be, for example, to establish a long-term development strategy, especially for the interior parts, including Sidi Bouzid. The government also needs to fight corruption, he concluded.  


Christine Petré

Editor, "Your Middle East" News Website

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