Official statements coming from the original Arab Spring country all agree that the security situation in Tunisia is dangerous. This is down to recent incidents in the mountains on the Algerian border as well as the latest clashes in Kairouan and the suburbs of other cities. The risk arising from these events is not simply one of security, as the media would have us believe, but how the news is used. It is one of function, not structure.
The “new terror” sweeping Tunisia is actually as old as the ousted regime whose ex-members are more active today than previously. They believe that they have all the conditions in place for a counter-revolution.
Developments in Tunisia are hard to explain without a clear understanding of when the revolution actually started. Alone of all the Arab Spring revolutions, Tunisia’s is noted for being robbed of its contextual start-date. Removing the revolution from its time frame is one way to remove it from its root context and environment. That way, it can be relocated to the capital and its elites, away from the rural areas and their poor villages, including Alqasren where the latest incidents took place.
Tunisia’s elites have been the biggest loser from the revolution led by the rural and urban poor because it achieved what those elites could not during their long years of tyranny. It also laid bare for all to see the strong, silent coalition between the tyrants in power and the political elites. Although a generalisation, it is clear that the absence of the political elites from the revolution is what made it successful. Tunisia’s revolutionaries worked from the bottom upwards and could not be bought off.
Going one step further, it is possible to surmise that the simple absence of ideology and political theories from the Arab revolutions is what enabled them to overthrow the dictatorships. Indeed, the counter-assumption is that there were no openings for political parties to overthrow the new regime, although they could have tried to do so over the past couple of years.
Liberation from the yoke of narrow ideological and political discourse defined by opportunistic elites has enabled the people to reach a defining historical moment. Grassroots awareness of the false premises of the elite discourse is what pushed the people to demand freedom and dignity away from all partisanship or sense of belonging to anything other than the homeland.
The only constant is that there is no constant in defining terror or terrorists, apart from the regular relationship to Islam and Muslims as trotted out frequently by US research institutions. Serving internal political interests, such definitions are used by the official Arab media with one goal, and that is to strengthen the status quo and cover their governments’ collective inability to develop their countries.
The new terror in Tunisia has morphed into armed groups holed up in the midwest mountains near Kasserine. We know very little about these groups, and what we do know is filtered through the less than trustworthy media controlled by the remnants of the old regime. According to security and military sources, however, there is only one group of fewer than twenty members, none of whom are Tunisian citizens. They are similar to the dissident groups found in the deserts to the west of Tunisia which claim to be fighting a “jihad” but live by smuggling and kidnapping, activities which are far from Islam and which Muslims should avoid.
This phenomenon is not new; Tunisia has witnessed similar events, most famously in 2007 in the city of Sulayman just 40 kilometres south-east of the capital Tunis. Two security officers were killed but there was no official statement for a week until the clashes were over and those responsible were identified as members of a “terrorist Salafist” group. This was an interesting description used by Ben Ali’s media and security agencies as such terms weren’t used in the Arab world until after the Arab Spring, although they were used by American officials as part of their “war on [Islamic] terrorism”.
Talk about terrorists and terrorism in Tunisia serves mainly a functional purpose, not a structural one. The events in Tunisia are hardly mentioned in the Arab world because they simply don’t register on the scale of the massacres being committed, for example, by the regime in Syria. Nor do they compare with what is happening in Algeria, and they actually fade into relative insignificance when we look at the disruption caused by the unions and media which are trying to paralyse the country.
Thus it is reasonable to say that scare stories about the new terror in Tunisia are a smokescreen put up by the media to hide the real issues and provide Western interests with a platform from which to attack the post-revolution governments across the region.
In addition, we have the discourse from opposition groups and media in Tunisia, which exaggerate criminal activity and portrays it as “Islamic terrorism”. They are right to note that weapons coming into the country from Libya are a problem, but the issue is not as serious as they make it out to be. It is totally misleading to suggest that Tunisia is an easy target for terror, armed conflict and Al-Qaida. There are “armed jihadi groups” although they are not only few in number but also struggling in the face of resistance from the security forces.
This more or less explains the vicious campaign to which the army and police are subjected by various political and media bodies, some of whom question their professionalism and allegiance to the state.
Those who take up arms also face strong resistance from the moral base provided by Tunisia’s Islamic culture which, despite the best efforts of the discredited Ben Ali regime, has always created an environment favouring moderation and tolerance. Tunisians are generally good-natured people and tyranny has not succeeded in changing their society into a hotbed of poverty, ignorance and armed gangs.
However, just as Libya had teams of thugs known as the “Gaddafi Brigades”; Egypt had “Mubarak’s thugs”; and Syria has “Assad’s Shabiha thugs”, Tunisia had its snipers spreading fear on the streets of Alqasrin, Buzyan, Sidi Buzaid, Tala and other places which stood at the forefront of the struggle against the very real state terrorism of the old regime. They have been airbrushed out of the narrative, as if they never existed; indeed, one of the pillars of the counter-revolution has even denied their existence altogether.
As such, the old snipers – real and metaphorical are still in place and doing their work on behalf of the ousted Ben Ali regime. The head of that dictatorship may have fled the country but its roots are still deep. Post-revolution, two of its main pillars formed an alliance and demonstrated that they are inseparable from the old regime. One is the media which continues to spread fear amongst the populace by scaremongering about criminal incidents while reminding people of the Ben Ali slogan that, “Tunisia is the country of safety and security”. Together with the old Tunisian elites, such as Ben Ali’s “opposition” which was, in fact, formed and controlled by him, and the secular unions using strikes to paralyse the economy and state, they combine to return the old guard to positions of power and influence cloaked in respectability and “revolutionary” credentials.
The real danger facing attempts to create just societies in Tunisia and Egypt lies not in “Islamic terrorism” but in opportunistic political elites. They have witnessed revolutions created by the blood of ordinary people seeking justice and dignity but are now intent on settling old scores and blocking the Islamic political project. They will fail, as injustice is always defeated by what is right and just.
The author is a lecturer at Sorbonne University, Paris. This article is a translation from the Arabic text which first appeared on Al Jazeera net on 1 June, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.