This blog is part of EU-LISTCO, an innovative and timely project that investigates the challenges facing Europe’s foreign policy. A consortium of fourteen leading research institutions and universities aims to identify risks connected to areas of limited statehood and contested orders—and the EU’s ability to respond.
Many researchers have stressed the link between authoritarianism and radicalization in the Middle East and North Africa. They argue that authoritarian repression fuels violent extremism and recommend support for democratic transitions as a step to prevent it.
However, the case of Tunisia after the fall of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in 2011 seems to challenge this assumption.
Since 2011, Tunisia has been facing a wave of violent radicalization that is much deeper than under the old regime. This is evidenced by the number of deaths due to terrorism per year, which increased from four in 2011 to eighty-one in 2015. Moreover, Tunisia has been one of the top exporters of Salafi jihadist fighters, with more than 5,500 Tunisians fighting with jihadist groups in Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria, and Yemen as estimated by the UN in 2015.
In other words, Tunisia’s recent transition to democracy has not prevented radicalization, and there are three reasons for this Tunisian paradox.
First, ideological radicalization had already taken place under the old regime, particularly in its prisons. When the old regime was brought down in 2011, it was already too late for Salafi jihadists to reconsider their violent doctrine.
This is the case, for example, of Seifallah Ben Hassine, known as Abu Ayadh. He founded the Tunisian Combatant Group, a terrorist organization with ties to al-Qaeda, in 2000, but was arrested in Turkey in 2003 and subsequently extradited to Tunisia, where he was imprisoned until early 2011. When the regime fell, he and other Salafi jihadists benefited from a general amnesty and were released.
However, by then the new democratic political environment had little influence on their already rooted ideas.
Second, the Arab Spring has led to the emergence or consolidation of areas of limited statehood: areas of service provision where state institutions are absent or ineffective. In Tunisia, these have become an increasingly frequent feature of the post-2011 landscape.
This environment brought the jihadi strategic document Management of Savagery to the forefront. The book, which is written by a jihadi ideologue, considers such areas of limited statehood as an opportunity for Islamic groups to fill the gaps by providing services not performed by the state, paving the way for the establishment of a parallel, Islamic state.
Abu Ayadh took advantage of the Tunisian state’s weakness in the post-2011 period to found, together with other Salafi jihadists, the Ansar al-Sharia group in April 2011. The group benefited from the loosening of security in poor areas to engage in vigilantism, social mediation, and conflict resolution. They also offered aid to those in need, such as the citizens of the northwestern city of Jendouba affected by heavy flooding in 2012. These activities allowed them to increase their influence in the public sphere.
The third reason is related to socioeconomic frustrations after 2011, in particular among the youth. While the revolutionary moment in 2011 was associated with high hopes, the phase that followed the departure of Ben Ali has been accompanied by widespread frustration with the slow speed of socioeconomic reforms.
With the ideological frame already present and the organization firmly in place, Ansar al-Sharia took advantage of this suitable, post-revolutionary environment to spread its ideas and recruit new members, particularly in the suburbs of Tunis and in the inland regions, especially the cities of Jendouba, Kairouan, Kasserine, and Sidi Bouzid. With this strategy, the group was able to reach more than 50,000 supporters, according to its spokesperson, Bilel Chaouachi.
The involvement of Ansar al-Sharia members in the assassinations of the secular, leftist opposition leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July 2013, respectively, led the Tunisian government to put an end to the group: in August 2013, then prime minister Ali Larayedh declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization.
The declaration led to the arrest of more than 6,500 young people who were members of or sympathized with the group. It also prompted many other Salafi jihadists to go underground or leave the country to join other violent groups, including the so-called Islamic State in Libya.
But the latter’s appeal to Tunisian jihadists resulted in a new wave of violence that included the Bardo National Museum attack in March 2015, the large-scale attack on the town of Ben Guerdane in March 2016, and the recent double suicide attacks in Tunis in June 2019.
This post-2011 wave of violent radicalization is the shared responsibility of both the old regime, under which the ideological shift took place, and the new political elite, who has failed to address the socioeconomic demands of the youth. Although authoritarian regimes are able to prevent violent actions by increasing the personal costs of turning to violence through heavy-handed measures, such measures are themselves a main driver of ideological radicalization. And once the security grip is loosened, the already radicalized members find space to act and take advantage of the socioeconomic frustrations to recruit new members.
The conclusion is that democracy in itself is not a strategy for preventing violent extremism. However, democracy does offer a suitable environment to discuss preventive strategies on both state and civil society levels, without solely focusing on the security approach, as is often the case under authoritarian regimes.
While Tunisia has made significant improvements to its counterterrorism capabilities, as seen in its efficient response to the Ben Guerdane attack, radical jihadist ideas remain present in society along with socioeconomic frustrations. In order to prevent more Tunisians from joining the current wave of violent extremism, both of these must be addressed urgently.
Georges Fahmi is a research fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence.