Islamic State killings challenge fragile democratic transition in Tunisia

Assault on the Bardo Museum represents grave test of stability

‘While Tunisia has been regarded by most observers as the model case of democratic transition in the region, following the turmoil of the 2011 Arab uprisings, it too has experienced significant instability, although not on the scale of its neighbours in the region.’ Tunisians wave banners and their national flag during a demonstration in Midoun, north east of Djerba on March 20th, two days after gunmen attacked the National Bardo Museum. German writting on placard reads: “We don’t want any terrorists in Tunisia.”Photograph: ROBERT MICHAEL/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Tunisia became the latest country to suffer a violent attack at the hands of militants linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS). The attack on the Bardo Museum, one of the most significant tourist attractions in the country, led to the deaths of 23 people, mostly foreigners, and was subsequently claimed by IS.

On the face of it, the attack come as something of a surprise. However, in some respects, it constitutes no more than the latest round in a low-intensity conflict between government forces and violent Islamists that has been a feature of life in Tunisia since the overthrow of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

While Tunisia has been regarded by most observers as the model case of democratic transition in the region, following the turmoil of the 2011 Arab uprisings, it too has experienced significant instability, although not on the scale of its neighbours in the region.

Since late 2012, the Tunisian military has been engaged in conflict with radical Islamists in the Chaambi Mountains region near the Algerian border. Fourteen Tunisian soldiers were killed in July 2014 in clashes with militants linked with al-Qaeda in the Maghrib (AQIM). In total, at least 34 soldiers have been killed in the region since 2013.


Tunisia also is the country of origin of some 3,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, 500 of whom are said to have returned to the country, while government sources claim that up to 9,000 others have been prevented from travelling to Syria. Perhaps because of the difficulty of getting to the conflict in Syria, some Tunisian Islamists have also joined the fighting in neighbouring Libya, where earlier this week, Ahmed Rouissi, a senior Tunisian-born IS leader, was killed.

However, the assault on the Bardo Museum represents more than just another round in fighting between radical Islamists and the Tunisian government. It also constitutes a grave challenge to stability in the one Arab country that has made real strides towards democracy in the post-uprising setting.

In Egypt, the military reasserted its power in June 2013 to overthrow the elected, if controversial, Islamist president Muhammad Mursi. Libya, post-Gadhafi has descended into something like chaos with rival governments and an array of armed militias competing for power, while Yemen has seen the political dispensation, which was put in place after the departure of its long-time strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, undone in recent weeks following the occupation of the capital Sanaa by the Shia Zaydi forces of the Ansar Allah movement, popularly known as the Houthis.

In the midst of this instability and violence, Tunisia has been unique in its commitment to forging a real democratic transition. This has been built, in no small measure, on the persistence of cross-ideological co-operation between Islamists and secularists in the government of the country since Ben Ali’s departure.

In October 2011, the country held its first ever free and fair multiparty elections to a National Constituent Assembly. The Islamist Ennahda party won the largest number of seats – 90 – out of a total of 217. However, after the elections, Ennahda opted to enter into coalition with two secular leftist parties, Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic.

By 2013, the Ennahda-led government was facing increasing popular unrest, which had its origins both in the failure of the government to address the country's dire economic situation and increasing tensions between Islamists and secularists. These received their ultimate expression in the assassinations the same year of secular leftist politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi by Tunisian salafists. In response, Tunisians took to the streets in their thousands, once more, to protest against the government. The result, remarkably, was that after two years in power, the Ennahda-led government stepped down in January 2014, to be replaced by a government of "technocrats".

This was the first instance of an Islamist-led government handing over power after the 2011 uprisings. A new constitution was agreed which enshrined the equal rights of men and women and the rule of law. In October of 2014, parliamentary elections were held which saw Ennahda emerge as the second largest party behind a newcomer, the secularist, Nida Tounes, led by Beji Caid Essebsi who had served as foreign minister under Ben Ali.

In February of this year, the parliament approved the formation of a government in which secularists once more shared power with the Islamists of Ennahda, although the representation of the latter in cabinet is now much reduced.

Wednesday’s attack poses a real threat to the fragile democratic transition in Tunisia. First, it threatens the tourist industry on which the Tunisian economy is significantly dependent. The total contribution of tourism to Tunisia’s Gross Domestic Product was 15.2 per cent of GDP in 2013, and was forecast to rise to over 18 per cent in 2014. According to the country’s minister for tourism, around 400,000 people are directly employed in the sector and up to 20 per cent of the population (approximately two million people) directly or indirectly depend on tourism for their livelihood. But the challenge is not confined to the economic sphere.

The entry into coalition with the secularists of Nidaa Tounes is not unanimously supported within Ennahda, not least because its level of representation in cabinet does not reflect the strength of its support in parliament. Meanwhile, for some secularists at least no distinction can be drawn between moderate Islamists and groups such as IS, despite the commitment that has consistently been shown by Ennahda leaders such as Rachid El-Ghannouchi to an inclusive process of democratic transition in Tunisia.

Indeed, many secularists blame the previous Ennahda-dominated government for the upsurge in Islamist violence because it was seen as “soft” on radical Islamism. However, the fall of the coalition government would almost certainly contribute to an even greater polarisation of opinion in the country and increase the prospects of further militant violence.

How the Tunisian government manages its response to Wednesday’s events will say a great deal about the longer-term prospects for the consolidation of democracy in the country.

Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Middle East Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations in University College Dublin. He is co-author of Politics and Governance in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming)