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Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation

International Crisis Group

OVERVIEW

Since the December 2010-January 2011 uprising, Tunisia has successfully overcome successive political crises, yet seems less able to absorb the impact of major jihadi attacks. As a result of the successful national dialogue, 2014 began on a note of optimism that led to a significant reduction in political tensions, but concerns are growing again. At the heart of this anxiety are an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; and the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse. An echo chamber for the conflicts agitating the region, Tunisia needs to tackle terrorism in a calm and depoliticised manner. The fights against terrorism and organised crime are inextricably linked. In addition to security measures, the government should take new economic and social initiatives that would ensure border communities trust and support the state.

Since 2013, the alliance between arms and drugs traffickers and armed jihadi cells appears to have considerably strengthened in the border regions. The activities of the major illegal trade networks are encouraging violence that much of the media is quick to blame on terrorists. This violence could reach dangerous levels, particularly if the worsening of the Libyan conflict has a serious economic and political impact on Tunisia.

A social crisis in the south, a lasting alliance between cartels and jihadis, the exacerbation of ideological polarisation by regional developments could form an explosive mix ahead of elections. Voters and candidates in the forthcoming elections, scheduled, nationwide and abroad, for 24-26 October (legislative elections), 21-23 November (first round of presidential elections) and 26-28 December (presidential run-off) 2014, are fearful that the elections could fail and that Tunisia could suffer the same fate as other countries in the region. The deepening security crackdown, combined with reprisals by weakened jihadi groups, risk forming a vicious circle. The independent, “technocratic” government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa is playing on anti-terrorist sentiments, reorienting the concerns of the educated middle class toward a fear of religious extremism. In this context, the risk is that a major terrorist attack against the country would deepen polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

To deflect another crisis, the authorities should, on the one hand, strengthen the state’s presence in the border regions through socio-economic development policies whose impact would be quickly felt by local communities. On the other, it should implement an effective and balanced counter-terrorism strategy, while playing down the sensationalist media coverage that lumps together different currents of Islamism.

Tunisia has the means to tame regional ideological dynamics that concern it but need not determine its future. After Crisis Group’s first report on Tunisia’s borders in November 2013, this briefing analyses the reality of the threats at the Tunisia-Algeria border and the Tunisia-Libya border, and offers options to mitigate the risks.

In the near term, it is crucial for the main political, trade union and civil society forces – both Islamist and non-Islamist – to maintain a consensual approach to public security and for the authorities to adopt a calmer anti-terrorist discourse so as to prevent renewed polarisation. Similarly, the government – or its successor – should increase security cooperation with neighbouring Algeria, pursue the creation of a new National Intelligence Agency, and dialogue with contraband cartels that agree to stop trade in dangerous goods, encouraging them to collaborate with the authorities on the security front. Such measures would ultimately contribute to keeping border communities from becoming alienated from the state and, in the medium term, reduce their temptation to challenge it directly by joining jihadi militant groups.

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