It seemed like a good time to come to Tunisia. I had flown into Tunis last Wednesday and spent two hectic but fruitful days in the city. In the mornings I would easily hop between meetings as traffic was manageable and taxis plentiful. In the afternoons, when most offices had closed for the day due to the holy month of Ramadan, I worked in the calm of my hotel. The people were welcoming, the weather was pleasant, and the homemade Iftar dinner I was lucky enough to have been invited to was delicious.
And then came Friday and the deadly attack on Hotel Imperial Marhaba in Sousse. Waves of shock, terror and anger swept through the small country as the number of casualties continued to rise. It was the opening of a still fresh wound because the terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in March, which claimed the lives of 22 people, came up in almost every conversation I had in the days leading up to the Friday attack.
Many in the West have hailed Tunisia as a success story in the post-Arab Spring Maghreb. Indeed, the country has avoided violence or authoritarian rule and instead engaged with democracy. In the most recent elections, held in November 2014 and widely regarded as fair, the secular, modernist Nidaa Tounes party won a decided majority, defeating the Islamist Ennahda. Foreign tourists, most of whom swapped Tunisian beaches for safer resorts along the northern coast of the Mediterranean, have been coming back, attracted not only by the good weather and the spectacular sites, but also by Tunisia’s reputation as a beacon of democracy and moderate Islam in the turbulent region. Late on a Thursday evening Tunis’ northern district of Ariana is bustling, with roadside cafes packed with locals drinking mint tea, smoking and chatting. A distinct local fashion prevails, but you’ll be hard pressed to spot anyone wearing a hijab.
Yet the tragic events of last week serve as a painful reminder that under the veil of revolutionary success, social and economic challenges abound. The government has been struggling to provide basic social services; a third of young people are out of work; and many of those living in border regions have turned to smuggling to make ends meet. According to government estimates, Tunisia’s informal economy has grown from 18% in 2010 to 38% in 2015, although some believe the figure to be closer to 54%.
Tunisia’s porous borders have seen the flow not only of illicit goods, but also of extremist ideas. In the country’s impoverished interior, hundreds of disaffected youths have been recruited by ISIS and other terrorist groups present in the region. The vast majority of Tunisians shun religious extremism and violence, but some of those who have previously relied on the social support of Islamist groups such as Ansar Al-Sharia, outlawed in August 2013, have since joined the ranks of its equivalent in Libya or travelled to join ISIS in Syria. Although small in numbers, extremists pose a serious threat to the political gains made since the revolution and to Tunisia’s economic prospects.
On Saturday evening I go to dinner at a guesthouse popular with expats, journalists and artists. The garden is bustling with a young crowd gathering for the day’s Iftar. I’m sat at a table in the corner and cannot help but tune in from time to time to the conversation at the table in front of me. Two young Tunisians are loudly debating the events of the previous day. After years of suppression, the authorities are now actively encouraging public debate in Tunisia and everyone seems to have an opinion. Like the vast majority of the people I meet, though, the two Tunisians agree on one thing: the unequivocal denunciation of the violence in Sousse. It’s well past midnight when I leave and the garden is still buzzing. There’s a lot that needs to be done before Tunisia’s democracy comes of age, but it’s good to know that the energy that propelled the revolution is still there.