Youssef Cherif, Tunisian blogger, commentator, and consultant on North African politics. Follow him on Twitter @faiyla.
Extremist Islamists have been active in Tunisia since the 1980s, and they grew in number and importance since the fall of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Until 2015, however, most attacks targeted security and military forces, with the exception of two assassinations and two foiled suicide attacks. Even so, terrorism does not put the country at risk of collapsing, and its effects are nowhere comparable to what is happening in Libya, Syria, or even Egypt.
Nevertheless, reading the country’s mainstream newspapers or watching its influential TV stations gives a different understanding. There was not a single week that passed since spring 2011 without headlines referring to terrorism: imminent attacks, foiled bombings, plans to target civilians, and the like. These issues were often linked to the growth in Ennahda’s popularity. Tunisians were kept on tenterhooks, living in fear of a coming enemy that never came.
And when terrorism finally struck the Bardo Museum in March 2015, Tunisia could not prevent it. It was a shocking event, a surprise. The nation’s long wait and reaction was reminiscent of Dino Buzzati’s novel The Tartar Steppe, in which the hero, Giovanni Drogo, spends his life in a fortress waiting for the barbarians but is too weak to face them once they are at the gates.
The affiliates of the ancien regime have interests in showing post-Ben Ali Tunisia as a chaotic scene where economic crisis coincides with security disintegration. And the anti-Islamist elite seeks to prevent the country from a perceived Islamist takeover. Both use the mainstream media to inflate Tunisia’s terror threat.
When the left coalesced with the ancien regime against the Islamists in the late 1980s, this allowed Ben Ali to monopolize all powers and ban politics from the public sphere for two decades. Tunisian stakeholders need to remember this episode. By exaggerating the threat of terrorism and equating the radical butchers of the Islamic State with the moderate conservatives of Ennahda, these media outlets are shaping a public opinion hostile to democracy and the existence of political Islam. Four years after the Arab Spring, many Tunisians see stopping the rise of terrorism as more important than the birth of democracy.
Moreover, they are providing terrorists with arguments for their propaganda, allowing them to recruit the gullible younger elements of society and set foot in the country. It is a vicious circle: elites blow up the threat from their bitter enemies in order to fight their political foes, giving the bitter enemies means to grow and hit back. Terrorism does not kill democracy, but too much talk about terrorism does.