Tunisia sets example in war against extremism


I met the Prime Minister of Tunisia last week. He was late. The PM’s advisor was apologetic. He explained that there had been a terrorist attack in the south. Extremists had descended from the hills, captured a sixteen year old boy and hacked off his head. The severed head was then handed to the dead boy’s friend with instructions to deliver it to the parents. It was the morning after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Tunisia is no stranger to terrorism. Twice this year the country has suffered deadly attacks orchestrated by individuals with links to ISIS. In March, 22 tourists were killed in an attack at the Bardo Museum in the capital. You can still see the bullet holes in the walls. In June, a gunman emerged from the sea and calmly walked up the beach at Sousse on Tunisia’s eastern coast leaving 38 sunbathers dead in his wake. In a country which relies so heavily on tourism, the targets were not chosen by accident. And so the beaches emptied and resort hotels dust-covered whole storeys and wings. Staff were laid off.

It was for that very reason that the European Conservative & Reformists, to which I belong, together with like-minded politicians from across North Africa, Europe and the Middle East chose to meet in Tunis. We showed that the terrorists had not won, that the roots of democracy which had so recently taken hold could not be so easily torn.  Tunisia’s journey from a totalitarian regime to democracy is a transition too few of the states liberated during the Arab Spring have made successfully. Some 200 delegates from 18 countries had come to learn why.

Over two days we met with civic and political leaders, debated human rights and minority rights, and explored security issues and the reality of terror as a political tool. We talked of trade and celebrated the success of Tunisia’s civic bodies - the Quartet - in winning the Nobel Peace Prize. We did what politicians are meant to do: debate the issues and try to find solutions that could work to solve problems that are anything but local. Before leaving the summit to meet the Prime Minister, my last act was to fall silent in remembrance of those murdered by extremists in Paris.

The Prime Minister, Habib Essid, is a quietly spoken man who does not stand on ceremony. As a fax machine chuntered intermittently somewhere in the office, he outlined his concerns and explained his priorities. For Mr Essid the terrorist attacks have had a corrosive impact on Tunisia. As he explained, once the grief and the outrage had quietened, and the state of emergency was lifted, Tunisia had a still greater task ahead; convincing the global community that tourists would be safe if they returned. The terrorists had struck at the very heart of Tunisia’s economy. In a country of only 11 million, over one million people directly or indirectly benefit the tourist trade. Tourist dollars constitute 6.5% of the country’s GDP. His one ask of Syed Kamall MEP and myself: encourage the UK Government to change the travel advice it issues to British tourists. As he explained, where Britain leads, other states will follow. It may be a tough ask in light of recent events closer to home, but it is a reminder that to do anything other than return to normal is to concede the upper hand to those who perpetrated the act, sure of the reaction.

Essid is acutely aware of the radicalisation of many young Tunisians. Observing that the perpetrators of the Paris killings were less likely to be migrants, but rather disillusioned and detached young Muslims born and raised within the EU and fired by religious and political ideologies, he confirmed that as it is in Paris, so it is in Tunis. We have more to fear from those we have already lost at home than those who are journeying for a better life. According to the UN, young Tunisians are amongst the most likely to travel to join conflicts abroad. Approximately 3,000 Tunisians are confirmed fighting in Syria, over 1300 in Libya, 200 in Iraq, 60 in Mali and 50 in Yemen. In Essid’s view only education and opportunity will provide antidotes to this radicalisation. Since securing independence from France, education has been a priority. Today Tunisia ranks 69th in the world in access to basic knowledge, with the World Bank reporting a literacy rate over 96% among young people. Tunisia also has one of the highest access rates to the internet to be found in Africa. Opportunity is harder to come by, particularly in a country so recently emerging from the corruption, cronyism and clientelism. Terrorism has also dented opportunities in the service sector, hence Essid’s determination to demonstrate that Tunisia is safe and ready to welcome one and all.

Maintaining safety will require constant vigilance. Essid has just returned from the Valletta summit on migration. For him the challenges of migration are inextricably linked with security. Bordering Libya, where the rule of law has all but disintegrated, presents particular challenges, with the border between the two countries closed on a number of occasions. Tunisia is currently home to some 90,000 Libyan refugees. Setting aside the security implications of the Southern border and the challenges of the Eastern border, Essid also expressed his concern about the wellbeing of those migrants for whom Tunisia is only a staging post on the route from sub-Saharan Africa to the Europe’s Mediterranean coast.

Essid closed our meeting on a hopeful note. Just last month, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, citing its ‘decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.’ I had met with one part of the Quarter, the federation representing trade bodies, only the day before. With trade unions, human rights activists and the league of lawyers completing the Quartet, the gathering was created in 2013 with the purpose of fostering dialogue across civic society and finding peaceful solutions to the turmoil so evident across North Africa and beyond.  What was perhaps most remarkable givien the experiences across the region is that the group drew together both secular and Islamist parties.

There is more to do in Tunisia, and I will write later on some of those issues particularly as they affect minorities, but for the moment Tunisia continues its journey. There is a phrase in Arabic that seems appropriate: let what is coming be better than what has gone.