It is therefore necessary to inform on and debate what is happening in the Arab country nearest to our borders. We are not faced with yet another episode in the endless conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, for the simple reason that in Tunisia all the people are Sunni. So how does one explain the Tunisian attack? The answer seems clear, almost obvious; the Tunisian terrorists (who are many, as shown by the fact that Tunisia ranks first on the list of countries supplying foreign fighters) are trying to bury the political project of the only Arab nation that is trying to save the democratic transition set in motion by the 2010-2011 revolution, thanks to the majority consensus of the nation’s secular as well as its religious forces, thus trying to avoid an Egyptian-style authoritarian reaction.
But there is more to consider. What are the roots, the “motivations” at the root of Tunisian terrorism, seeing that it is not, at least at first glance, about religious or even territorial tensions as in Syria and Iraq? It is, instead, important to report a crucial fact; radical Tunisian Islamism is centred and spread specifically in the poorest areas, those traditionally marginalized in the country’s centre-south. Unemployment here is the other side of a development model that, since the French colonial period, favoured the country’s capital and coastal regions. It is a development model that no one until now, not even the present democratic government, has tried to seriously address. Among the many distortions caused by this development model are the high number of young high school and university graduates who, after years of great family sacrifices, are faced with the single perspective of unemployment and poverty. There are hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom, lacking alternatives, are drawn to Islamic fundamentalism that guarantees, thanks also to conspicuous funds that come to Tunisia from some of the rich Persian Gulf countries, salaries for terrorists and economic assistance for their families. As the Tunisian professor, Mohammed Haddad, explained to me in a recent conversation at a seminar organised in Rome by LUISS University and Reset-Dialogues, “while the unemployed illiterate are easily drawn to illegal activities, for example drug trafficking or typical petty crime, the unemployed young men with high school diplomas, and in particular those with a university degree, can be easily attracted by a salary offered by jihadist groups, which also comes with the idea of a powerful identity.” Here, perhaps, lies the greatest risk for the Tunisian democratic transition. Poverty and lack of opportunity on the one hand, political violence on the other, feed a spiral that goes against the democratic experiment that justly earned the Nobel Prize for Peace.
The reasons many Arabs, including Tunisians, are pushed along the path of attacking Western “values” are, therefore above all, social and economic, not religious. This is a phenomenon that the West is perhaps not considering enough. Interpreting the Koran is useful, but shutting one’s eyes to the problems at the root of Arab and Muslims society is pernicious. If anything, the religious theme should be linked to the eternal need that protest and social violence have, to sooner or later invoke an ideological dimension that in the Arab and Muslim world in general, given the historical crisis experienced by the revolutionary left, seems able to propose, at this point, only a certain mystic-religious interpretation.
The fragility of the democratic process in Tunisia definitely calls for a strong role by neighbouring Europe. And here a problem is set before us; the European Union’s responsibilities towards small and neighbouring Tunisia are truly great. Tunisian democracy is in urgent need of economic measures capable of attenuating social tension and to begin solving the issue of social and territorial inequality. This objective should light the way for a strategic approach of “good neighbourliness” between the European Union and the country that, until now, has politically defeated the internal and external threat of extremism.
On the other hand, there are no alternatives to a joint effort. The defeat of Tunisian democracy would not only be a catastrophe for the evolution of the Arab world, but also for the image and perception of the Old Continent as seen from the opposite shore of the Mediterranean.
Translated by Francesca Simmons