In Tunis on November 25, a man boarded a bus full of Tunisian presidential guards and detonated his suicide vest. The blast, which took place on Mohamed V Avenue, a major boulevard in Tunisia’s capital, claimed the lives of 15 people, in yet another blow to Tunisia’s new democratic political system. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which claimed responsibility for the assault, also conducted fatal attacks at Tunis’ National Bardo Museum in March and at a beach in the Tunisian resort town of Sousse in June.
Tunisia, which ousted the authoritarian regime led by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, inspired uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa that became known as the Arab Spring. In the nearly five years that have passed since then, the country has managed to maintain relative stability, write a new constitution, hold several rounds of elections, and, most important, establish a unity government, which is led by the secular Nidaa Tounes party but includes Islamist groups. Not surprisingly, the country has won praise for its peaceful and successful transition to democracy.
But this accomplishment has also made the country a target of ISIS. In a statement released after the bus attack, the group warned that the strikes would continue against “the tyrants of Tunisia” until “the laws of Allah” were applied within the country. Perhaps more worrying, more than 3,000 Tunisians have joined ISIS, including, allegedly, the suicide bomber on Mohamed V Avenue.
For its part, the government has warned of the need to protect the country against Tunisians returning from conflict zones such as Syria, but it has not yet offered many new ideas about how. Even worse, it has been worryingly heavy-handed in its response—enacting a state of emergency, mandating curfews, and delegating more power to security forces.
Part of the problem is that Tunisia is in the Nidaa Tounes—effectively a loose coalition of secular groups, the business community, and some former figures of the Ben Ali regime—is currently split between the right, led by President Beji Caid Essebsi’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, and the left, led by Mohsen Marzouk, a former human-rights activist and the party’s secretary-general. The party’s fissures, which had been quietly developing since Nidaa Tounes’ electoral victories in last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections, became an open conflict at a party conference in early November. Its lack of a clear ideological platform made internal tensions almost inevitable. Although there are ideological fault lines that divide the two groups, the division stems in part from more mundane issues concerning party control and government positions.
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