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.

Tunisian forensics police inspect a Tunisian presidential guard bus at the scene of a suicide bomb attack in Tunis, Tunisia, November 25, 2015.
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

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 middle of a political crisis. 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.

The faction led by Hafedh Caid Essebsi is largely composed of figures from Tunisia’s ruling party during the Ben Ali era, the Democratic Constitutional Rally. Marzouk and his associates have accused this faction of promoting an antidemocratic agenda, which would potentially put the party over the state and undermine Tunisia’s postrevolutionary political order. They argue that Hafedh Caid Essebsi is seeking to gain a more prominent role in the party, and they worry about the revival of clan politics.

Among war-torn Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as Egypt’s resurgent authoritarianism, Tunisia remains a bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape among former Arab Spring countries. But, at the moment, it looks dangerously close to losing that distinction.

The timing of this struggle could affect the government’s ability to confront the rising terrorist threat. President Essebsi’s televised speech to the nation last week was largely devoted to addressing his party’s internal conflict, rather than to the rising terrorist threat. This move raised further criticism, and concern, that Essebsi was merging the ruling party and the state, as was the case under Ben Ali.

As a result of the internal tension, some 32 members of Marzouk’s faction announced their resignation from the party on November 8. They have since delayed their departure, but have not officially backtracked on their threat, leaving Nidaa Tounes in a very precarious situation.

For its part, the Islamist party Ennahda, which ruled the country between 2012 and 2013, has stated that it has no intention of seizing or monopolizing power, and expressed interest in preserving the current government coalition. Even so, the divisions within Nidaa Tounes could destroy the party and effectively leave Ennahda in charge. That would be detrimental because many critics of the Islamist party asserted that it was not aggressive enough in cracking down on Islamist terror during its year in power. More vocal critics even argued that the party tacitly supported jihadi groups and could not be expected to repress them. Although Ennahda has expressed its commitment to Tunisian democracy, and has played a positive role in promoting a democratic political order, it is unclear if it would be able to effectively spearhead an urgently needed campaign against ISIS and other radical groups.

Compounding the political uncertainties are the dysfunctions within Tunisia’s security agencies—the national security, police force, and national guard—which have undergone a slow evolution since the fall of Ben Ali but are far from being fully reformed. Postrevolutionary agencies see the security apparatus as reactionary and potentially destabilizing. The security apparatus, in turn, has argued that democratic processes tend to disrupt counterterrorism efforts. Consequently, such divisions have stymied the formulation of a comprehensive counterterrorism effort.

All the while, the military is getting more powerful. After the government moved swiftly to restore stability and avert additional attacks, its tactics—such as declaring a state of emergency—transferred more power to security forces. The president’s office announced that Tunisia’s border with Libya would be closed for 15 days, in an effort to limit presumed terrorist related traffic. It also promised to recruit some 6,000 additional security personnel in order to strengthen the country’s security forces. The overnight curfew imposed on Tunis as part of the state of emergency remains intact.

Hafhed Caid Essebsi, the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, attends a meeting with Nidaa Tounes party leaders in Tunis, Tunisia, November 3, 2015.
Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

These measures, at face value, reflect the government’s intention to combat terrorism. But they also raise concerns of resurrecting some of the negative features of the Ben Ali regime, such as excessive crackdowns on many forms of political dissent, subtle harassment of political activists, and an aggressive police and security presence throughout the country, which effectively muzzled Tunisian politics.

Another concern is a threat to civil liberties and freedom of expression, which could be restricted under sweeping emergency government measures against Islamist activity. The Ben Ali regime frequently claimed that it was neutralizing a radical Islamic threat when in reality it was directly targeting any expression of political debate or opposition group. Such concerns have been building for some time as the government bolstered security forces and provided them with broader responsibilities following previous terrorist attacks, such as closing down unlicensed media outlets and shutting down illegal mosques. If Tunisia’s security forces gain more influence and power, as they had under Ben Ali, the country’s emerging democratic institutions could suffer.

The United States and Tunisia's European allies have supported and will undoubtedly continue to support Tunisia in its postrevolutionary transition and in its new struggle against ISIS. Beyond U.S. economic assistance, however, Tunisia is in urgent need of more help in training its security forces and devising a broad strategy against terrorism. Indeed, any international effort to fight ISIS would have to devote attention and resources to Tunisia. Concomitantly, Tunisia’s Western friends will also need to urge Tunisia to reform its security services. Most important, they will need to ensure that the emerging struggle against ISIS does not come at the expense of human rights and the rule of law. This will be a difficult balancing act to maintain, but it is urgently needed.

Among war-torn Libya, Syria, and Yemen, as well as Egypt’s resurgent authoritarianism, Tunisia remains a bright spot in an otherwise bleak landscape among former Arab Spring countries. But, at the moment, it looks dangerously close to losing that distinction.

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  • DANIEL ZISENWINE is a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he teaches contemporary North African history and politics.
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