Tunisia was once the centre of the Carthaginian Empire and its great leader, Hannibal, made it as far into Europe and as close to Rome as any challenger would get until the barbarians successfully overran the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Tunisia in its modern incarnation might not pose quite the same scale of a challenge to Europe’s security and stability, but its importance has been much-overlooked in commentary and analysis.
In the wake of President Kais Saied’s decision, in late July, to cut through the Gordian knot of Tunisia’s dysfunction and reset the political system by dismissing the government dominated by the Ennahda Party, the local Muslim Brotherhood faction, it was feared the Islamists would stoke unrest.
Tunisia is less than 400 miles away from Europe, specifically Sicily, across the Mediterranean, and is a major migration route from Africa and the Middle East. A year ago, Italy experienced a surge of migration from North Africa, with roughly 40% coming from war-torn Libya and 40% from Tunisia. Of the arrivals from Tunisia, only a third were Tunisian citizens.
Flows of migrants create problems not only of the human traffickers, who exploit and abuse the people trying to make these journeys, but within the streams of the people making these moves, it provides cover for criminals and criminal activity like drug smuggling, and terrorists.
Tunisia was one of the largest contributor nations to the ranks of the Islamic State (ISIS) for a complex of reasons, and ISIS attacks in Tunisia were some of the most grisly at the height of the “caliphate”. Though ISIS activity in Tunisia has dwindled since the high-water mark in the 2014 to 2016 period, ISIS retains hideouts in the mountains and other areas where the state’s control is weak.
Moreover, the attacks do continue, showing that ISIS has networks and cells even in the cities in Tunisia. An outbreak of instability in the country created by a political breakdown, particularly if it led to a large exodus north across the Mediterranean Sea, would provide ISIS with dangerous opportunities to infiltrate Europe.
A problem of this kind from Tunisia would come at a time when the danger is redoubled by the collapse of Afghanistan, which has meant a refugee flow is already beginning through Iran and Turkey to Europe. Even without the terrorist threat, a new “migrant crisis”, such as was seen in 2015, would radicalize European opinion, damaging the pluralism of the Continent and giving opportunities to malign actors that make common cause with hardline nationalist forces.
The stakes for Europe in Tunisia, then, are high.
Despite the attempt by Ennahda and its allies to present President Saied’s actions as a “coup”, the reaction to the government’s dissolution from the European Union was sensibly restrained. Brussels understood the importance of Tunisian stability to Europe’s own security—and the leading role Ennahda has played in bringing the country to the brink of disaster since the 2011 revolution.
The E.U.’s caution was rewarded. The journalists and other civil society elements that supported Ennahda’s removal were able to come together, and, deprived of outside encouragement, the Islamists’ attempt to foster turmoil fizzled. Indeed, Ennahda was forced to accept political reality and has joined the mainstream of Tunisian society in seeing this as a chance for democratic renewal.
If the democratic reset works, it will grant Tunisians the freedom and prosperity they rose up for a decade ago. Since such an outcome is vital to Western security, too, it is to be hoped the EU is keeping a close watch on developments.