“Who lost Tunisia?” This question may well haunt future European leaders. As Hervé Morin, a former French defense minister, recently warned, Europe — and France in particular — cannot afford to wait until the black flag of the Islamic State is hoisted above the presidential palace in Tunis.
Sadly, this bleak scenario can no longer be dismissed as an alarmist exaggeration. Only weeks after the Bardo National Museum massacre in March, a jihadist struck again in June, this time at Sousse, a popular beach resort, killing dozens of European vacationers. The attack’s clear objective was to destroy Tunisia’s tourism industry, destabilizing the economy and undermining the new democratic state.
The carnage at Sousse exposed the Tunisian authorities’ inability to tackle on their own the country’s growing security challenges. Tunisia’s successful transition to democracy, the legitimacy of its government and the bravery of its armed forces are not enough to save it. Nor should anyone in Europe and the West comfort themselves with the idea that the jihadist movement will eventually self-destruct.
From their new theater of operations in Tunisia, the terrorists aim at extending their caliphate to Europe and beyond — a stated ambition of the Islamic State. In a video released in February of the brutal execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, an Islamic State leader gazes out across the Mediterranean horizon and, in flowery classical Arabic, compares the coming battles in Europe to early Islam’s struggle against Rome.
The instability in Libya that followed the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi has turned that country, Tunisia’s immediate neighbor to the east, into a vast training camp and huge arms bazaar for Islamist terrorists of all stripes. The Islamic State, as the most barbaric, determined and messianic of them all, has been gaining ground there.
Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is fully aware of the mortal dangers his country confronts in the aftermath of the Sousse attack. Declaring a state of emergency last month, he warned that another large-scale terrorist attack could cause the state to collapse.
Tunisia’s vulnerability has its roots in the postcolonial era. Habib Bourguiba, the first president after independence in 1956, was eager to modernize his nation, but he was wary of the military coups that plagued other countries in the region at the time. So he spent a great part of the national budget on education and starved the army of resources. His successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, continued on the same path, but as his administration turned dictatorial, he developed a strong police force.
As a result, after the 2011 revolution that deposed Mr. Ben Ali, Tunisia inherited a discredited police force and a small army, which, though professional, was poorly funded and ill equipped. The police force was largely disbanded by the new authorities and has yet to be effectively reconstituted.
Tunisia also faces a threat from within. After decades of repression, the country’s youth face high unemployment and poor prospects; some are susceptible to radicalization by the jihadists’ sophisticated social media recruitment campaigns and by the proselytization of Salafist preachers from the Persian Gulf region. As many as 3,000 Tunisians have traveled to fight in the Syrian civil war, and hundreds more have become combatants in Libya. Some of these fighters return to Tunisia to spread havoc, as was the case in the Bardo Museum and Sousse attacks.
Despite this precarious situation, a recent survey suggested that more than three-quarters of Tunisians approve of the coalition government’s response to the crisis. And there is a consensus of support for new emergency measures, such as the crackdown on mosques linked to radical Salafist imams; restrictions on the travel of young Tunisians to parts of the Middle East; and the adoption by Parliament of a new antiterrorism law, which was passed by an overwhelming majority. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the main Islamist party, Ennahda, has been vocal in his support for the administration’s response.
Tunisia, though, has been caught ill prepared to fight the threat of fanaticism. After meeting Mr. Essebsi in Washington in May, President Obama demonstrated a clear commitment when he conferred on Tunisia the status of “major ally.” The United States already supplies military aid, but Mr. Essebsi emphasized that more economic assistance was needed. “Our friends need to help us,” he said, “but we want stronger cooperation.”
The Council of Europe recently reaffirmed its support for Tunisia’s young democracy, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain promised a “full spectrum” of antiterrorist assistance in the wake of the Sousse massacre. For obvious geographical and historical reasons, Europe is more closely linked to Tunisia than the United States will ever be. European leaders should follow the American lead.
To prevent the Islamic State from making Tunisia a beachhead for attacks on Europe, Mr. Cameron, along with President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, should make a joint visit to Tunis. To provide Tunisia’s army and reorganized police force with greater support in the fight for control of their country, the European powers should offer Tunisia a security commitment that includes free access to arms, military training and intelligence-sharing.
Since the United States has already named Tunisia a “major ally,” why not also invite Tunisia to become an “aspirant country” for eventual membership in NATO on the basis of shared democratic values and common security interests? These values and interests are, after all, directly opposed to those of the Islamic State and its ideological kin.
Europe has a strong interest in a secure, democratic Tunisia and must come to its aid. Only if it does so can we ensure that the question “Who lost Tunisia?” is one we will never have to answer.
Mustapha Tlili, a novelist and founder and director emeritus of the Center for Dialogues at New York University, is a distinguished fellow at the EastWest Institute.