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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Terror attack spells further upheaval in Tunisian politics

Tunisia’s great potential is palpable but its fulfilment is dependent on cohesive leadership

Police and firemen gathering at the site of a suicide attack in the centre of Tunis. Fethi Belaid / AFP
Police and firemen gathering at the site of a suicide attack in the centre of Tunis. Fethi Belaid / AFP

Tunisia is often hailed as one of the few success stories to emerge from the chrysalis of the 2011 Arab uprisings. But with a frail economy, double-digit unemployment and poor working conditions, there is growing discontent among Tunisians. That disappointment, which spilled out onto the streets in protests earlier this year, has in turn caused ruptures to form within the ruling coalition, which brought together the moderate Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Tounes parties but failed to live up to its promise of offering opportunities to its population. Tunisia’s state of emergency, introduced in 2015 after a series of attacks, rolls on ahead of next year’s legislative and presidential elections. The political atmosphere in Tunis is febrile enough already but on Monday, an explosion threw it further into chaos.

It is still unclear precisely why a 30-year-old woman from the small town of Sidi Aoun detonated an explosive device near the interior ministry, killing herself and wounding 20, but Tunisia has been left reeling from its first attack from a female suicide bomber. According to reports, she was unemployed for three years and might have been influenced by ISIS which – although hobbled across the region – still retains its capacity to radicalise. In an already highly charged atmosphere, it has been the lit match thrown onto the bonfire of political enmity. “There is a rotten political climate,” declared 91-year-old president Beji Caid Essebsi, who earlier this month proclaimed the end of his alliance with Ennahda, further dividing a fragile coalition. “We are too fixated on positions and rivalries and forget the essential: the security of citizens.”

In May the president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who leads Nidaa Tounes, called for the dismissal of prime minister Youssef Chahed, with whom he shares the party. Mr Chahed, who has the support of Ennahda, has introduced gruelling austerity measures that have squeezed the middle class to appease international lenders. His opponents are clamouring to use Monday’s bombing to call for his departure, and the ousting of Ennahda from the ruling coalition. One thing is clear: with further turmoil in government, the needs of ordinary Tunisians will go unmet.

In spite of economic malaise and political fragility, Tunisia’s government has continued to bestow far-reaching political rights on its citizens. Tunisia’s vital tourist industry has shown signs of recovery, three years after two deadly terror attacks conspired to keep tourists away. Tunisia’s great potential is palpable but its fulfilment is dependent on cohesive leadership. And the worst effect of Monday’s attack might be the damage it will inflict, not on Avenue Habib Borguiba but on a fragile coalition, disintegrating more with each passing day.