Tunis, Tunisia–Two years ago, Seifeddine Rezgui pulled a Kalashnikov rifle hidden in a beach umbrella and began shooting. Approximately a half hour later, 38 individuals lost their lives, 30 of whom hailed from the UK. The attack, which only came three months after a multi-assailant terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, sent shockwaves through Tunisia’s tourism and security sectors, as it showed the utter lack of security at tourist sites in Tunisia. Later inquiries into the episode pointed to a failure by security forces to respond promptly, in addition to an unwillingness—supposedly out of fear—to confront Rezgui, which could have saved many lives. Additionally, tourism financial reports showed that the industry, which makes up around 15% of Tunisia’s formal economy, plummeted. However, most importantly, the attack prompted calls for collective soul searching and investigative work into how a 23-year old engineering student could go on such a merciless rampage.
I was living in Tunis at the time and feeling deep sadness at the senseless loss of life. A few hours after the attack, I decided that I would do my own research to see what I could find out about the perpetrator. After searching for several different Arabic and English iterations of his name, I finally came upon Rezgui’s profile. His Facebook page was filled with mixed themes, with posts ranging from ones supporting the Club African and Real Madrid football clubs, to others saying that celebrating New Year’s Eve is an act of disbelief. What I found most striking is the fact that he so openly touted his radical beliefs with a post which literally read “Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.”
This led me to the question: how does one end up at that point? Analysts studying radicalization and extremist organizations have come up with several different hypotheses, including the likeliest locations for radicalization, i.e. the mosque, social media, social networks, prison, to name a few. At Maghreb Economic Forum, we recognize these different venues for radicalization, but instead are focusing on exclusion as an almost universal factor leading to radicalization. We define exclusion as the process of being prohibited from doing or being a part of something. Exclusion can fall into several different categories, including, but not limited to religious, economic, social, and geographic.
In the case of Seifeddine Rezgui, he had been studying engineering in Kairouan before he got caught up in extremism. A friend of his from university told me on condition of anonymity that Seif, which is what his classmates called him, was a normal guy, who expressed zero signs of radicalization. He prayed and abstained from alcohol, but also had no problem hanging out with people who drank beer and even spent time playing cards with them. In other words, he seemed no different from any practicing Muslim.
Yet, there was another side to his life. Even with the potential for an advanced degree, job prospects were not guaranteed for him. The same is even more true for newly-graduated young people with undergraduate degrees. The Tunisian economy is producing way fewer jobs than necessary to keep up with the growing young work force. For Rezgui, this may have led to feelings of social and economic exclusion, which contributed to his radicalization.
At Maghreb Economic Forum, we are in the initial stages of a multi-year project focusing on the reasons for radicalization in Tunisia. We intend to identify these factors and see how they often combine to lead to radicalization. We hypothesize that it takes not one or two, but multiple exclusionary factors coming together for someone to become radicalized. We then plan to search for the methods to counter these root causes and deradicalize already radicalized individuals. Most Tunisians will agree that addressing radicalization in the pre-radicalization stage is beneficial for all of society. The latter point—deradicalization and going further, reintegration—is more controversial and has already received push back from some civil society activists. However, the reasons for choosing jihad in Syria, Iraq, and Libya are various and completely banning someone from returning to his or her country is counterproductive and potentially dangerous. Young Tunisians can and should be reintegrated, whether that be through the prison system or back into society under the watchful eye of authorities. Rehabilitation should be the primary concern.
Still, as a first step, the current government needs to focus on inclusion of youth as significant members of society. This means focusing on innovative methods for creating new jobs, providing stipends for start ups, and funding vocational and soft skills training. Additionally, since complete liberalization of religiosity in Tunisia has led some young men and women to extremes, the state should continue to assert itself in a regulatory role to make sure that hate preaching is forbidden. Lastly, a real effort needs to be made to establish more equality among the different regions of Tunisia.
According to a recent survey by International Republican Institute, 81% of Tunisians oppose their fellow countrymen joining conflicts as foreign fighters. Although this represents most of the population, this leaves a considerable number of people who sympathize or feel ambivalent about Tunisians joining extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. With feelings of exclusion growing, this number might fall, leading more to sympathize with extremist organizations.
In post-revolution Tunisia, freedom has been achieved, but dignity of all members of society still needs to be addressed to prevent exclusion. Only then will Tunisia be able to move forward as one free, equal population.
Originally published on MEF Website