As Islamic State loses ground in the Middle East, tens of thousands of its fighters are heading elsewhere or being sent back to their countries to plan terror attacks. The prospect has set off alarms, not only in the region but in Europe and the United States. It may help explain the fear behind President Trump’s travel ban on migrants from Iraq, Syria, and five other Muslim countries.
Yet perhaps no nation has debated its worry about an influx of jihadists more than Tunisia. That’s because the North African country of 11 million has been one of the largest sources of foreign fighters – up to 9,000 – for Islamic State (IS). In fact, Tunisia, which was the region’s only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring, is holding a relatively calm and inclusive debate about it – a response that should be a model for the US.
After experiencing terrorist attacks on its own soil, Tunisia has been forced to learn the art of political compromise. Ever since it overthrew a dictator in 2011, it has adopted a credible Constitution and held free and fair elections. Its civil society is so powerful that a few of its groups received a Nobel Peace Prize. And the leading Islamist party, Ennahda, recently announced it firmly separates religion from democracy.
Both the US and European Union have poured millions into Tunisia to ensure its stability and keep it as a model for other Arab states. “The more that a government like that in Tunisia – that tries to be responsive and tries to keep an ear on the street and tries to be inclusive and to compromise – the better off it will be,” said Samantha Power, the recent US ambassador to the United Nations.
Tunisians, however, are torn over whether to jail the returning jihadist fighters or try to rehabilitate them. The government claims it knows who most of the fighters are, information that allows for their families and communities to control them. Some 800 fighters have returned so far. Many have been prosecuted while others are being monitored.
As a protest in early January revealed, many Tunisians want the returnees to be denied entry into the country – something the government says it cannot do under the Constitution. The protesters fear the fighters might turn Tunisia into a lawless state like neighboring Libya.
The national dialogue is not finished but the crisis has helped to quicken the pace for economic reforms. High youth unemployment was a main driver of young Tunisians to join IS. After the revolution, expectations were high for prosperity. Despite the difficulties, polls show Tunisians prefer democracy – and a civil debate.
“Tunisians have striven to resolve their political differences peacefully through compromise, away from violence and exclusion,” writes Soumaya Ghannoushi in the online news site Middle East Eye.
Having won their freedom, Tunisians are careful about tearing apart their country over hot-button issues. It is yet another lesson from this tiny Arab nation, one worth hearing in the US and other countries as they face a threat from IS fighters.