Christian Caryl

Want to Beat the Islamic State? Help Tunisia.

One of the best ways to undermine the jihadists is by helping Tunisia prove that democracy offers a better way of life.

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Within the past three weeks, the Islamic State has bombed a Russian airliner out of the sky, killing all 224 people on board; staged suicide bombings in Beirut that killed 43; and launched a series of attacks in Paris that left 129 dead. If anyone had any doubts on the matter before, it should now be clear: military force must be part of the West’s response to the Islamic State.

Yet trying to bomb it into submission runs the risk of creating more terrorists than we kill. The Islamic State’s own ideologues are aiming to goad their enemies into an overreaction that will create new recruits for the nascent caliphate and erode the freedoms that we in the West take for granted. And besides, military force isn’t enough. The West won’t be able to destroy the Islamic State without a political strategy that addresses the problems that fueled its rise in the first place.

The group has thrived because it’s given an ideological home to the restive Sunnis of Syria and Iraq. In Iraq, it gives security and succor to Sunni Islamists and ex-Baathists who were harshly persecuted by the Shiite governments installed in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion in 2003. In Syria, it enjoys a reputation as the toughest enemy of President Bashar al-Assad. It will be hard to defeat Islamic State without undercutting its appeal among these disaffected populations.

The Islamic State’s fundamentalist vision also appeals to jihadists and their sympathizers around the wider Middle East and North Africa. They’re entranced by the perceived promise of a revived caliphate that enforces a strict version of Islamic law and stands up to the West.

Military victories over the Islamic State’s fighters will certainly help to undermine their image of invincibility. But if we really want to defeat IS for good we also need to beat it in the realm of ideas. And that includes presenting a serious ideological alternative.

Luckily there is such an alternative. It’s called Tunisia.

Despite long odds, Tunisia (pop. 11 million) has emerged as the Arab Spring’s lone success story. Tunisians have stuck to their hard-won democratic institutions despite considerable political and economic turmoil. The Islamist Ennahdha Party has played a crucial part in this success by demonstrating its willingness to share power with its ideological opponents and allowing genuine political competition. The Nobel Committee’s decision to bestow its latest Peace Prize on four groups with prominent roles in the country’s democratic transition has lent international recognition to the Tunisians’ achievement.

If Tunisia can maintain and expand its democratic institutions, it will send a vital message to the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. It will show that Arabs and democracy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It will show religious Muslims that they have nothing to fear from the separation of religion and state. And it will show liberals that they don’t have to tolerate corrupt dictators as their only protection against religious dictatorships. A prosperous and vibrant Tunisian democracy is our best counter-argument to jihadist dictatorship.

Right now, unfortunately, Tunisia’s democratic experiment is struggling, plagued by political infighting, economic turmoil, and weakening security. So it’s time for the international community to coordinate its efforts and do everything it can to ensure that Tunisia gets the help it needs.

In case you think I’m making all of this up, consider the fact that it was precisely Tunisia that Islamic State-affiliated jihadists chose to target in some of its earliest terror attacks outside the bounds of the so-called “caliphate” in IS-occupied territory in Syria and Iraq. In March 2015, jihadists opened fire at a museum in downtown Tunis, killing 21. Three months later, a gunman managed to kill another 38 people at a seaside resort in Sousse. The fact that both of these acts of violence targeted foreign tourists was no accident. The terrorists know that the easiest way to bring Tunisia to its knees is crippling its lucrative tourism industry. And in that, at least, they seem to be succeeding. Though reliable numbers aren’t available so soon after the attacks, many Tunisian resorts are already shutting down for lack of visitors.

Nor is that the only problem Tunisia faces. The non-tourism economy is sagging, too. Corruption – one of the main triggers for the 2010 uprising against dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – continues unabated. Despite several elections and a lively civil society, the government has done little to change its own institutions. In particular, the core of the old police state, the Interior Ministry, still wields enormous power with little public scrutiny. Yet the fight against the jihadists doesn’t seem to be getting much traction. Tunisia, notoriously, is one of the biggest sources of the Islamic State’s foreign recruits – a reflection of just how much remains to be done.

The United States and the European Union (through its European Neighborhood Policy) have already done a lot to help Tunisia. But now, in the wake of the Paris attacks, Tunisia’s friends need to up their game. It’s time to declare assistance for Tunisia a major foreign policy priority. The international community needs to work with Tunis to implement major economic reforms – especially aimed at addressing youth unemployment and shocking regional disparities in wealth and development, both major recruiting points for the jihadists – while providing the financial support needed to cushion the possible effects of change. Anti-corruption programs and other governance reforms need to move to the forefront. Efforts to achieve a free trade agreement between the EU and Tunisia should be accelerated.

On the security front, western governments should take special care to push Tunis to reform its outmoded security apparatus, whose heavy-handedness and lack of accountability threatens to create insurgents fasters than it can stop them. Security assistance should emphasize boosting Tunisia’s border forces, which clearly aren’t up to the task of securing the country’s long and porous borders with Libya and Algeria. Given the long-standing corruption of Tunisia’s security bureaucracy, pouring in more money and guns probably isn’t the answer. Instead, the international community should help the government to figure out effective strategies and the best ways of implementing them.

Imagine the impact that a successful Tunisian transition could have on its surrounding region. Imagine a North African democracy in which the big decisions are taken by elected representatives – their deliberations oxygenated by a free press and a vibrant civic culture. Imagine an Arab democracy where the police and security forces answer to the law. Imagine a Muslim democracy that creates wealth, and spreads it equitably, by empowering the entrepreneurial instincts of ordinary people, ensuring the rule of law, and providing for genuine competition. A prosperous, democratic Tunisia would drive home the message that having oil under the ground isn’t the only way for Arabs to get rich.

All of this is achievable. Tunisia has already done much of the work. But it needs our help. Given Tunisia’s size, the resources involved aren’t huge – and the potential benefits are incalculable. Let’s draw up a Marshall Plan for Tunisia, enlisting the assistance of every country that wants to help. What a great opportunity for the Obama Administration to show that the United States can lead from the front.

In the photo, Tunisian women carry placards during a silent march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis on November 16, 2015 in honor of the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and the Tunisian town of Jelma.

Photo credit: Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl