The Media and US Embassy in Tunis Fiasco: Force Fitting a Square into a Circle

Ever since the attacks against the US Embassy and American school in Tunis, the world’s attention has been refocused on Tunisia. I have been holding my breath – and biting my tongue – since the events took place. I have read plenty of analyses about the situation in the meantime. Some blame the attacks on the spread of hate filled ideologies. Others blame it on armchair theories that begin with neo– or end with –ism. Others point the finger at the Islamist ruling party, Ennahda, and some others blame it on the governments general failure in instituting a genuine sense of security.

However, there could not be a simpler explanation for what happened last week. While the country set off global alarm bells, it is Tunisia’s internal sociopolitical landscape that points to only one thing: the country is recovering – not from zero but from subzero. It is recovering, not from nothingness, but from the complete and utter chaos that comes with the territory of going through a revolution. And it is recovering against enormous odds.

There exist two angles from which to analyze the embassy protests in Tunisia. The first is an institutional angle: what have governmental institutions been doing to secure a better future for the country? The second angle is a developmental one: how do young teenagers get sucked into joining movements that breed hate and intolerance? Who are these teenagers and what can the neighborhoods they hail from tell us about them? Have terrorist networks (such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, aka AQIM) begun opening operative cells in the country? Will a movement gain ground?

The Ministry of the Interior, which is the premier and sole entity responsible for the country’s general security, has not been maintaining any sense of order. It has failed to perform its prescribed duties and adequately supply security forces with the materials needed for them to do their job. It has also failed to reform the ministry from within: it is no secret that the ministry is ridden with corrupt vestigial remains of the former regime.

Yesterday, September 19, the Minister of the Interior, Ali Laarayedh, spoke before the Constituent Assembly. Laarayedh claimed that there are “organized militias” who are behind the attacks. Laarayedh has presented this excuse several times in the past in explaining similarly chaotic incidents. Yet the Tunisian people has yet to receive any answers in regards to these allegations. Under whose orders are these militias supposedly working, and with whose funding? The ministry has not specified a timetable, has not presented any viable agenda, and has not engaged in any organized efforts to “cleanse” the ministry from within.

It is also the fault of the Ministry of Religious Affairs: who are these imams and what are they preaching in these mosques? Do they have the proper education and expertise in Islamic jurisprudence before they begin to give their sermons every Friday? Before they speak to a youth that is (justly so) thirsty for meaning?

Developmentally, we need to recall what breeds terrorism. History tells us that what typically leads to terrorist acts is socioeconomic desperation. Empirical data through examples from all over the world point to one thing: it is macroeconomic failures that translate into the starvation of a people. Tunisia’s fat unemployment rate and its contribution to the ever widening gap between the rich and poor cannot be ignored. Whereas Tunisia used to have a relatively large middle-class, today, that middle socio-economic bracket is narrowing. Desperation also stems from the lack of proper education. In Tunisia’s case, the Ministry of Education’s has proven unable to solve the nation’s archaic, deteriorating schooling system by executing reforms from within.

It’s that prototypical 19-year-old boy who wakes up in the morning with nothing to do. He has no job and his classes seem absolutely pointless to him in the hopes of attaining employment. It is the young adult who feels that he simply has no agency over his very own life. It is that young man who is deftly recruited by gangs and terrorist networks.

What happened in Tunisia last week is a developmental issue that makes perfect chronological sense: following the euphoria of ousting a dictator, Tunisian society is now feeling the birth pangs of democracy.

Certainly what is most striking about the past week, however, are all the analyses gracing the Internet – particularly those written by authors hailing from the United States and Canada, where there is little understanding of North African politics due to an unfortunate language barrier. Due to the region’s colonial history, most of the current research published on North Africa is in French.

Said authors seem to take any event in Tunisia (or Libya) as evidence of some sort of grandiose neocolonialist, neoimperialist American scheme. What is even more behooving is when an article attributes events such as last week’s to some sort of invisible hand that orchestrates everything from behind a shroud of mystery. Admittedly, some of analyses do raise several points to consider in assessing United States foreign policy in the region – its global military apparatus, executing decades of occupation and political meddling, should not go unaccounted for. Yet, it is irresponsible to overlook the very real and concrete domestic factors that lead to this violence. By doing so, such analyses desperately try to fit what took place in Tunisia and Libya into a persistently simplistic, reductionist narrative. Two main world views are equally culpable in perpetuating this endless cycle of misattribution, too – those that fundamentally reduce the dynamics of Maghrebi politics to playing a peripheral role on the greater East vs. West battlefield, and those that reduce any violence that takes place in the MENA region to “Muslim rage”.*

Contrastingly on Tunisian TV, prime time political shows discuss the happenings through a highly political, highly domestic lens. The discussions center around deadlines, such the Constitution’s completion and ratification and the next elections. Show participants – politicians and members of civil society – are very much attempting to articulate a viable national identity. There is a much larger emphasis on the role of religion in government and society, freedom of expression, and institution-building. This is because the country’s political landscape inherently encompasses issues that are much more complex and far-reaching than an attack on an embassy.

Unfortunately, by reading the international headlines, global readers would never know that Tunisia is undergoing a process of rebirth – which nobody said was easy.

*The phrase used on NEWSWEEK’s Monday 17 September 2012 front page.

 Article originally posted on Nawaat.

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