Joel Brinkley: Middle East turmoil finally catches up with Tunisia

While nearly every one of the nations caught up in the Arab Spring since 2011 still suffered and seethed, for a long time Tunisia, the birthplace of the revolts, stood head and shoulders above the rest with a moderate leader and a relatively peaceful, prosperous state.

Middle East experts lauded Tunisia as an example for its neighbors. A Foreign Affairs magazine article early this fall carried the headline: "Tunisia's Lessons for the Middle East." Another magazine article last summer called Tunisia the "Last Hope: The one place the Arab Spring hasn't gone to hell."

Well, today Tunisia looks like it's on the way -- just like every Arab state that stood up to its dictator in the last few years. And that's a terrible shame. A so-called interim government installed after the uprising that began in late 2010 has refused to give up power after two and a half years -- even though its mandate was to write a new constitution and hold elections within a year. It has done neither, and Tunisians are angry.

Now, suicide bombings, a rare sight before, are becoming commonplace. And the nation seems to have split into three competing constituencies: the moderate Islamic government and its few allies, the largely secular population led by a huge and powerful trade union -- and now a smaller but active Islamic jihadist sect that's striking out.

Last week a suicide bomber blew himself up on the beach in Sousse, a popular tourist resort. That was the nation's first terror attack in a tourist area in more than a decade, but no one was killed but the bomber. A short time later, police foiled another suicide attack in nearby Monastir. And in the previous months Islamists killed two popular secular politicians. Those assassinations set off the anti-government violence -- as well as large, angry demonstrations involving thousands of people on the streets of Tunis.

Tunisia is in many ways different from the other Arab Spring states. It was a French colony for more than 50 years, and it has maintained many attributes of European culture -- partly because its economy has depended on European tourists who visit Tunisia's beautiful Mediterranean beach resorts.

Bikini-clad European women drinking martinis were a common site -- even though that flies in the face of Islam's basic tenets. But now, with the sudden new political turmoil and violence, tourism has taken a sharp drop. So has the nation's economy. The Fitch Ratings Service just downgraded Tunisia to BB, while the D&B Country Risk Indicator calls Tunisia's economy "deteriorating" and "high risk."

Earlier, this fall Tunisia's supposedly interim prime minister, under popular pressure, agreed to resign in late October -- but then backtracked at the last minute, setting off more massive street demonstrations.

On Monday, representatives of the states' various factions met to pick a new interim leader -- a way out of the state's snowballing dilemma. But the meeting ended in deadlock. So now Tunisia seems to be joining its Arab Spring brethren.

In Egypt, seemingly unending conflict has virtually killed the tourist industry. Almost no one is visiting Luxor or taking previously popular Nile River cruises. Syria's uprising turned into a civil war more violent and deadly than any conflict on the planet.

In Libya, another Arab Spring state, most of the country outside of Tripoli, the capital, is home to various Islamist militias that killed the American ambassador last year and managed to kidnap Prime Minister Ali Zeidan late last month, supposedly in protest of the American seizure of an al-Qaeda leader weeks earlier. The militants released him a short time later.

These Islamist militias also control most of the state's jails, and last month the United Nations reported that at least 27 of their prisoners have been tortured to death.

Of course, Iraq isn't exactly an Arab Spring state --- though the sectarian conflict that evolved from Syria's original Arab Spring protests is believed to have helped set off Iraq's endemic Sunni-Shiite violence. Now, Iraq's violence is so extreme that late last month the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. Lloyd Austin, warned that "if left unchecked, we could find ourselves in a regional sectarian struggle that could last a decade."

Compared to all of that, Tunisia has seemed an island of calm. It has little Sunni-Shiite conflict, for example. In fact, even the recent turmoil doesn't reach the level in other states. Still, a recent Zogby poll found that only 28 percent of Tunisians hold faith in the current government.

And with a government so stubborn, ineffectual and unpopular, the problems seem destined to grow only worse.

(Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.)

(c) 2013 By Joel Brinkley; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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