The massacres last week in Paris rattled Tunisia and not just because three of the victims were either born in, or had connections, to the former French colony. The killings reminded Tunisians that their own problem with the jihadists could get worse and jeopardize their so-far remarkable – if precarious – transition to a democratic and tolerant society.
Tunisia is the one little corner of North Africa and the Middle East that survived the Arab Spring largely intact. Libya and Syria are in flames and Egypt is back under authoritarian rule. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in December, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor who was the victim of endless harassment from municipal government officials, set himself on fire, triggering an uprising and soon a revolution. A month later, president and dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali packed his plane with treasure and fled the country.
Since then, Tunisia has fought a ballot-box war that pitted the Islamists against secular politicians and society. The moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, won the first post-revolution election, in 2011. The second election, in November, gave the secular party Nidaa Tounes a plurality in parliament. A month later, the party's octogenarian founder, Beji Caid Essebsi, won the presidential election.
But Tunisia's dream of freedom is not entirely assured and came close to collapse in 2013, when an uprising against Ennahda turned ugly and threatened to roll back any democratic gains won in the previous two years.
The trouble arose when militant Islamist groups, notably Ansar al-Sharia, flourished in the chaotic year after Mr. Ben Ali's ouster. Hundreds of extremists were released from prison and Answar al-Sharia gained control of dozens of important mosques, which were used as recruitment centres and to encourage the adoption of strict Islamic behaviour. Secular society blamed Ennahda for, in effect, encouraging the rise of the extremists by not cracking down on them. Ansar al-Sharia wasn't banned until late 2013, after its gunmen were blamed for the assassinations of two leftist, secular politicians. The assassinations provoked mass demonstrations against Ennahda, some of which turned violent. At that point, the Tunisian revolution seemed to be going in reverse.
Answar al-Sharia does not seem as powerful as it was in 2013, but there is no doubt it and other extremist groups opened a channel through Libya and Turkey into Syria. The Tunisian government estimates that about 3,000 young Tunisian men joined jihadist groups in Syria, including Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), making Tunisia the civil war's single biggest source of foreign fighters. Many Tunisians will tell you that they hope the fighters will die in a blaze of glory on Syrian soil. But a few hundred of them, battle-hardened, have returned, seeping back into Tunisia from the desert along the Libyan and Algerian frontiers.
Mustapha Kamel Nabli, the former governor of the Bank of Tunisia who was, briefly, a presidential candidate before throwing his support to Mr. Essebsi, told me that Tunisia's security forces are in better shape than they were a year ago, and that the borders are somewhat less porous, but that keeping track of all the returning Tunisian fighters is difficult. "They are dangerous," he said. "The worry is that attacks like the ones in Paris will happen here."
Mr. Nabli, who worked at an economist at the World Bank before returning to Tunisia in 2011 to take the central bank job, says the recruiters had no problem finding fighters to ship off to Syria in the wild days just after the revolution. "The security apparatus was down, the secret police were not active and the recruiters had a free hand. They were trained in Libya. And the coalition government was supportive of revolution in Syria and exerted little control on young Tunisians joining these groups."
The troubled state of the Tunisian economy has made recruitment easier. Interviewed by various media outlets, a lot of jobless young men in the poor areas of Tunisia have expressed admiration for the Tunisian fighters in Syria. The Tunisian economy went into a tailspin after the revolution. It is no longer in recession but growth is so weak that jobs are not being created in any meaningful numbers. The jobless rate is about 15 per cent; youth unemployment is probably double that figure.
The threat from the returning Tunisian fighters puts the country in an exceedingly difficult situation. With memories of the 2013 assassinations still fresh, foreign investors from Europe and elsewhere will be wary of placing their bets on the Tunisian economy as long as they fear that terrorism could erupt anytime, anywhere. At the same time, Tunisia is reliant on foreign investment to revive its economic fortunes. There is simply not enough capital in the small country – its population is 10 million – to create factories and technology centres of any size.
The Paris attacks may help focus the minds of the new Tunisian government. Mr. Nabli thinks security measure will become more effective and that the economy could stabilize and produce jobs for disaffected young Tunisians. "I'm optimistic," he says.
Still, the Paris attacks have reminded Tunisians that they are vulnerable. More Tunisians will fight in Syria. More will come back. Tunisian freedom is still a work in progress.