The recent attacks in Tunisia illustrate why the international community needs make sure that economic development remains a priority.

The international community has its hands full in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region where the battle against the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), is still raging on. Many of the countries in this region are still undergoing processes of democratic transition after the start of the Arab uprisings in the Spring of 2011. Tunisia, in particular, has been designated as “ground zero” after the ousting of the country’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January of 2011.[1] The country has emerged as the beacon of hope for the other transitioning countries in the Arab world after they successfully completed parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2014. However, does the recent ISIS terrorist attack in Tunisia that occurred on March 18, 2015, or the terrorist attack that followed on June 26 signal a potential retrograde in Tunisia’s consolidation process?

Spending a month in Tunisia after the terrorist attack at the Bardo museum has given me the impression that Tunisians do not believe that this attack is a signal of a transition that is on the brink of destabilization. However, I do believe that it represents the cyclical nature of democratization that persists without economic development. Democratic transition without economic development has led to discontent among the populations that were a part of the revolutionary process (largely unemployed youth). This continued discontent has led to increased levels of radicalization, and subsequently, this radicalization can be said to have led to the Bardo Museum attack and the Hotel Marhaba attack, which has only further upset Tunisia’s economy, especially the tourism industry.

Despite the relative success of the Tunisian democratic model, the Bardo and Hotel Marhaba attacks show that Tunisia is not immune to the transnational terrorism that plagues the MENA region. The aftermath of these attacks have sent waves of shock across the country. After spending the month of May (two months after the Bardo attack) touring the entire country from the northern town of Bizerte to the southern town of Tataouine, the belief of many Tunisians is that the attack was not a sign of Tunisia’s growing instability but was instead an isolated event.

After conducting interviews with statesmen and lead officials of civil society organizations about Tunisia’s direction of foreign policy during the summer of 2014, the constant phrase that was reiterated was that “We Tunisians are not Libya, Egypt, or Algeria,” thus signaling that their country was not prone to the type of security issues and social instability that had manifested in Tunisia’s regional neighbors. However, this mentality might be changing after the event of the second recent terrorist attack that also targeted tourists.

The domestic situation in Tunisia during the month of May remained relatively stable and business moved on as usual even close to the heart of the country near the suburb of Le Bardo, where the terrorist attack took place and in Tunis where numerous protests and demonstrations took place during the revolution. A lesson that the international community could extract from the aftermath of the Tunisian Bardo incident would be the importance of the continued legitimacy that the Tunisian people uphold in their newly established democratic institutions. This could be seen as one of the reasons behind why the Bardo attacks did little to shutter the grounds of domestic stability in Tunisia. Legitimacy strengthens the roots of stability, and thus it is important for international actors to promote and support the legitimacy of the political institutions instated during a transition process.[2] This continuity, in support of an enduring mentality that believes in the established democratic principles being instated in Arab countries could be used as an explanatory factor for why after two months after the Bardo attacks Tunisians remained in solidarity.

However, business as usual and continued stability cannot be used to characterize every aspect of Tunisian society after the attacks, especially in regards to their economy. The revolution that started in 2010 was largely driven by frustrations stemming from growing socioeconomic inequality. After the revolutions, food prices went up and many Tunisians believe that the economic situation in Tunisia has actually worsened. Growing socioeconomic discontent has been correlated with the growing number of ISIS fighters that have come from Tunisia. In 2014, The Washington Post reported that Tunisia has currently contributed to the largest number of ISIS fighters than any other country capping out at about 3,000 persons.[3] Therefore, the international community can also draw another lesson from the Tunisian case about the importance of economic development in regards to combating terrorism.

The international community, particularly the U.S., which has historically supported Tunisia in its counterterrorism efforts dating back prior to the revolution, needs to not simply “shrug off” the Bardo attack as an isolated incident as it was commonly conceived. The Bardo attack might be an anomaly in that terrorists were able to infiltrate into the country and successfully kill tourists, but the aftershocks that are affecting the economy should be considered a serious issue. The country might have a relatively strong hold on their internal security dimension, but the long-term effects that declining economic conditions can foster that are causally related to an increase in terrorist activity need to be considered. Clearly, the more recent attacks give salience to this argument because the event reinforced the premise that despite the relatively peaceful domestic situation, transnational terrorism is still finding ways to infiltrate the country.

Tunisia benefits from having a highly diversified economy, but a large part of that economy, about 17 percent is comprised of the tourism sector. Tourism is not only viewed as a prosperous sector of their economy, but it has been viewed as an important institution. Attending tourism school is often a viable option for Tunisians who seek to increase their education and receiving this education has been considered as a way to open Tunisians’ minds and hearts to other cultures. Therefore, tourism as an institution fosters a culture of global understanding and openness. This is another reason why the tourism sector could be viewed a salient factor in the matrix to combating transnational terrorism.

During the summer of 2014, many tourists could be seen traveling through the medinas in Hammamet, Kairouan, and Tunis. European tourists were flocking to the beautiful Mediterranean beaches and many more could be seen traveling down Avenue Habib Bourguiba taking photos of the large cathedral and grabbing lunch at various street side cafes. In the summer of 2015, I was back visiting Tunisia on a countrywide tour where I stayed at various hotels from hotel Marhaba (where the June attack took place) to Tatouine and visited various tourist localities. Tourism in Tunisia had declined by 90 percent and the effects can be felt all throughout the country. The hotels in the north, central, and southern parts of the country were eerily empty and many Tunisians were fearful of the lasting impressions that the Bardo attacks have had on international perceptions about the security of the country. A hotel director on the Island of Djerba, which is a common tourist oasis, shared his concerns about how the hotel has not seen many tourists in the recent months and he hopes that prospective vacationers will overcome their disillusioned fears about their safety in Tunisia.

A coffee shop vendor at a tourist site in the southern town of Tataouine stated that tourism is down a lot after the Bardo attack especially in comparison to the North. He also stated that tourism is stronger in the North than in the South, but especially after the attack, tourism in the south has gone down because of fear. This fear has also affected local southern Tunisians who rely on tourists for their individual household income. A young man in the town of Toujane discussed how there was a lot of tourism in Toujane before the Bardo attacks. He and his mother were able to sell their handmade Berber style rugs to bus loads of tourists who would visit their carpet shop during their rest stops. However, after the attack, he explained that tourists do not visit Toujane anymore and that he knows that tourism is down everywhere but especially in the South.

It is clear that the “isolated terrorist attack” in March has had a deep-rooted affect on Tunisia’s economy and “only time will tell” how long these aftershocks will persist. These aftershocks are going to be strengthened by the recent attack, and the longer this “security fear” grips prospective tourists, the more likely Tunisia is headed down a path of economic stagnation. This might only add fuel to the fire for Tunisia’s security issues and for the international community’s transnational terrorism concerns. In order to combat terrorism and ensure domestic and regional stability in transitioning Arab countries, the international community needs to make sure that economic development is not given secondary status to security concerns, while at the same time, promoting the legitimacy of the evolving democratic institutions in these countries.


[1] Peter J. Schraeder and Hamadi Redissi, “Ben Ali’s Fall,” Journal of Democracy 22, no. 3 (2011): 5–19.

[2] Jack Goldstone, “Understanding the Revolutions of 2011: Weakness and Resilience in Middle Eastern Autocracies,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (June 2011): 8–10, 11–16.

[3] Kevin Sullivan, “Tunisia, after Igniting Arab Spring, Send the Most Fighters to Islamic State in Syria,” The Washington Post, October 28, 2014,