Tunisia is often and rightly lauded for the progress it has made since the popular uprising that toppled longtime strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. But social inequality and regional asymmetries are undermining Tunisia’s democratic transition and deepening the chasm between a restless and rebellious periphery and an eastern Mediterranean coast that fears and misunderstands the bitter resentment of border communities.
These unaddressed challenges are also making it harder to secure the country from internal upheaval and terrorism. Aggrieved youths increasingly express their anger in fiery protests and street violence. This radical projection of grievances risks feeding a dangerous spiral of violent extremism. Already, thousands of disgruntled young Tunisians from the hinterlands have joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Libya, making Tunisia one of the largest sources of recruits for the group.
The Islamic State’s deepening presence just across the Libyan border further compounds this growing terror threat, as was amply underlined by the March 2016 dramatic terror assault on security forces in the border town of Ben Guerdane. The brazen attempt by dozens of Islamic State-trained sleeper cells to seize the town and inflame a rebellious populace into open revolt illustrates the group’s destabilizing potential to tap into the pervasive discontent in Tunisia’s border regions.
The stakes are high and the threats are real. There are no anchors of regional stability Tunisia can cling to. Its neighbors are either coming undone or ruthlessly defending a creaky authoritarian status quo. The European Union has provided Tunisia with significant aid since 2011, but is engulfed in its own crises and cannot devote the necessary resources to helping Tunisia consolidate democracy and pursue economic reforms. The United States has extended more than $700 million in financial assistance and rounds of loan guarantees exceeding $1 billion since the start of the revolution. But this represents only a fraction of the support that Jordan and increasingly authoritarian Egypt get...