The March 18 museum attack that left at least 20 dead in the tourist district of Tunisia's capital reveals the schism within the society that launched the Arab Spring, says Associate Professor of History George R. Trumbull IV.
"What we are seeing is a bifurcation of Tunisia. There are Tunisians who are participating with great faith in the largely free elections, and a group of Tunisians who, for religious reasons but particularly for social and economic reasons, no longer feel that the Tunisian state has anything to offer them," says Trumbull, who has written extensively on politics and religion in North Africa.
Tunisia is widely regarded as the most stable of the post-Arab Spring nations. Its recent election was seen as fair and open, and the parliamentary government allows for opposition parties and open debate, Trumbull says.
At the same time, the winners at the polls were most closely associated with the prior regime and the fragile democratic institutions have not even begun to confront the structural problems of poverty, corruption, and oppressive police forces that are holdovers from the country's autocratic past, he says.
"Radicalization is happening in Tunisia among people who are being marginalized. Some of those people have been disenfranchised by the lack of real reforms that have happened economically since the Tunisian revolution.”
Two gunmen were killed in a firefight with security forces at the National Bardo Museum Wednesday afternoon, and three others escaped, according to press accounts. The Tunisian government announced March 19 that nine people had been arrested in connection with the attack. Officials described the suspects as Islamists who are not thought to be linked to Islamic State (ISIS) militants, according to press accounts.
Trumbull, who is monitoring the Arabic press, says that ISIS has been posting older videos warning Tunisians of dire outcomes "as long as Tunisia is not ruled by Islam."
"One commenter on Twitter has said ISIS is simply rerunning all their greatest hits," Trumbull says. "Warnings like this occur with great frequency. These are certainly people who share a common worldview with some people in ISIS, but to say it is connected to them at this point is much too soon."
However, says Trumbull, Tunisia's relatively open society, coupled with its systemic economic problems, has made it a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS. In fact, Tunisia has become the second-largest supplier of fighters to ISIS, second only to Syria, Trumbull says.
Trumbull plans to return this summer to Algeria, which borders Tunisia, to continue his research on the sociological history of water in the Sahara. Trumbull's former student Mike Marcusa '11 is preparing to travel to Tunis shortly to study the ideological socialization of militant Islamists in Tunisia, Trumbull says. Marcusa is working on a PhD in political science at Brown University.
Trumbull continues to monitor the situation in Tunis and is tweeting on the topic at @GeorgeTrumbull.