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People shout slogans and wave flags during a protest against corruption in the judiciary system outside a court in Tunis

I was in Tunisia last week and met with a wide range of people, including business, government, and civil society leaders; educators, journalists, bloggers, university students, and Salafist youth; young people unemployed and looking for jobs, and graduates who have newly entered the workforce. Below are some reflections on what I heard:

Numerous Tunisians I spoke with sadly noted that they don’t recognize their country today. From the Salafist demonstrations that shut down Manouba University; to the attacks on artists and journalists for “harming public morals”; to the sacking of the U.S. Embassy and nearby American Cooperative School of Tunis a few weeks ago; to the recent case of the woman who after being raped by the police was accused of “indecency”–all of these and other incidents indicate a worrying rise of conservatism and rejection of modernity in what has always been thought of as the most progressive country in the region. As Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch put it, “After Ben Ali, a veil has been lifted exposing multiple realities in Tunisia, and the conservative trend is gaining ground.”

Just about everyone I spoke with agreed that the Tunisian government was complicit in the attack on the U.S. Embassy. Numerous eyewitness accounts noted how the mob seemed pretty well organized. The protestors started out in downtown Tunis and spent hours marching to the embassy on the outskirts of the city. Some carried ladders for scaling walls; others were demonstrating along the way with Molotov cocktails in their hands–while government helicopters circled overhead watching it all unfold. Scores of demonstrators even arrived at the embassy in vans and buses. The police outside the embassy mostly stood by as the mob became more violent, smashed windows, set fire to buildings, and crossed the street to sack the American school. Some said the government failed to stem the violence because it’s afraid of taking on the Salafists; others interpreted the government’s response as a pure populist play to “The Street.” One senior Al Nahda member redirected the blame to the Ministry of Interior, which he accused of being under the control of remnants of the “deep state” that wants to embarrass the fledgling Al Nahda-led government and split it from its U.S. partner.

“When I pressed these [15] young people on what they wanted to be doing five years from now, more than half expressed their desire to leave the country.” – Isobel Coleman, Council on Foreign Relations

Other than the Salafist youth, everyone else I spoke with agreed that the recent attacks were a disaster for the country–that the violence tarnished the image of the revolution, added to uncertainty and mistrust, scared away much-needed international investment and tourism, and further incited violent elements in society. The embassy attack was just the latest, but most serious, episode of government complacency against the violent extremism that is gaining ground in Tunisia today.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration against charges of indecency filed against a woman raped by two police officers, Tunis, October 2, 2012.

In a group discussion with fifteen young people–all from the interior of the country–who had recently completed a training program with the Education for Employment Foundation and landed much-coveted jobs at an international printing company, almost all of them expressed continued hope for their country. Only one said he regretted the fall of Ben Ali–even as his peers nodded disapprovingly. I wasn’t sure he was being serious, but rather was choosing his most strident way to convey disappointment with the revolution. When I pressed these young people on what they wanted to be doing five years from now, more than half expressed their desire to leave the country. Of all the things I heard in Tunisia, that is perhaps the most worrying for the country’s future.

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Isobel Coleman

Isobel Coleman is senior fellow and director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative as well as director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. On Twitter, she can be followed at Isobel_Coleman.

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