Tunisia's President Kaïs Saïed on 20 January named Elyes Fakhfakh, former finance minister and unsuccessful 2019 presidential candidate (0.34% of the vote), to form the future government. The choice was as surprising as it was unexpected, given the current political fragility.
“In Egypt and Tunisia, security forces have been totally overwhelmed by the return of jihadi fighters”
According to official figures, 5,000 individuals left the Maghreb to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.
That’s without counting the 2,000 Islamic State-affiliated fighters who left from Libya. Tunisia has the greatest percentage of foreign fighters per inhabitant, but thousands left from Morocco and Egypt, too.
So how to deal with them when they return? After the loss of the ‘caliphate’ in the region, the question is becoming more acute.
The April report from the Egmont Institute compared the strategies used by the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco when faced with the return of returning jihadi fighters.
While Morocco manages a more holistic response, the first two are overly focused on the security angle, says the research co-ordinator Thomas Renard, who spoke to our sister publication Jeune Afrique.
Q: The Maghreb has been particularly hit by this phenomenon of recruitment by jihadi groups. How is this explained?
A: In the Maghreb, and in these three countries in particular, several factors are combined. None have a direct link to the departure for IS, but they have created a fertile breeding ground.
First, we must consider that they have an Islamist and jihadist scene already present. The historical, political and economic context must also be taken into account. Although the three states experienced the 2011 uprisings in a very different way, in the post-spring Arab period the disappointment was shared, and came to combine with real dynamics playing out in Syria and Iraq.
Do you observe a connection between the Arab Spring and this question?
Not directly, but there was a window of opportunity that opened and then closed again. In several pieces collected for our report, elements such as “economic insecurity”, “feeling of injustice” and “lack of opportunity” came back repeatedly. The economic and social inequalities that are increasingly evident in a very young society create a form of vulnerability within the population. I repeat that there is no direct causal link between these factors and the fact of leaving for jihad, but they participate in creating this fertile ground.
It is a mixture of collective factors and elements of individual fragility, combined with a powerful recruitment network, as was the case for Syria and Iraq. It has been noted that this “radicalization” is a phenomenon that is both very complex and locally rooted. It takes place in certain specific localities: it has been observed in Morocco, where we have access to more precise data, but also in Tunisia and Egypt.
Morocco does seem to be the country best equipped to deal with the return of jihadists compared to Tunisia and Egypt, which adopt a security-driven approach. Why is that ?
Between the three countries, Morocco is indeed the best equipped to deal with this problem. It is the only country that goes a little beyond the purely security approach, introducing for example re-education programs in prison. In Egypt and Tunisia, the security services have been completely overwhelmed by the issue, and often jihadists who return to the country are not even identified.
Legal and administrative measures should be put in place to know who is leaving, who is coming back and what to do with them. But it has been found that neither Egypt nor Tunisia has brought their legislative system into line with international recommendations. And even when we manage to identify, arrest and court cases of these people, there is no individual monitoring. There is no prevention or reintegration program in society. In addition, these countries have already faced the return of fighters in the 1990s and 2000s, but no action has been taken.
Can we talk about foreign fighters?
The concept of foreign fighter is Western-centric and is not really right because it does not illustrate the complexity of the situation. In the Maghreb, there is an additional layer: areas of internal non-governance or close. This is the case, for example, in Egypt, where Islamists have settled in northern Sinai.
But the way to deal with the jihadist problem is relatively similar.
The political communication of these countries is often about the “fight against terrorism or Islamism”. As you read through your report, we realize that, finally, few effective measures are taken to deal with the problem….
These countries have a long history of terrorism, including jihadists, and have historically developed fairly strong security services. But in reality, Egypt and Tunisia can no longer manage a phenomenon that no longer concerns a few individuals, but a large group of people. This shows the limits of a purely security-driven approach.
This article was first published in Jeune Afrique