Key Points

The United States, a declining power, isn’t going to transform the Middle East. But it can still aid a cause that could restore some dignity, pride and purpose to the region. Authoritarianism, however revamped by billionaire princes and sheikhs, isn’t going to bring stability, security, religious reform or basic decency. Westerners need to be more honest and humble about their own bloody past — the long, tortuous road to democracy. Muslims need time — and fewer Western apologists for dictatorship.

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None of this suggests that Russia is engaged in geopolitical subterfuge—like Washington, it seeks to exert its diplomatic, economic, and security influence wherever it can. But amid the migrant crisis, the threat of international terrorism, and the lingering turbulence of the Arab Spring, North Africa is a region of the utmost consequence to Washington and its European allies. For the new U.S. administration, a comprehensive Russia policy will have to grapple with a Kremlin flexing its muscles not just in the United States and Europe but increasingly on the Mediterranean’s southern shore.

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After the state’s decision, jihadist attacks were confined for some time mainly to the western part of Tunisia, near the border with Algeria. But by October 2013, their desire to kill tourists in urban centers was made clear. And by 2015, two major attacks on tourist targets had shocked the country and the world.

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Tunisia will likely remain a key battlefield in the IS-AQ competition. The country’s major jihadist groups have leaders who are loyal to AQ but footsoldiers who skew pro-IS because Tunisian foreign fighters overwhelmingly fought under the Islamic State’s banner in Syria. As the competition between the two jihadist groups intensifies, civilians are likely to pay the price again.

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The next few weeks will see the most heated political activity in Tunisia’s modern history. Both Essebsi and Marzouki are doubling down on their power bases: Essebsi in the urban north, Marzouki in the rural south. Both are dialing up attacks on each other. They know which issues matter to Tunisians now, and they realize that their success in the runoff election depends on assuaging those fears.

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