By Dr. Youssef Mahmoud
On Wednesday, March 18, just hours after two armed gunmen shot dead 20 foreign tourists and injured nearly 50 others outside the Bardo museum in Tunis, Tunisians of all ages descended on Avenue Bourguiba, the cradle of the country’s revolution, to shout their revulsion and anger at what had happened.
Many, draped in Tunisian flags, stood in unison in front of the municipal theater to sing the national anthem, in sorrow rather than joy. Others walked about silently, holding hastily assembled signs bearing the words “Je suis Tunisie,” echoing the “Je suis Charlie” placards Parisians had held high when they marched in memory of their own victims of terror.
More still made their way to the museum, not far from the city center where the carnage had taken place, to lay flowers and light candles in memory of the fallen victims. A lone guitar player stood among the crowd, strumming a tune of hope amidst palpable despair.
In solidarity, the National Assembly, located near the museum, decided to reconvene after its members had been evacuated, in order to resume the discussion they had started on a draft law dealing with terrorism and money laundering—a troubling, some say premeditated—coincidence.
Two days later, many Tunisians again flocked to the streets, this time to soberly but defiantly celebrate the 59th anniversary of the country’s independence. They did not want to grant the terrorists the satisfaction of ruining this annual commemoration.
Since these tragic events, the Tunisian government has been meeting non-stop to identify what went wrong and whom to hold accountable. It fired five leading security officials and adopted a series of new measures to protect sensitive locations in major cities across the country. Nine Tunisians suspected of aiding the terrorists have been arrested, and more are being rounded up. The third gunman is still at large.
The country has not known such a devastating blow since 2002, when a lone Tunisian suicide bomber attacked the synagogue of Ghriba—the oldest Jewish site in Africa—on the southern island of Jerba, killing 21 people, including 14 German tourists. It took Tunisia several years to recover from the devastating impact that this barbaric act had on the tourism industry and economy.
After the revolution of 2010-11, and with the exception of the assassination in 2013 of two prominent leftist leaders that nearly brought the country to its knees, most terrorist attacks in Tunisia, grim as they have been, have mainly targeted security forces. They have also been confined mostly to parts of the country that border Libya and Algeria.
The Bardo attack marked an ominous shift in tactics by terrorists in the country. It took place in the center of the capital city and was directed against a historic building that contains the rich archeological treasures of Tunisia’s past. The museum is also in the vicinity of another historical landmark housing the newly elected Assembly of the People’s Representatives. By killing tourists on “Black Wednesday,” the terrorists wanted to cripple what they saw as the “ungodly” tourism industry, on which much of the anemic national economy rests.
They also wanted to intimidate the institution where Tunisia’s first constitution was proclaimed in 1959 and the second was crafted and unanimously adopted this January. The latter, after acrimonious debates eschewed Sharia as the main source of legislation, enshrined fundamental freedoms and liberties and laid the foundations for people-centered governance, with clear guidelines on how power was to be acquired, maintained and exercised. It was hailed as one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Arab world.
There was speculation that the lightly guarded Assembly would have been the next target of the attackers. Had this taken place it would have reversed a half century of secular republican governance, uneven as it was, and crushed the hopes that Tunisians have wrenched out of the jaws of a tumultuous and painful democratic transition.
Tunisians are under no illusion that this barbaric act will be the last they see, given the fragility of the country’s internal order and the fact it inhabits a highly unstable region extending from the Sahel all the way to Libya. The decision by Tunisian authorities to keep the border crossings with Libya open is commendable, since they represent the only lifeline for that beleaguered country on the brink of civil war. More than a million Libyans have already found a home in cities and villages across Tunisia.
But it is a policy full of risks. There is a gnawing fear that many young Tunisian jihadists who have joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—numbering close to 3,000 by some counts—will use these very crossings to return home. Indeed, some have already started to do so, reinforcing terrorist cells that have been under sustained attacks by national security forces.
As valiant and brave as these forces have been, they are over-stretched and under-equipped. Nonetheless, the recent chilling post-Bardo messages from ISIS militants threatening additional attacks have only strengthened their resolve. These forces have also been able to rely on the continued vigilance of a population that has served as a formidable deterrence multiplier over the past year.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, in a nationally televised address, pledged to hunt down the alleged perpetrators who remain at large.
“I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us. We will fight them without mercy to our last breath,” President Essebsi said.
Tunisians and their leaders are aware that the use of force alone is not the answer, given the nature of the underlying conditions that drive and sustain violent extremism. They do not want to fall into the trap laid by extremists of sacrificing their hard-won fundamental values on the altar of counter-terrorism.
This means abolishing laws inherited from previous regimes that have curtailed fundamental freedoms and criminalized legitimate political dissent. It means overhauling the educational system, including the teaching of religion in a way that can corrupt minds. Above all, it means reforming the bankrupt economic system that is at the root of the deficit of dignity that many jobless young people and countless others have been enduring for so many years. In another address to the nation on Independence Day, President Essebsi clearly had this on his mind.
“We will win the war against terrorism as long as we are united,” he said. “We will do so without necessarily giving up on the freedom of expression…nor on all other liberties.”
Just three months ago, The Economist declared Tunisia its country of the year, calling it a “shining exception” to the trend of the idealism of the Arab Spring giving way to “bloodshed and extremism.” “Its economy is struggling and its polity is fragile,” the magazine noted, “but Tunisia’s pragmatism and moderation have nurtured hope in a wretched region and a troubled world.”
With this latest attack, the Arab Spring’s shining exception is being severely tested. A bough has fallen, but the Tunisian tree is still standing tall.