Dispatch

A Cloud Descends on Tunisia

Tunisians take stock in the wake of the deadly Bardo Museum attack. Will their liberty be the next casualty?

Tunisians wave their national flag and shout slogans as they attend a rally marking the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2014 in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. Tunisia celebrated the third anniversary of the overthrow of a decades-old dictatorship in the first Arab Spring uprising, but political divisions have hampered the adoption of a new constitution by this symbolic deadline. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID        (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Tunisians wave their national flag and shout slogans as they attend a rally marking the third anniversary of the uprising that ousted long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2014 in Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis. Tunisia celebrated the third anniversary of the overthrow of a decades-old dictatorship in the first Arab Spring uprising, but political divisions have hampered the adoption of a new constitution by this symbolic deadline. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID (Photo credit should read FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)

TUNIS — Within minutes of the final shot in Wednesday’s siege of the National Bardo Museum, a lone woman waving Tunisia’s flag stood among the throng of security officers and journalists. Over the next hour, others joined her. The scarlet and white of the national flag became ubiquitous as the crowd of hundreds rallied outside the museum. They cheered and whistled as the forces of the Brigade Anti-Terroriste left, and a balaclava-clad officer pumped his fist victoriously from the top of an armored car.

Since bringing down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the first revolution of 2011’s “Arab Spring,” Tunisians have faced an increasing threat of terrorism both in the cities and in the country’s neglected southern hinterlands. Now, many in Tunis are looking nostalgically to what they remember as the security of the Ben Ali years. Meanwhile, those in the country’s neglected and disenfranchised interior watch as the capital faces a problem they’ve been living alongside for years.

A palpable air of shock blankets Tunis. On thoroughfares throughout the city, heavily armed security officers halt traffic, or stop pedestrians to search their baggage. The state isn’t simply fighting back against Islamist terrorism – it’s making sure it is seen fighting back. The presence of the security forces has largely been welcome, but many now question its ability to protect them in the face of a mounting terrorist threat.

Social media is awash with messages of support and goodwill from across the globe. The hashtag #jesuisbardo has featured prominently on Twitter ever since the attack; across the world, people are posting images stating their intention to visit Tunisia when the tourist season begins. An online petition, launched in the wake of the attack, calling for the protection of the civil rights won during the revolution has attracted more than 19,000 signatures. But within Tunisian society, an unease is stirring that may determine how long those civil liberties continue to exist. Some suspect that the new-found democracy may not be capable of countering Tunisia’s latest threat.

Emna Douiri, a 23-year-old student, was at the museum when the two gunmen attacked. She’d gone to find out what time it opened so she could take her sister when she came to visit the capital. “I heard the gunshots and the grenades, there were a lot. I was shocked. I couldn’t drive. I didn’t know what to do.”

Now, Douiri finds herself doubting the wisdom of the revolution. “I’d like to see Ben Ali back,” she told me. “He was strong. Everyone knew that. Tunisia was safer before. We could hang out in the evenings. Nobody talked about terrorism. There was terrorism, but they sorted it out before we even heard of it. Tunisia, Libya, we need a dictator to govern us.”

Tunisian President Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi’s rhetoric has been strong since the attack. The president, who was elected last December, has called for unity in the face of terror, as the security forces go on the offensive. Nine people have been arrested, some with direct links to the attack, some thought to be simply family members of the jihadists involved.

Monia Ghanmi, a freelance journalist previously with the state-run Tunisia News Agency, says that the nostalgia for Ben Ali is understandable — but misguided. “People miss security… security comes from whoever can provide both democracy and stability,” Ghanmi said. “Democracy can’t grow and prosper without security. … I don’t think Tunisians wish the return of Ben Ali himself, but want someone who can provide security and order.

Moreover, many Tunisians may be misremembering how stable their country actually was before the revolution. Attacks have peppered Tunisia’s history ever since 1987, when a breakaway faction of the Islamic Tendency Movement bombed two hotels in the coastal cities of Sousse and Monastir, injuring 13. In 2002, an al Qaeda-linked militant bombed a synagogue on the holiday island of Djerba. In December 2006, a group of militants entered Tunisia from Algeria with the aim of establishing a caliphate. Their numbers swelled until confronted by government forces at the town of Soliman, southeast of the capital. Those who survived were jailed.

In 2011, as the dust of revolution was still to settle, the provisional government of Mohamed Ghanouchi pardoned all Tunisia’s political prisoners. This included those convicted of militant religious violence, who emerged free to propagate the ideology, their credibility bolstered by their imprisonment at the hands of a secular state.

“The presidential amnesty of 2011 represented a turning point for terrorism in Tunisia and was a key part of its revival,” says Issam Dardouri, the president of the Tunisian Organization for Security and Citizenry, an NGO. “Those convicted of terrorism were freed and entered society. Once they were free, they made contact with others and gave birth to yet more terrorist groups.”

In tandem with the freeing of the prisoners, came the return of radical preachers who have since been tirelessly working to stoke the fires of religious dissent in poor neighborhoods. Salafist-inspired violence in the cities, terrorism in the mountains, and an ever growing exodus to the battlefields of Syria and Libya have been factors of Tunisian life ever since. In Oued Ellil, east of Tunis, a siege in October cost the lives of a police officer, a suspected terrorist, and five women thought to be members of the suspect’s family. In nearby Douar Hicher, 27 Salafis were arrested following attacks on a National Guard post in December 2014.

The area around Mount Chaambi, Tunisia’s highest peak, near the border with Algeria, has become another hotbed of radicalism. The army has been battling militant cells hiding in the mountains there. In recent weeks, two large weapons caches have been found in the town of Ben Gardane, near the Libyan border. Just days before the attack on the museum in Tunis, security forces broke up a jihadist cell that was recruiting Tunisians to fight in Libya.

Wednesday’s attack thrust the debate over whether to prioritize safety or freedom into sharp relief for the citizens of leafy Tunis. Sami Belhoula, an English teacher at an American NGO, said, “I don’t know how aware Tunisian people are of these risks, that they may be losing some of their privacy and human rights. I think they’re more worried about safety than losing their rights. From the people I’ve talked to, they know what happened yesterday and they know that it’s awful, but they’re worried about what’s coming up.”

Aymen Abderahmen, the secretary general of the activist group Youth Can organization, is from southern town of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution. “I never appreciated the way people in Tunis reacted towards terrorism in the south, as I grew up in the south, and have seen my people falling on the front-lines…I felt like we didn’t belong to the same country. The revolution couldn’t bring us together, elections deepened the division, and I guess terrorism won’t help much either.”

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.

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