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Tunisia Braces for the Backlash
In the wake of the worst assault in the country's modern history, some wonder whether Tunis has paid too little heed to growing extremism in its midst.
SOUSSE, Tunisia — It is the middle of the afternoon, and a warm sun beats down along the Tunisian coast. A bright, blue Mediterranean Sea laps against the sand. But not a single foreigner is in sight. The recliners lie empty outside the Imperial Marhaba hotel, where a lone gunman shot and killed at least 39 beachgoers Friday morning. The attack site is fenced off now with black and yellow tape, the beach chairs and umbrellas fallen, flipped, and fanned out in disarray. Scattered groups of Tunisians mill about the scene, taking mobile phone pictures and asking each other what happened.
“C’est catastrophe,” murmurs one bystander, leaning against an overturned beach chair and facing out toward the sea.
Friday’s terror attack — in which a gunman posed as a hotel guest, hiding his assault rifle in an umbrella before opening fire on the beach, then continuing to massacre people at the pool and in the lobby of the hotel — is the worst in Tunisia’s modern history. It comes just months after two gunmen killed 22 victims, also all tourists, at Tunis’s Bardo Museum in March, and on the same morning as a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait and an assault in France in which a decapitated head was pinned at the entrance of a gas factory. The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for both the attack here, and the Kuwait bombing, but whether the incident in France was related remains unknown.
The attacker has been identified as Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old aviation student from the town of Kairouan, roughly 100 miles south of Tunis. He had no prior police record, according to Rafik Chelli, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry. Security forces arrived shortly after the attack and killed the assailant, putting the hotel on lock-down in the meantime. Two additional suspected collaborators have been arrested so far, according to local media.
Issam Albezi, 28, has been selling cigarettes on the beach in Sousse for 10 years. The beach was as full this morning as any summer day, he said, despite it being the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Most Tunisians are fasting and restaurants and cafés are closed — except in high-end, foreigner-heavy spots like the resorts of Sousse.
Albezi was working when the gunshots broke out. A young man in shorts and a black T-shirt came running across the beach with a Kalashnikov, he said, shooting anyone in sight. The tourists screamed, scrambling to escape even as some fell into the sand. “The older people couldn’t move as fast. He walked up close and shot them,” Albezi said.
The Imperial Marhaba, a luxury resort usually populated with vacationing Europeans, sits near the end of Sousse’s Port El Kantaoui tourist complex, sharing the beach with several other resorts. Access is semi-private, but anyone can walk in from a public road beside the last beach, where the fence doesn’t quite stretch all the way to the sea. That’s where Abdulrahman Rhaiem, 53, one of the hotel staff, was working when he first heard the killing. “I ran into the water when I saw him,” Rhaiem said. “He shot so many people and the police shot him as he ran out through the public road.”
Those killed were mostly foreigners, including British, German, Irish and Belgian citizens, but the injured included several Tunisians. The injured were sent to local hospitals while survivors waited and contacted their loved ones. Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, came personally to the scene within hours, promising harsh security measures.
Tunisia is often heralded as the 2011 Arab Spring’s exceptional success. Amid the chaotic or authoritarian outcomes in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, its transition to democracy has seemed laudably peaceful and genuine — it boasts a new constitution, a vibrant civil society, and has held two free and fair elections since 2011. Yet the transition has seen a struggle to balance politics and religion: While Islamists were severely suppressed under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial regime, Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda came to power post-revolution by appealing to popular religious sentiment, promising moderate, technocratic rule.
Ennahda’s critics say its laxity toward Salafist groups has allowed extremism to fester: when two leftist politicians were assassinated in 2013, many Tunisians accused the government of not doing enough to fight Islamist violence. Analysts estimate that at least 3,000 Tunisians have left the country to fight for jihadist groups in Syria, giving Tunisia the distinction of having sent more foreign fighters to join IS and other extremist groups than any other country in the world. But Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood are at least rhetorically emphatic in distancing themselves from violent extremists, especially with the spate of recent attacks. They outlawed the al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia in 2013, a strong statement against extremist influence from neighboring Libya.
Ennahda released a statement condemning the attacks today, denouncing “a tiny but poisonous fringe of society … which has wrongly interpreted the Islamic faith and wishes to destroy Tunisia’s progress.”
Since the Bardo Museum attack, Tunisia’s government has repeatedly promised to increase security. Yet the Tunisian-Libyan border remains porous to a fault — the Bardo gunmen both trained in Libya before executing their attack. Two proposed laws addressing security are under debate, one a counterterrorism law that would provide support for terrorism victims, such as free health and legal care, but would also permit extended incommunicado detention, weaken due process guarantees for people charged with terrorism offenses, and allow the death penalty. The other is a bill that would criminalize “denigration” of security forces, allow lengthy imprisonment for anyone leaking a “national security secret,” and allows police to kill without penalty if repelling an attack on their homes, objects, and vehicles.
Many Tunisians and civil society organizations dispute both laws, saying they give too much power to security forces without sufficient accountability — a security-for-civil liberties trade-off too reminiscent of Ben Ali’s old police regime.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s economic problems continue to fester. Corruption remains unaddressed, especially within the oil and gas sector; unemployment is rising; and frequent labor unrest shows Tunisians’ discontent, even as it cripples productivity and economic output. The last two attacks seem likely to strangle European tourism, leading Tourism Minister Salma Loumi to call today’s assault a “catastrophe” of both human life and for Tunisia’s economy.
Tunisian youth have suffered the most from their country’s economic crisis, and some speculate that marginalization and unemployment contribute to the outbreaks of violence there. The country’s unemployment rate has dropped since the revolution, from 18.3 percent in 2011 to 15.2 percent now, but it remains 40 percent among youth. The assailant today and those at the Bardo Museum attack, notably, were in their early 20s. Yet Tunisia’s extremist youth cannot all be driven by economic woes, especially as their profiles include successful rappers, soccer players, and many from stable backgrounds without financial trouble.
The state response to extremism has focused mostly on security and increased military aid from allies like France and the United States. Government control of the religious sphere is tightening, as the Ministry of Religious Affairs cracks down on unregistered mosques and requires imams to keep their preaching within approved boundaries. Many mosques, however, remain out of government control — including the one Yacoubi attended, according to local media. While military aid bolsters Tunisia’s ability to respond to extremist attacks, the state lacks sufficient understanding of the motives behind radicalization and has made only minimal movement on economic reform.
For the shell-shocked victims at the Imperial Marhaba, such reforms will now come too late. In the hotel lobby, one British woman sat in tears, watching as journalists, hotel staff, and other tourists ran across the room. She’d seen her husband shot and killed, but didn’t know where his body was. Now she waited for her son to pack their bags upstairs. They’d been on summer vacation, visiting Tunisia for the first time.
“The killer was just a boy. Same age as my son,” she said. “Everything is changed.”
The article was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images