Terrorism latest blow to Tunisia’s post-Arab Spring transition

Saving the tourist industry will now be a priority for the government along with the dilemma of how to maintain rights, while also defending against extremism, writes John Pearson.
A relative of a victim is comforted by friends as he stands outside Charles Nicole hospital's morgue in Tunis on March 19, 2015. Salah Habibi/AFP Photo
A relative of a victim is comforted by friends as he stands outside Charles Nicole hospital's morgue in Tunis on March 19, 2015. Salah Habibi/AFP Photo

TUNIS // The slaying of 20 tourists in the Bardo museum terrorist attack may have looked chaotic in its execution, but its intent was crystal clear — to hit at tourism, Tunisia’s soft underbelly.

While the country has made the successful transition to democracy after its Arab Spring revolution four years ago, the economy is struggling, and hugely reliant on foreign visitors.

“This is bad for tourism, no question,” said Karim Salah, a Tunisian tour operator.

“After the [2014] elections we are in a new era of democracy and freedom. I think [the terrorists] want to alter that state.”

It comes at a time when unemployment is high and Tunisia, lacking the oil riches of neighbouring Algeria and Libya, had been looking forward to the start of the peak tourist season.

Hotels were preparing for an influx of tourists, with the tourism industry — a key employer of the young and unskilled — gearing up after an unusually cold winter.

That tourist season is now in doubt, with the attackers’ timing and choice of location, the capital’s most prestigious museum, maximising the number of headlines generated around the world.

The Bardo contains some of the finest Roman-era antiquities of any museum on earth, and high security there had been expected because it shares space with the well defended national parliament next door.

But there had been fears of such an attack for some time, not least because Tunisia has so far been relatively successful in battling extremists on its soil.

Last October, security forces were tipped off about a terror plot to disrupt parliamentary elections, and security forces surrounded the house where the suspects were based in Tunis, killing all of them. Five of the six killed in the October raid were female and came from a group of young Tunisian women. More security raids took place in the months that followed, with police netting terrorist suspects and a haul of weapons including machine guns and explosives.

Sweeps by more than 3,000 troops and police in the mountainous area of Nebeur, near the Algerian border, in November and December saw firefights in which more than 17 militants were killed and more weapons seized.

In response, militants in Nebeur staged counter-attacks, including the ambush of a bus carrying soldiers and their families in November that left five soldiers dead.

But until Wednesday, this war was confined to the provinces and to military targets. With the Bardot museum attack, the battle lines have shifted.

Security experts had charted the growth of militant groups with a report last year by the Jamestown Foundation saying more than 400 separate militant cells had been identified in Tunisia, and the possibility of attack on civilian targets had been ever present.

For many, the high numbers of militant groups are a paradox, because they exist in one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. Tunisia’s political rivalries are contained within the parliamentary process and extremism is frowned on in the political sphere.

Yet, more than 3,000 Tunisian volunteers have flocked to join ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and, also, in Libya — a frightening statistic for many in Tunis who fear these fighters may return home to cause mayhem.

One possible trigger for this week’s museum attack may have been the death of prominent Tunisian militant Ahmed Al Rouissi, who had claimed responsibility for the murder of secular politicians Chokri Belaid and Muhammed Brahmi in 2013 — until now the highest-profile militant attack in Tunisia.

Al Rouissi had fled to Libya where he was killed last week fighting for ISIL in Sirte against the Libya Dawn coalition that backs one of the country’s two rival governments.

Whether Al Rouissi’s death formed the motive for the Bardo attack, or whether the attack was revenge for the government’s latest arrest operation against militants — announced just the day before — is unclear. But almost certainly the attack itself was in line with a strategy belief that is followed by extremists, including both Al Qaeda and ISIL — that the road to power begins with breaking existing power structures.

Saving the tourist industry will now be a priority for the government, and that is no easy task: tourism, by its nature, is widespread geographically and holiday makers are very risk averse.

After the Bardo attack, Tunisia’s government is also facing another dilemma that confronts states across the world: how to maintain personal rights and freedoms, while at the same time providing a robust defence against terrorism.

Tunisians consider their rights to a free society and democracy hard won after decades of living under oppressive regimes. Few want to go back to those times, but equally, they want the government to step up security and eliminate terrorism.

That paradox, between freedom and security, is one the government must tread carefully to confront the terrorist menace while ensuring the gains of the Arab Spring are preserved.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: March 19, 2015 04:00 AM

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