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Will Tunisians stand united in fight against terrorism?

March 20, 2015 at 6:04 pm

As Tunisia experienced its worst terrorist attack in years Tunisians remain determined to stand united against any terrorism threat. However, exactly how united is the Tunisian population?

It was at mid-day on Wednesday that two gunmen killed 21 people in a hostage situation at the country’s famous Bardo museum, before security forces stormed the building and freed the hostage, which ended the several hour-long siege. The two gunmen, killed by the security forces, were known by the intelligence services, but links between them and any terrorist organisation is yet to be determined despite that reports suggest that the Islamic State (ISIS) has taken responsibility for the attack.

Tourism before all

It was the deadliest attack in Tunisia since 2002 when 21 people were killed in an attack by al-Qaeda on the world’s oldest synagogue el Ghriba, situated on the small island outside the Tunisian coast, Djerba, and it comes at a time when many countries have braced Tunisia for its successful democratic transition since the revolution.

The venue was of symbolic importance as the Bardo museum, well-known for its collection of ancient mosaics, represents an essential Tunis tourist attraction. In 2013 the tourism sector made up for an estimated 15% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. In addition, the museum is next door to the country’s parliament where at the day of the attack a hearing about the anti-terrorism law, was due to be held. The attack is considered not only an attack against the country’s economy but its young democracy.

Despite the shock, Tunisians seemed less concerned about their own safety and more worried more about the implications the attack will have on the tourism sector. “Our message to people outside Tunisia is that Tunisians are tolerant people,” explains the judge Chennaoui Hedi, who is part of a number of lawyers who called for a demonstration outside Bardo on Thursday to denounce terrorism. “Our arms are open to all,” he says, “and we welcome all.” With a new constitution and three successfully held democratic elections there was a sense of cautious optimism in the new year, but now many fear the security situation will scare tourists from returning to the small Mediterranean country, which is famous for its coastal resorts. Yet, the resilience among people is everywhere. “We want to work,” says Hedi, “not cry.”

United we stand

Already on Wednesday, just after the attack, Tunisians gathered on the capital’s streets to denounce terrorism and show the world that they stand united. “It is important for me to be here,” says Ben Arbi Karim, outside the National Theatre on the main avenue of Habib Bourguiba, the heart of Tunis, where protesters gathered on Wednesday afternoon. Wrapped in the red and white flag he held a sign calling for the adoption of the anti-terrorism law. To him, there is no doubt that Tunisians stand united against terrorism. Protesters waved flags, sang the national anthem and lit candles. The message was clear: “We will fight terrorism!”

The same sentiment could be felt next door to the Bardo museum, at the Parliament, where a lock-down took place during the time of the attack. Parliamentarians remained calm, explains researcher Maria Glenna who was at the venue at the time. “Some of the parliamentarians started singing the national anthem,” she explains, “there was even a speech held in defiance to terrorism.” And already the same evening members of Parliament returned to Bardo for a plenary session “for freedom and democracy,” tweeted parliamentarian Sayida Ounissi from the moderate Islamist party Ennahda.

“All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy,” Prime Minister Habib Essid said in a statement shortly after the assault and President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to expand its anti-terrorism operations as he declared war on terrorism. “I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a merciless war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us,” he said while visiting some of the hurt at the hospital. The same rhetoric could be heard from Ennahda. “You will not defeat us, your savagery will be defeated by our people’s unity,” said its party leader Rachid Ghannouchi in a statement.

But how united are Tunisians?

The question is now, will the call for unity span across political party lines? Since the revolution rivalry between the two strongest parties the moderate Islamist Ennahda and secular Nidaa Tounes has grown. Ennahda, which was the first political party to be democratically elected after the revolution, was quickly blamed for the growth of Salafi group Ansar al-Sharia and some continue to accuse the party for today’s fragile security. Yet today’s attack did not happen during the power of Ennahda but under the watch of Nidaa Tounes. If unity across political party lines can’t be reached fear is that the attack will spur further polarisation between the Islamist and secular political factions.

As the Tunisian authorities step up its anti-terrorism measures it will be essential that the country don’t slide back to old draconian measures. Despite that Arbi Karim would like to see the adoption of the anti-terrorism law as soon as possible, human rights watchdogs have warned against rushing the law through and expressed concerns regarding the country’s anti-terrorism methods and the risk that the post-revolutionary government will slide back into authoritarian tendencies, threatening civil liberties and justifying a crackdown on Islamists in the name of security. President Essebsi assured that “democracy will win,” however, in order for democracy to prevail the country will now need to prove its commitment to democratic values such as civil liberties and freedom of religion. “Tunisian authorities should show through their response that their commitment to the rule of law is unshaken,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.