Ashby Henningsen, UMBC:
For several years, Tunisia has stood as an outlier within the broader Middle East and North Africa. Whereas post-revolutionary violence, ethnic and sectarian divisions, and institutional frailty have plagued many of its neighbors in the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia has enjoyed a relatively bloodless and stable transition towards democracy. Yet the surrounding regional discord cannot be shut out completely, a reality to which the recent attack in the capital Tunis has grimly attested. The killing of twenty-one civilians, the majority of them international tourists, by armed gunmen in Tunis’ Bardo Museum has provoked shock and apprehension throughout the country . Even as its citizens rally around one another and their government for solidarity and healing, the attack and the ensuing pursuit of justice have already raised critical questions for Tunisia. Among these questions, the possible influence of Islamic extremism in Tunisian society and the implications for the country’s social and political freedoms have come to the forefront. These issues may resonate within Tunisian government and society long after the Bardo attack has been resolved.
In the immediate wake of the museum attack, authorities and citizens alike have struggled to attain answers while facilitating their country’s recovery. Police are searching for information in an attempt to ascertain the motivations behind the attack, starting with an understanding of all the individuals involved. Although two gunmen were killed during the attack, a suspected third gunman remains on the run. Early indications have strongly suggested that the attack is linked to radical terrorist ideologies. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack, in an audio recording that attributed the shootings to so-called “knights of the State of the Caliphate.” On Thursday, March 19, a media group allegedly affiliated with ISIS’s North African forces released a statement that similarly depicted the extremist movement’s role in the attack . At the same time that they are pursuing the third gunmen, police have also apprehended fifteen individuals suspected of aiding the attackers in carrying out their plan. The two gunmen killed during the attack and many of the suspected accomplices have ties to extremism, having been “trained at terrorist camps in neighboring Libya” . If confirmed, these ties would signal that the threat to Tunisian national security from Islamic extremism has escalated. Once confined to the country’s outlying regions, militant extremism has begun taking root in Tunisia’s major towns and cities.
Tunisian society, meanwhile, has quickly come together in a concerted effort to both come to terms with the human loss and display their resolve to move forward. Merely hours after the attack, crowds congregated to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis’ main square, to wave Tunisian flags and recite songs from the 2011 revolution. The newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi addressed the nation that evening, asserting that “these savage minority groups will not frighten us. The fight against them will continue until they are exterminated.” On Thursday, a number of civil associations held a collective moment of silence in memory of the previous day’s victims. They invited citizens to meet in front of the Bardo Museum in another display of the country’s sense of unity and defiance in the face of the terrorists behind the shootings . The museum itself hosted a symbolic reopening on Tuesday, March 24, to show that the attack’s plotters had failed in their goals (the actual reopening was delayed until Sunday, March 29) . The mood throughout the country, and particularly within the capital, has been one of calm and composure. Yet despite the effort to move forward and present a resolute front, Tunisian citizens have been described as having been struck by a sense of somberness and “depression” . The blow to the country’s collective sense of pride and security has been palpable, and it may likely require a great deal of time before its citizens come to full terms with their loss.
Unfortunately, the broader circumstances faced by the Tunisian government and its people are unlikely to offer them respite. The attack has abruptly raised concerns over Tunisia’s well-being, both as a stable state and as arguably the only success story of the broader tide of Arab revolutions four years ago. One of the Bardo attack’s most pressing implications is the influence of religious extremism within Tunisian society. Even before the attack, Islamic radicalism emerged as a pressing social concern for the country as a whole; the prevalence of extremist violence in the surrounding region has exposed young Tunisian men to the ideologies of groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Ironically, the country’s rapid transition into democracy may have played a role. The country’s leaders and institutions have struggled to simultaneously promote economic opportunities and social mobility for their younger generations and ensure state security without the old system’s oppressive authoritarian means. Subsequently, young men with few prospects for improving their quality of life have become more susceptible to extremist doctrines. This has manifested itself in a striking way: Tunisia has reportedly seen 3,000 of its citizens join extremist groups engaged in the Syrian civil war, one of the largest contributions of foreign fighters to that conflict by any single country . The nature of the region’s sectarian conflicts, particularly in neighboring Libya, Syria, and Iraq, may prolong the opportunities for extremist doctrines to gain a greater foothold in Tunisian society. This alone means that the influence of religious radicalism poses a grave threat to Tunisian democracy.
Yet democracy in Tunisia experiences vulnerability on two fronts. Even as citizens worry about the threat of religious terrorism from the outside, concerns have arisen that democracy may come under attack from within the state in the form of heavy-handed government security measures. In the wake of the 2011 revolution, the new democratic government has struggled to combat extremist militants along national borders with both Libya and Algeria. Police and military raids have broken up jihadist cells and confiscated weapons stockpiles, yet the physical threat of terrorism in Tunisia’s hinterlands has persisted. The attack in Tunis has only accentuated the constant threat that terrorist units represent to Tunisian security, and this has shown in the government’s response thereto. In tandem with the police-search for alleged conspirators and accomplices, the government’s reaction to the Bardo attack has included a heightened security presence in the country’s capital; units of security officers now patrol Tunis’ streets, searching passers-by with baggage and monitoring traffic. Yet while many citizens welcome the prospect of increased counter-terrorism measures as a necessary step to preventing future major attacks, others fear a trend towards more restrictions on political freedoms . If public sentiment favors more security over their hard-earned political freedoms, the ongoing threat of terrorism may provoke increasingly constrictive security measures that could chip away at the country’s democratic governance.
Despite being commended as the Arab Spring’s lone prolific success story thus far, Tunisia’s experiment with democracy remains fragile, and the surrounding civil and political discord only augments its sense of vulnerability. The attack on the Bardo Museum has made it all-too-clear that even the country’s social and political center can find itself under assault. As of now, Tunisia’s people have demonstrated a tremendous resilience and a will to match the extremists’ brutality with their own collective courage. Even so, it has also become clear that both their government and society face difficult choices ahead of them. In their drive to bolster national security and undermine the influence of radicalism, Tunisians must take care to protect their individual rights, lest the democratic process of the past few years be halted or even reversed. As the Bardo tragedy has shown, Tunisia must contend with the complex balancing act between security and democracy in the face of terrorism like many states before it. How it strikes that balance may resonate throughout the region as a whole.