The attack by masked gunmen at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, that left 23 people dead on Wednesday underlines the difficult path faced by a country in full democratic transition as it navigates the twin threats of domestic insecurity and spillover from regional conflicts.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but the immediate impact on the country, beyond the loss of life, was palpable.
“The Bardo attack is dangerous because it comes at a time when Tunisia’s democratic system remains new and potentially fragile,” said Anthony Dworkin, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “On the one hand, the country has succeeded impressively in overcoming political divisions and a disastrous regional context in the last two years. On the other hand, an attack like this threatens the transition at precisely its points of vulnerability.”
After years of authoritarian rule under Zein El Abidin Bin Ali, which ended in his overthrow in 2011, Tunisia has faced a dizzying mix of internal and external challenges on its path to democracy — consolidated in December with the formation of a national government after elections that were widely regarded as free and fair.
The new government, led by President Beji Caid Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes party — a collection of leftists, secularists and former Bin Ali government officials — overcame the popular Ennahda party, which led an interim government immediately after Bin Ali’s fall and remains a major political force.
On Wednesday the sometimes acrimonious rivalry between the two parties — part of a wider gulf brought to the fore since 2011 over questions of identity, religion and democracy — seemed to be subsumed under a sense of national unity.
"We are being envied by many for outstanding [progress] in terms of our political transition and our march toward democracy," Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid told reporters. "We are all required to join hands in our fight against terrorism."
Rached Ghannouchi, the president of the Ennahda party, condemned the attacks by the “terrorist gang” and urged Tunisians of all stripes to stand together “against this scourge, which has no future in Tunisia.”
With the Bardo attack still unfolding on Wednesday, legislators of all stripes, under lockdown in the parliament building, could be seen expressing solidarity in an impromptu rendition of the country’s national anthem.
The assault nonetheless marks a stark new future for a country that had not witnessed a major attack on civilians since a 2002 Al-Qaeda bombing of a synagogue on the island of Gherba killed 21 people.
“The minimal security around touristic sites was likely intended to avoid conveying a sense of danger and was designed to bolster the sense that Tunisia was once again a safe tourism destination,” Geoff Porter, the president of North Africa Risk Consulting, said in an email. “Today’s events burst that bubble.”
Although the brazenness of Wednesday’s violence was a shock, Tunisia has hardly been immune to the sectarian violence and civil conflicts that have beset the region.
The country witnessed the political assassination of popular leftist politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi in 2013. And it has faced domestic violence from several Salafist groups, including those linked with Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, especially in less populated parts of the country.
Those issues have only been compounded by regional chaos. On Monday the Tunisian government announced the arrest of 22 people on charges of using domestic cells to recruit Tunisians to fight in Libya, which is riven by militia violence and has seen a rising number of Tunisians join armed groups there, including the burgeoning affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). According the Soufan Group, Tunisia has the most fighters going to join ISIL, predominantly in Iraq and Syria.
In December the International Crisis Group called Tunisia an “echo chamber of the ideological conflicts that are shaking the region, from the Syrian trauma and the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant to the violent polarization in Libya and Egypt.”
“Although the attackers have yet to be identified, it's safe to say that Tunisia’s porous borders with Algeria and Libya have definitely stoked public anxiety about the security situation, and ISIS’ recent emergence in Libya will only exacerbate the risk of spillover,” said Karina Piser, a Tunisia analyst.
Tunisian authorities on Thursday identified the slain gunmen as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, and several arrests have been made in connection to the shooting, but no connection to a larger group has been found.
The government’s primary task will now likely focus on quelling any threat posed by armed groups in the country and the surrounding region.
“Because it has become increasingly difficult to separate cross-border threats from domestic ones, the first solution to Tunisia’s emerging terrorism problem has to be at home,” said Porter. “Tunisian security services were not trained in counterterrorism techniques during the Bin Ali period. They have started to make some progress, but as they increase the pace of counterterrorism operations, it is almost inevitable that up until a certain point, the pace of terrorist attacks will increase as well.”
But doubling down on counterterrorism efforts is not without grave risks, given Tunisia’s inchoate democratic institutions and legacy of repression by the security services.
“A big risk moving forward is that the attack could compel a crackdown on civil liberties,” said Piser. “Tunisia's penal and criminal codes have yet to undergo reforms, and the judicial system is still working toward independence.”