The gunmen who killed 20 Europeans and two locals in Wednesday’s attack at the Bardo Museum in central Tunis targeted two of Tunisia’s key vulnerabilities: the tourism industry on which the country relies for much of its foreign exchange earnings, and the deep schisms that have paralyzed its political system since the January 2011 Jasmine Revolution ousted the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Two of the gunmen were killed during the attack, and four more suspects were arrested Thursday. The fact that the authorities revealed that one of the attackers was known to security services — and the speed with which they’ve made arrests — suggests an awareness of a growing problem of violent extremism that Tunisia has yet to adequately address.
Since the Syrian civil war erupted four years ago, about 3,000 Tunisians are believed to have gone to fight there, one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters to have swelled the ranks of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Many of those fighters had been longtime members of Tunisia's al-Qaeda-linked organization Ansar al-Sharia, and some are now also joining radical groups in next-door Libya. In the Libyan coastal city of Sirte earlier this week, one of Tunisia's most wanted men, Ahmed Rouissi, was killed while fighting for ISIL. He was alleged to have been deeply involved in the 2013 assassination of two liberal politicians in Tunis, crimes for which no one has yet been convicted.
In the same way that the 2013 assassinations had provoked mass protests, Wednesday evening saw thousands of people demonstrating on Tunis's main boulevard, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, determined to show that they would not allow violence to blow the fragile new democracy off course. Later, Tunisia's lawmakers met in a nighttime session of parliament, several hours after security forces had evacuated the building, which sits close to the Bardo Museum. The politicians had, in fact, been debating a new anti-terrorism law when the gunfire outside sent many fleeing from the building.
Moncef Cheikhrouhou, Member of Parliament for Tunisia's Democratic Alliance Party, told France 24 on Wednesday that the country needed to combat extremism by bolstering the new political system. "They are terrorists, bandits, outlaws, and we will keep fighting them through our democracy building," Cheikhrouhou said. "This is nothing to do with religion. This is a war against democracy and modernism."
But analysts and politicians say they fear that the cosmopolitan liberalism of the capital in the post-Jasmine Revolution period risks repeating some aspects of the Ben Ali dictatorship, which failed to address the dangers posed by poverty and despair in the country’s far more pious and conservative hinterland.
Even before the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia had been hailed by Western diplomats as a rare success story in the region, and a model for the Arab world. A two-hour flight from Paris, its spectacular ancient ruins, sunbaked Mediterranean coastline, and easy-going lifestyle — there were no bans on bikinis or alcohol that apply in many other Muslim countries — made it a favorite getaway for European tourists. President Ben Ali, who is now exiled in Saudi Arabia after his 24-year autocracy, imprisoned those advocating for political Islam and banned outward expressions of piety, such as women wearing the coverall niqab. Westerners paid little heed to Ben Ali's authoritarian style; during his final years in power, Tunisia's business-friendly policies drew increasing Western investment, with Pfizer, Ericsson and Siemens all opening operations in Tunis, while the World Economic Forum named Tunisia as having the best prospects for growth in all of Africa.
The edifice crumbed in early 2011, after the suicide by self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in protest at police corruption, which sent hundreds of thousands of Tunisians onto the streets in an unprecedented show of daring. The protests collapsed the dictatorship — and set off a chain of democratic uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Yet Tunisia’s was the only one of those revolutions to produce an enduring democracy, which has already seen one change of government through elections that passed peacefully.
Still, Wednesday’s deadly museum assault has exposed deep fault lines in the region's most Westernized country, raising questions about its ability to crack down on violent extremism. Despite the exodus of young men to fight in Syria and other signs of growing radicalism, politicians in Tunis have been concerned that authorizing a widespread crackdown on those suspected of involvement in political violence could trample the human rights and freedom of expression won through the Jasmine Revolution.
"It has been an era of politics which has been all about rights of humanity, and public, open expression," said Khaled Ben M'Barek, a political counselor to the former President Moncef Marzouki, voted out of office in December. Speaking by phone from Tunis on Thursday, Ben M'Barek said, "there has been a problem of extremists and terrorism," for which the previous government — led by the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired En-Nadha Party, which had been outlawed under Ben Ali — did little to counteract.
On Wednesday evening En-Nadha leader Rached Ghannouchi released a statement calling for parliament to speed up "the new anti-terrorism laws and laws supporting security forces in fulfilling their duties." But En-Nadha, which lost the parliamentary elections last October, had stalled on such measures when the party ran the government, according to Tunisian politicians. "One year has been wasted," Cheikhrouhou told France 24 on Wednesday. "And why? Because En-Nadha worried that that kind of law reminded them of the law by Ben Ali which put them in jail." Now, as the country scrambles to avert further attacks, it will also need to reassure Western tourists that the secure and tolerant Tunisia they love to visit can withstand the onslaught of the violent, extremist elements have remained largely out of their view.