The Bardo terrorist attack: An obstacle to democratisation in Tunisia?

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Chiara Loschi explores the recent terrorist attack in Tunisia and its implications for the political and economic future of the country. Chiara is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Turin, in the Department of Cultures, Politics and Society.

The terrorist attack that occurred in Tunisia on March, 18th 2015, was one of the worst in the country’s history, simultaneously targeting the Parliament and the Bardo Museum. Twenty one tourists were killed in the hostage situation that followed led by the Tunisian Anti-Terrorist Brigade (BAT). The attack end with the death of two of three terrorists, Yassine Labidi (19 years old) and Saber Khachnaoui (27 years old). A third man reportedly escaped.

The attack is reminiscent of events in 2002, when a Tunisian suicide bomber engineered the explosion of a truck in front of the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, killing approximately 20 western tourists. The main difference between that incident and this one, is that the Bardo attack appears to directly target the Tunisian political process.

In the first days of February, Tunisia’s parliament approved a new government led by Habib Essid as Prime Minister. This government brought together Nidaa Tounes – the country’s large, secular party – with their Islamist rivals, Ennahda. Secular and Islamist leaders compromised to make deals that kept the country on track and promoted economic recovery. Economic pressures on the country are manifold: Tunisia is plagued by unemployment (especially youth unemployment) and also faces demands by international lenders to reorganize its banking system, keep the foreign exchanges market highly flexible, and implement a comprehensive assessment of tax reform. Security challenges have also been a long-running issue for the government: The transition phase (2011-2014) facilitated the rise and diffusion of jihadi groups. Some of these are salafi oriented, such as Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which was established in 2011. Others are members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), like the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, which is made up of Algerians as well as young Tunisians, and was established at the frontier with Algeria in the region of Kasserine.

According to the Tunisian Interior Minister, the attack has been prepared by no other than the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade but ISIS claimed the attack on 19 March in an audio recording posted on YouTube. In their declaration, ISIS apparently asserted that the attack was aimed ‘at the Museum’, while the statement released by what seems to be the official media platform for Okba Ibn Nafaa “Ifriqiya” claimed that the primary target was the Parliament, with the Museum being a secondary target.

Experts have largely agreed that it is all but impossible to know the exact who was responsible for these attacks but it is not widely acknowledged that the first target was the Parliament itself. Sayda Ounissi, deputy of Ennahdha party, tweeted at around 12.20pm on 18 March:

At the same time, the BAT pushed men to Bardo Museum, close to the Parliament, and a hostage situation ensued. The message emerging from this targeting of western tourists and parliamentary infrastructure appears at once potent, shocking, and nebulous.

Like the events that occurred in Paris against Charlie Hebdo in January, the Bardo attack aroused strong responses from the Tunisian population as a whole. On the evening of the attack, a spontaneous march moved up the Avenue Bourguiba, in the heart of Tunis. On 29 March, a second demonstration was attended by the Tunisian President, Beji Caid Essebsi, international ministers and others who participated in solidarity with victims of the attack. International responses to the attack were facilitated by the fact that the shootings occurred close to the 2015 Social Forum in Tunis. During the demonstration, Essebsi addressed himself to the country, stating that Tunisia was at war against terrorism and calling for national unity.

The potential economic impact of these terrorist events is huge. Political instability damages the quantity and quality of international investments and the strength of the tourist industry, on which Tunisia is dependent. Whilst the tourist sector was shaped by the liberalisation of the 1980s, it has remained heavily dependent on the support of public banks. This reliance only increased in the wake of the political instability in 2011, which triggered a severe recession as tourism revenues fell by about 40% , making state subsidies even more important. This latest incident may compound pressures on the state.

The attacks have also triggered important political shifts. Tunisian democratic transition is far from complete. Reconfiguration is still needed, for example, to bring state institutions in line with the constitution, and key sectors like education also need substantial reform. The attack risks overshadowing these national priorities, putting the ‘inner menace’ of young jihadists leaving for Syria or training in Libya in the foreground.

All political parties are equally committed to this fight, with no remarkable differences among Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha’s statements. The Interior ministry confirmed its complement commitment to eradicating terrorism, reinforcing checkpoints in public and commercial spaces. Meanwhile, the media seem to have resolved to focus their attentions on documenting military operations in the country.

At the same time, people in Tunisia want to go back to “normal life”, feeling the pressure of the same old economic problems. After the reactions and indignation, life must keep going on.

The middle classes in the capital, in particular, seem to have forged an implicit ‘national social pact’ with the government to this end. Their demand is for security against jihadi groups, who are all labelled “terrorist” without distinction. Geographically, these demands are channelled towards the frontiers and southern regions of the country. This implicit pact reflects and replicates the regional political-economic disparities that emerged in the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

The fear is that, in a country who democratic consolidation is incomplete, calls for national safety and solidarity in the wake of Bardo attacks could simply lead to the stiffening of the security apparatus, the arbitrary use of powers and the fostering of unequal economic development. The attack, in other words, poses an important challenge to the democratic development of the country: we can only hope Tunisia will be able to continue on its new pluralist political path and pursue economic recovery and the creation of strong and independent institutions.



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