After the attack on the Bardo Museum

Tunisia's darkest hour

The attack on the Bardo Museum has put Tunisia's young democracy to a crucial test. Conservative forces demand a severe crackdown against Islamists and thereby threaten to limit basic rights and freedoms. Attempts to address the real causes of terrorism are increasingly being overlooked in the process - with devastating consequences. By Ilyas Saliba

The bloody attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which left 22 dead, has cast a dark shadow over Tunisia's democratic achievements since the country's successful Jasmine Revolution. Although the primary victims of the terrorist attack were foreign tourists, the real aim of the gunmen was to destabilize the country's democratic transition and its main political parties.

The success of Tunisia's democratic transition depends on whether the executive branch, supported by the country's security apparatus, decides to respond unilaterally or if a broad-based social coalition can emerge. After the attack, Tunisian civil society and, in particular, human rights organizations in the country are calling for a decisive response from society as a whole, yet one that does not limit newly attained freedoms and civil rights.

The urge to engage in a severe crackdown – and thereby revert to authoritarian tendencies – appears to be especially prevalent among elements of President Essebsi's governing party. Immediately after the terrorist attack, hardliners within his Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) party began issuing bellicose statements. In his first speech after the attack, Essebsi declared "an uncompromising fight against terrorism." Prime Minister Habib Essid (independent) promised to take "resolute and merciless" measures against those responsible.

Präsident Beji Caid Essebsi während einer Ansprache nach dem Terroranschlag auf das Bardo-Museum; Foto: Reuters/Z. Souissi
The urge to engage in a severe crackdown – and thereby revert to authoritarian tendencies – appears to be especially prevalent among elements of President Essebsi's governing party. In his first speech after the attack, Essebsi declared "an uncompromising fight against terrorism"

United against terrorism

Despite this, the will to undertake measures against terrorism exists across the political spectrum. Even the conservative Islamic Ennahda party has joined the political appeal for unity and has categorically condemned the terrorist attack. In addition, the party has demanded the calling of a summit meeting to develop a national strategy against terrorism. Such an initiative could also lay the groundwork for a comprehensive discussion on political measures to combat terrorism.

Operations by the security forces, especially in the regions bordering Algeria, must comply with fundamental, constitutionally anchored rights. Justice based on revenge, as took place in the wake of the upheavals in Egypt, could erase the achievements of the Tunisian revolution. Any attempt to relativize the rule of law or limit the civil liberties won in the Jasmine Revolution as a means of dealing with Islamic terrorists must be absolutely avoided. An increase in state repression would simply lead to a further radicalization of militant Islamic movements and thereby result in violence.

Tunisia's security apparatus, which formed the backbone of the former regime under Ben Ali, requires extensive reforms. Up until now, however, this process of reform has moved at a very slow pace. As a result, the structures of Ben Ali's police state have not been adapted to the new constitutional realities. The security forces continue to operate without transparency in their command structures or chains of responsibility.

Due to its key role, any comprehensive strategy against terrorism would require a restructuring of the security sector, making it more transparent and effective. This is because the fight against terrorism should only be conducted within the limits set out by the constitution. In addition, the war on terrorism would do best to focus more on the causes that lead to an emergence of this phenomenon. Poverty and unemployment leave many young Tunisians particularly susceptible to fundamentalist religious ideologies, especially when they face increasingly dismal occupational prospects while simultaneously being offered financial assistance from extremist movements.

Polizist bei der Wiedereröffnung des Bardo-Museums in Tunis nach dem Anschlag; Foto: AFP/Getty Images/F. Senna
Tunisia's security apparatus, which formed the backbone of the former regime under Ben Ali, requires extensive reforms. According to Saliba, the security forces continue to operate without transparency in their command structures or chains of responsibility

Deprive terrorism of its breeding ground

The desolate economic situation in Tunisia's rural regions and the dramatic level of unemployment among young people (currently hovering around 40 per cent) – whereby those under 25 make up 40 per cent of Tunisia's total population – offers an ideal breeding ground for the mobilization of fundamentalist groups in Tunisia.

With a population of 11 million, Tunisia is the least populated country in the region. Despite this, Tunisia has supplied the "Islamic State" (IS) with at least 3,000 jihadists, the largest number of volunteers among international fighters. Without any economic prospects, young Tunisians will continue to be easy prey for extremist demagogues. Education, of course, can help, but it is equally important that basic social and economic hardships are taken into account.

An economic upturn, which might offer the country's youth better prospects, appears more than doubtful in the wake of the terrorist attack and the resulting expected drop in tourism. Although some experts and political observers have already hastily proclaimed the failure of Tunisian democracy and attest to the definitive end of the Arab uprisings, the Tunisian government is, in fact, holding the cards in its own hands. European governments should therefore not simply stand by and observe events, but rather actively support the government in implementing its reform policies. Economic assistance will cost money. This, however, is now especially urgent in order to effectively prevent an eruption of terrorism in Tunisia.

The terrorist attack in Tunis should be perceived as a warning signal that the new model student in democracy, despite good grades so far, still faces a challenging journey ahead. Tunisia lies wedged in between a disintegrating Libya to the east and an authoritarian Algeria to the west. Transnational Islamic terrorism has not just become a transnational problem with the emergence of IS. In terms of security policy, the state cannot successfully fight violent groups in the peripheral border regions on its own. Under the circumstances, containing these groups is the most that can be hoped for.

Wiedereröffnung des Bardo National Museum in Tunis. Foto: AFP/Getty Images/F. Belaid
An appeal for international solidarity with Tunisia after the devastating terrorist attack: "In this darkest hour, Tunisia requires more than just encouraging words from European politicians. Above all, what is needed is close political and economic cooperation with the government in Tunis. So much is certain: When the lighthouse of the Arab uprising is extinguished, the southern shore of the Mediterranean will plunge into darkness," says Saliba

Regional cooperation – in particular with Algeria – is imperative in order to minimize the number of safe havens available to violent groups. International support and cooperation is required for Tunisia to tackle the roots of this security problem. At present, the country's poorly equipped and opaque security apparatus does not appear able to effectively counter the armed groups.

Seeing the crisis as an opportunity

As the saying goes, in every crisis lies the seed of opportunity. This also applies to Tunisia following the attack on the Bardo Museum. The government would be well advised to form a national coalition and develop a long-term strategy on combatting terrorism. The attack could thereby provide the impulse needed to restructure the training and equipping of the security forces as well as to place the security apparatus under civilian control with a transparent command structure and chain of responsibility. The yet-to-be-passed new anti-terrorism law should thereby not serve as a vehicle to annul fundamental civil rights and freedoms. Parliamentary control mechanisms are therefore important to avoid such an improper use of the law.

In this darkest hour, Tunisia requires more than just encouraging words from European politicians. Above all, what is needed is close political and economic cooperation with the government in Tunis. So much is certain: When the lighthouse of the Arab uprising is extinguished, the southern shore of the Mediterranean will plunge into darkness. Of course, this support will also cost money. But we should seriously ask ourselves just how much democracy in North Africa is worth to us Europeans.

By Ilyas Saliba

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated by John Bergeron

Ilyas Saliba is a research associate at the Democracy and Democratization Research Unit of the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). His focus is on the stability of autocratic regimes during the recent Arab uprisings

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Comments for this article: Tunisia's darkest hour

So true: "When the lighthouse of the Arab uprising is extinguished, the southern shore of the Mediterranean will plunge into darkness."

Truer indeed is that "When the lighthouse of Islam is extinguished, the world of Islam will plunge in darkness."

As the Lighthouse of Tunisia draws its flashes from Islam, it will be inevitably be extinguished when the Lighthouse of Islam blows off.

The storm that rose in the political vacuum created in the aftermath of destruction and decapitation of Iraq and intensified into the hurricane Category-5 in the guise of ISIS is set to blow the Lighthouse of Islam off - turn Islam from a vibrant civilization to a cult of violence, from the light of enlightenment to the darkness of ignorance, from a spring of peace and harmony to a cesspool of violence and anarchy...

What to do about it?
Tackle the No. 1 menace – the violent extremists and the threat of ISIS.
Get a letter / announcement in the following line on the front page of each daily paper and publicize through face book, TV and all media channels:

An Inside window into the true face of ISIS – it does not represent Islam and must be resisted:

In a letter dated September last to the chief of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a group of more than 120 prominent Muslim scholars from around the world who investigated his activities, charged him with a plethora of heinous crimes. These included, massacre of civilians, killing hundreds of unarmed captives, destroying churches and looting the homes and properties of the Christian and Yazidi civilians, who were living in peace with the Muslims since the early years of Islam; forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam or face death, engaging children in war and killing, torturing and terrorizing people through beatings, murder, burying alive, decapitation with knives; mutilating corpses, sticking the decapitated heads of their victims on spikes and rods and, getting their children to kick the severed heads of their victims around like balls and broadcasting it to the world during the World Cup. Not satisfied with mere killing, they mocked those they were going to kill by telling them that they will be killed like sheep, bleating and then indeed butchering them like sheep, and then jeering at corpses. On one instance, they tied Syrian soldiers to barbed wire, cut off the heads of some of them with knives and posted a video of this barbaric act on the internet.
The scholars issuing the letter unanimously agreed that each of the above listed crimes that ISIS committed in the name of Islam stands in stark contradiction to the Qur’anic message. Nor can any Muslim agree with ISIS claim of following the dictates of the Qur’an or the example of the Prophet, whom the Qur’an describes to be a person endowed with sublime character (68:4) and unshakeable stability (17:74), faithful to his trust (al-amin, 81:21), and (a manifestation of God’s) mercy to the believers (9:61), and to all humanity (21:107). As for the first community of the Muslims that ISIS claims to follow, the Qur’an describes them as the best of community ever raised for mankind (3:110) and the ISIS represents probably the worst community, at least in the history of Islam.
The sad reality is ISIS is continuing to attract recruits, only from those who have no knowledge of the message of Islam. Therefore, all Ulama and mosque Imams must inform their audience in all cities, towns and villages, by way of Friday sermons (khutba) and social and media preaching that groups like ISIL do not represent Islam, and that those who die when committing such acts are not likely to go down as "martyrs" and more likely to incur divine wrath for causing ‘fasad’ and ‘baghya’ that the Qur’an condemns in no uncertain terms.
In historical perspective ISIS has far exceeded the early Kharijites in its barbarism, bestiality and killing spree, in committing atrocities against innocent civilians, Muslims and non-Muslims alike and in destroying all kinds of civil amenities. It is also committing crimes that date back to the pre-Islamic jahilliyah – notably mutilation of corpses, and meting out punishment that God threatened humanity with - burning people alive. Since Caliph Umar had outlawed the Kharijites – regarded them as terrorist-apostates who had forfeited their claim to the faith of Islam, the ISIS can be paralleled with them and no Alim or Imam should have any fear in warning the community as proposed above: dying while fighting for ISIS may earn them hell, not heaven.

A message from a perceptive Muslim for the courageous and enlightened people of Tunisia.

muhammad yunus02.04.2015 | 16:44 Uhr