Tunisia's Early Promise Is Thwarted by Terrorism

Flag of Tunisia. Flickr/@djou

The struggling democracy cannot shake its legacy of violence.

A small crater in the smooth marble door frame marks the impact of a bullet. And another just below it, this one pointing down. There is a bullet hole at the top of the heavy brown door. And one in the glass display nearby, its sharp cracks obscuring the mosaics inside.

Scanning the bright, tiled halls of Tunisia's Bardo Museum—cavernous but clear, with a smattering of quiet visitors—scar after scar reveals itself. Blown-off marble, exposed door frames and shattered glass: together, they are a chilling reminder of the chaos this place saw one year prior.

On that day, March 18, 2015, ISIS-affiliated terrorists launched a coordinated attack on the museum, killing twenty-two visitors and wounding fifty more. Among those killed were citizens of Colombia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland, Russia, Spain, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. Two of the perpetrators and several conspirators were killed or captured by Tunisian police, but others remain at large.

On this day, like all days since the attack, the old museum carries on. It is a microcosm of the country itself, with unparalleled history and an unsteady future. What is obvious both inside the Bardo and out is that Tunisia’s greatest challenge is the threat of terrorism.

Three major attacks last year—at the Bardo, on the beach in Sousse and in downtown Tunis—have had a deep psychological impact. And with nearly seven thousand young Tunisians joining the ranks of ISIS (more recruits than from any other country), Tunisia is increasingly caught up in the sophisticated terror network. Sadly, Tunisia’s other vulnerabilities—the lack of jobs, an anxious population and a young democracy—are linked to the rise or fall of terrorism, and are no less existential.

Most obvious when strolling the tourist areas of Tunisia is how empty they are.

The sparkling new airport between the resort towns of Hammamet and Sousse has no flights in or out. Designed to meet the demand of European tourists seeking white sand and palm trees, the crowds disappeared after terrorists killed thirty-eight tourists, most of them British, as they sunbathed here.

In El Jem, the third-largest Roman amphitheater in the world sits empty. No lines, no formal parking lot and certainly no gift shop.

In the north, Sidi Bou Said’s blue-and-white architecture compares to the most beautiful spots in Mykonos or Santorini, yet with none of the tourist hoards.

Even at the Bardo, the lobby is nearly empty. The only sound is the incessant beeping of the metal detector, conspicuously ignored by the security guard standing next to it.

These places are empty precisely because they are perceived to be unsafe. And while there are security checks most everywhere, their use is uneven. At the airport in Tunis, the baggage scanner abruptly leaves his post for a phone call, and five suitcases sail through unchecked.

It is, sadly, no wonder that the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against nonessential travel to the country, and the U.S. State Department warns against travel in the country’s southern half. In May, Israel issued a “severe warning” for Jews to stay away from Tunisia just days before tens of thousands were expected to celebrate Lag B’Omer at Djerba’s Ghriba synagogue, the oldest on the African continent.

The threat of terrorism has become an immense downward pressure on the Tunisian economy.

Tourism, which accounts for 15 percent of GDP, is down roughly 25 percent overall, 58 percent among Europeans and a staggering 93 percent among Brits. More than seventy hotels have closed in the country. Foreign investors are wary. And one-third of young Tunisians and roughly 15 percent of the overall population are unemployed. As one Tunisian after the next graduates from college with no prospects for employment, the population becomes more impatient and, in some segments, increasingly angry, contributing to the downward economic spiral on which terrorism preys.

In short, Tunisia is on the brink. And much like the Arab Spring it launched in 2010, Tunisia’s success or failure will resonate well beyond North Africa.

That year, twenty-six-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire on a busy Tunis street and triggered an awakening across the Arab world that toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Protests among the largest in recorded history led to concessions in another dozen countries.

Today, Egypt’s democratic experiment is considered a failure and places like Libya and Syria have descended into civil war. But Tunisia stands out as a modest democratic success. Its new progressive constitution and parliamentary system are popular. A free and fair election in 2014 gave the presidency to consensus-driven Beji Caid Essebsi. And the Islamist party is at least paying lip service to the separation of politics and religion (though its actions tell a different story).

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