26th June 2015
Hopes that scale of Sousse resort attack will not spark loss of confidence in a country regarded as relatively peaceful, compared with troubled neighbours
The slaughter of sunbathers and hotel staff on the beaches of a country that has always prided itself as a carefree, laid-back destination for package holidaymakers has dealt a huge blow to Tunisia.
The small north African country lit the first spark of the Arab spring four years ago, when its popular uprising toppled a corrupt dictatorship relatively peacefully. It is often looked to as the hope of the region. Unlike its troubled neighbours, it has managed to keep its political transition on course — crafting a new constitution, staging free presidential and parliamentary elections.
But with a struggling post-revolution economy that depends in large part on its beach resorts and foreign visitors, it was already facing the serious ongoing challenges of how to tackle unemployment, social unrest and strikes, and how to address the feeling among the poorest and the young that their demands, which inspired the revolution — the need for social justice, jobs and the fight to end corruption — are yet to be fully achieved.
In recent months, Tunisia was already grappling with a growing jihadi problem. Thousands of its young men — more than any other Arab country — have gone to fight in Syria, and porous borders with Libya and Algeria have raised the stakes. Yet the Sousse attack seems to cement a troubling new pattern.
Before this spring, the jihadi threa was aimed mostly at Tunisian security forces. But the March terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis that killed 21 foreign tourists and a policeman and now the Sousse beach massacre suggest a new focus on soft targets. The negative impact on the country’s image and economy is potentially highly damaging.
“I think the effect of this will be even more serious than the effect of the Bardo attack in March,” said Monica Marks, a North Africa analyst based in Tunis. “Not all tourists who come to Tunisia want to visit the Bardo museum: a lot more — particularly the German and British — are Vitamin D tourists who want to spend time on the beach.
“Sousse has the most package tourism of any other Tunisian resort on the coast,” she added. “Images of tourists dead across sunloungers will have a considerable effect. Tourism accounted for around 14.5% of Tunisian GDP last year. This will have considerable repercussions for the Tunisian economy. It also will also affect investor confidence.”
Marks said that the attack on this scale could spark a loss of confidence in the government and dent its authority.
The government response will be crucial, particularly in a country where the balance between security measures and human rights is both delicate and important.
In December, a new parliament was elected. The president Beji Caid Essebsi is an 88-year-old secularist who served as a senior official in Tunisia’s previous regimes. His ruling secular party Nidaa Tounes governs in a coalition that includes the small presence of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist movement that won the first post-uprising election and has done much to make Tunisia’s transition a relative success.
After the Bardo attack, the immediate reaction of Essebsi was to spearhead new anti-terror laws and promise a crackdown. The tough new legislation has not yet been passed, politicians have argued over it and lawyers and human rights groups have raised concerns about freedom of speech and civil liberties, arbitrary arrests, detention and police harassment.
The balance between security and human rights is a delicate issue in a country that, under the authoritarian Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was a notoriously brutal police state. Tunisia’s post-revolution Truth and Dignity Commission is currently attempting to deal with the harrowing accounts that stem from the country’s recent history. The issue of torture, even after the revolution, has not yet been fully dealt with. This commitment to deal with the past is vital and Tunisia is unlikely to slide back to the days of Ben Ali’s oppressive state. But lawyers and rights groups are pushing to keep that balance between security and rights.
Tunisia prides itself on its continuing resilience in the face of its post-revolution challenges, including political assassinations and the jihadi threat. The Sousse attack is one of its biggest challenges yet.