Originally published as the cover page article of Foreign Policy magazine; 18 March 2015
day, gunmen stormed the National Bardo Museum of Tunis, killing 21 and briefly taking several hostages. The death toll may still rise. Two of the attackers were eventually killed, but others may be at large. While their motivations and ties are not yet clear, the impact of this event could be substantial for Tunisia’s political transition as a fragile post-Arab Spring democracy.
This is a new frontier for Tunisia. The small country sandwiched between Libya and Algeria is the Arab Spring’s lone success story of political compromise and hard-fought consensus. The country’s citizens have not seen, until today, any serious terrorist attacks against civilians (though there have been assassinations and attacks on soldiers and military officials). Tunisians have forged a functioning democracy.
This is in sharp contrast to their eastern neighbors. Libya has devolvedinto unending chaos, violence, and dysfunction. After a brief flirtation with democracy, Egypt returned to a thinly veiled military dictatorship. Today’s attack in Tunisia presents an important test for the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. If politicians respond the wrong way to this tragic event and let old divisions creep into the country’s fragile new political dynamic, Tunisia could fall into the same traps that derailed the Libyan and Egyptian transitions.
In 2013, two assassinations of prominent politicians threatened to derailthe country’s impressive political progress toward national reconciliation. For months, the legislature was shut down, its doors closed to debate and discussion. In that instance, it seemed, the terrorists had achieved their goal. Then, with strong leadership from both sides — moderate Islamists and pragmatic secularists from the “old” Tunisia — the stalemate ended. The doors of the parliament reopened, debate ensued, and compromise was reached. As a result, Tunisia successfully held peaceful democratic elections in late 2014, resulting in a smooth transition of power (a rare event in the turbulent and divided Middle East). The lone Arab Spring success story had yet again succeeded.
Today’s attack jeopardizes this success. For the most part, extremists have thus far been sidelined — but extreme elements, among both the Islamists and the old-guard secularists, will now be tempted to view this tragic event as a political gift, allowing them to grandstand, accuse their opponents, and employ divisive politics to jump-start their agendas.
Elements within the party of newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi will certainly call for a robust authoritarian crackdown. Moreover, members of his movement who believe that Islamists — writ large — are to blame for Tunisia’s turmoil and violence will speak with a louder voice after today, possibly gaining some influence. It is worth bearing in mind that Essebsi gave in to this kind of pressure during the recent electoral campaign and mistakenly equated his rival Islamist candidate with jihadis — an unfair and extremely inflammatory accusation.
It is crucial that President Essebsi be the president of all Tunisians by ignoring these divisive voices. Instead, he must stay the course of working with moderate Islamists while ensuring a robust security presence based on strong intelligence-gathering — but without sacrificing either the political progress that has been so painfully achieved or Tunisians’ fundamental rights.
On the opposite side of the political divide, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, must continue to work in good faith with the government and avoid provocative rhetoric that paints this attack as the fault of any political party or figure.
Undeniably, resisting such methods will be difficult for both sides. But resist they must.
It is precisely in such moments, when it’s easier to do the wrong thing than the right thing, that leadership is really tested. Tunisia’s leaders — unlike those of Libya and Egypt — have, so far, passed such tests almost without exception. Today, the test gets harder. If they falter now, they could put their country’s transition in grave danger.
The location of the attack, the National Bardo Museum, offers an important historic parable for today’s political elites. More than two millennia ago, Carthage — an ancient civilization situated just a few miles to the north of modern Tunis — fell to the Romans in the Third Punic War, precisely because the Carthaginian political elite had squabbled rather than focusing on a common national cause. Divided, Carthage was conquered and destroyed.
The National Bardo Museum houses the treasures of ancient Carthage and is located directly next to Tunisia’s modern national parliament building. Tunisia’s politicians — many of whom were evacuated from the parliament building during the attack — may miss the symbolic significance, but they certainly cannot afford to miss the lesson.
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Habib Essid invoked just this point: “All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy.” He was alluding to the target of the assault: The Bardo Museum is one of the top tourist attractions in Tunis. Most of those killed today were foreign visitors, including two from the United Kingdom, and at least one each from Italy, Spain, and France. This attack will do no favors for Tunisia’s crucial tourism industry, which has only just started to surge back from the enormous downturn it faced after the Arab Spring uprising. Today’s attack may prod prospective visitors to consider Morocco instead — with important negative implications for Tunisia’s already fragile economy. In that sense, this attack may create larger ramifications for the political transition by crippling the country’s painfully slow economic recovery.
This attack will likely not be the last. Tunisia is in a bad neighborhood. To the east lies the Libyan quagmire. To the west lie cells of terrorists, hiding in the Chaambi mountains on the Algerian border. Moreover, Tunisia has been the largest source of foreign jihadis traveling to fight in Syria and Iraq. Those extremists who have been fighting abroad may yet return home and seek to destabilize Tunisia with a tragic dose of chaos from the Levant.
In just two days, Tunisia will celebrate its national independence day. On Friday, President Essebsi should invite the leaders of Ennahda and other political movements to the presidential palace in order to speak with one united voice, on the same stage, with one unifying mission: a stable, peaceful, democratic Tunisia that will not deviate from its course, turn to extremism, or be tempted by authoritarianism when terrorists attack. This is an opportunity for the Tunisian political elite to show clearly and resolutely that their Arab Spring will not wither in the face of cowardly violence.