By Christina Okello
Tunis on Saturday announced a raft of tough measures to eradicate the growing terror threat, after an Islamist gunmen shot dead 38 tourists at a beachfront hotel. Plans include a clampdown on radical mosques that spread religious extremism, as well as deploying army reservists around archaeological sites and coastal areas. But critics worry that this hardline approach could reverse the country’s democratic gains.
“We will take measures that are painful, but which sadly have become necessary,” a contrite Beji Caid Essebsi said on Saturday, after his government announced a stricter security campaign in the aftermath of Friday’s beach massacre.
Many Tunisians however wonder why the government’s last response following the Bardo museum attack yielded little gain, and why security allowed an attacker, posing as a swimmer, to shoot a beach full of tourists at the Hotel Imperial Marhaba in the town of Sousse.
“The government needs to take strong action,” Sonia Lansari, a lawyer living in the capital Tunis told RFI. “We are exhausted, this is one attack too many. The government needs to provide more security.”
More security means increased surveillance, and a stronger police presence. A scenario that Tunisians are all too familiar with, having lived under a police state during the presidency of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
But this cradle of the Arab Spring, which fought with thousands of innocent lives to remove Ben Ali’s police state, is today clamouring for its return.
“The growing terror threat has polarized the country,” explains Youssef Cherif, a political analyst based in Tunis. “It’s created two camps, there are those who want more police to counter the terror threat, and those who want to safeguard the country’s democratic transition. The first option will inevitably lead to a weakening of civil liberties.”
“We are at war with terrorism,” Selma Rekik Elloumi, Tunisia’s Tourism minister told RFI. “We are the only ones that have completed our democratic transition, and that upsets some people,” she said.
For Elloumi, the attack on Sousse, which has since been claimed by Islamic State, was not just an attack on tourism- record numbers of tourists have been scrambling to leave Tunis – but also on democracy.
A heavy handed response by the Tunisian government on the other hand will only be pandering to terrorists, and satisfy their goal of persuading the Arab World’s strongest democracy to abandon its values, that were secured with blood.