The roller-coaster ride of the ‘Arab spring’ poster child
March 18th is known as “Black Wednesday” by Tunisians. That day, two Tunisian jihadists stormed the world-famous Bardo Museum, murdering 21 foreign tourists and a security officer. The attack deeply shocked Tunisians since it was the first time home-grown terrorists had attacked a civilian target in the Tunisian capital since the 2011 uprising.
The attack highlighted the gap between the jihadist world vision, which considers Westerners to be mere “unbelievers”, and that of the majority of Tunisians, who regard tourists as guests and see tourism as a vital source of revenue. Tourism employs 400,000 out of 11 million Tunisians and provides no less than 7% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Tunisians took ownership of the incident. They were shocked and grieving, but refused to admit defeat. On the very day of the Bardo attack, a patriotic reaction was sparked by a headline in the web edition of a French newspaper. “Tunisia is finished. Tourism is finished,” declared the Paris-based newspaper Libération. Tunisian media commentators and thousands of Tunisian social media users angrily replied, “Tunisia and its tourism are not finished”. The government’s transparent, even if occasionally confused, process in relaying details of the attack helped build a sense of national solidarity in the face of a common enemy. The response of the anti-terror squad was broadcast live on public television courtesy of a somehow-embedded camera crew. On March 29th, thousands swarmed the streets of the Bardo district carrying Tunisian flags and signs saying “We are Bardo” in a mass demonstration timed to coincide with an international ceremony marking the tragic event.
But a more powerful, if unexpected, coincidence was the news of the night before: Nine suspected terrorists, including an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief, were killed by special forces in the Tunisian southwest near the Algerian border. It was the first time jihadists suffered such a serious blow without the army or police suffering any casualties.
As the news spread, a sense of pride filled the air. Tunisia had decisively struck back at terror and, for days to come, people celebrated the ability of the state to defend them. Enthusiasm only dampened when terrorists struck again in early April killing five soldiers.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that what Tunisians want most from their elected government is to ensure security and put food on the table. This was not to say that Tunisians were sacrificing any of their dearly gained freedoms.
Two weeks after the Bardo attack, the government was still the butt of biting humour.
A popular satirical radio programme featured a skit about state leaders rolling out the red carpet to welcome the unprecedented flow of tourists since the attack. According to the spoof, three tourists from Botswana had landed at the airport and the president himself was there to welcome them.
In the roller-coaster days of Tunisia, self-deprecation is the other side of pride.
Oussama Romdhani is the chief editor of the Arab Weekly.