State of emergency declared in Tunisia as terrorist threat persists
TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency after the June 26th terrorist attack which killed 38 foreign tourists at a resort in Sousse even though some feared the measure could further deter foreign tourists and investors.
Caid Essebsi said Tunisia was “going through difficult circumstances, exceptional circumstances, which require exceptional measures”.
“Tunisia is facing an imminent threat,” he said, warning against the dire consequences that could befall the country should it suffer another major terrorist attack.
In the days following the attack, authorities arrested several people suspected of complicity with Seifeddine Rezgui, the Sousse assailant. A number of senior security officials were sacked.
Jihadist groups posted online threats of further attacks in Tunisia during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliate, killed 15 Tunisian soldiers in a mountain ambush during Ramadan in 2014.
According to Caid Essebsi, jihadists, trying to establish a theocratic “caliphate”, are targeting Tunisia because it is based on a “constitution which provides for a civil state” and that is not Islam-based.
The security vacuum in neighbouring Libya was also hurting Tunisia, said Caid Essebsi. “The 500-kilometre Libyan border with our country is hard to control. It’s only possible with technical means that Tunisia does not possess,” he said.
The two perpetrators of the Bardo National Museum shootings on March 18th and Rezgui were reportedly trained in Libya before returning to Tunisia to carry out the attacks. The three gunmen killed a total of 58 foreign tourists, mostly Europeans, and plunged the vital tourism sector into deep crisis.
Members of Tunisian jihadist groups are suspected of having smuggled weapons across the border from Libya. After the end of the NATO-led campaign that led to the fall of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011, Libya has been under the control of armed militias.
“The people combating us are mostly in Libya,” said Caid Essebsi, referring in particular to the Islamic State (ISIS). Hundreds of Tunisian jihadists are suspected of being based in Libyan cities such as Sirte, Derna and Subratha.
Caid Essebsi noted that Tunisia lacks the means to monitor its borders efficiently, saying, “We need external support and international cooperation.”
He called Tunisia’s struggle against terrorism “a special war”, adding that “there has to be a popular mobilisation” for it to succeed.
Caid Essebsi said the June 26th attack undermined efforts to attract foreign investments. “We need to bring in investment and we must provide a suitable climate, which we don’t have now,” he said.
The 30-day state of emergency grants authorities exceptional powers, such as limiting or banning demonstrations and strikes, restricting publication of information deemed detrimental to national security and restricting the movement of persons suspected of constituting a threat.
Most importantly, it will allow the army to lend support to security services in protecting cities and strategic targets.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sousse attack, the worst terrorist incident in Tunisia’s history, Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a series of measures, which included calling up army reservists to bolster security in “critical” areas and the deployment of additional security personnel to tourist areas. Authorities have started to close about 80 mosques suspected of spreading extremist thought and supporting jihadist activity.
Although political activists and human rights advocates voiced concern about the potential effects of the state of emergency on civil freedoms, the decision was generally perceived as justified by the population.
Retired colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr, president of the Tunisian Centre for Global Security Studies, said fears about restrictions were “exaggerated”.
“I don’t think the state of emergency will be a tool of oppression. We lived under a state of emergency from January 2011 to March 2014. Freedom wasn’t smothered and elections were successful,” Ben Nasr said.
“Tunisia and its security are truly threatened, economically and socially. Everyone must act as if we were in a state of war.”