Suicide bombing in Tunisia fans political tensions

The shock of the attack whipped up divisions among Tunisian political factions and could hinder efforts to address the country’s economic slump.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Wake-up call. Policemen stand behind  crime scene tape at the spot where a female suicide bomber set off explosives on Habib Bourguiba avenue in downtown Tunis, on October 29.                                   (Khaled Nasraoui)
Wake-up call. Policemen stand behind crime scene tape at the spot where a female suicide bomber set off explosives on Habib Bourguiba avenue in downtown Tunis, on October 29. (Khaled Nasraoui)

TUNIS - A suicide bomb attack in Tunis caused more political impact than casualties.

The October 29 explosion, which killed no one other than the person who set if off, was reverberating across Tunisia’s political landscape several days after the attack.

A woman set off a bomb on Tunis’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the first terror attack in a Tunisian city in three years. The shock of the attack whipped up divisions among Tunisian political factions and could hinder efforts to address the country’s economic slump and social tensions.

The bombing, which wounded 15 police officers and five civilians on Tunis’s usually crowded main thoroughfare, ended an extended period of calm in Tunisia outside sporadic incidents in remote north-western mountainous areas.

Attacks targeting tourists and claimed by the Islamic State in 2015 had brought the country’s tourism industry, a key earner of foreign currency, to a halt. An attack in November 2015 killed 12 presidential guards in Tunis and prompted Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to declare that “Tunisia is at war with terrorism.”

Tunisian Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said the October 29 bombing was an “isolated act” and praised security services for their vigilance and swift response.

While it took several years after the shootings in 2015 for tourists to return to Tunisia in sizeable numbers — some 8 million visitors are expected in the country this year — daily activities quickly resumed on Bourguiba Avenue after the recent attack.

The same cannot be said for Tunisia’s political stage, however. The bombing fuelled tensions between leftist groups and the main Islamist Ennahda Movement party and widened internal divisions in the centre secularist camp whose raison d’etre had been to offer a counterweight to Islamists.

“Terrorism was born in the shadows of the Islamist-led government in 2012,” said Ammar Amroussia, a parliamentarian from the Popular Front, an alliance of mainly anti-Islamist leftist parties.

“One of the Islamist leaders said once ‘Tunisia has 50,000 policemen and we have 100,000 suicide bombers.’ Please tell us how many suicide bombers you have now,” he added during heated debate in parliament.

Anti-Islamist activists argued that Islamists fostered jihadism in Tunisia and abroad, an accusation denied by Islamist leaders. Ennahda parliament member Abdellatif Mekki suggested Ennahda’s foes could be behind the bombing to halt the Islamists’ momentum before elections next year.

“God willing, Tunisia has the manpower and equipment to eradicate the terrorists and foil their plots but the question is the strange coincidence between the terrorist agendas and the agendas of those seeking to sow chaos,” he said.

International Crisis Group Senior Analyst for Tunisia Michael Ayari, in a posting on the group’s website, said “the most important impact may be political” and the attack may have “hammered a new wedge into Islamist-secularist political divides.”

The divide manifested itself in the parliamentary debate, TV talk shows and social media. “The attack was an opportunity for political groups to throw the worst accusations against one another using violent discourse,” said political writer Ikhlas Latif.

Analysts said rekindled rifts in the secular camp and between Ennahda and its opponents in leftist and secular groups would only escalate until general elections next year.

However, they are mostly not worried about the security situation in the short term. Since the series of attacks three years ago, security agencies have largely retaken the initiative, dismantling jihadist cells and pre-empting attacks. Approximately 4,000 suspects have been arrested, authorities said.

Caid Essebsi said shortly after the attack: “We believed that we had succeeded in eradicating terrorism in our cities but this latest terrorist incident underlined that terrorism could still do us harm and it is present at heart of the capital.”

He warned that if the country’s leaders did not address underlying problems in Tunisia, “then terrorism will bring us all down.”

Tunisia has plunged into its worst economic and social crisis since protests toppled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali early in 2011. Inflation and trade and budget deficits are at their highest levels in three decades. The overall jobless rate is at more than 15% and at more than 30% for university graduates.

Observers said unabated tensions would affect the government’s ability to carry out reforms and hinder political dialogue ahead of next year’s general elections.

“Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history,” said Ayari.

“The result of the current political climate is a thick layer of clouds and anxiety billowing from every corner of the country blurring the outlook and nullifying any process aimed at restoring confidence and hope to Tunisians,” said political writer Nejib Ouerghi.

The Interior Ministry said the bomber was from the small coastal village of Sidi Alouane near Mahdia, 200km south of Tunis. She was not on the police radar as a potential threat.

“The terrorist operation showed that the role of women in terrorism is changing from a role in the support network to a more active operational role,” said retired National Guard Colonel Ali Zeremdini.

Experts said Tunisian female jihadists who joined the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or their affiliates in Syria and Libya represent a new challenge for Tunisia if they duplicate at home the roles they played abroad.

“Although authorities understandably tend to focus on men when assessing Tunisia’s progress against jihadism, it is important not to downplay the security dilemmas presented by female sympathisers,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, a Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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