Suicide bombings jolt Tunisia amid anguish over leader’s health

The country was shaken by concern over the health of a president widely seen as a reassuring fatherly figure amid the many uncertainties clouding Tunisia’s horizon.
Saturday 29/06/2019
Trying to reassure. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (C) walks with Interior Minister Hichem Fourati (L) outside the Interior Ministry headquarters near the scene of a suicide attack in the capital Tunis, June 27.  (AFP)
Trying to reassure. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (C) walks with Interior Minister Hichem Fourati (L) outside the Interior Ministry headquarters near the scene of a suicide attack in the capital Tunis, June 27. (AFP)

TUNIS - Two jihadist suicide bombers blew themselves up 10 minutes apart in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, killing a police officer and injuring eight people.

The attacks heightened concern about the country’s stability after Tunisia’s 92-year-old president was rushed anew to the hospital in critical condition on the same day. Concerns eased in the following days after the president’s health reportedly began improving.

The US-based monitor SITE Intelligence Group said the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for June 27’s double attacks that targeted Tunisian security forces.

The twin suicide bombings were the first major deadly attacks claimed by ISIS in Tunis since November 2015 when an extremist blew himself up inside a bus carrying presidential guards, killing 12 members of the elite force.

That attack followed Tunisia’s deadliest extremist attacks, which struck at the heart of Tunisia’s key tourism sector in 2015. One at the Bardo Museum in Tunis claimed the lives of 22 people, and another three months later killed 38 people in the coastal city of Sousse.

Tunisia’s tourism has since rebounded with the government expecting a record number of tourist arrivals of 9 million this year.

Security forces and the army battled the jihadist threat by dismantling dozens of extremist cells, jailing more than 2,000 individuals suspected of terror links and forcing jihadists into their isolated hideouts in the mountainous areas.

The first June 27 attack took place at 10.50am when an assailant blew himself up close to a police patrol near the French Embassy at a busy city street in downtown Tunis, killing himself and a police officer and injuring seven other people, including two police officers.

The second attacker blew himself up 10 minutes later some 3 km away, in front of the back door of al Gorjani’s judiciary police and anti-terrorism headquarters, injuring four policemen.

Tunisian media said the anti-terrorist elite force was exiting the police complex to rush to the scene in response to the first attack when it was targeted by the suicide bomber.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told Tunisians from the front of the Interior Ministry in the wake of the attacks: “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Stay together united.”

“There is no place for terrorist groups in Tunisia. Our war with them is an existential war,” he said.

Tunisia’s army and security forces have faced threats from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which had been the main terrorist group in the Maghreb before the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) after 2013.

The terror groups are viewed by jihadism experts as having been attractive to disaffected young people throughout the region, particularly in Tunisia, where authorities were slow to respond to the jihadists who began building support bases in 2012 when Islamist

party Ennahda was the main ruling party.

The twin bombings occurred in a tense political climate as Tunisia is going through a pivotal year with elections scheduled in October and November.

The attacks could carry economic risks for a country that is still trying to impulse growth and employment since the 2015 attacks. The bombers struck at the beginning of the high tourism season.

Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi, who is credited with bolstering the recovery of the key sector, said the attacks, which “can happen anywhere in the world,” will not affect the performance of the sector.

The attacks added another layer of gloom in Tunis streets on June 27,  a day dubbed “Black Thursday” by many Tunisians. They coincidentally occurred a couple of hours before it was announced that President Beji Caid Essebsi “was taken seriously ill and transferred to the military hospital in Tunis.”

Communication adviser to the president Firas Guefrech described the veteran leader as being in “critical condition” and in a later tweet said Essebsi was “stable.”

The president’s son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, said late June 27 that there were “the beginnings of an improvement” in his father’s condition.

Parliament member Sahbi Ben Fraj said the president was able to speak later June 27.  Caid Essebsi was reported to have called the minister of defence on June 28 to discuss the terrorist attacks.

Chahed, who paid a visit to the ailing president, tried to reassure Tunisians, saying: “The president is receiving the necessary care,” but warned against the dissemination of “false and confusing information.”

He was referring to a spate of erroneous news reports and social media posts claiming the president was dead.

Reports of the president’s ill health sparked speculations over the political, electoral and constitutional implications in case the highest executive office is temporarily or permanently vacant.

Constitutionally, if the Tunisian president passes away or is permanently incapacitated while in office, he is replaced by the speaker of parliament.

Caid Essebsi has been prominent in politics for six decades as he served in top positions under Tunisia’s modern founder, the late President Habib Bourguiba and his successor, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in a social uprising in 2011.

Caid Essebsi is widely seen by most Tunisians as a reassuring fatherly figure amid the many uncertainties clouding the country’s horizon.