Tunisia lifts state of emergency, challenges remain
TUNIS - Tunisia rescinded the state of emergency imposed after a terrorist rampaged through a landmark tourism site and killed 38 foreign visitors in June.
The attack wreaked havoc on the country’s key tourism business and stirred concern about terrorism risks in the North African country.
Security threats were underscored by the September 30th announcement by the Interior Ministry that authorities had seized two pickup trucks rigged with explosives aimed at hitting security and economic targets in the southern province of Medenine, which includes Djerba island, Tunisia’s tourism hub.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said a repeat of the June 26th attack on the Kantaoui resort in Sousse would cause the collapse of the Tunisian state. He declared the state of emergency in early July but rescinded it October 2nd.
During the two months it was in effect, the state of emergency did not seem to effect the daily lives of Tunisians very much, despite fears expressed by human rights organisations that it would fetter freedoms in the country.
Apart from giving a greater role to the army in domestic security, the state of emergency allowed authorities to raid homes of suspected terrorists at any time and to bar strikes and demonstrations. There were, however, strikes and demonstrations in recent weeks.
Tunisian student Seifeddine Rezgui, 23, was identified as the lone shooter in the Sousse attack. He was killed by police after the bloody rampage. He was said to have received training in Libya.
When announcing the state of emergency on July 4th, Caid Essebsi cited terrorist threats from across the border with Libya.
The security vacuum that has prevailed in Libya since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011 has led to continued civil strife and to jihadist organisations, including the Islamic State (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, establishing a foothold in Libya.
Hundreds of Tunisians are said to have joined such groups, which provided terrorist training. A number of terrorist incidents in Tunisia since 2013, including the Sousse attack, have been attributed to Tunisian jihadists trained in Libya.
At the end of September, Tunisian troops stopped two bomb-laden vehicles crossing from Libya and seized arms and documents bearing ISIS symbols. The newspaper Al-Chourouk said following the vehicles’ seizure that Tunisia had escaped a “catastrophe”.
“The army has dismantled the car bombs, which were rigged to detonate, one with a bomb belt, the other with rocket explosives,” the Interior Ministry said.
A month before, Tunisian authorities warned of possible vehicle bombings in Tunis and banned traffic in parts of the city after intelligence reports indicated potential attacks in the capital.
Tunisia’s government in July also started building a fence along the Libyan border to stop Islamist militants from slipping across the frontier. Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, the North African country has seen a rise in jihadist extremism, which have caused the deaths of scores of foreign tourists and dozens of security forces. Terrorist attacks have seriously damaged tourism activity and have dented the economy at large as the leisure business is a main earner of foreign currency receipts.
Britain advised against travel to Tunisia after the Sousse attack, in which 30 Britons were among the victims. Tour operators TUI and Thomas Cook shelved Tunisia programmes from Britain until at least 2016. Other European tour operators switched some programmes to other destinations, such as Spain.
Tunisian Tourism Minister Selma Elloumi said recently that the number of visitors was off 20% in 2015, through September 10th, to 4 million.
The number of European tourists was down 50%, though additional Algerian and Tunisian tourists have made up a portion of the difference.
The Central Bank of Tunisia said tourism revenue in 2015 was down 76% compared to 2010.
Tourism accounts for about 7% of Tunisia’s gross domestic product and 15% of its foreign currency revenues.
Tunisia has cut its economic growth forecast to 0.5% for this year, down from an initially anticipated 3%. In the most recent Global Competitiveness Report issued by the Davos Forum, Tunisia ranked 92nd compared to 32nd in 2011.