The slaughter of 38 tourists in Tunisia strikes at the heart of a fragile, young democracy

Many Tunisians are worried that a security over-reaction by police and military will threaten their new freedoms

 

The full implications of the Tunisian atrocity in which a gunman shot dead 38 tourists in the Sousse resort are now more starkly apparent. He was linked to fundamentalist groups claiming credit for this terrorist attack on Europeans. It is a dreadful blow to Tunisia’s emerging democracy and struggling economy. It poses a deep challenge to security authorities there and in European states on how best to prevent repeat attacks. And it has brought out the solidarity of Tunisian workers in the tourist sector appalled at what happened and an equally admirable determination among regular visitors there who respect the country’s renowned hospitality not to be intimidated.

Tunisia’s distinctive position as the one state to have come through the Arab popular uprisings of 2011 with a functioning multi-party democratic system based on a thoroughly deliberated constitution deepens this tragedy. That remarkable political achievement sits alongside deep problems with an economy incapable of providing full employment for its young population. Along with continuing resentment of those who were repressed by the previous Ben Ali regime and who have not found a role in the transition beyond it these factors help explain the paradox that there are an estimated 3,000 Tunisians fighting with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The Sousse attack recalls another against tourists at a museum in March.

Many Tunisians are now worried that a security over-reaction by police and military will threaten their new democratic freedoms. It is essential to protect tourist centres and the government acknowledges that not enough was done about that, however difficult it is to provide certainty. But to roll back freedoms of association, expression and movement in the name of security would only fulfil the aims of Selafist preachers and organisations who want to stop democracy succeeding. Tunisia deserves greater help from European governments and the EU as it struggles to prevent this radicalisation of unemployed youth with economic opportunities. Europeans have a deep stake in supporting the Tunisian experiment in democratic transition because the alternative would be far worse.

This attack is of course part of a much wider conflict within the Arab world, exemplified by the near simultaneous bomb in a Kuwaiti Shia mosque killing 27 people last Friday. The deepening sectarian divisions between fundamentalist Sunni movements and those they regard as apostate non-believers is driven by fierce resentment of their displacement by Unites States forces in occupied Iraq and is now stoked by aid from Saudi Arabia. Such links with western allies and interventions are reminders that mistaken policies have consequences for years to come in this region and well beyond it.

In considering how to tackle the resulting security threats European governments and citizens must also beware of an over-securitised stance. Calls like David Cameron’s yesterday for a “full spectrum” response invoke the kind of all-out war with which neoconservatives justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It would also roll back democratic freedoms without demonstrable improvements in personal or societal security. We need to respond generously and imaginatively to the solidarity shown by the Tunisian tourist workers in a common approach to this threat to all our freedoms.

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