Thousands of people rally against terrorism in Tunisia. Hamideddine Bouali/Demotix. All rights reserved.
When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight on that fateful day in December 2010, he had no inkling that his act of self-immolation would engulf an entire region in sweeping protests. Yet four and half years on, as Seifeddine Rezgui calmly and meticulously gunned down his victims on a Sousse beach, we can safely assume that the wider consequences of his actions were not lost on him.
The attack on the Sousse beach, in which 38 tourists tragically lost their lives, was not just an attack on visiting westerners. It was an attack on the brave hotel workers and their industry, who desperately tried to shield their guests from the raging bullets of the murderous gunman. It was an attack on a hardworking builder, who courageously launched missiles of bricks and tiles, succeeding in knocking the gunman down to enable security forces to catch up to him. It was also an attack on Tunisia as whole, orchestrated to wreak havoc on a country that has come so far after overturning decades of dictatorship.
Since 2011, Tunisia has emerged as the sole success story of the Arab Spring. We waited with bated breath as Egypt flirted with democracy, before returning unrewarded to the tradition of tough military rule. We watched as Libya succumbed to violent struggles of power, the combination of weapons and a lack of authority proving a deadly cocktail for a country once showing promise. And we witnessed as Syria and Yemen slid deeper into the throes of civil war, providing a fertile ground for extremist elements to thrive. Through this all, Tunisia has shone brightly as the beacon of hope in the Arab world, principally guided beyond pitfalls by the willingness of the Islamist Ennahdha party to pursue compromise and conciliation across the political spectrum.
In January 2014, Tunisia earned praise for adopting a progressive constitution, enshrining the rights that were fought for in the Jasmine revolution. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, urged the people of Tunisia “to continue to inspire the world as they did some three years ago, and serve as an example for dialogue and compromise in resolving political disputes across the region and beyond”.
Tunisia has proved to the world that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy, marking the successful transition from despotism through two free and fair elections. Tunisians have placed their faith in the ballot box, despite attempts to steer them down a path well-trodden on by its neighbours. They have faced political assassinations, stagnating numbers of tourists and political deadlocks. All have threatened to derail Tunisia’s democratic transition, but none as much as this recent tragedy.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism contributed to 15.2 percent of Tunisia’s GDP in 2014, directly supporting 230,500 jobs and employing 6.8 percent of the total workforce. This attack sought to destroy the Tunisian economy, deliberately leaving it vulnerable to the tentacles of the extremists who feed on those with nothing.
Tunisia is now at a crossroads, facing the largest challenge to its democratic transition yet. How should it respond to such an atrocity without undermining the rights and freedoms that have been so resolutely fought for? Can Tunisia now negotiate the thin fine line of liberty and security without resorting to methods that characterise the old guard?
The horror that we witnessed was not simply confined to a stretch of white sand in Sousse, but it is a symptom of a growing terrorist threat that has gripped the world. It is an international phenomenon that requires an international response, and that includes supporting and reinforcing Tunisia’s security and stability.
Tunisia is stuck in a tug of war between those who wish it well, and those who wish it hell. If we in the west are truly the champions of freedom and liberty, then we must support those who have demonstrated their willingness to journey down the path of democracy. By murdering innocent tourists, Seifeddine Rezgui sought to extinguish the flames of hope and optimism that were ignited over four years ago. We must not allow this to happen.
This piece was first published on Al Huffington Post on 10th July 2015.