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After terror attack, Tunisia's young democracy fumbles for answers (+video)

Authorities have arrested nine suspects in connection with Wednesday's terror attack at a museum in the capital. Most of the victims were foreign tourists. 

Of the questions posed by yesterday's terrorist attack here that killed 23 people, most of them foreign tourists, perhaps the most important is whether the murders will divide or unite this fledgling democracy.

Tunisia is widely considered the sole success story of the 2011 Arab uprisings, thanks in large part to the restraint and compromise of its politicians and voters. It has avoided the bloodshed and backsliding that have plagued other North African states like Libya and Egypt

But yesterday’s attack brings a fresh challenge. It was the first terrorist attack to kill foreigners since 2002, and the first ever in Tunisia’s capital. It also struck directly at the country’s vital tourism industry. And the government that must now respond to the challenge is an untested, fragile coalition that took office just six weeks ago.

Tunisia was already struggling to woo tourists and foreign investors, who have stayed away since 2011.But many Tunisians want authorities to balance the need for robust security with safeguarding their hard-won new freedoms: Fighting "terrorism" was often used to justify attacks on civil liberties under strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in 2011. 

Yesterday’s attack hit the Bardo Museum, a former palace of Tunisia’s Ottoman-era rulers adjacent to the parliament building. The museum houses a world-class collection of Roman mosaics and other antiquities, and was recently renovated. It's the kind of attraction that Tunisia is promoting in an effort to diversify tourism beyond package trips to resort hotels. For many here, it's a proud symbol of a three-thousand year heritage.

“I felt as if the Vatican or Mecca had been attacked,” says Taher Ghalia, who oversaw the Bardo’s renovation and now serves as Director of Musuems at Tunisia’s state heritage institute. For him, the Bardo “is a sanctuary of culture.” Authorities plan to tighten security at museums and historic sites to prevent a repeat of yesterday’s attack, Mr. Ghalia said.

Attackers take hostages

Around midday yesterday, gunmen sprayed tourists with assault rifles as they arrived on buses, reminiscent of 1997's Luxor massacre in Egypt. Some tourists fled into the building, where the gunmen also took hostages, according to government officials cited by Reuters. A standoff ensued as security forces entered the museum and evacuated the parliament. Security forces killed two gunmen and freed the captives, but two or three other suspects escaped. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said Thursday that nine arrests had been made.

The victims include 18 foreign nationals from Spain, Poland, Japan and Colombia,, as well as three Tunisians, including a policeman.

Leaders across the political spectrum have condemned the violence and called for national unity, while Tunisians massed in Tunis’ main boulevard yesterday for a march against terrorism. Earlier, Tunisians gathered outside Bardo Museum, cheering when security forces escorted busloads of civilians to safety.

“We will fight terrorism until the end, and we’re not afraid,” said Anouar Turki, a garrulous physics teacher who had crossed town with his wife, Hajer Deli Turki, to join the crowd.

Last night Prime Minister Essid urged Tunisians in a televised address to cooperate with security forces in combating terrorism. Tunisia’s leading political parties – Nidaa Tounes, which heads the government, and the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, its coalition partner – called for a new draft terrorism law to be adopted speedily.

Political tensions

Still, tensions lurk beneath the political surface. Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda fought one another vigorously in last fall’s elections. Nidaa Tounes, which came first without scoring an overall majority, invited runner-up Ennahda into the governing coalition over the protests of some of its supporters. Previously, Nidaa Tounes had accused Ennahda of having been too  soft on violent extremists while leading a transitional government from 2011 to the start of last year - a misstep Ennahda has since conceded making. 

Efforts to enhance security may invite scrutiny. Few Tunisians have forgotten that former President Ben Ali used the threat of terrorism to justify building a police state during his nearly 25-year reign. According to a report last July by Human Rights Watch, the new draft anti-terrorism law is an improvement on Ben Ali’s anti-terrorism legislation, but includes vague language that could allow for abuse.

A report released last October by the Pew Research Center found that most Tunisians viewed political stability and a sound economy  as more important than democracy. However, a majority of respondents also said that core elements of a free society – including fair courts, free elections, and the right to protest peacefully – were very important for Tunisia’s future.

For Mohamed Bridaa, head of Microsoft’s Tunisia branch and board member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia, there is a certain harmony to Tunisia’s most pressing concerns. Democratic transition and economic growth both require “strong, disciplined security,” he says. “A modernized security that respects the law and human rights.”

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