A week after a gunman killed 38 tourists at a beach resort in Tunisia, President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency, granting additional powers to the security services and restricting large assemblies.
The Saturday move came as Tunisia is coming to grips with its second major terrorist attack in four months. In March a terrorist attack on the National Bardo Museum near Tunis killed 22 people, most of them tourists.
But it has also raised concerns that President Essebsi may be walking back the freedoms of movement, assembly, and expression that Tunisians have enjoyed since a three-year state of emergency — originally implemented during the 2011 “Arab Spring” — was lifted in March 2014.
‘‘Tunisia faces a very serious danger and it should take any possible measures to maintain security and safety,’’ Mr. Essebsi said in a nationally televised address Saturday, reports The Boston Globe. ‘‘If attacks like Sousse happen again, the country will collapse.’’
The state of emergency will allow the army to expand its areas of operation, and Essebsi has also pledged to increase police powers and enforce harsher penalties for terrorism related offenses.
The move comes as Tunisia attempts to arrest the sudden and profound decline of its vibrant tourism industry, which makes up 7 percent of the country’s economy. The unexpected departure of thousands of tourists in the wake of the beach attack has cost the country more than $500 million, Reuters reports.
The decision to enforce a state of emergency also comes on the heels of an announcement by the president last week that he would close more than 80 mosques not under government control as part of a plan to snuff out Islamic extremism in the country, echoing a move made by other countries in the region, reports The Christian Science Monitor.
Other nations, including Egypt, have taken similar steps. But most experts say that simply muzzling extremist imams isn't enough. Closing mosques must be part of a broader strategy that may include such steps as enlisting the help of Muslims to reject violence and alert authorities to those who would kill innocents in the name of Islam.
Essebsi argued in his speech Saturday that Tunisia had been the target of Islamic extremism because of its secular democracy. As Reuters reports, Tunisia’s terrorist attacks tend to be carried out by young Tunisian men radicalized abroad — particularly in Libya.
More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight overseas in Iraq, Syria and Libya for Islamic State or other militant groups. Some have threatened to return home to carry out attacks in Tunisia.
Tunisian authorities believe militant group Ansar al-Sharia is responsible for orchestrating the attack on the Imperial Marhaba hotel…. Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for the hotel massacre. Islamic State also claimed the Bardo attack, but authorities linked that attack to the local Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade.
Tunisian officials say all three gunmen in the two attacks were trained at the same time in jihadist camps over the border in Libya, where factional turmoil has allowed Islamist militant groups to gain ground.
Meanwhile, Tunisian police announced Sunday that they had arrested a woman thought to be romantically involved with the beach shooter, who has so far denied all knowledge of the planned massacre, reports Al Bawab. The woman — a student — is thought to be the sister of another jihadi, and to have met the killer, Seifeddine Rezgui, on the internet. Authorities believe he may have been with the woman at his home in the town of Kairouan the evening before the killings.