NEWS

Tunisia museum attack: Country unlikely to slide into chaos

03/21/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/20/2015 05:59 EDT
Although a symbolic blow to Tunisia's crucial tourism industry, the attack at the National Bardo Museum should not be mistaken for the early signs of a country sliding into chaos, analysts say.

The small North African country has viable government institutions and a strong civil society that can withstand the threat posed by extremists, said Geoff Porter, founder of North Africa Risk Consulting.

"How serious is it to the lives of Tunisians? Very," he said. "How serious is it to the stability of Tunisia and the continuation of Tunisia's democratic transition? Less so."

The country is the birthplace of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movement that shook the Middle East and North Africa four years ago and is arguably its only success story.

Last year's elections for a new parliament and president were widely hailed as free and fair.

"That gives it some resiliency that, for example, Libya has not enjoyed," Porter said.

However, the country is not without its troubles.

Officials say approximately 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight with extremist groups, and about 500 have returned.

Its security forces have also battled militants operating within its territory, including the Ansar al Sharia group.

'We will continue to live'

Opposition politician Abdelmajid Belaid said Wednesday's attack in the capital city of Tunis — which left 23 people dead, most of them tourists — would not change the country. He was part of the crowds celebrating Tunisia's independence day in Tunis on Thursday.

"I came here today to say something to the terrorists: we aren't scared and we will continue to live, to play, to dance," Belaid said. His brother, Chokri Belaid, was a secular politician who was shot dead in 2013.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the museum attack, but some observers have questioned the claim.

Security officials said Thursday the two gunmen they shot trained in Libya before returning to Tunisia.

One of the men, Hatem Khachnaoui, had previously been arrested on terrorism charges. He was from the central city of Sbeitla, an impoverished region not far from the Algerian border where an al-Qaeda-linked Tunisian group has carried out several attacks.

Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at Council on Foreign Relations base in the U.S., said there are some troubling signs in Tunisia that could suggest further instability, including the thousands who have already left to join groups like ISIS.

"You have a deeply polarized society, you have a bad economy, you've got people outside the major cities in the north in the central part of the country who are unhappy," he said.

"All of that contributes to what I think is a fairly volatile mix."

Much will also depend on how the government responds to the attack, Cook said.

A heavy crackdown on Islamic groups could push others to join the ranks of militants.

"There is a repression-radicalization dynamic that creates a larger pool of people who might be willing to take up arms against the state," Cook said. "That pool already exists."

Strong middle class

Tunisia was hailed as a bastion of secular moderation even before the ouster of longtime ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Porter, from North Africa Risk Consulting, said Tunisians are largely well educated and the country has a strong middle class.

"It's a very plugged in population," he said. "They are abreast of political trends."

He also said there is a willingness to compromise across the political spectrum.

The Islamist Ennahda party would prefer to work with its political opponents because it wants to remain a part of the process, Porter said.

"The secularists, likewise, don't want to box the Islamists into a corner because they recognize that if they box them into a corner that could lead to a sense of political disenfranchisement and then potentially to radicalization," he said.

The country's president called for unity in its fight against terrorism during a national address on Friday, BBC reported.

"We won't win if we don't stand together," said Beji Caid Essebsi.

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