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World

Tunisia caught between panic and resignation

Attempted attacks on hotels and assaults on security forces have awakened dark memories in Tunisia. Officials have tried turning a blind eye to the violence but are beginning to recognize the problem.

Bags are checked at the entrance of shops and hotels, the street in front of the Interior Ministry and the French embassy in downtown Tunis is closed off to traffic, more police than usual are out and about. The heightened tension is still palpable in the Tunisian capital after failed attack attempts in the tourist hotspots Sousse and Monastir on Wednesday (30.10.2013).

In the historic part of Tunis, the streets are buzzing - albeit only with locals. There are hardly any tourists around. Ghazi stands in his little store, where he sells jewelry and traditional, colorful leather shoes. His customers used to be mostly tourists. "There is no business at all anymore," he said. "If things continue like this, I'll go out of business soon."

Business has been going downhill since the revolution. Tourism decreased by roughly 40 percent compared to 2010. This week's attacks have not helped the bleak situation, according to Ghazi and his neighbors.

"Tourists are safe here"

Empty street close to the interior ministry in Tunis. (Photo: Sarah Mersch, DW)

The street leading to Tunisia's Interior Ministry is closed to the public

Ghazi cannot imagine that a similar attack could occur and actually kill civilians: "I'm not afraid of that," he said. "After all, we are all Tunisians who love their country." Tourists are safe and the attempted attack was just an isolated event, Ghazi added.

Mary and her husband are sitting on a stoop watching people in the streets. The two British tourists haven't heard about the attacks. "We feel safe here," they both said.

Since the beginning of the year, Tunisia lost 19 members of the National Guard and the military. Many suspected terrorists have died in the state's retributive attacks. But, so far, the civilian population has been spared. The failed attack attempts evoke dark memories, not only in Tunisia. In April 2002, more than 20 people, including 14 German tourists, died in an attack on the El Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba.

For locals, the parallels to the summer of 1987 are even stronger. Just a few months before Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's coup against then-President Habib Bourguiba, four hotels in the Sousse and Monastir region were attacked. The plot was attributed to the predecessor organization of today's government party, Ennahda. The regime back then used the attacks to justify and reinforce the suppression of the Islamists, who were growing in strength.

The problem of gun running

The country's security currently suffers from a number of issues. Ever since the uprising in January 2011, the groups at the edge of Tunisian society have become increasing radical. Potential terrorists profit from borders to neighboring Libya that have become more porous since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The most important smuggling route for weapons headed from Algeria to northern Mali runs through Tunisia. Securing the borders in the southern desert is nearly impossible.

"The Tunisians are very scared," said Chokri Hamada, a speaker of the police union. "We have to be really professional now for the war against the terrorists to be successful."

A gate in the historic part of Tunis. (Photo: Sarah Mersch, DW)

Hardly any tourists make their way to Tunis' historic city center anymore

Tunisia's government has long turned a blind eye to the issue and denied they had a problem with violent groups. As recently as November 2012, then-Interior Minister and current Pprime Minister Ali Laarayedh said there were no terrorist training camps in Tunisia.

Today, the government believes the radical Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia is responsible for the attacks and for the murders of two opposition politicians in February and July 2013. But how strong Ansar al-Sharia is and whether they are indeed behind the attacks remains unclear.

Former Chief of Staff of the Tunisian Armed Forces Rachid Ammar stepped down in June. In an interview for the occasion, he cautioned very clearly against the growing danger of violent assaults by extremists.

"They want the state, the way it exists now, to break down," he said. "They want new bases, and a new system to take its place. Unfortunately, we are not talking about a small group of people."

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