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A Tunisian woman holds a placard reading in French "Tunisia will remain standing," in Tunis on March 18, 2015. (Photo: AFP)

'Targeting the Beacon of Democracy': In Wake of Attacks, Tunisians Mourn

'The symbolism of such an attack occurring in Tunisia—the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring—is significant,' writes Tunisian blogger

Deirdre Fulton

Protests against the deadly attack at Tunisia's National Bardo Museum continued on Thursday, with outraged demonstrators condemning extremism while vowing to continue the country's fight for democracy.

At least 20 people were killed and more than 50 wounded when two gunmen attacked the museum in Tunis midday on Wednesday. The two gunmen, identified as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, were killed when authorities swept in and freed the hostages; the office of the Tunisian president said on Thursday that state authorities had arrested nine people suspected of helping the two assailants. 

On Wednesday evening, following the siege, thousands of Tunisians flocked to the capital's main thoroughfare, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, waving red Tunisian flags and singing songs from the 2011 Arab Spring revolution. "Tunisia is free, terrorism out!" they chanted.

And the country's main trade union confederation and other civil society groups called for a silent demonstration later on Thursday outside the Bardo museum.

Tunisia is often described as a key success story of the Arab spring—and according to some analysts, that is precisely why it suffered Wednesday's attacks.

"The symbolism of such an attack occurring in Tunisia—the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring—is significant," wrote Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, in an op-ed at the Guardian. "The perpetrators of the attack seem to have targeted the beacon of democracy that Tunisia has come to represent in the region."

"The terrorists seem to want to address Tunisians to tell them that the country won’t be spared the fate of its neighbor Libya and other Arab countries such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where chaos is taking hold as Islamist groups tighten their grip," she continued. "They seem to address the Tunisian authorities to say that the successes they are claiming when it comes to fighting terrorism are nothing but a mirage. They also seem to target tourism—an important sector for the Tunisian economy."

As Ben Mhenni notes, while chaos is reigning in other countries in the Middle East, Tunisia has succeeded in ensuring a relative stability—thanks at least in part to the economic benefits provided by the tourism industry. The country peacefully elected a new parliament in December and has prided itself as a model of political transition since the overthrow of the brutal authoritarian Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Those post-revolution gains could be undermined, however, by extremist attacks.

"What is being targeted is the civic way of life enabling citizens to live at once as Muslims and democrats," said Larbi Sadiki, a Tunisian writer and senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, in a piece at Al-Jazeera America.

Sadiki continued:

Wednesday's deadly attack on a museum in Tunisia should not be oversimplified as a threat against tourism. It is far more serious than that. It may mark the assault against civic political organization and a fledgling experiment combining Islam and democracy.

That experiment, the Arab Spring's first approximation of a durable democratic transition since the 2011 Arab revolts, is a blend of Islam and democracy. It seeks a two-fold synthesis: 1) between a moderate brand of Islam that tolerates ballots, gender equality, rule of law, pluralism, accountable government, and coexistence with the West; and 2) a form of democracy that is inclusive of all faiths and freedom of worship.

But observers within the country, such as Foreign Policy journalist Asma Ghribi, insisted that this week's attack would not be enough to undo democratic advancement.

Just as they did in the wake of the attacks in Paris, human rights activists are calling for Tunisian authorities to balance national security with civil liberties.

"Today's murderous assault targeted not only tourists and Tunisians, but also the tolerant and rights-respecting society that Tunisians have been struggling to build over the last four years," said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch. "Tunisian authorities should show through their response that their commitment to the rule of law is unshaken."

The World Social Forum, an annual meeting of civil society organizations dedicated to democratic ideals, nonviolence, and building alternatives to neo-liberal policies, is taking place in Tunis next week from March 24-28.

In the wake of Wednesday's attacks, the organizers of the event released a statement, saying the gathering was more necessary now than ever.

"Through this attack, terrorist groups attempted to undermine the democratic transition Tunisia and the region are currently experiencing while creating a climate of fear amongst citizens who aspire to freedom, democracy and pacific participation in establishing democracy," said the World Social Forum local organizing committee in Tunis.

"The social movement in Tunisia and the region counts on the global support of democratic forces to oppose violence and terrorism," said the committee. "More than ever, the massive participation to the WSF...will be the appropriate answer from all the peace and democratic forces towards a better, more fair and free world made of pacific co-existence."

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