It’s also a country full of vulnerable targets, with an economy that depends on welcoming European tourists to its warm Mediterranean shore.
Despite having so much at stake, the shocking slayings of 22 tourists at the national museum in March failed to persuade legislators to resolve their debate over an anti-terror strategy proposed more than a year earlier. Only now — after a single jihadi from a gritty Tunisian town was able to kill 38 tourists at a seaside resort — does the government appear ready to launch a comprehensive response.
“We decided today to pass the counter-terrorism law before Republic Day on July 25,” parliament president Mohamed Ennaceur said while visiting survivors of Friday’s attack at a hospital.
“We will be after the government to take the necessary measures in all areas to fight against terrorism.”
The new anti-terrorism law would increase police powers and provide for harsher penalties, moves that worry human rights activists.
It also would create a commission to devise a strategy to tackle the roots of terrorism by addressing terror’s economic and social causes, and creating “de-radicalisation” centres to change minds through persuasion, not prison.
The law has been stuck in committees since it was first proposed in January 2014 as leaders of the coalition government sought to balance reform and repression. That’s a difficult challenge in any democracy, even more so in a country that knew only one-party rule for 50 years before the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In the security vacuum that followed the fall of his police state, ultraconservative Islamic groups flourished, and when their demands were denied, they began attacking politicians and police.
With technical help from the US and other countries, Tunisia’s security forces have slowly been rebuilt and are becoming more effective in hunting down terror cells and ramping up arrests of alleged extremists. But none of this stopped 24-year-old Seifeddine Rezgui from pulling an assault rifle and three grenades out of a beach umbrella and hunting down tourists at a resort hotel.
Immediately afterward, prime minister Habib Essid said armed guards would be placed at tourist sites, and that mosques outside control of the government would be closed. Essid also announced financial rewards for information leading to arrests.