Resilience of Carthage has lessons for Tunisia's leaders.

- Tunisia must not roll back significant gains in civil rights and freedom of speech as it opposes radical Islamists.
This article was initially published in The Age, 5 April 2015

The recent terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis represents yet another episode of senseless barbaric violence in the name of Islam.

Growing up in Tunisia, political violence in general and terrorist attacks in particular were rare despite living under a suffocating political regime. I visited the Bardo Museum on numerous occasions; most recently in 2014 as part of a collaborative research project on the critical role of cultural heritage. The image of terrorists carrying guns and firing shots around this iconic institution is at odds with those memories and reflects the profound change engulfing the country and the region as a result of the rise of violent extremism. 

When the terrorists, members of local jihadi groups affiliated with IS, opened fire on tourists and Tunisians at the Bardo Museum, they violated the sanctity of not only innocent human life but also a place that more than any other represents the civilisational identity of modern Tunisia. The thousands of artefacts housed at the museum date back to the Phoenician and Roman empires and serve to remind modern Tunisians that their former Carthaginian Empire withstood Rome for more than 100 years and was defeated only when the locals were unable to stand united in the face of aggression. This mythical resilience of Carthage might offer invaluable lessons for Tunisia's modern-day leaders, in particular the two main parties, the moderate Islamist Ennahda and the secular centrist Nidaa that have dominated the political landscape in post-Ben Ali Tunisia.

It is ironic that the attack on March 18 was only days before Tunisia's 59th Independence Day, a day which signals the birth of one of the most socially progressive Arab states. The country's independence, unlike the bloody struggle of many of its neighbours, was achieved peacefully and laid the foundations for a modern, secular society. 

Similarly, its revolution and transition to democracy were unlike other "Arab Spring" countries; negotiated successfully through difficult and, at times, a highly polarised political process culminating in the adoption of a consensual progressive constitution and the holding of free and fair elections at the end of last year. These landmark elections paved the way for a broad coalition government involving secularist and moderate Islamists and the country's first democratically elected president, Beji Caid Sebsi, an octogenarian with a vast political experience and a proven capacity to unite disparate parties around him.

The tragedy of this latest terrorist attack is that it can easily put at risk the many real political gains the country has achieved against all odds. Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring, is the only country where any kind of democratic blossoming has eventuated.

In neighbouring Egypt, the military has returned to power after the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi; Libya has descended into chaos with armed militias fighting one another in a bloody civil war. Unfortunately, one of the many consequences of the Libyan quagmire is its impact on Tunisia, where almost 2 million Libyans are now seeking refuge and where armed jihadists are trying to extend their violent influence. Furthermore, Tunisia faces these challenges within the context of wider regional instability; in Syria, Yemen and Iraq civil wars rage between an increasing number of armed factions and groups driven by sectarian divisions, regional alliances are shifting and the influence and audacity of IS militias is rising.

This frightening instability, which the Bardo Museum attack illustrates, is spreading across the region and beyond. The attack - which claimed 23 lives, 20 of whom were tourists including one Australian - signals a significant shift in IS's tactics and its capacity to inflict damage on key and symbolic institutions. Tunisia does not possess significant reserves of oil, gas or any other major natural resource. Its economy relies for the most part on the services sector; especially tourism.

An attack on the Bardo Museum, a key attraction, at the beginning of the new tourism season is clearly aimed at crippling the fragile economy and weakening the position of the newly elected government. That the terrorists were apparently also planning to attack the adjacent House of Representatives indicates a growing confidence and desire to inflict more psychological damage by hitting the very symbol of the new democratic Tunisia.

The paradox of Tunisia is that while the vast majority of the population rejects radical Islamists and their extreme ideological brand of Islam, the small North African country is nevertheless one of the largest exporters of IS fighters, including some in the upper echelon of the group's leadership structures. Of the estimated 3000 Tunisians who took up arms in Syria and Libya, at least 500 have already returned home and will continue to represent a significant threat in many ways.

Indeed, one of the key perpetrators of the Bardo Museum attack, Yassine Laabidi, fits this profile perfectly having embraced the radical IS ideology in a local mosque, then moved to Libya for further indoctrination and training only to return as a ready and willing terrorist awaiting instructions to strike. And as the hunt for the third gunman continues, the ramifications of this security failure will continue to play out publicly with the first casualty being the sacking of six police chiefs by the newly elected prime minister.

Against these shifting regional dynamics, it is no secret that the government, led by Prime Minister Habib Essid, did not make a great start to its political life and has been accused of being too slow in tackling urgent dossiers; most notably security. To make things worse the Nidaa Party, which won both the presidential and parliamentary elections, is in the midst of a very public internal fallout between factions and has become more focused on its own power struggles than on governing the country. But if the Nidaa and Ennahda parties are to survive this new challenge, then they must avoid at all cost any semblance of renewed divisions and polarised ideological debates about who bares ultimate responsibility for security failures.

It is understandable that many commentators are now wondering whether Tunisia still represents the "Arab exception" in terms of successful democratic transition and overall political resilience. But the truth, when one takes a broader more long-term view, is that despite these challenges, Tunisia has been, and remains, the only credible story in a turbulent and chaotic region.

That its politicians and civil society leaders were able to negotiate and navigate successfully a delicate transition period all the way to the establishment of democratic institutions is remarkable. But the challenges are even more complex as the new political elites tackle the key interconnected objectives of kick-starting the country's ailing economy and reining in the growing cancer that is jihadi terrorism. In pursing the latter, the new leaders of Tunisia must resist the temptation of undermining significant gains in the areas of civil rights and freedom of speech.

Perhaps this time the grandchildren of Carthage might write yet another chapter in their history of rising up to challenges against all odds even when others around them are falling by the wayside.

ADI