Contrary to mainstream media’s response to the March 18 attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, English-language news reports following the tragedy in Sousse have taken on a decidedly more investigative approach. This is not to say that the digital media landscape was spared the inevitable flurry of tabloid-worthy commentary and images: in the minutes and hours following the attack transpired the ungracious diffusion on Instagram and Twitter of victims lying lifeless between beach chairs and parasols; dramatized headlines announcing the «beach resort massacre» and repetitive descriptions recounting the scene; the photograph of Rezgui, with his uneven smile and unkempt hair, posing between Kalashnikov rifles, or Rezgui in swimming trunks walking along seashore past inflatable water rafts, rifle in hand.
The effect of such images is penetrating, a perversion and ironic reminder of the “I will come to Tunisia this summer” social media campaign which grew in response to the Bardo attack in March. But after the initial shock of and Western media’s knee-jerk reaction to one of three attacks which occurred on the same da y of June 26, mainstream news reports on terrorism in the country are relatively more substantial and worth contemplating than was the case several months ago.
British media in particular have covered the gamut of reporting since the end of June, and Tunisian readers have taken note. Some of the earliest articles to emerge set out to build a profile of the young man who had taken the lives of 38 people and wounded almost as many; others identified the “heroes” of the attack, commending the Tunisian hotel staff who had courageously placed themselves between Rezgui and vacationers. Beyond collecting eye-witness accounts and ascertaining the identity of victims, electronic journals The Guardian and The Independent have consulted security and government officials, civil society figures, analysts and experts to supplement whatever limited details and information are available through the official investigations led by the Ministry of the Interior1 and the Scotland Yard.
— Youssef Cherif (@Faiyla) July 5, 2015
Translation of @Faiyla tweet «Mirror is rubbish, but has information: ‘Tunisia shooter’s secret lair discovered».
Où l'on apprend que le Ministére de l'intérieur savait qu'une menace terrroiste pesait sur Sousse… http://t.co/SgvXM2M9lP
— Papillon (@Papiillon) July 3, 2015
Translation of @Papiillon tweet: «Where you learn that the Ministry of the Interior knew that a terrorist threat loomed in Sousse».
A glimpse into (the politics of) the security sector
«The Tunisian interior ministry received an alert in May of an imminent attack in Sousse, but failed to act on the information», reported The Independent on July 3. Quoting anonymous security personnel in Tunis and the controversial former security official Walid Zarrouk and founder of the non-profit Mourakeb, the article pinpoints the «corruption and political interference within the security establishment» which explains security forces’ delayed response on June 26 and which has generally prevented thorough investigations of and measures taken against potential terrorist activities.
Tunisia sacks governor and police over terror attacks http://t.co/NbL2KRJLWg And what of all the incompetentness at the national level?
— Aaron Y. Zelin (@azelin) July 5, 2015
Les médias Tunisiens vont maintenant relayer les aveux d'Essid à la BBC alors qu'ils ont eu mille occasions de lui poser la question
— Papillon (@Papiillon) July 3, 2015
Translation of @Papiillon tweet: «Tunisian media will now relay Essid’s confessions to the BBC although they had a million opportunities to ask him the question».
In an interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Habib Essid stated that the security problem in Sousse was «the time of the reaction». He confirmed that the government had previously prevented a number of attacks, and that currently more than 1,000 terrorists who had planned attacks are now in prison. Essid also explained that eight individuals suspected of complicity with Rezgui were being held in detention; «some of them are friends of his; they were living together in Kairouan, some of them are his relatives, living in Siliana». Since the attack, Essid assured his interviewer, more than 1,400 police officers have been stationed on beaches and hotels across the country.
Political discourse: “Tunisian society is not mobilized”
If corruption within the Interior Ministry inherited from the Ben Ali era is an explanation for present disjointed and poorly-implemented counterterrorism efforts, this reality remains outside the discourse of the country’s political leadership. The Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of a delayed police response was the first and most explicit admission of security failure by a government official2, though Minister of the Interior Najem Gharsalli’s apparent frustration at the absence of police reinforcements on a beach in the touristic city of Hammamet early this month was a telling reaction to some lapse in coordination or communication.
Meanwhile, President Béji Caid Essebsi has tactfully avoided elaborating on details concerning conflict within the security sector. «This is not a perfect system», Essebsi confessed in an interview on Europe 1. «We have decided to open a strict investigation and if there are failures, sanctions will be implemented immediately». Far from delving into internal security issues and potential reforms, Essebsi asserted that «War is not only the concern of the army and the police; it is the concern of all of Tunisian society» and in this context, «Tunisian society is not mobilized».
That fighting terrorism is a collective responsibility resonates with the theme of national unity that the administration advanced and mainstream media embraced following the Bardo Attack. The same theme set the tone for the President’s grave remarks on July 4 when he announced a state of emergency. «If what happened in Sousse is repeated, the State will collapse», the President warned in a highly criticized speech broadcasted on national television.
State of emergency resuscitates debate on national security “versus” individual liberties
Much as the counterterrorism draft law galvanized strong public response after the attack in March, the decision to declare a state of emergency has resuscitated the debate around national security and human rights. Political parties, journalists, parliament deputies, and analysts have articulated concerns regarding the government’s counterterrorism discourse and the provisional increase in State power to intervene at the civil society level. Under Decree 78-50 of 26 January 1978 regulating a state of emergency, provisions that have warranted particular attention include allowances for authorities to «ban the circulation of persons or vehicles» (Article 4), «order the temporary closure of theaters, cafés, and meeting places of any kind», prohibit «meetings that provoke or foment disorder» (Article 7), and «order house searches day or night and take all measures to ensure the monitoring of the press and publications of any nature as well as radio programs, film screenings, and theater performances».
Those who have called into question the implications of state of emergency maintain what critics of the counterterrorism draft law asserted: that national security and the protection of human rights are not mutually exclusive and indeed must be complementary. The current administration appears fairly impervious to this argument and unlikely to shift or broaden the one-dimensional security vision of governance which is so profitable for foreign corporations and institutions in the business of selling arms, and of proportionally little benefit for segments of the population in a number of the country’s regions.
If we pay for social demands we cannot pay for weapons; if we pay for weapons, we cannot pay for social demands. Mohsen Marzouk quoted in Tunisia attack: Senior government figure pleads ‘help us fight jihadists’ as nation seeks weapons and military hardware to battle ISIS, The Independent, 3 July 2015.
Remettre en cause les libertés fondamentales après les attentats est le meilleur moyen de nourrir la violence en Tunisie.
— Saida Ounissi (@SaidaOunissi) June 28, 2015
Translation of @SaidaOunissi tweet: – «Putting into question fundamental liberties after attacks is the best way to perpetuate violence in Tunisia»
…the Sousse tragedy exposed the ever-widening gap between politicians without ideas, stuck in an archaic ideological paradigm, and a growing segment of the population which for whom the illusion of political and social change is fading. Tunisia, One Week Post-Attack, Al Huffington Post Maghreb. 4 July 2015.
1. Sousse Attack: Security failures compounded by officials’ outlandish versions by Nadia Haddaoui is a fantastic examination of and response to the corruption and disorder within the Tunisian security establishment and foreign media’s illumination of information concerning the attack.
2. Al Huffington Post Maghreb has consistently pointed out the government’s reticence to admit issues within the security sector:
– The President of the Republic decrees state of emergency. 4 July 2015
– Attack in Tunisia – The police were too slow to react, admits Habib Essid to the BBC. 3 July 2015
– Béji Caid Essebsi “surprised” by the attack, but “there is no reason to panic.” 30 June 2015.