Tunisians defy extremists to celebrate independence – Irish Times

Posted: Saturday, March 21, 2015

Two days after the attack that claimed the lives of 20 foreign tourists, a policemen and two jihadists, residents of the capital responded the only way they know how. They partied.

Friday was the 59th anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France. Official independence day events were scaled down to a discreet ceremony in the presidential palace. The government also surprised some by failing to declare a national day of mourning.

Tunisia’s assertive civil society seized control of the national mood, exhorting citizens via social media to celebrate on the avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after the father of Tunisian independence.

The Journées Musicales de Carthage festival went ahead, despite the attacks. Techno and rap music blasted down the avenue, while several thousand Tunisians lingered under the trees on the central esplanade, dancing in front of the stage, laughing and talking.

The café terraces that line the far sides of the traffic lanes were filled with people. No one seemed the slightest bit worried. They brought small children or lingered in couples, like Yassine Gtari (25), a student of computer programming, and his girlfriend Hela Snoussi, who is studying photography.

“We came more for the music than for independence day,” Yassine says. Hela wore a Muslim headscarf, but both students said they felt Islamist party Ennahda, which ruled Tunisia from 2011 until 2014, was indirectly responsible for Wednesday’s attack.

“Ennahda provided cover for extremists,” Gtari says, expressing a widespread opinion. “They let them recruit in mosques.”

Yet Ennahda’s post-massacre rhetoric about the necessity of national unity prevails in Tunis. “You can’t just throw away a million people by labelling them terrorists,” Gtari says. “If Ennahda made errors, the justice system must deal with it.”

Further down the esplanade, a majorette band drowned out the techno and rap. Young women in red-and-white uniforms with gold braid and white-plumed hats threw batons in the air. A boy trumpeter produced a tune vaguely resembling When the Saints Go Marching In.

“This is the citizens’ riposte to the attack,” Ayman Rezgui, a Tunisian journalist, shouts over the din. “Tunisians are demonstrating their joie de vivre. We’re continuing our way of life.”


The red-and-white Tunisian flag, emblazoned with a crescent moon and star, was everywhere, in bunting overhead and worn like a cape over shoulders. Red-and-white helium balloons were held in giant nets, awaiting release into the skies over Tunis.

An exhibition in a large white tent highlighted the main episodes of Tunisia’s march towards independence. The country has been largely spared the violence that has wracked its neighbours. Unlike Algeria, it did not have to fight for independence.

Yet old photographs showed French soldiers pursuing fellagha (anti-French militiamen) and guarding prisoners. There were lists of demonstrators arrested in 1911, seven of whom were executed, a petition from 1938 demanding the liberation of political activists and the creation of a parliament. And there was Habib Bourguiba in three-piece, pinstriped suit and Ottoman fez hat.

Bourguiba tried to inculcate moderate Islam in his compatriots. The benevolent dictator drank a glass of water before television cameras during the Ramadan fast, banned polygamy, encouraged women to take off their veils and made education free and mandatory.

“Fortunately, civil society is very strong in Tunisia,” says Slaheddine Grichi, editor-in-chief of La Presse, Tunisia’s leading newspaper.

“We have the strongest human rights league, trade union and bar association in the Arab world. We are different from other Arabs because we had the very, very great Monsieur Bourguiba.”

A few blocks away, in rue de la Liberté, beggars wait for alms outside the Fath mosque. In its Salafist days under Ennahda rule, the mosque was packed for Friday prayers. Today, there are only a few old men piling their shoes outside before entering for ablutions. Radical Islam, it seems, was a bigger draw.

The mosque is famous because Abu Iyad, leader of the Ansar Sharia extremist group, preached there when Ennahda was in power. Abu Iyad took refuge in neighbouring Libya when he was accused of organising an attack on the US embassy in Tunis. Secularists cite a photograph of Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannushi as evidence of its complicity with terrorists.

Today, the government – and the Fath mosque – are under the control of secularists. There were no reflections on Wednesday’s attack, but the new imam, a former minister for religious affairs, talked about the power of Allah demonstrated in the solar eclipse and the iniquity of an ageing theologian who claims the Koran does not ban wine.

Despite Tunisians’ joie de vivre and pride in their own political maturity, there’s an undercurrent of unease. The streets are empty after dark. Police cordoned off the radio and television building on Friday after receiving a threat. The massacre on Wednesday was the first attack claimed by Islamic State in Tunisia. Police say they have dismantled a ten-strong IS cell that was planning to attack two military barracks in Tunis.


In Nabeul, to the northeast, 13 Salafists were interrogated for having celebrated Wednesday’s attack with fireworks. Six other arrests were reported in Tunis and Bizerte.

Tunisia’s security, political stability and economy now seem very precarious. Despite huge ideological difference with the secular ruling party, Nidaa Tounes, Ennahda participates on the periphery of the coalition government.

“The museum massacre favours Ennahda,” says Samy Chapoutot, security expert in the small left-wing party al-Massar. “Their politicians are professionals, and they face a weak, amateur government.”

Secularists are circulating a photograph of Abdelfattah Mourou, co-founder of Ennahda and deputy speaker of parliament, standing beside Hatem al-Khashnawi, one of the perpetrators of the Bardo museum massacre. Mourou says he’s a public figure and often doesn’t know people who have their picture taken with him.

Now Mourou has fired his own volley at Tunisian security forces, accusing the entire security contingent outside the museum of having taken a break at a nearby cafe when the jihadists struck on Wednesday.


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