During a visit to the central province of Kasserine, which has seen terrorist attacks in past years, on Saturday, Tunisian interior minister Hichem Mechichi declared that terrorists on Tunisia’s border with Algeria had been successfully isolated and were now unable to carry out further operations.
“The readiness shown by our security forces and the measures taken by the interior ministry are much more important than their [the terrorists’] threats,” Mechichi was quoted as saying by Tunisia’s state media. He said that the North African country had decided to pursue terrorist groups into their mountain hideouts, abandoning the defensive strategy adopted in previous years.
Meanwhile, the Tunisian army said that its units in Kasserine had aborted terrorist operations targeting military and security troops. Primary investigations had showed that an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group called Uqba ibn Nafi had attempted to carry out such attacks.
Tunisia has been hit hard by terrorism in recent years. Kasserine, only 30 km from Tunisia’s border with Algeria, has served as a location for terrorist groups in both countries, mainly due to the nearby Chaambi Mountains that they use as a cover for training camps.
Security cooperation between the two countries has been ongoing, especially in the light of Algeria’s experience in handling counter-insurgency operations over more than a decade.
Perhaps a greater concern for Tunisia has been the spread of terrorist threats to other parts of the country. In March 2015, an attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group saw more than 20 people killed in the capital Tunis after two gunmen stormed the Bardo National Museum, a key tourist attraction.
17 of the dead were foreigners, including people from Japan, Italy, Colombia, Spain, Australia, Poland and France.
Then freshly-elected Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi said that “I want the people of Tunisia to understand firstly and lastly that we are in a war against terror,” adding that “the fight against the terrorists will continue until they are exterminated.”
However, three months later IS gunmen again opened fire on tourists staying at the famous resort of Port al-Kantaoui north of Sousse, a city known as a destination for tourists and a commercial centre.
In this attack, 38 people were killed, 30 of them Britons, three from Ireland, two Germans, one Russian, a Belgian, and a Portuguese woman. Terrorist attacks have continued sporadically in Tunisia since, including the death of a patrol officer and the injury of eight people in suicide bombings in Tunis.
The impact on the economy has been huge. Tourism, which represents roughly 15 per cent of Tunisia’s GDP and creates opportunities for about half a million people within a 12-million population, has been severely affected as governments and travel agencies around the world have issued travel warnings and cancelled reservations.
Even the end of the fight against terrorism may not be enough to guarantee the recovery of the sector, since the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus has impacted the industry in Tunisia as it has elsewhere in the world. Tunisia has 1,037 confirmed cases of Covid-19, while 807 people have recovered, and 45 have lost their lives.
Speaking to the Weekly, Mahmoud al-May, a member of the Constituent Assembly that wrote a new constitution for Tunisia after the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, said that the Algerian-Tunisian borders were “well controlled on both sides” and an exchange of information took place “on a daily basis.”
However, he is not optimistic about an economic recovery. “2019 was a reference year for tourism in Tunisia, and Rene Trabelsi, the ex-minister of tourism, was very successful in his mission. Yet, talking about the revival of any economic sector, including tourism, with Covid-19 is really difficult. We are expecting a decrease in GDP of around 4.3 per cent followed by possible stagflation,” he said.
In April, Tunisia’s parliament approved five loans for the country worth nearly 400 million euros. The deals were finalised with the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the African Development Bank. However, according to the finance ministry, the Tunisian economy still needs about $4 billion in foreign and domestic loans to avoid a budget deficit this year.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly