22 November 2013

Tunisians Adjust to Terror At Home

Najjar in Tunis — Raja stands in front of the entrance of the Tunis shopping mall. A security man blocks her passage. He orders her to open her bag and scrolls a scanner over her entire body before allowing her to continue.

Welcome to the new Tunisia.

It began two years ago, when salafists stormed Nessma TV for airing controversial film Persepolis. Soon after, deadly riots erupted over a Palais Abdellia art show. Opposition politicians Chorkri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were shot dead in the capital and armed salafists attacked students for dancing.

All the while, radical imams were allowed to preach.

Then came the slaughter of Tunisian troops in Jebel Chaambi and a suicide bombing in Sousse, and everything changed.

The government for the first time declared its plan to stop extremists and terrorists.

"I feel bad about the deteriorating security situation," Raja Missaoui says at the mall after passing the guard's careful check, adding that she understands the heightened attention is for her own good.

Indeed, all shoppers who enter the centre are subjected to searches "to make sure they aren't carrying explosive materials or weapons", confirms security guard Saif.

"I was unemployed, but after the recent events experienced by the country and the news about bombs in some public places, I was recruited to work in this centre," Saif says. "Some people benefit from the misfortunes of others," he adds.

"I feel responsible for the security of dozens of people and that gives me a sense of both pride and fear," the young guard tells Magharebia.

Tunisia is now on alert. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has issued a direct threat to the country, security officers face violence in all regions, and explosives in public places are being found and dismantled with troubling frequency.

Tunisian citizens are trying to adapt to the new "normal". Most have become more cautious. Some are outright afraid.

Journalist Farida al-Mabrouki is among those whose lives have changed because of terrorism's arrival in Tunisia.

"For some time now, I haven't been able to drive at night. Even if as a journalist I need to work at night, I now get escorted by my brother," she says.

"According to what I notice on a daily basis, the security situation in the country has become the main concern for most people," she tells Magharebia.

Maysae Haider, 33, is in the same position. "I no longer go to the theatre at night, or out to see my friends and relatives, because I am afraid of driving at night by myself," she says.

"That is what made me addicted to the internet, and Facebook, and eating, which has added weight concerns to my worries," she adds with a wry smile.

Men are equally concerned about the new threats. Rida Bettaieb, a 48-year-old resident of the capital says, "The spread of crime in broad daylight and in front of everyone has become disturbing and frightening."

"I am no longer reassured until I see my children back home. I have banned them also from going out at night for fear of any misfortune," he adds.

There are also financial consequences of Tunisia's security situation. Some nocturnal professionals have seen a decrease in their business, taxi driver Ali Arfaoui tells Magharebia.

"Before the revolution I used to stay late without fear, but now I go back home early for fear of bandits and criminals," he complains.

"Due to reduced working hours, my daily income dropped, affecting my relationship with my wife and my children, especially since prices are continuously on the rise, adding insult to injury," the taxi driver says.

Citizens are trying to make the best of the disheartening scenario. Tunis resident Mounira al-Abedi says: "The assassinations, and the landmines that we hear about every day in Jebel Chaambi, make me pronounce the declaration of Islamic creed before taking the metro or when entering a mall."

"I am a practicing Muslim but what is happening today has nothing to do with Islam. Islam is innocent of these terrorists," she adds.

Tourism takes a hit

Since a suicide bomber blew himself up last month in Sousse - the first such incident in more than a decade - residents of the scenic beach resort fear the loss of the beauty, security and tranquillity that distinguishes their "jewel" from everywhere else in Tunisia.

This incident touched more than the Tunisian coast. Most of the country's commercial and tourist areas were suddenly forced to take unprecedented security measures.

But the terror attacks that targeted Sousse and Monastir made the sons and daughters of these areas even more determined to make their coast the most beautiful and peaceful of the Mediterranean.

The night of the bombing, residents of Sousse organised a concert in the same place where the terrorist set off his device.

"It's true that this incident greatly affected tourism in Sousse, but we are optimistic that our city will regain its calm shortly, especially as security here showed strength and professionalism by foiling these terrorist operations," Marwa Msakni, 26, tells Magharebia,

Mohab Bouraoui, a 33-year-old, points out that "many tourist areas in the world, such as Morocco and Spain, witnessed terrorist attacks that left many victims".

"Yet these countries quickly recovered and remained top tourist destinations in the Mediterranean," he says.

"We have to learn from each other's experiences and turn this weakness into strength in order for Sousse and Tunis to recover," he adds. "This is true especially since Tunisia's economy depends on tourism, and security is the basis of tourism."

Other local residents remain cautious. Monia Amiri, a 42-year-old says, "My husband and I moved to Sousse to escape the bustle of the capital. Our movements are now calculated. We no longer go out like we used to, especially since we have two young children and we are scared that harm may befall them."

"Better to stay at home or visit family during the holidays until security improves in Tunisia," she says.

"This will pass"

Yet despite all the fear over deteriorating security in Tunisia, cultural activities continued. The theatre of Carthage was filled to capacity during the annual summer concert series.

"I love Tunisia as is," Marwa Chayeb tells Magharebia at the Majda Roumi show.

"All these things are designed to scare Tunisians and make them give up their freedom," she adds, imploring fellow citizens to "live as you used to and stay up at night, have fun and enjoy the sea, the summer and the sun".

Bassam Ghali is unfazed by the security crisis. "Every year, I spent a few days at the beach of Sidi Makki in Bizerte," he says. He refuses to change his habits over fear of terror attacks.

"I am sure that this will all pass," he says. "Tunisians love life and joy, and will triumph over darkness."

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