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Double attack in Tunis: ‘There are people who don’t want a stable Tunisia’

Guillaume Guguen, France 24 | Hundreds attended the burial of police officer Mehdi Zammali in Sidi Hassine, Tunisia, on June 28, 2019.

In the aftermath of dual attacks against law enforcement on Thursday in Tunis, residents are determined to not capitulate to fear or fall prey to divisions that could threaten the democratic process Tunisia has set in motion.

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It is 8:30am Friday on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the heart of the Tunisian capital. A clutch of police vehicles with caged-in windows snakes off the pedestrian central reservation (median strip) where they had been parked for hours. The convoy barely vacates the space before a street cleaner hoses down the pavement, like he would on any other day. As if life needed, quickly, to return to normal.

At the café Le Parnasse nearby, young people in shirtsleeves are chatting on the terrace. “The attack took place 100 metres away, but here we are,” one says.

A suicide bomber, yet to be identified, detonated explosives the morning before next to a police car parked at the intersection of Avenue Habib Bourguiba and the busy rue Charles-de-Gaulle. Police officer Mehdi Zammali succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the blast within minutes. Another officer and three civilians were wounded in the attack.

About 10 minutes later, on the outskirts of the city, a second suicide bomber detonated his charge in the parking lot of the headquarters of the Antiterrorist Brigade (BAT), injuring four police officers.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the dual attack hours later.

“I was home when I heard about the explosions,” recounts Makram. Well-acquainted with the centre of Tunis, where he plies his trade selling Mickey and Minnie Mouse toys, the 32-year-old refuses to give in to fear. “By attacking the capital at the start of the tourism season, they attacked Tunisia at its core. It’s serious, but I’m not afraid. Terrorism strikes everybody, even powerful countries like the United States and France,” he says.

‘They attacked Tunisia at its core, but I am not afraid’

At a table of one of the many cafés that stretch along Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Nadia and Wafa carry on as normal as well, as if this were any other day. “We are sad for our country, but we are not afraid,” they say, echoing Makram. The two sisters are local shopkeepers and, as they do every day after their morning coffee, will head to their store. “We, the Tunisian people, we just want to work, live and have fun,” they say.

After the 2011 revolution that led to the fall of the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power, Tunisia was confronted with the rise of the jihadism. In 2015, a wave of unprecedented attacks hit the North African country, killing soldiers and police officers as well as many civilians and foreign tourists. Twenty-one tourists and a policeman were killed in the attack on the Bardo Museum; thirty-eight tourists were killed in a mass shooting on a beach in Sousse.

More stable in terms of security today, Tunisia continues to hobble towards democracy which began with the Arab Spring, making it an exception among the Arab countries that experienced the 2011 uprisings. Nadia and Wafa maintain their optimism. “It takes time for change to take hold. Even the French Revolution took time. We would like, for instance, for a woman to lead the country.”

Guillaume Guguen, France 24 | A police officer holds aloft a photo of Mehdi Zammali during his funeral on June 28, 2019.

New leader, new legislature

In October, Tunisians are set to head to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. A few weeks later, they will choose a new president in another election.

Separately to the attacks on Thursday in Tunis, President Béji Caïd Essebsi was hospitalised after falling “seriously ill”. The Tunisian leader has long let it be known that he would not run for re-election, leaving the country to choose its second directly-elected head of state since Ben Ali’s ouster. “But there are people who don’t want a stable Tunisia, who don’t love our country, who don’t like elections,” the the shopkeeper sisters say, indicating some doubt about the alleged jihadist nature of Thursday’s attacks.

Indeed, Thursday’s violence against law enforcement has fed a number unsubstantiated theories on the streets of Tunis. Some see it as the work “of people from the establishment who are opposed to democracy”; others, a settling of accounts against a police force considered too intimidating.

But as with any suicide attack, like that on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in October 2018, the whole of Tunisian society appears keen to resist falling into the trap of divisions and hatred. The Tunisian press is no different, covering the event with such headlines on Friday as, “Tunisia still standing and standing together” and “Black Thursday unites Tunisians”.

Emotional burial for police officer killed

Sidi Hassine, too, was united on Friday. A 15-minute drive from Tunis, the smaller city was mourning one of its own as Mehdi Zammali, the police officer killed Thursday, was laid to rest. Hundreds of people, residents and police colleagues alike, attended the funeral. Interior Ministry Hichem Fourati also attended.

Standing with her friends near the cemetery, Nabila says she travelled to be there to show her solidarity with law enforcement. “I stand with the police because they are watching over our country. My son is a police officer and I’m scared for him,” she says.

Amal says she will not give in to fear. “Despite the sadness, our morale remains high because we aren’t afraid of terrorism,” she says. “I’m getting married next week and I am not afraid.” In fact, from Amal’s perspective, the jihadist threat is less of a weight to bear day in, day out, than the tough economic and social realities pervasive in this working-class city on the outskirts of Tunis.

“The police officer died doing his job. Law enforcement agents face terrorism and violence in difficult conditions and aren’t really protected,” she laments. “They are often young people who come from communities like Sidi Hassine who die in the attacks. I hope he will be the last martyr.”

Guillaume Guguen, France 24 | Near the cemetery in Sidi Hassine, Amal laments difficult conditions for police officers confronted with terrorism, on June 28, 2019.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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