On March 18th, terrorists took hostages at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis. When the dust settled, 22 innocent people had been murdered, mostly foreign tourists (20) but also Tunisian nationals (2).
Tunisia is to date the lone success story of the “Arab Spring”. This distinction, while undoubtedly a positive, makes Tunisia a target for extremist groups who are ideologically opposed to moderization, democracy, and human rights (“Western values”). It was not, therefore, a question of if extremists would try to scare the democracy out of Tunisia, but when and how.
That question was partially answered on March 18th, and unfortunately there are no guarantees that extremists groups will not attack again. Tunisia’s security forces must remain vigilant, and should receive substantial support from the international community. Seeing Tunisia succeed as a stable, functioning democracy is not only in the interest of Tunisians, but also the disenfranchised throughout the region and the world.
The Tunisian people, for there part, have proven themselves to be remarkably courageous and dedicated to democratic values:
World leaders joined tens of thousands of Tunisians on Sunday to march in solidarity against Islamist militants, a day after security forces killed members of a group blamed for a deadly museum attack.
“We have shown we are a democratic people, Tunisians are moderate, and there is no room for terrorists here,” said one of the demonstrators, Kamel Saad. “Today everyone is with us.”
“The Tunisian people will not bow,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said in a speech after the march. “We will stay united against terrorism until we wipe out this phenomenon.”
Tunisia’s leaders have passed every test of their commitment to democracy. They have transferred power peacefully and enshrined their dedication to liberal and pluralistic democracy in a new constitution. I am confident that the international community, understanding both the ethical and symbolic implications of Tunisia’s democratic success, will provide assistance as necessary.
But in the wake of these terrorist attacks, a new test to democratic values has emerged–preserving the rights of the accused:
Tunisian security forces have arrested 23 more suspected Islamist militants as part of a crackdown after last month’s Bardo museum attack in which two gunmen killed 21 foreign tourists, the interior ministry said on Friday.
The attackers gunned down foreign tourists visiting the national museum in Tunis, in one of the worst attacks in the country, which has mostly avoided violence since its 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
The interior ministry said in a statement that the 23 new suspects belonged to two terrorist cells. It said that so far 46 suspects have been arrested since the Bardo massacre.
“Members of these terrorist cells will be charged of being accomplices in the terrorist incident (Bardo attack) through providing weapons and logistics help,” the statement said.
I do not pretend to know the evidence against those arrested as accomplices–it is possible that all of the 46 suspects indeed are guilty of being accomplices to this heinous attack. But it is imperative that due legal processes are followed, and that trials are conducted in an open and transparent way.
People are angry, and rightfully so, but convicting people to placate public anger would be a misstep for Tunisia’s budding democracy. Tunisia’s government should resist urges to try all the defendants jointly (except when a joint trial is objectively prudent), and let the facts of the case determine the outcome.
Effective democratic governance is not only about majority rule, it is also about pluralism, personal rights, judicial transparency, due process and rule of law. Tunisia must show peaceful Muslim’s that there is a place for them in Tunisian society, that they won’t be unjustly punished because of their beliefs. Failure to do so would be counter-productive, pushing Muslims into extremists arms, resulting in greater future instability.
Tunisia’s leaders must stand behind democratic principles; the world–both those rooting for against Tunisian democracy–is watching. While Tunisia’s leaders have given us no reason to think they won’t rise to the challenge, the emotional nature of this situation raises some concerns. Enlisting help from UNDP Tunisia might not be a bad idea.
The Tunisian people, who have been unwavering democratic watchdogs throughout the Arab Spring, must remember the big picture and demand their government ensures fair trials for the accused.