World leaders joined tens of thousands of Tunisians Sunday (29 March) to march in solidarity against Islamist militants, a day after security forces killed members of a group blamed for a deadly museum attack.
The 18 March attack on the Bardo national museum in Tunis killed 21 foreign tourists and a policeman, shaking a country that has been praised as a peaceful democratic model since leading the first of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.
A red-and-white sea of Tunisian crescent and star flags filled a major boulevard in the capital where several world leaders, including French President François Hollande, came to rally under the slogan “Le Monde est Bardo” (The World is Bardo).
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi took part in the demonstration, along with leaders of Algeria, Belgium, Libya, Poland and the Palestinians.
According to a Commission press release, Council President Donald Tusk, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini are the EU anti-terrorism tsar Gilles de Kerchove are also in Tunisia, “to explore ways to increase the EU assistance to Tunisia”.
“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.”
Thousands of police and soldiers had been positioned around the capital since early morning.
One of the most secular countries in the Arab world, Tunisia has mostly avoided violence in the four years since the toppling of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. In contrast with Libya, Yemen and Syria which have plunged into war and chaos, it has adopted a new constitution and held free elections.
But the Bardo massacre was one of the worst attacks in its history. Japanese, Polish, Spanish and Colombian visitors were among those killed in the attack, which the government says was aimed at destroying Tunisia’s vital tourism industry.
“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 Prime Minister Habib Essid earlier told reporters a raid in the southern Gafsa region had killed nine militants from the local group Okba Ibn Nafaa, including Algerian Lokman Abu Sakhr, suspected of orchestrating the museum attack.
“We have killed most of the leaders of Okba Ibn Nafaa who were behind many recent attacks,” Essid said. “This is a clear and strong response to terrorism after the Bardo attack.”
Islamic State claimed the attack, though the Tunisian government has pointed the finger at Okba Ibn Nafaa, which has a base in the Chaambi mountains bordering Algeria.
The group was previously closer to al-Qaeda, but has made vague statements on its position toward Islamic State, the al-Qaeda splinter group that now controls large parts of Iraq and Syria.
The Tunis attack underscored how Islamist militant loyalties are blurring as they seek a new North African front, especially in Libya, where political chaos and factional fighting has allowed Islamic State to gain an outpost.
The two Bardo gunmen were trained over the border in Libya, at camps operated by Tunisian militants, officials say. Both were killed by the security forces.
Tunisia's uprising inspired the Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Libya and in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But its adoption of a new constitution and staging of largely peaceful elections won widespread praise and stood in stark contrast to the chaos that has plagued those countries.
After a crisis between secular leaders and the Islamist party which won the country's first post-revolt election, Tunisia has emerged as a model of compromise politics and transition to democracy for the region.
But the attack comes at a challenging time with Tunisia planning to reform its economy and cutback on public spending. Tourism represents around 7% of the gross domestic product.
Security forces have already clashed with some Islamist militants, including Ansar al-Sharia, which is listed as a terrorist group by Washington. But until now most attacks were in remote areas, often near the border with Algeria.
Another group is holed up in the mountains along the Algerian border, where the army has spent months trying to destroy their camps.
Affiliates of Islamic State militants fighting in Iraq and Syria have also been gaining ground in North Africa, especially in the chaotic environment of Tunisia's neighbor Libya, where two rival governments are battling for control.