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As the Tunisian coast stretches north, it reaches for Italy before making a left turn toward Algeria. It is home to the white beaches of Djerba, Sfax, Sousse, Hammamet, and Tunis, and their beauty once made me think that nothing could ever disturb their calm. Then, on June 26, a gunman opened fire at a beach resort in Port El Kantaoui, just outside of Sousse, in a slaughter that reflects the cruel trademark of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS); the gunman is said to have trained with the terrorists who attacked the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 18. Now, the beaches are emptying as foreigners and locals alike begin to question whether calm will ever return to Tunisia.
A year ago, I traveled to Tunisia to visit my family in Hammamet, an hour drive north of Sousse. This town, once the favorite summer holiday spot of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is considered the Tunisian Saint-Tropez. On the road to the medina where it curves left and slants away from the water is a narrow path with a complex of buildings formerly owned by the Ben Ali family. It lies in ruins now, full of broken glass and empty rooms.
The beach was once Ben Ali’s, too, and in those days it crawled with security. Residents often had no choice but to take a detour around barricaded streets to get into town. Ben Ali and his friends commandeered many other properties in the area, forcing the owners either to sell or to spend years in jail. In fact the story goes that the Gabse family, wealthy landowners who are among the local political elite, at first refused to relinquish their property but finally agreed in the early 2000s, when they were told that Ben Ali would simply annex their land either way. Now, inside the ashen husk of the Gabse house, a shattered chandelier covers the ground floor with broken crystals, and “Gabse” is graffitied all over the walls. Tunisians who were there to see the Gabse house fall were proud. It was a symbol that the tide had finally turned and those formerly protected by the Ben Ali regime would no longer rule the country. Some of the former inhabitants of the wealthy mansions scattered around Hammamet, however, still live there, but they have grown more discreet.
During the summer, the population of Hammamet explodes with tourists. The popular hamlet, and much of coastal Tunisia, is economically dependent on tourism. The most sought-after jobs are at the hotels and resorts, but this system has been under threat ever since the Arab Spring. Directly following the revolution, tourism revenue collapsed. I learned from a former French air force pilot that I met in Hammamet that many of the European tourists began to go to Morocco instead, out of concern about violence. In one of the towns we drove through, he pointed out an abandoned warehouse that used to be surrounded by trails of tomato paste from a harissa factory. “Not anymore,” he said. “Manufacturing has moved far away.” It is now handled in the predictable regional centers such as Nabeul or even abroad in Algeria. The recent attacks on Sousse can only further devastate the economy, both in terms of manufacturing and tourism.
Chatting with locals in the cafés made it feel as if Hammamet were teetering on the tip of a collapsing nation, torn apart by religion on one side and secular politics on the other. Each story began with a sharp intake of breath and ended with the shaking of heads. The medina is built around a spacious mosque notable for being the largest of the alternatives that have sprung up along the outskirts of the town. But the Interim Minister of Religion, in an attempt to fight radicalism, has tried to slow down this trend by decreeing that some of the mosques be closed. This is in accord with a 1988 law prohibiting meetings in mosques run by independent imams. However, following the revolution, many of the state-appointed imams were replaced due to allegations that they had been in league with the Ben Ali regime. Given widespread public support for the new leaders, further action is doubtful. My cousin, Marwen Chaibi, a 29-year-old business school graduate living in Hammamet, says that the problem began in 1958, when President Habib Bourgiba shuttered the central religious university, Zitouna, and replaced it with a small school of theology in an effort to set the country on a secular path. During this period many turned to unregulated schools, some abroad, for religious training. They went on to form their own mosques based on a relatively strict interpretation, and, with years of lax oversight by the interim government, they have grown in popularity.
The medina lies between Hammamet Nord and Hammamet Sud. Nord is an urban, upscale region with a younger crowd. Sud is mostly a tourist area, guarded by a military checkpoint. It has its own urban center, designed to mix traditional and modern elements of Tunisian architecture. Continuing on, still following the coast, a small market lines the road where men sell tourist trinkets and fake weapons. Children run around with plastic AK-47s, ducking and weaving as they shoot at each other and largely failing to dodge each other’s plastic pellets. The market ends a few feet from the entrance to a hotel facing the sea. A few minutes further down the road is a small café known for its young crowd of students. When I visited, my friends were already sitting outside. Cafés in Hammamet are much like pubs or bars elsewhere, but with a more loyal clientele. The younger generation tends to choose them carefully so that they will not bump into their parents.
A young boy ran up to our table and fired a plastic pellet at my friend. A wild chase ensued down the block until, finally, my friend admitted defeat and returned to his seat grumbling—cigarettes and age had taken their toll. We all agreed that it was not a fair fight. The conversation soon turned to the rising body count on the border. Attacks by small terrorist groups have been rising, with arms streaming in from Libya. The tension was visible. Hammamet Sud is now surrounded by checkpoints; soldiers with automatic weapons cautiously peer into passing cars.
Finishing the last of my coffee, I took my leave and carried on with my walk. The sun was reaching its peak. A bearded man in traditional robes, another friend of my cousin, stopped and said hello. His easygoing manner was unexpected in light of the story I’d heard about him some days ago. A moderately religious man, he spent four years of a ten-year sentence in jail during the final period of the old regime. Many Muslims attend mosque five times a day for prayers, and in a final attempt to root out radicalism, in 1991, Ben Ali began arresting those who attended the first prayers. This man, smiling and happy, spent four years in jail, apart from his children and family, and was fortunate to be freed at all. Without the revolution, he and many others may have spent their entire lives behind bars. I introduced myself to each of his children, who had manners and posture beyond their years, and continued on.
I see the incredible beauty of this country, from coastal Carthage to the great mosque of Kairouan. But the revolution was only the beginning of a long path to self-determination, and it is now fraught with both internal dissolution and external threats. Tunisia has been held up as a model Arab Spring nation, especially when compared to Libya, with its wholesale collapse, and Egypt, with its military rule. Tunisia held strong through disconcerting allegations about vote rigging in 2011 and an embattled parliamentary election in 2014 as politicians learned to work with their opponents and promised to revive the economy, create jobs, and protect freedom. Now this hope is fading just as quickly as the tourists. The violent slaughter of tourists on a quiet beach may yet reverse the successes of the new democracy, as security becomes a greater priority. In light of the attacks in Tunis and Sousse, the government is stepping up police presence in tourist areas, but this will do little to resolve the fundamental challenge of religious extremism. I can only hope that the deteriorating economy and regional instability will not drive Tunisia in the direction of its less fortunate neighbors. Each day, though, the coast seems to be drifting farther from Europe.