One year after Sousse, it’s the economy—not security—that worries Tunisians

Tunisia this week marked the one-year anniversary of a brutal terrorist attack in the resort town of Sousse, where 38 beachgoers were killed. The anniversary prompted a spate of articles in the international press noting Tunisia’s continuing terror threat. Yet a recent visit to Tunisia underscored that Tunisians, perhaps more so than Americans or Europeans, have moved on from Sousse.

Tunisia’s terror threat: A Western fixation?

One year after the Sousse attack, the United Kingdom and Germany, whose citizens once made up the largest blocs of tourists in Tunisia, continue to advise against “all but essential travel” to Tunisia. The advice from the United States and France is slightly less alarming—urging their citizens to be vigilant and avoid crowds, particularly in tourist areas. From my experience this month, it appears Americans and Europeans are heeding their governments’ advice.

Over a six-day trip that took me all around greater Tunis, the only place I saw a tourist was on Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef’s Instagram. My hotel pool, a beautiful winding oasis complete with lifeguard and shuttered bar, was empty save for a few Tunisians doing exercise routines. The restaurants and cafés that were open were full—of Tunisians enjoying iftar. My anecdotal experience is confirmed by reports that Tunisia has failed to resuscitate its tourism industry since the Sousse attack.

The government is walking a difficult line between projecting a welcoming atmosphere and making it clear that Tunisia takes the security of its citizens and its visitors seriously. While I was there, President Beji Caid Essebsi extended the state of emergency for another month, although some of my interlocutors speculated that this was driven more by political motives than security fears.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the stepped-up security presence. Every car approaching my hotel (an American chain) was searched before it was allowed to pass the gates. My taxi driver was interrogated during each of our visits to government buildings. And when I took a casual evening stroll down the chic La Marsa boardwalk, I was taken aback by officers brandishing assault rifles.

For Tunisians, it’s the economy

Given the international focus on Tunisia’s looming jihadi threat and the visible attempts by the government to counter that threat, you would expect Tunisians to be obsessed with security issues. Yet during the more than 20 meetings I held with government officials, politicians, journalists, and civil society activists, only one Tunisian named security as her top concern. And she was clear that it is not terrorist attacks that worry her most, but rather Tunisia’s inability to enact necessary security sector reforms that would not only help keep terrorists at bay, but would also help reassure investors and improve the country’s human rights climate.

Instead of security, almost every Tunisian with whom I met said they believe Tunisia’s biggest challenges are economic—enacting economic reforms, attracting foreign investors, addressing youth unemployment. Tunisia’s currency, the dinar, fell to a record low against the dollar and euro last week, and that fact came up far more often in conversation than the Sousse anniversary or the looming ISIS threat discussed so often in the international press. Unless I raised it, the security situation almost never came up in my conversations at all. 

To be clear, Tunisians, particularly those outside the capital, are deeply concerned about the jihadi threat. The Tunisian field office of the International Crisis Group recently published a report emphasizing the urgent need for a national strategy to counter extremism. However, many Tunisians are far more focused on the dangers of economic and political instability than on the prospect of another terrorist attack on their soil. And that is a good thing.

Tunisia’s terror threat is not unique 

Analysts are right to point out that Tunisia has yet to adequately address its terror problem, often failing to acknowledge its domestic roots, as I have pointed out. But Tunisians increasingly recognize that successfully tackling this deep-seated problem requires improving the economy—both structurally, through well-understood reforms, and practically, by dramatically increasing foreign investment and exports and returning tourists to the beautiful but empty resorts, beaches, and boulevards.

Their challenge in reviving tourism is compounded by the dire travel warnings issued by European governments. Yes, visitors to and residents of Tunisia face the risk of mass violence and terrorism, but unfortunately that danger is hardly unique. I am writing this piece during a layover in the Brussels airport, itself the recent target of a horrific attack. I live less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol and work less than a mile from the White House. Who is to say that I am safer staying home than touring around Tunisia—or Brussels or Paris or Tel Aviv or Orlando. 

As a Washingtonian, I don’t spend my days worrying about security; I trust that my government and our security apparatus are well equipped to protect me. Clearly, the Tunisian security forces are not yet as professional or effective as their American counterparts, and its neighborhood is a far more dangerous one. But if Western tourists and foreign investors abandon Tunisia, we are only helping the terrorists.

Tunisia needs more visitors and more investors, and attracting them will require the sustained engagement of the international community. The U.K. and Germany should work with Tunis to address remaining security deficits and heed appeals by Tunisian officials to tone down their warning language. As the attack on Istanbul’s airport has shown, travel warnings are often unreliable. Even after Tuesday’s attack, the U.K. warns its citizens, “It’s generally safe to travel [to Turkey] but you should take additional safety precautions. You should be alert to your surroundings and remain vigilant in crowded places popular with tourists.” Refusing to lower Tunisia’s travel warning, in contrast, seems absurd.

The Tunisian government should also do more to restore confidence in European travelers that Tunisia is an attractive, convenient destination. Advertising campaigns are a good first step. Tunisian tourism board members and security officials should also invite European officials to visit Tunisia and should provide detailed briefings to European government and tourism industry officials on security measures in place at popular tourist areas. Most importantly, Tunisian leaders must recognize that they will not adequately address the security situation without improving the economy.

My advice? Go to Tunisia: enjoy the beautiful beaches, eat the delicious food, inject some of your cash into the Tunisian economy. But be respectful and be vigilant, just as you would be at home.