Whenever history is written, some voices are carefully remembered and others are not fished back up from out of the murk. Take the gun attack on the Tunisian holiday resort of Sousse in July 2015. The commonsensical incredulity of UK tourists who were evacuated from Tunisia two weeks after the attack is no longer an acknowledged part of the narrative:
Arriving back at Manchester Airport, Tracey Caburn, who returned from Tunisia with her mother, Maureen Sudmore, and sister, Debbie Murphy, said: “It’s a disgrace. We felt safe. We would’ve stayed there. We didn’t feel threatened at all. There were guards on the roof, the gates, the beach. We wanted to stay”… Heidi Barlow, 34, said people had felt safe and didn’t expect to have to leave. Les Aston, 61, from Shrewsbury, was also disappointed to be home. He said: “They let us go out there and now we’ve been brought back home. It makes no sense. The staff were in tears when we left the hotel. Tourism in Tunisia will be ruined.”
An inquest in London has lately assumed the duty of summing up and putting the record straight on the Sousse massacre. I do not begrudge the relatives of the thirty British victims their inquest. It has a clear legal role: to decide how and why the deceased had died. The coroner did not find that the tour operator TUI had contributed to its customers’ deaths through “neglect,” though it is not impossible that some of the families might still have a case against TUI for civil liability. What the inquest is not, however, is a judicial validation of the UK Foreign Office’s (FCO) travel advice on Tunisia. The inquest should not justify or dictate our foreign policy. And much of the UK media has shown a grotesque irresponsibility in forcing the inquest out of its limited context, to trash and revile one of the newest democracies in the world.
If you want to know why Tunisia is so important, just examine this map from the Economist Intelligence Unit. It is a colour-coded global index of democracy. It is possible to construct a vast Arabic rectangle that runs from Mauritania in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and from Turkey in the north to Ethiopia in the south. What a dreary patchwork of authoritarian reds and browns! Tunisia is the only nation to jump democratically out of this rectangle, in a beautiful sky blue [*].
There is a certain ironic morbidity to the term which is being currently bandied about in the UK media. Tunisia Inquest! It sounds like an investigation into the death of an entire country. But the FCO had indeed taken Tunisia off the map in 2015. Its advice “against all but essential travel” to Tunisia had meant that travel insurance was impossible to purchase and that UK citizens essentially could not travel there freely. This is still the case today. When I visited Tunis last year, I was insured at tremendous expense by Battleface, a company that covers journalists in war zones. The results of the FCO’s advice were synonymous with imposing economic sanctions upon Tunisia: hotels were shut down, countless people lost their jobs, and, implicitly, the country was rebuked for becoming a democracy and dislodging their dictator.
This rebuke was reiterated yesterday, with the coroner’s condemnation of the Sousse police for their “cowardly,” or insufficiently suicidal, response to the terror attack. Yet just imagine that Tunisia had an efficient and resourceful police force, who were on the scene promptly, with deadly firepower. You have just imagined that Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been never overthrown. Ben Ali’s power was upheld by the police, not the army – he had built up his own police state over decades at the expense of the military’s influence. Unknowingly or not, Tunisia is being chided in the UK media for its democratic aspirations, for daring to curb the power of its police.
Let us look at what has not come under the remit of the Tunisia Inquests. The fact that since July 2015 Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin have suffered major terror attacks, whilst Tunisia’s only experience of terrorism has involved its army humiliating the rag-tag jihadists who tried to overrun the border town of Ben Guerdane. That a single tour operator had flown all of the Sousse victims out to Tunisia has been unfairly internalised by the UK’s media as grounds to set this country apart from others that have far more active terror cells. Nonetheless France is in the EU, and the majority of its citizens do not have brown skin, and so the racist mind remains satisfied that its reflexes are correct. The chilling word “Tunisia” now immediately evokes images of a Jaws-style horror on the beach whilst the word “Paris” still rings more kindly. The Sousse attack apparently cuts straight to Tunisia’s soul whilst the Bataclan massacre was simply a rare, unfortunate anomaly.
Tychy’s hands-on attempts to promote Tunisia’s tourist industry were viewed by many who know me as being insanely reckless – as somehow taking the fight for democracy literally. Rarely have I been complimented on my characteristic geopolitical acumen, in seeing from the outset that there is no meaningful jihadist presence in Tunisia. Scarcely has a gun been fired in the country since I set foot there last April. You would not think this though from the routine insolence of Western commentators, who imagine that Tunisia’s sinister, unwashed hordes are innately harbouring a latent jihadism. Never is it conceded that we might bear some responsibility of our own for terrorism in the Maghreb due to our intervention across the Tunisian border. It was us who left behind craters and anarchy in Libya. It was us who bravely ran away and left volunteers with battered AK-47s to protect the Roman city of Leptis Magna, a UNESCO World Heritage site, from being blown up by the so-called Islamic state!
When the coroner was minded to criticise “cowardly” behaviour, she could have looked a lot closer to home. After the Sousse attack, we should have combined with the Tunisian authorities; we should have invested in Tunisia’s security and cooperated with its defence of the tourist industry. We should have formed a “special relationship” with this fledgling democracy, based on our shared democratic values. Instead, we decided that our values are disposable once risk is involved. Tunisia is a democracy that has been trashed by health-and-safety. Our abandonment of this country is absolutely outrageous.
[*UPDATE: Upon reflection, maybe Israel, with 20% of its population being Arab, should get a mention as well.]