The siege of Tunisia’s Bardo Museum is over. Terrorists in military uniform took over the museum in downtown Tunis, taking hostages and killing as many as 19 people. Two terrorists and a security officer were killed in the mayhem and an Australian was among the victims.
The museum holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics, a treasure trove that evokes Tunisia’s centrality to the history of imperial Rome. It was after the Roman defeat of Carthage in 149 BC that Rome really became an empire, attempting to project power and erase all memory of their north African enemies by building roads, palaces, cities, and even stadiums that survive in Tunisia to this day.
Tunis is a harmony of Arab and French influences, a multilingual city with broad, Parisian-style avenues leading to a walled ancient center. The country’s cosmopolitan legacy might help explain why its post-Arab Spring transition to democracy has gone relatively smoothly, weathering a potentially hazardous constitutional re-write and multiple changes in power since longstanding dictator Zine Abidine ben Ali fled the country among protests in early 2011.
Like Egypt, Tunisia elected an Islamist-controlled parliament in its first post-Arab Spring vote; unlike Egypt, that government left power through a subsequent election rather than at gunpoint.
But this might also explain why Tunisia’s been one of the world’s biggest exporters of jihadists to Iraq and Syria. Over 3,000 Tunisians have traveled to the battlefield according to the Washington Post, the most of any other country. This is especially incredible considering Tunisia only has a population of 11 million.
Conservative resentment of the country’s democratic turn — along with economic stagnation and frustration at the lack of a clear post-Arab Spring dividend — might explain the Jihadist exodus. Tunisia also has a nagging domestic jihadism problem, with occasional battles between security forces and extremist fighters in the country’s Jebel Chambi region.
Today’s attack at the Bardo is a sign that there are actors within the country who violently resent Tunisia’s unique history, along with its special place within the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
Here are some photos I took at the Bardo museum during a reporting trip in April of 2012. Tunis is still one of the world’s great cities. And despite today’s atrocity, no visit would be complete without a stop at the Bardo.
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