The Un-Tunisian Burning of the American Embassy

By Op-ed Contributor | Oct 23 2012 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: American Collective School in Tunis ,American Embassy in Tunis ,Hillary Clinton ,marines ,Minister of the Interior ,

Protesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in Tunis on September 14 (Photo credit: Rabii Kalboussi)

By Fares Bouhadiba

While it is difficult to piece together what exactly happened on September 14th, there is no question that this day was a turning point in the history of our country.  What is known is that a party of Salafists left the Al Fath mosque in downtown Tunis and made their way on foot to the U.S. Embassy. Witnesses confirm that they were escorted by the police, who could have easily dispersed them along the way. Many in the crowd had backpacks, clearly preparing for something. In front of the embassy, in what seems to have been a well-orchestrated action, ladders came out of nowhere, the crowd swelled, and the attack began.

Curiously, the police made only weak attempts to cordon off the area and then appeared to give up entirely. The burning and looting of the nearby American primary school was well documented by Al Jazeera, which was broadcasting live to the whole world. Looters appeared to take advantage of the confusion to steal and pillage, and shameful pictures of thugs running away with children’s computers were promptly broadcast to the world, adding to the sick feeling of disgrace that gripped us Tunisians. For what seemed like an eternity, the entire country was fixated on the image of two bearded men climbing the flag post and removing the Stars and Stripes, the symbol of the world's super power.

And then armored cars of the army charged in, shooting in the air. The police seemed to take hold of the situation, and slowly the chaos subsided, leaving billows of thick black smoke in the air visible for kilometers.

Facebook went wild, and rumors reverberated throughout the country:

Helicopters full of Marines were on their way from Libyan waters. 16 of their colleagues had already secured the roof of the embassy to allow for a Saigon-style evacuation of the ambassador under siege. The marines had orders to clear the embassy compound at any cost.

Given the present climate, it is doubtful that we will ever know what really happened, nor who was responsible. Sadly, the damage is so deep that it no longer matters. For the first time in 3,000 years of history, our country violated diplomatic territory. Tunisia is now under a U.S. travel warning, meaning that visitors should stay away. Other countries on that list include Somalia, which is in and out of civil war, Syria, which is in the midst of rebellion, and Afghanistan, which is currently under occupation.

It is not clear what the real intention was of those who perpetrated these acts, but the horrified reaction of all Tunisians clearly points to a huge miscalculation. This incident could not be more un-Tunisian for 3 reasons.

First, Tunisians of all walks of life and condition simply do not see the US as an enemy. The friendship between the two countries goes back to the 18th century and is well-engrained in the Tunisian mentality. The first Arab embassy to open in the United States was Tunisia's, an event symbolic of the friendship between the two countries.  To attack the United States would be the same as attacking a close friend, something that is unthinkable in Tunisian culture and tradition.

Second, hospitality is part of every Tunisian's DNA. During the Libyan revolution, we welcomed refugees with open arms, and many Tunisians invited refugees into their homes. It was an unparalleled response to the influx of refugees that astounded the UN, which had never seen anything like it. We see ourselves as an open and hospitable people, who welcome foreigners in our own homes, treating them better than we treat ourselves. The incursion on the embassy grounds was seen as an attack against a guest in our own home and under our protection. There is no precedent in our history, and this outraged Tunisians. We simply do not attack guests in our country.

Lastly, for generations of Tunisians, education was seen as the only way out of poverty. The respect for education and degrees that parents inculcated to their children is unique in the world. Ben Ali, who was rumored to never have completed his high school education, was never respected by his citizens. They called him bac moins 5, meaning a barely educated individual. Burning a school, for us, is one of the worst possible crimes someone could commit. It is a place of learning that holds, in the eyes of Tunisians, the key out of poverty and into prosperity. Parents routinely tell their children to study so that they can have a better life. They say that no matter how hard the school work is, it will pay off in spades in the future. To burn a school down on a political agenda is an atrocious crime. It is something that provoked revulsion. Something no Tunisian can forgive.

The harm is now done and will take decades to cure. But there is still hope, as now we can see how different we are from these extremists, and how little they understand our deepest feelings. Their acts on the 14th of September conflicted with Tunisia's closest and most deeply ingrained values. You can’t win the hearts and minds of people if you don't even know them.

Fares Bouhadiba is a Tunisian student currently living in Dubai.

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    Hi Fares,

    Yes it was a terrible act and one that showed the US who its friends were….Your piece is well written and good for you to post it…However the people who attacked the embassy were Tunisian people…call them fundamentalist or not they were from the local population, especially those who looted the school.

    Time will tell how much the US trusts the government again….No matter how many smiles and handshakes occur the truth is that the government nor the police can control the country or those people who want to cause unrest. The problem was broken up when guards of the President arrived and not before. The local police did nothing which could suggest collaboration with the wrong doers. There is no evidence to suggest that other Tunisian people tried to stop the onslaught either…Sometimes we are guilty by the company we keep.

    There are travel bans and the tourist industry is not advertising so many holidays in Tunisia now…Such a shame as the people before the revolution were exactly as you describe….alas no more, things have changed…

    • I also worry about how the Tunisian government failed to protect the embassy, but blaming the entire Tunisian population (between 10-11 million) for the extreme actions of a couple hundred individuals defies logic and is an affront to the dignity of all Tunisians.

      You essentially claim that Tunisians are not what the author describes them to be: friendly towards the US, hospitable, and valuing education highly. Your evidence? “There is no evidence to suggest that other Tunisian people tried to stop the onslaught.” That’s almost similar to blaming all Muslims for not preventing the rise of the Taliban, or blaming all Arabs for not restraining the activities of Al-Qaeda. Perhaps those examples are too “big-picture” but just put yourself in the shoes of an observer of the attack on the Embassy. How would you realistically “stop” hundreds of people who obvious came with an objective and the means to achieve that objective? How would you stop the looting and the burning of a school? How would you realistically have given more protection to one of the best-protected buildings in the city? Or perhaps you would have encouraged Tunisians to attack the Al Fath mosque, similar to what happened in Libya? I’m sure that would hold over well with the tourist industry…

      I agree, the Tunisian government, especially Ennahda, need to establish control over the violent Salafist groups if it is to prove why it’s members deserve to be in a position of leadership. But please don’t go around debasing the Tunisian people with such baseless logic.

      • Angela, this is NOT indicative of the Tunisian people or their feelings towards Americans. This is an example of a crazy minority that are out of control. My heart was broken to see this. Tunisia is my second home and the home of many, many relatives and friends. Many, both American and Tunisian, were shocked by this. Yes, there will be some problems while the new government sorts itself out but I have faith in the success of Tunisia and the success of the Tunisian people.

  1. Thank you for a good summary of what seems to be the situation in Tunisia.

    There are far too many examples where the government has failed to use the police to stop violence among Tunisians, and certainly in this case against Americans.

    I’m encouraged by recent news that seems to show the secular forces coming together and gaining more popular support. Of course it’s also important to have a strong moderate Islamist party, too.

    Please keep posting.

  2. Hello,

    This was a pretty good article. I liked it and it is accurate to what I’ve read about that terrible day. I agree that the “sick feeling of disgrace” was felt and should have been. I’m American with lots of Tunisian friends and I felt very much shame for them. Had this happened in the USA, I would feel shame for Americans who didn’t do a darn thing to protect an embassy. It’s so disgusting, really, that a rampage like that can happen to an entity totally unrelated to whatever in the world might have made the Salafists and criminals (tough to tell them apart, no?) mad. Shame on the violent. No shame on the makers of the video who are acting within freedoms that all people should have.

    There is one point I would like to make. “Afghanistan, which is currently under occupation.” is a true statement in that Afghanistan is occupied and abused by the Taliban and Al Qaeada. Other than that, they have their own government to lead them well or badly.

    Have a great day!

  3. An excellent article but it omitted half the truth and many questions should be asked. Who supported the Islamists? Only the naive Americans who thought they were moderate. But is there a moderate Islam? Hardly Are the Taliban moderate? Was BLadin moderate? These Islamists in the government in Tunisia were and still are supporters of the ideology of terror and these Salafists are their activist members. If the Americans want peace in the world they should help the true intellectuals the secular ones against Political Islam which is totalitarian and want to export jihadists everywhere in the world.

  4. Thanks but I will believed it when I see it. Let’s hope Tunisians will wake up and dislodge The Islamists out of Governement. there is no place for Religion and faith in Politics. All the more reason that Jihadist Islam in Governement is intolerable because it is not tolerant of other faiths and thoughts

  5. I agree it sounds like I am blaming all Tunisians thanks for pointing that out…I am not blaming all Tunisians but on that day it was known before hand what was going to happen. The police could have prepared more etc., the local people could have equally stood and confront them….there is nothing wrong with asking people to stand for what they believe. When riots started in Liverpool UK there were local people who stood up and said enough….when drugs were sweeping some part of the US local mothers stood up against the gangs with guns etc and said no….there are many examples of where people stand up to people like these fundamentalist and make changes so i dont see my logic as baseless. This situation in Tunisia is sadly not unique and there are examples all over the world about alternative ways, peaceful ways to change/stop this behaviour

    Although it really does not matter what any one thinks its happened and its how everyone learns from it that matters now…..The best thing for me was that shortly after that there was a march for peace which did get some attention but of course those who make the most noise get all the attention.

    Thanks for your message

  6. I think its worth noting as follow-up to the author’s point that Tunisians venerate education, that clearly, formal education has failed Tunisia. Recall that Mohamed Bouazizi was a college educated fruit seller, and his education had more than a little to do with his despair. Thousands and thousands of university degree holding Tunisians are angry, and without work. The educational system here dramatically needs reform, to meet the changing needs for workers. Of course, first you need a functioning government!

  7. I would like to simply state the following:
    1. Those who do not like the close ties between the U.S. and Tunisia (The spark of the Arab Spring) have succeeded in appealing to the ignorant extremists;
    2. The extremists in Tunisia have put Tunisia in the American people’s mind as a hater of Americans. I have been asked by many Americans “Why do Tunisians hate us when we are trying to help them?”
    3. For the first time in my life I felt ashamed that I have any ties to Tunisia.
    4. The Tunisian goverment should have the responsibility of compensating the victims and paying for the rebuilding of the Embassy. The goverment was either reckless or turned a blind eye as the events were unfolding. There are consequences for bad behavior, and the Tunisian people need to realize that.
    5. There are videos and pictures of those who participated in the attack, and each one of them should be tried and convicted. If a mob has attacked the Tunisian Embassy in the U.S.,have no doubt that each one of them would have been brought to justice. Unless the rule of law prevails, Tunisia, which is already a sinking ship, will hit the bottom of the ocean, and there welcome to Somalia.

  8. It saddens me to see these things. I spent three weeks in Tunisia last February and two weeks in July on a Fulbright. I fell in love with Tunisia and these kinds of things sadden me greatly and make me very concerned for the many friends I have there. I just simply do not know what to say. Things were looking so good, then the crumbling began. Without the rule of law Tunisia, or any country for that matter, is truly lost.

    I am so, so tired of religious nonsense–and the US is far from free of it.

  9. My shock and shame were immeasurable.
    My american children were heart-broken.
    Thanks to all for the explanations. I do want to hear the other side though. Why did SOME tunisians do this? What was their thinking / purpose?

    ( Tunisian living in US )