“The clouds are in Mali, and the rain is in Tunisia,” said merchant Mokhtar Zekri about the security blockades around the French Embassy.
Zekri is one of many shop owners in the downtown of the capital affected by the extreme security measures taken by the Tunisian government to protect the French Embassy. The embassy's surrounding area has experienced some protests against France’s military intervention in Mali in the past two weeks.
Barbed wire and policemen are commonplace all over the area. The streets immediately next to the embassy are closed to the circulation of vehicles. Pedestrians have to take care when walking through the sidewalks of these closed-off streets. Oftentimes narrow, the sidewalks present a challenge to the many passersby, who risk tearing their clothes or injuring their arms on the barbed wire that flanks the sidewalks.
These extra security measures were taken the day after French hostages were kidnapped at a gas field in the south of neighboring Algeria.
At this point, being open or closed is of no difference, the owner of a vitrine store told Tunisia Live. The blockade is not only inconvenient in terms of the lack of parking space, but also feels threatening.
People reported being scared from walking near the embassy’s proximity at the sight of the police and security forces.
They are in no mood for shopping, Zekri added. Our rate of commerce went down at least 70%.
Some shop owners had to lay off personnel. The decrease in customers made paying off accumulating bills of rent, electricity, taxes as well as worker's paychecks nearly impossible.
I had to lay off two girls yesterday, the vitrine store owner said.
A Men's Suites' shop cashier, Hanen expressed fears of a similar fate to Tunisia Live.
I have been working here since the opening of the shop 20 years ago, and the situation has never been worse, Hanen stated.
Enhanced security measurements prevent us from opening the shops.
Rosace Shoe Shop owner, Lasaad Bayouth, unlike other locals, is positive about the heightened security measures.
I would prefer that security close off the street completely, even from pedestrians, Bayouth told Tunisia Live. We need to take every preventative measure we can. I would rather that my colleagues and I be out of work for a week or two than the entire country be blamed for not taking proper security measures in case something happens like with the U.S. embassy.
Since the September 14 attacks, the U.S. embassy has not decreased its security measures. Shop owners in the nearby proximity of the French Embassy worry that the blockades will not be lifted anytime soon either. Most of them hope the Malian situation will be solved in the few next days – soon enough for them to recover their business. Otherwise, the merchants aim to protest.
France has already invaded Mali, and it is not going anywhere, Zekri stated. Will we be under siege forever?
Such frustrations are leading to anger, which some residents are directing towards the Tunisian government and French Embassy officials.
These intense security measures are yet another French invasion in Tunis. Why is it acceptable for the Tunisian government to block the streets at France’s command? a policeman, who asked to remain anonymous, told Tunisia Live.
The extra security may not even be necessary to safeguard the embassy.
We can protect the embassy and citizens by means other than these, he added.
The situation has not only affected merchants and pedestrians. The traffic in Tunis’ main thoroughfare, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, is experiencing new bottlenecks that exasperate those passing through the area. Drivers take up to half-an-hour to traverse a distance that should take no longer than five minutes. Taxi drivers are reluctant to go through Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
Those heading to the commercial part of downtown for errands are forced to walk a large stretch of the main avenue due to taxis' refusal to get caught up in the traffic.
It is the taxi's job to drive the client wherever one asks him to, yet it seems to be a mission impossible under the current circumstances, Sana, a pedestrian awaiting a cab on the avenue, told Tunisia Live.