TUNIS–Tunisian university campuses are tense following the recent terrorist attacks in the country and the declaration of a national state of emergency.
A suicide attack late last month targeted a bus filled with presidential guards in the capital’s center, killing 12 members of the president’s security force and injuring 20 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. Subsequently, the Tunisian government imposed a state of emergency in the country for thirty days, and a curfew starting from nine in the evening until five in the morning in the capital and the neighboring governorates of Manouba, Ben Arous, and Aryanah. That declaration led to a state of confusion among university students.
“The curfew decision left the evening classes paralyzed,” said Salma Kanzari, a master’s degree student in law at the University of Tunis. She said that the curfew starts at nine o’clock in the evening, while the last buses leave at seven o’clock. Students are forced to take the seven o’clock buses and miss their classes.
In recent years, Tunisia has become a key target for extremists after being praised as a model for the democratic transition in the region, since the 2011 revolution that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This year, terrorist attacks have escalated along with the growing influence of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks in Bardo Museum in March, the Sousse Resort in June, and the most recent attack on the presidential guards’ bus on November 24.
Zainab Al-Saghir, a second-year geography student at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at la Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis, feels even more worried. “We are concerned for sure,” she said. “We do not know what could happen. Many evening classes have been canceled as well as many cultural and sports activities. This is regrettable.”
Other students are considering changing their university.
Fatima Issawi, a second-year law student at the University of Jandouba in northwest Tunisia, is seriously thinking of moving from the college where she is studying now. “We live in a state of constant fear. We are trying to return quickly to our homes after lessons are finished.” The college is in an isolated area and close to the places where security raids against terrorists take place, she said. “Sometimes, I think of staying at home and dropping out of school this year. There are many female colleagues considering doing so, too, some of whom have asked to halt their studies this year,” she added.
Still, many believe that the security measures should be a priority today.
“Universities are the most affected institutions by terrorism, as they are the largest space where terrorist organizations can attract members,” said Ahmed Al-Thawadi, a member of the student union at the University of Carthage in Bizerte. He said the students’ union held some events to denounce terrorism and support the right of Tunisian students to study without fear.
More than three thousand Tunisians, including dozens of students, are fighting with ISIS or other extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya. (See related article: Why Tunisia is the Top Supplier for Students to the Islamic State.)
The security situation in the University of Kasserine is not that different from Jandouba, as it is located in a dangerous area where many hit-and-run battles take place with terrorists.
“We have organized a strike demanding security and protection for the university institutions,” said Riadh Jarad, a student at the Higher Institutes of Technological Studies in Kasserine, who lives in university housing. “We are close to the mountains, where security forces raid the terrorists’ strongholds and clashes occur daily. We need protection both inside and outside the university.”
Despite these intensive security measures, some believe they are not enough. “The personnel charged with protecting the universities are not very qualified, according to their own testimony,” said Hussein Bouguerra, the secretary-general of the Public Institutes of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and a geography professor at at la Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis. He said there needs to be better security guards.
“Universities are exposed to thefts from the presence of criminals, so how could the university be protected from terrorists when we are unable to protect it from theft?” he said.
A few days ago, the curfew was reduced.
“We are in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but students are still devoted and want to attend classes,” said Bouguerra. “This is delightful, despite everything.”