Eight days after the Islamist attack in Sousse that killed 38 foreign tourists, prime minister admits police were too slow to respond to the shooting.
Tunisia’s president, Beji Caid Essebsi, has declared a 30-day state of emergency, eight days after 38 foreign tourists, most of them British, were killed in an Islamist gun attack.
The state of emergency temporarily gives the government more flexibility, and can be used to give the army and police more authority. Under a decree dating back more than 30 years it could also potentially be used to restrict the right of public assembly, the right to strike, and press freedom.
Explaining his decision in an address to the nation on state television, the president referred to recent attacks on foreign tourists at the Bardo museum and in Sousse, and also to the difficult economic situation faced by Tunisia since the 2011 revolution.
“These difficult conditions can be described as exceptional conditions, which therefore require exceptional measures,” he said.
“Tunisia faces a very serious danger and it should take any possible measures to maintain security and safety. As we see in other countries, if attacks like Sousse happen again, the country will collapse.”
Essebsi said Tunisia had clearly been targeted in the attacks because of the progress it was making in creating a democracy, with its new democratic constitution and “transparent and fair” parliamentary and presidential elections last year.
With its republican constitution, Tunisia was “a civil state, not drawing on an Islamic background, or any other background”.
He also alluded to the threat to regional stability from the ongoing situation in Libya – Tunisia’s neighbour to the south on the other side of a 310-mile border – and to the presence of Islamic State and its aim of establishing a caliphate in the region.
In the address, which he concluded by reading out the formal decree, he did not indicate what the state of emergency would mean in practical terms.
However, he offered reassurances that the government “respects the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press. These are among the gains of the revolution. But those exercising these freedoms must also take into account the situation”.
When a state of emergency was in place from January 2011 until March 2014, the four different governments in office over that period imposed occasional curfews after protests degenerated into rioting, and allowed the army to carry out policing duties, guarding public buildings.
Interviewed on state television following the president’s address, presidential spokesman Moes Sinaoui declined to give details of what measures would be taken under the current state of emergency.
Some Tunisian journalists noted with misgivings the reference to the media in the president’s speech, after the deputy public prosecutor for Tunis, Sofiene Sliti, said reporters needed to exercise more responsibility in their reporting of “terrorism”, at a press conference on Thursday.
The declaration came as the final five bodies of the 30 British victims killed inSousse arrived back in the UK.
There has been criticism of the slow response by security services to the attack by Islamist militant Seifeddine Rezgui, who opened fire on the beach in front of the Imperial Marhaba hotel in Sousse on 26 June. He was eventually shot dead by Tunisian police in an alley.
The Tunisian prime minister, Habib Essid, admitted in an interview with the BBC that the police were too slow to respond. “The time of the reaction – this is the problem,” he said, adding that the police had been blocked everywhere.
In the aftermath of the attack, the authorities announced they would move more speedily to close 80 mosques operating without official authorisation or where the imam was found to be preaching extreme views delivering the Friday sermon.
Scores more mosques are under review for possible closure, the religious affairs ministry said. These include small, unofficial mosques opened clandestinely by Salafist jihadi groups, as well as ordinary neighbourhood mosques.
Tunisia last had a state of emergency during the 2011 uprising against the autocratic regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Under the country’s new constitution, approved in January last year, the president has the right “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions, or the security or independence of the country” to “take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances”.
The parliament will “be deemed to be in a state of continuous session” throughout the state of emergency. The president “cannot dissolve” the parliament, the constitution states.