TUNIS: The Tunisian government does not believe that the recent attack on the Bardo Museum was carried out by the Islamic State that has claimed responsibility. In fact no one spoken to in Tunis does, and all seem to accept the government’s claim that the attack killing 20 tourists was carried out by an al Qaeda affiliate.

Security remains understated, in fact non existent with the 40,000 and more who have converged on the city from all parts of the world for the World Social Forum amazed at how easy movement is. The Forum is being held in the University, and except for a cursory check at the gates, there is little to suggest that the government is worried about a possible retaliation to the 23 arrests it has made till date in connection with the Museum attack.

Interior Minister Najem Gharsalli told journalists that 23 suspects, including a woman had been arrested as part of a terrorist cell involved in the attack. He said that all those arrested so far were Tunisians who form 80 percent of this cell. Two Moroccans, one Algerian and another Tunisian were on the run.The head of the cell was among those arrested and has been identified as Mohamed Emine Guebli.

The Minister said that the operation was organised by Algerian Lokmane Abou Sakhr, one of the leaders of the Al-Qaeda-linked Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, the main Tunisian armed group active along the border with Algeria.This organisation has been declared a terrorist organisation and remains a threat to the country. In the government’s view Islamic State has claimed the attack for propaganda purposes, but it has been carried out by the terrorist group inside Tunisia.

Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade has been held responsible by the government for a series of attacks that have killed at least 60 persons in nearly three years. Algerians are attending the Social Forum in large numbers, as are the Palestinians for whom the ability to state their cause to the world has come as a catharsis of sorts. They have been organising exhibitions, music concerts, theatre to get their message across with the Israel attack on Gaza remaining the focal point.

Tunisians out in large numbers are enthusiastic participants in the Forum, with the young people joining the visitors in their search for a new and peaceful world order. The Social Forum has filled the big gap caused by the fall in tourism after the Bardo attack, with the bars and restaurants full to capacity. Interestingly at a bar an Egyptian girl in a hijab was refused entry, and while the owners were not able to explain the precise reason, it did appear that in their perception the headscarf and the alcohol did not go together, And hence the hijab was turned away! In fact very few local women wear the hijab now, with the numbers far less today than two years ago according to seasoned travellers.

In fact the veil has been shunned by most of the countries in West Asia, except the infamous Saudi Arabia and of course Iran. Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein encouraged women not to wear the veil, that appeared after the invasion. In Syria too the recent violence has made women cower behind the hijab, that was not natural to the state. Egypt has suffered from the same turn from the progressive to the conservative with women there telling The Citizen earlier that while they did not agree with it, they felt more secure with their heads covered given the prevailing climate.

Tunisia’s is an open society, seeking more freedom and democracy. The students are very proud of this freedom, as are the trade unions who claim a major hand in bringing democracy back through the 2011 elections and the defeat of the Islamists here. Visitors too immediately sense the freedom, and unlike Algeria, the people here are happy and smiling, dancing to music on the slightest pretext. In fact when some visitors started dancing at a local bar to Arabic music, some of the locals joined in but were discouraged by the owners for fear this could lead to a “situation” difficult to control. Finally, the outburst of enthusiasm was checked by placing a couple of tables on what had become the impromptu dance floor!