Disaster Management, or How To Appear To Be Doing Something

Map of The Road From Carthage from "The Toss of a Coin"

In the wake of a disaster, it seems reasonable to expect that there may be moments of chaos, in which the impulse to act – to do something, however effective, sensible or otherwise it may be – might tempt people.

Indeed, there are organisations which spend much of their time training people to overcome these urges, or at least to harness them to deliver constructive, positive, or at least logical outcomes.

Once the emergency has passed, however, we are surely entitled to expect a more considered, measured response, formulated and delivered without the imperative simply to act – particularly from adults who we have elected to positions of responsibility.

Which makes the last week rather difficult to understand.

Stories which have emerged since the murder of 38 people on Sousse beach, Tunisia, by student Seifeddine Rezgui, appear to indicate that people’s immediate responses were characterised by efficiency, commonsense, and in some cases extraordinary bravery.

Tunisians formed human shields to defend people at nearby hotels and beaches, Matthew James, a 30 year-old gas engineer from South Wales, threw himself in front of his fiancé Sarah Wilson, risking his own life to save hers and being shot several times as a result, while 55 year-old Tunisian builder Munsaf Mayyel dropped roof tiles onto Rezgui, slowing him as he attempted to escape.

Tunisian police shot Rezgui seconds after Mayyel’s intervention, and while I’d never be fully comfortable ‘celebrating’ a death, it is at least possible to note the force’s efficiency of response.

But the attack took place on Friday 26 June, and it is only in the last three days that a political response has finally been forthcoming (I write in the evening of 11 July).

And it has been bewildering.

On 8 July, Tunisia’s President Habib Essid announced an official state of emergency for Tunisia.

The reasons are obvious: Rezgui’s attack was the second this year (22 people were killed in March, when gunmen opened fire on the Bardo Museum, Tunis) and as if mass murder itself were not serious enough, Tunisia relies on tourism for close to 15 per cent of its annual income.

On a personal level, Essid himself was born and grew up in Sousse, and it is very possible that for him, this is not just an attack in a state he is charged with protecting, but also an attack on a place dear to him.

Finally, Tunisia has been under a state of emergency for all but 15 months of the last four and a half years, since former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled on 11 January 2011.

But on the other hand, a state of emergency is not necessarily a small thing. Though Tunisia’s experience to date has been relatively good, states have used periods of ‘emergency’ to crush political opposition (General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian dictator used a state of emergency he proclaimed after he seized power in a military coup, to outlaw political opposition, jail opponents, and oversee the killing of almost 2,000 people) and the current Tunisian government has previously expressed a desire (so far not acted upon) to ‘guide’ media outlets not to report news it feels is unacceptable.

Secondly, Essid is not a newcomer to Tunisan politics. He served for 18 years in Ben Ali’s government, including for a short period as cabinet director at the Ministry of the Interior. Few people make serious accusations that he instigated repression under Ben Ali, but he was a close colleague of many politicians who did. The idea is not entirely alien to him, at least.

And thirdly, it’s not easy to see how Tunisia could genuinely benefit from a state of emergency. Tunisia’s greatest strength – as literally the only state to have used the Arab Spring to create something better than it had before – is its political, social and constitutional innovation. A state of emergency runs serious risks of crushing at least some of the advances Tunisians have fought hard to achieve.

As importantly, it is still unclear what Rezgui’s motivations were for his despicable attack. Two weeks ago, Western media seemed certain he had acted for IS. It now seems almost certain that he did not. Currently, it is believed he was trained in Libya by Ansar Al-Sharia, an Al Qaeda-affiliated militia acting in Benghazi. Yet it is also believed he was trained by Ansar in Sabratha, in Western Libya almost 1,000km from Ansar’s Libyan stronghold.

It is currently thought that Rezgui was backed – at least in the planning stages – by other Tunisians. So far, eight people have been arrested, though none have confessed or even been charged.

And Al Qaeda, which supposedly trained Rezgui, has not claimed responsibility for the attack, which would be an unusual strategy for a terrorist organisation which had succeeded in the murder of people it holds as enemies.

Certainly, it is possible that the attack was masterminded by Al Qaeda, through a large and active cadre based in Tunisia. But it’s at least as likely that Rezgui was a lone lunatic, or that he was backed by a very few similarly-crazed colleagues.

Should nine people be able to spark a state of emergency in a medium-sized nation? Is it not possible that – even if we dismiss authoritarian motives (and it would not be entirely responsible to do so completely) – Essid may be acting because he believes he must be seen to be doing something, especially given his close links to Sousse itself?

If so, it seems he has company.

On 29 June, three days after the attack, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons that the UK’s COBRA emergency committee had ruled out advising UK citizens to leave or refuse to travel to Tunisia, claiming that ‘the killers are trying to wipe out the Tunisian tourist industry’.

In a previous post, I was dismissive of much of what Mr Cameron said in that address. I remain deeply concerned by most of what he said, but in fact, that statement showed not only a sensible grasp of the likely motives behind the attack, but also a reasonable response to it.

Which made it all the more confusing when, on 10 July, Mr Cameron announced that UK citizens should not be in Tunisia.

It is worth noting that the UK’s decision has been followed by Ireland and Denmark, so the UK is not alone, but it is surely also acceptable to ask why, in the immediate aftermath of a massacre on a Tunisian beach, the UK government’s specialist emergency committee judged that Tunisia was safe to visit, yet 14 days later – a two-week period in which no further attacks or attempted attacks had been made – Tunisia had become too dangerous to travel to.

When one considers that the UK has – since the 7/7 attacks in London – been at ‘severe’ threat level regarding international terrorism, meaning that an attack is ‘highly likely’, and that this is exactly the same level at which the UK government now officially rates Tunisia, we could perhaps consider once again whether our elected representatives are acting because they need to act, or because they need to be seen to be acting.

One other proposal, which appears to fit the requirements for ‘being seen to act’ rather than ‘acting in the most sensible way to deliver what’s best’ was also announced by Habibn Essid last week: a wall, and moat, along Tunisia’s border with Libya.

The wall and moat, which Essid pledged would be completed by the end of this year, would stretch for 160km of Tunisia’s 459km border with Libya, and is designed to prevent terrorists entering the state.

Although defending people is an admirable aim, I cannot think of a single situation in which I would ever support a wall built to keep people from travelling from one place to another.

And this wall (and moat) raises some questions. First, it only stretches less than half the border between the states. While all of the area not covered is some of the most harsh desert terrain anywhere in the world, the same could be said of virtually all of the border more than 40km south of the Mediterranean. Either the desert itself is a border, or it is not (and it is not: it’s a challenge), but whichever is true, less than half a barrier is not a barrier.

Secondly, it is an unfortunate fact that more Tunisian citizens have travelled to join IS than citizens of any other state: as Libyan friends of mine have asked, will the wall serve primarily to keep Tunisia safe, or to prevent IS members from entering Libya?

Thirdly, up to now, it has been widely understood that far more militarised operatives have entered Tunisia from the West, across its vast (965km) land border with Algeria.

Fourthly, Essid’s own justification for this barrier included the phrase ‘when we look at other countries, we can see what happens if we do nothing’.

But no -one is suggesting Tunisia should ‘do nothing’. And where IS and other terrorist militias have gained a foothold – Syria, Iraq, Libya – it is not because people have ‘done nothing’, but because ongoing, bitter conflict and its aftermath have created exactly the conditions in which such groups thrive.

Finally, early last month, I wrote a piece entitled Drawbridges. It was an unusually bleak – though unfortunately accurate – summation of our current international situation, and drew extensively on a metaphor related to mediaeval city-states’ response to threats from outside their boundaries.

It is hard to imagine how any modern proposal could more closely parallel that metaphor, than a plan to build a moat along a border.


In the same week, the EU has announced a plan to dissuade people from attempting to cross the Mediterranean to achieve safety from repression, terror, war, and death from preventable disease: giving money to a regime which contributes to every single one of those offences against humanity.

Neven Mimica, the EC Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, announced last week a plan to increase EU grants to Eritrea.

She said the EU was providing finance to increase economic opportunity and ‘address economic exclusion’ in Eritrea.

They are fine words.

But the vast majority of Eritrean people who leave the state do so not because of lack of economic opportunity but because in fact, the Eritrean government is a repressive regime, which forces all men into military service for astonishing periods, and which tortures prisoners as a matter of course.

It is chilling to note that we are represented by people who plan to hand cash to a regime that tortures and executes innocent people, to prevent people escaping that regime.

As a final note, in the same week Cameron and Essid were working to be seen to do something about Tunisia, the UK government’s Minister for Security and Immigration James Brokenshire stood in front of the House of Lords and repeatedly argued that the majority of people crossing the Mediterranean are economic migrants.

I have previously attempted to point out to people who hold this view that the very phrase ‘economic migrant’ – when used to describe people who are so desperate to escape their homelands that they willingly risk death to do so – does not mean what they believe it does; that once your economic reasons for fleeing your homeland are ‘there is so little food where I live that if I stay there I will die’, you have good reason to be allowed to live somewhere else, where you do not risk starvation.

But what made Brokenshire’s Parliamentary statements remarkable was not his inability or refusal to recognise this basic point – after all, the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have both consistently made that mistake.

In fact, his claims that the majority of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean for economic reasons (in itself, of course, one might wonder why people shouldn’t move from places where there is very little money, to places where there are vast amounts of it) were interesting largely because in making them, he became the first UK politician to do so since the United Nations had shown them to be definitely false.

Issued on 1 July this year, the UN’s The Sea Route To Europe: Mediterranean Passage In the Eye of Refugees shows that the vast majority of people who currently attempt to enter Europe do so because of war, terror, or oppression in their state.

It notes that up to 29 June 2015, 137,000 people had crossed the Mediterranean to attempt to find safety (75,000 people had done so in the same period last year), and that the states they came from – Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan were the top three points of origin, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq were also in the top ten – were conflict-riven.

It concluded that the vast majority of people who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean did so because of war, torture, oppression and terror.

Unlike David Cameron – for whom one could make the (hardly reassuring) excuse that he may be too busy to properly research everything he talks about – Mr Brokenshire is an immigration minister.

That is, he is paid to know the exact details of the kinds of people who are attempting to find safety in the UK and EU. And yet he appears simply to be unaware of the information and research gathered by the United Nations, which proves him wrong on the most basic of points: why people are risking death to enter Europe.

I am so concerned by this vast gap in the government’s knowledge on this topic that I have contacted Mr Brokenshire to offer him assistance, and access to statistics he appears not to have seen.

Up to now, he has not replied.

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