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MAY 2015



a single embassy employee had been physically injured during

an hours-long siege. The real problemwas political, not physical:

The Tunisian government had failed to respond effectively to the

initial attack.

Nevertheless, still spooked by the news from Benghazi just

three days earlier, Washington had ordered the evacuation of

Embassy Tunis. Three months after that, I arrived to find one of

the strictest security regimes I had ever experienced outside of a

combat zone.

The embassy’s Tunisian employees had shown amazing resil-

ience and resourcefulness following the attack, working from

their homes via email and fax to close out the fiscal-year books

far from their evacuated American colleagues. For the public

affairs section, that closeout involved hundreds of thousands of

dollars in grants, which, despite the attack, continued to be dis-

bursed. Managing those programs was one of the reasons I was

sent to Tunis. Otherwise, almost all public

programs and other routine operations

were suspended.

In addition to a small number of

permanent American staff brought back,

without dependents, a few others, includ-

ing WAEs like myself, were gradually

brought in on temporary duty, mostly in security and construc-

tion-related positions. Tight restrictions were placed on official

visitors, with prior authorization from State’s under secretary

for management required. All public diplomacy-related visits to

Tunisia, including by regional support staff, were halted.

Outside, relative calm prevailed, even as the birthplace of the

Arab Spring was undergoing the most important political transi-

tion in its history. Inside, priority was going to security construc-

tion and to maintaining a low profile. Temporary staff were

initially lodged in remote hotels (some were later put into vacant

houses) and driven to and fromwork in armored shuttles. In-

country travel was discouraged, and representation was minimal.

I wanted to get out, to see old friends and contacts frommy

two earlier assignments in Tunis, and I felt I could really accom-

plish something important in that way—but there was little

encouragement to do so. Reduced staffing severely curtailed

most public outreach.

Security As the Primary Goal?

The one thing that was not limited was

the security operation. Throughout my six

months in Tunis, our staffmeetings typi-

cally focused on security and construction

issues. Across the entire mission, relatively

fewU.S. employees had outside contact

work as their primary responsibility.

Off duty, I was generally able to move

about Greater Tunis more or less freely.

Thanks to email and Facebook, I found

many old friends and contacts. Some had

become “ancien régime,” but they none-

theless offered an important window into

our understanding of what was happen-

ing in Tunisia. Meanwhile, official Wash-

ington still had Benghazi in its teeth, and

the focus was on security, not outreach.

Repeated requests by the embassy to

go off ordered-departure status and bring

back dependents were rebuffed. Yet just

Ever since Benghazi, overseas security

has been a club for politicians to use

against one another.

USIS staff with departing PAO Jim Bullock, center in striped shirt, in the courtyard of

the American Center, Tunis, in 1996.