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MAY 2015


across the highway,

the American School

had put itself back into

operation within days.

Sure, there was still

credible threat report-

ing—but we saw very

little violence. Nearby,

our posts in Morocco

were still open, as was

the embassy in Cairo,

surely a more danger-

ous place.

The net effect of this continued security-first posture was to

reduce the U.S. government’s presence and operational effective-

ness in Tunisia at a crucial time. What program outreach we were

doing was largely in the hands of NGOs, who could bring in staff

and program support without an explicit green light fromM.

The embassy’s public library (Information Resource Cen-

ter) was essentially closed to the general public, both because

advance clearance through the RSO was required for access and

because the space itself had been requisitioned as the embassy’s

training classroom. The public affairs section’s multipurpose

room had likewise been taken over by temporary security staff.

Since even routine access for outside visitors required 24-hour

advance notice, I often met contacts at cafés just beyond the

barbed-wire barriers.

Barbed wire atop and alongside high blank walls, running

parallel to one of the country’s main highways, gave the embassy

compound the look of a federal penitentiary. Once, I suggested to

the construction folks that we use cactus (a traditional Tunisian

security barrier) in place of the concertina wire, and add color-

ful “Info-USA” panels on the side of the perimeter wall facing the

highway. The cactus, I was told, would be too expensive. (Com-

pared to the overall cost of maintaining that huge compound on

top of a reclaimed swamp?) The murals? Maybe, someday. (If

anyone from the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations is read-

ing this, please consider!)

Before I left for home in July 2013, I managed to hold one suc-

cessful representational event—at a hotel. Shortly after that, at the

embassy’s Fourth of July reception, I heard the ambassador assure

a small and tightly controlled assembly that the United States

would “never be chased from Tunisia” and that we were “there

to stay.” I hope he’s right about that, but the temporary closure of

19 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide the next month in

response to various security concerns was not encouraging.


“Fortress America” looms along Tunis’

main highway, with high blank walls

awaiting concertina wire, in 2013.