Week After Attack, Belgium Reopens Wounds

Some politicians are already under fire over a series of missteps & blunders by security and intelligence agencies.

3 min read
Belgian special forces police climb on a building during a raid in Brussels on November 16, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)
  • Belgians defiant, united after last Tuesday’s bloodshed.
  • Questions over blunders and blind eyes divide politicians.
  • Calls for more security risk inflaming linguistic schism.

Manneken Pis, the cherubic little statue insouciantly relieving himself in the heart of Brussels, has become a cheeky symbol of Belgian resistance to terror in the week since suicide bombers struck the capital.

But for all the defiance and outpouring of affection at home and abroad for Belgians’ quirky, self-deprecating sense of fun amid the fear, grim reality – beyond the 35 dead and 96 still in hospital – is intruding in arguments over tighter security and a political blame game testing Belgium’s fragile unity.

“We’ve always been a very laid back society ... used to a leisurely, non-American view of security,” one senior official of Prime Minister Charles Michel’s government told Reuters.

So it is really a shock to the nation.

The government announced measures to combat the threat from local Muslims radicalised by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria four months ago when it emerged November’s attacks in Paris were the work of Brussels militants who had plotted undisturbed by underfunded and loosely coordinated authorities in laissez-faire Belgium.

Ministers may find support for tougher action, such as closer surveillance of suspects: “A little bit of Brussels died in me this week,” wrote Bart Eeckhout, a commentator in the city’s left-leaning, Dutch-language newspaper, De Morgen.

But we have to find a new balance between charming I-don’t-give-a-damn-ism and risky political meddling.

Some politicians are already under fire over a series of missteps and blunders by security and intelligence agencies. And recriminations have exposed faultlines between French- and Dutch-speakers that have threatened Belgium’s survival before.

Efforts to hold the country together in recent decades have shaped an extreme devolution of power that has been blamed by some for failures of authorities to monitor footloose militants or to communicate among a confusing tapestry of police forces.

People hold hands in solidarity near a memorial to attack victims outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (Photo: AP)
People hold hands in solidarity near a memorial to attack victims outside the stock exchange in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Easter Parade

When on Easter Sunday hundreds of black-clad members of far-right soccer gangs arrived from Dutch-speaking Flanders to parade on the square that is the focus of memory and solidarity for mainly French-speaking Brussels, the capital’s mayor vented his fury not just at them but at Flemings in general.

“It’s not Brussels’ image that was stained by Sunday’s events at the Bourse,” Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said. “It’s Flanders that came to tarnish Brussels with its extremists.”

He accused the Flemish nationalist party N-VA, which leads the Flemish regional government, of promoting intolerance.

N-VA leader Bart de Wever, mayor of second city Antwerp, has since the attacks blamed left-wing leaders in the capital for allowing militant Islamists free rein to radicalise Arab youths.

“It’s clear they’ve been too soft in Brussels,” he told L’Echo newspaper. 

Anyone who dared say there was a problem was called a racist ... And they became completely dependent on the votes of the immigrant communities. They closed their eyes.

For Jean-Marie Klinkenberg, a professor at French-speaking Liege University and a noted linguistics expert, the Brussels attacks could hasten the “evaporation of the Belgian state”.

Quoted in French newspaper Le Journal de Dimanche, he cited a divide in political culture and attitudes to security between Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, saying: 

Between the more populist Flemings and social-democrat Walloons, differences will emerge sooner or later, notably on questions of security.

But a Belgian novelist said the March 22 attacks galvanised the country: “For years, politicians and Cassandras have been announcing the imminent death of little Belgium ... a northern Yugoslavia,” Jean-Baptiste Baronian wrote in French weekly L’Express.

Except one fine day in March 2016 a few mad killers came to shed Belgium’s blood and, in that blow, brought together every citizen from the four corners of the country, bathed in tears.

(This has been published in arrangement with Reuters.)

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