A tide of Salafist militancy in Tunisia is threatening freedom of expression and undermining the country’s democratic transition. Violent protests by radical Islamists (above) are presenting the government with its “greatest political test yet, one with the potential for grave failure,” according to one account.
One person was killed and at least 100 injured following demonstrations against an art exhibition that radical Salafists deemed insulting to Islam. The riots are the worst violence since the January 2011 revolt against Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime sparked a wave of revolts that came to be known as the Arab awakening.
“Some secularists had attended the offending exhibition, saying Tunisians had the right to artistic freedom, and they have also come under physical attack,” Reuters reported. “A labor union office in the northwestern city of Jendouba had been set alight by Salafis overnight while the offices of secular parties nearby were attacked.”
Tunisia’s General Labor Union (UGTT), widely considered the leading force in the revolt that deposed Ben Ali, this week called for a National Dialogue Council made up of political parties and civil society.
“The aim of this initiative is to reinforce national unity, preserve democratic transition and secure a collective management of the transitional period” said UGTT Secretary General Houcine Abassi.
The initiative follows a series of Salafist attacks on UGTT offices, including its premises in Sidi Bouzid, the ‘cradle’ of the revolt, where street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight. UGTT activists played a pivotal role in converting the subsequent local protests against his death into the coordinated, national movement that ended autocratic rule.
“The government institutions must remain the only guarantors for the enforcement of the law,” Abassi insisted.
The Salafist violence is also highlighting a disturbingly equivocal approach to democratic liberties on the part of the relatively moderate Islamist Nahda party, say observers. Nahda’s leaders and government officials condemned the artists for what Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and spiritual guide, described as “attacks on national sacred symbols.”
Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk declined to condemn the attack on the exhibition on the grounds that it amounted to “artistic provocation” that did not respect the values of Islam.
“When I heard the government’s position I felt like I was at a trial for freedom but unable to defend myself,” an artist told AFP, requesting anonymity.
More than 140 people, most of them Salafists, were arrested for attacking police posts and torching a Tunis courthouse during the riots, the interior ministry said. Among them was the cleric of a mosque in the northwestern town of Jendouba, who called for the murder of police officers during Friday prayers.
Even before the recent clashes, artists say they have regularly been the target of religious hardliners in post-revolution Tunisia. And they are surprised that the more moderate regime that replaced Ben Ali has not defended the nation’s artists.
The artist whose canvas was slashed said: “I am not afraid of answering to ministers, but I am afraid of ignorant people, of the imbecile hiding somewhere who will attack my family because [the authorities] have abandoned us.”
“There are some individuals who have hired thieves and drug and alcohol dealers to create tension and take advantage of people’s feelings about their religion,” he said.
Ennahda is trying to balance its secular coalition partners – the centrist Congress for the Republic and the left-of-center Ettakatol – and hard-line Salafists, “who originally helped the party gain control,” notes an analysis from Stratfor:
If Ennahda responds too strongly to the recent Salafist-generated unrest, it could alienate important Islamist leaders and draw unfavorable comparisons with the Ben Ali regime. If the party responds too passively, however, it could be accused of enabling Tunisia’s more extreme Islamists and allowing the country’s security situation to deteriorate. Ennahda likely will try to exploit divisions among various Salafist factions in order to prevent them from derailing the government’s long-term plans.
Yet independent analysts fear that Nahda’s “mollifying” of the Salafists indirectly promotes their radical agenda.
“Tunisia’s moderate Islamist government has for the most part been a model of relative success for a region undergoing drastic political change,” notes analyst Borzou Daragahi. “It has eschewed an ideological program in favor of a pragmatic agenda focused on rebuilding the economy.”
Nahda reacted to the Salafist violence by proposing a ban on art that offends religious sensibilities.
“In so doing they are supporting the Salafists’ world view: do not bother firebombing galleries, just wait for the government to shut them down,” says Daragahi.
“A primary argument for accepting and even advocating the rise of moderate Islamists in Libya, Egypt and Syria is that only they will be able to confront the radicals in their ranks and guide them into the mainstream,” he notes:
But in reacting to extremist Islamists rioting across the country over a provocative art exhibit, the government faces its greatest political test yet, one with the potential for grave failure. Many Tunisians and international observers worry that its half-hearted response is a misguided pursuit of short-term interests that might endanger the revolution and the hope that a new crop of moderate Islamist leaders will be able to uphold the tenets of liberal democracy while maintaining a Muslim identity.
“Nahda are in a very difficult position,” said Omayya Siddik, an independent Tunis-based analyst. “They [the party’s leaders] do not know how to create a balance between the attacks from the Salafists and the possibility of losing the religious electorate. The problem is that the protests against the art exhibit are very popular among a huge part of the public.”
Coming at the start of the traditional holiday season, the Salafist violence may sabotage efforts to lure European tourists.
“Violence in the name of defending Islam is a new phenomenon in Tunisian society,” Meriem Dhaouadi, a Tunis-based rights activist, writes on Open Democracy. “Tunisia is a Sunni majority Arab country, but individuals with different religious affiliations have peacefully co-existed for as long as I can remember.”
But with the Salafist riots prompting French TV to warn tourists against travel to Tunisia, she says, “Maybe we can look forward to them being amply replaced by people from Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia who will feel more at home in Tunistan.”
Failure to attract tourist revenue and inward investment is adding to the pressures on a government that is already “showing signs of strain.”
“Under a veneer of normalcy that should be the envy of other Arab nations mired in bloodier and shakier transitions, economic grievances are churning right below the surface. They could once again reach full boil,” according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. “The economic and social causes that sparked the uprising a year and a half ago are far from resolved or even adequately addressed or discussed.”
The government’s capacity to address the country’s pressing socio-economic crises is constrained by political maneuvering between Islamist and secular groups in the coalition government and the wider society.
“The major political problem continues to be the imbalance in the political spectrum that pits the well-organized, cohesive, Islamist Ennahda party against a large number of fragmented secular parties,” writes Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program.
“These parties are acutely aware that their chances for electoral success are limited unless they manage to forge larger coalitions, but they have so far failed to create lasting groupings—let alone a grand secular alliance,” she notes.
Nahda (or Ennahda), the coalition government’s majority party is also threatened by a “burgeoning” extra-parliamentary alliance of the radical Islamist Hizb al-Tahrir and Ansar al-Sharia, “which share a common opposition to Ennahda’s moderate Islamism,” Stratfor notes:
It is unclear how closely the groups have collaborated thus far, but each has an interest in eroding the credibility of the Ennahda-led government before Tunisia’s next elections in 2013. The groups do not have the collective strength to seriously threaten the current government’s hold on power, but their ability to put thousands of supporters in the streets is enough to prevent Ennahda from focusing on long-term imperatives such as drafting a constitution and stabilizing the country’s economy.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri this week declared jihad against the Tunisian government, prompting officials and independent observers to raise the prospect of an uptick in Salafist violence.
“[T]here are serious worries about the eruption of the situation in the summer and the upcoming month of Ramadan,” one official said.
“There is information about plans for major operations against tourism and commercial sites and public facilities inside Tunisia. The information actually indicates that weapons are being smuggled from Algeria to carry out these missions,” he explained.
Tunisia’s Salafist problem is unlikely to lead to an Algeria-style civil war, analyst Michael Totten writes for World Affairs.
“It could happen, but I doubt it that it will,” he says, citing the population’s “pacifistic streak.”
When asked about al-Qaeda’s call for Tunisians to rebel against the coalition government, Nahda’s Ghannouchi said, “We do not believe that Salafism in Tunisia is linked to al-Qaeda. Zawahiri does not have any influence in our country.”
While a jihadist uprising is a remote prospect, the International Crisis Group suggests that “a legitimacy crisis” resulting from the government’s failure to address socio-economic concerns could generate pronounced instability.
“It would be exaggerated to raise the spectre of a second insurrection,” the ICG report contends:
The main mass organizations, namely the General Tunisian Workers Union (UGTT) and the An-Nahda party, are not itching for a political showdown. The various political parties appear to accept the democratic rules of the game and are seeking to reposition themselves on the political playing field ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections. However, socio-economic insecurity and political instability, inextricably linked in this post-revolutionary context, negatively feed on each other and risk snowballing into a legitimacy crisis for the newly elected government.
Former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi (left) recently announced the formation of Nedaa Tunis, or the Call for Tunisia party, an initiative designed to unify the country’s fragmented secular opposition. The move may enhance tension within the governing coalition between Ennahda and its secular partners, which, says Carnegie’s Ottaway, “was never more than a marriage of convenience.”
“While this does not mean that a crisis is imminent, it is a reminder of the difficulties and complications involved in even a successful transition,” she writes. “It is probable that more parties will form before the next vote, and indeed dozens of parties still exist that are nominally registered but dormant. The Tunisian political spectrum so far is showing little sign of becoming less fragmented.”
The strains between the coalition’s secular and Islamist partners are likely to reach breaking point if Ennahda tries to court allies from the Salafist fringe.
“Riots and widespread public dissatisfaction could undermine voter support for Ennahda, while also creating tensions between the party and its secular allies,” Stratfor suggests. “However, given the divergent ideologies and political aspirations of the Salafist groups, Ennahda will likely try to pacify at least one faction through constitutional concessions or promised roles in a future government.”
But an accommodation with the Salafists would empower and legitimize radical forces, while sapping the credibility of Nahda’s declared commitment to democratic norms, analysts suggest.
“Many of the country’s mosques have been taken over by Salafist preachers who have been known to rail against the same democratic principles that allow them to speak freely,” notes the FT’s Daragahi:
Time and time again, Nahda and its leaders have shown they are moderates who generally respect the ground rules of liberal democracy. But by seeming to appease the Salafists, they run the risk of appearing weak or opportunistic: devout Muslims are part of its political base and general elections are scheduled for March next year.
Nahda’s decision may determine whether Tunisia continues a sustainable transition to a relatively liberal democracy or a Pakistan-like hybrid, blending sharia and constitutional law.
As actress and theatre researcher Jalila Baccar asked: “Do we want a country without art, without artists? Who should decide which lines can be crossed in terms of what is sacred? Is it for judges, religious leaders, the constitution that is currently being drawn up?”
The coalition “would better serve its own interests – as well as those of the country – by cracking down on any Salafist who breaks the law, opening investigations into Salafist finances and siding firmly with liberals when basic issues of state and society are at stake,” Daragahi concludes.