“While the spotlights in Tunisia are turned toward the struggle between the ruling Islamist party Ennahdha and the rising secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, another player is preparing to take the stage,” writes Habib M. Sayah, director of the Tunis-based Kheireddine Institute. “To undermine the extremists, civil society and political actors ought to provide an alternate ideology consistent with Tunisia’s liberal and tolerant religious heritage,” he writes on Fikra Forum:
As tens of thousands of Tunisians gathered at the Jellaz cemetery in Tunis for the funeral of slain secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, a jihadi organization named Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) has begun placing its pieces on the chessboard. After Ben Ali’s ouster, the Tunisian transitional government released scores of Islamist political prisoners, including Seif Allah Ben Hassine (right), also known as “Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi,” the charismatic mastermind behind the foundation of AST in April 2011. He earned his nom de guerre in Afghanistan where he set up the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda.
On September 14, 2012, Abu Iyadh successfully waged the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Despite the prior announcement of his intentions, the police forces passively allowed AST’s troops to invade the compound. In spite of the insistence of the U.S. Department of State, and notwithstanding hard evidence of Abu Iyadh’s involvement, the Tunisian government let him free and swept the issue by arresting a few Salafi militants.
“Interestingly, AST’s security committees have joined forces with the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), which are Islamic youth organizations connected to Ennahdha’s hard wing,” Sayah notes. “This synergy may indicate that from now on Ennahdha’s hardliners are relying on Abu Iyadh to undermine the rise of the secular opposition.”
The Islamists’ targeting of the labor movement is clearly a political calculation, note two prominent analysts.
“It bears noting that Islamists were largely absent from the 2010-2011 demonstrations that led to the ouster of former president Ben Ali; after initially spontaneous protests, it was the union leadership that added crucial muscle to the nonviolent campaign,” note Middle East specialists Ahmed Charai and Joseph Braude.
But religious extremists are now turning against the principal organizational force behind the Jasmine Revolution – the labor movement.
“Islamists identifying as Salafis and supporters of Ennahda have perpetrated numerous attacks on the UGTT, the country’s trade-union federation and a bastion of continuity and civil society dating back to Tunisia’s struggle for independence in 1956,” they write for The National Interest.
Prominent Nahda officials, “including Habib Bellouz one of the Islamist party’s grandees with Salafist leanings and sympathy, called for a ‘malyouniyyah’ (million-strong protest specific to Egypt) for today,” writes Dr Larbi Sadiki, author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy:
For the Islamists, at a time when Nahda itself is facing fractionalisation, may be tested as one means of staging their own revolution in Tunisia, especially if PM Jebali succeeds to dissolve government and go ahead with plans to form a national unity caretaker administration of technocrats. For Islamists, especially the faction allied with Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi (left), the move amounts to a coup against electoral legitimacy.
According to Roula Khalaf, “politicians who deal closely with Nahda say that the party is home to different Islamist trends, with a base that is more radical than its leadership”:
Some analysts say the party, like others in Tunisia, is divided between those who are true believers of democracy and those who are under the illusion that ruling Tunisia is a divine right. Others see differences relating to the extent of the party’s commitment to the project of Islamizing Tunisian society.
While secularists accuse Nahda of being too soft on the puritanical Salafis, who are expanding their base by preaching a socially strict Islam, a wing of the party is closer in its views to the Salafis and considers that the leadership is departing from its Islamist mission.
“There’s a lot of disenchantment among Nahda supporters because the pace of change has been very slow,” says Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist movements at the Brookings Doha Centre.
Competing with state for supportIn the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy attack, Abu Iyadh focused his organisation’s efforts on charity work, writes Sayah:
AST has distributed water and food in the poorest urban and rural areas, and has provided free medical services (their physicians have even issued prescriptions on Ansar al-Sharia letterhead). With popular dissatisfaction of Tunisia’s political spectrum on the rise, these so-called humanitarian actions are systematically filmed and propaganda videos showing the population’s support of AST are broadcasted on the web. Not only are they building up a network of sympathizers, but they are also trying to prove that they have the capacity to replace the state in its functions should the Republic fall and be replaced by a caliphate.
The relationship between the Salafists and Ennahdha has always been complex, Sayah adds:
Abu Iyadh has many close allies among Ennahdha hardliners, such as parliamentarian Sadok Chourou, who publicly stated that those who demonstrate against the government are Allah’s enemies and should be dismembered and crucified, and was the guest speaker of AST’s first annual conference in Sidi Bouzid in 2011. On the other side, some moderates in Ennahdha like Prime Minister Jebali have taken a stand against political violence by endorsing democracy. In the middle sits Ennahdha’s overseer Rachid Ghannouchi, who is still sending conflicting messages to the secular opposition and Tunisia’s western partners on the one hand, and to the Salafis on the other.
He ..likes to argue that Islam, liberal economic policies and democracy can coexist. Yet, when asked by the New York Times at the height of the civil war in Algeria, “Why murder Arab and Muslim intellectuals just because they embrace secular views?”, he answered: “Some of these secularists are the devil’s advocate; they are Pharaohs in the service of an oppressive regime who have made their own decision. They must bear the responsibility of their choice.” This was tantamount to a license to murder.
“They find themselves torn between satisfying the various political trends within their movement and an increasingly vocal and organized opposition, parts of it refusing to countenance any whiff of Islamization in a traditionally secular state,” she writes in the FT.
Consequently, Ennahdha is “undergoing a severe crisis,” writes Sayah:
Isolated and disavowed by his fellow party leaders, Prime Minister Jebali (above) is pragmatically moving toward reconciliation with the secular opposition. Meanwhile, the hardliners are extending their influence, fostering further polarization and radicalization of the party….In this context, where Ennahdha is at the same time divided, radicalizing, and considerably weakened, Abu Iyadh seems to have launched a hostile takeover bid on the party.
In an interview released a few days prior to Belaid’s death, Abu Iyadh called for the unification of the Islamist political spectrum in order to defeat Tunisia’s secular movement. Ennahdha’s response came soon enough. The day after Belaid’s funeral, in a rally held by Ennahdha, one of the speakers called for the unification of the Islamist movement in a new troika that would be comprised of Ennahdha, Hizb al-Tahrir, and the “Salafis,” meaning of course AST. The masquerade is over.
“To undermine the extremists,” Sayah concludes, “civil society and political actors ought to provide an alternate ideology, not in conflict with Islamic values, but consistent with Tunisia’s liberal and tolerant religious heritage.”