Tunisia’s major parties may have ended a months-old stalemate by negotiating a provisional agreement on the country’s future constitution, but the country’s democratic transition faces an overlapping threat from violent jihadists and ultra-conservative Salafists, say analysts.
“We have overcome the impasse, we are heading towards a mixed regime where neither the head of state nor the head of the government will have supreme control over the executive power,” said Ennahda’s Rached Ghannouchi, the de facto head of the majority Islamist party.
Yet the transition process may be threatened by the emergence of violent jihadist groups.
“The hunt for al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near Tunisia’s borders with Algeria in recent days has raised alarm that the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the latest battleground for violent jihadis,” AP reports:
With neighboring Algeria and Libya full of weapons and violent movements of their own, Tunisia is struggling to prevent the growth of armed groups while making its own tentative transition to democracy.
“We have discovered a terrorist plan targeting Tunisians and the state,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui, citing the presence of some 20 militants encamped in Jebel Chaambi, near the southern city of Kasserine.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh yesterday insisted that Tunisia’s security situation was improving and that jihadist groups would be defeated, Middle East Online reports.
“We will pursue our confrontation with the violent terrorist groups… dismantle their structures and bring them to justice,” said the former interior minister and Ennahda stalwart.
But opposition MPs criticized Larayedh for failing to crack down on radical Islamist groups when he was interior minister between December 2011 and March 2013, when there was a spike in Salafist violence.
“We are heading towards civil war,” said Hichem Hosni, an independent MP.
The attacks on the US embassy in Tunis last September, on the UGTT labor union HQ last December, the torching of 60 Sufi shrines – zaouias– and the assassination of leftwing lawyer Chokri Belaid (left)have forced the authorities to act, “yet most of the perpetrators of such acts have gone unpunished,” says a leading analyst.
“It has taken the Nahda-dominated government quite some time to take off the kid gloves it wore when treating its Salafi brothers,” writes Francis Ghilès, a North Africa expert at the Barcelona-based CIDOB think-tank.
“As long as this impunity lasts, even speaking of “free and fair” elections makes little sense,” he writes. “The sense of fear and foreboding that stalks Tunisia, not least among its womenfolk, will last as long as many ordinary people remain unconvinced that the government truly believes in the rule of law and democracy.”
French-language daily Le Temps raised fears of “a spiral of deadly violence similar to the one that ravaged Algeria” during its so-called black decade of civil war in the 1990s.
Le Temps blamed the “policy of impunity and the complacency of the authorities, who encouraged the terrorists to continue,” accusing the government of doing nothing to curb the rise of Salafist groups since the revolution in January 2011.
Le Quotidien called on Tunisia’s leaders to “take the bull by the horns,” saying “the moment is very grave, and the fight against terrorism has inevitably become a collective responsibility.”
The Salafist violence “sent the country’s delicate political transition into turmoil, prompting then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to resign in February and raising fears that the Ennahda-led government was failing not only at the economy but security as well,” AP reports:
“The terrorist threat has moved to a higher level,” Jebali said in a recent interview with the French-language daily La Presse. “The top priority is to launch a decisive campaign to recover all the weapons circulating in the country.”
He added that the country is still in the delicate process of writing a new constitution and holding elections for a new legislature and president, by the end of the year. The process has been riven by angry disputes between Ennahda and the opposition parties, partly over Ennahda’s alleged laxity towards salafis.
“Please don’t add political and social landmines to those already on Jebel Chaambi,” said Jebali, calling for national unity in face of the threat.
The security threat coincides with growing concern over the influence of ultra-conservative Salafist groups which have conducted attacks against secularist individuals and institutions. While not all Salafists are violent, human rights groups and democracy advocates fear that Ennahda, the majority Islamist party, has colluded with extremist elements, facilitated the immigration of foreign imams and taken an ambivalent stance on the issue of political violence.
“Even though some of them have extremist views, these foreign imams often come to Tunisia with the blessing of the government or the Islamist party Ennahda, the party in power, which accommodate and welcome them,” said Messaoud Romdhani (right), the vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
“The authorities have not reacted to our warnings, and no concrete measure has been taken to stop these practices,” he told France 24, adding that “civil society organizations also have a duty to act.”
“People need to be aware of the dangers of this type of preaching and understand that they have the right to challenge the preachers’ presence. It’s every citizen’s role to ensure public spaces are protected,” he said. “Unfortunately, civil society organizations don’t have the same presence on the ground as the imams.”
A parliamentarian from the centrist Democratic Group this week criticized the authorities’ failure to wrest control of mosques from the hardline Salafists.
“There is a lack of policy for controlling mosques… The Chaambi terrorists can take refuge there,” he said, said Samir Bettaieb,
Some observers contend that Ennahda leaders have been conspicuous in their double talk on the question of political violence.
Ghannouchi, the party’s spiritual and de facto leader, this week urged “young Tunisians” not to join the “so-called jihad which has no place here… The jihad is in Palestine, not on Mount Chaambi,” he told the radio station Mosaique FM.
“Salafist jihadists pose a threat to Tunisia. The Tunisian government ought to tighten the screws, following the attack on the American Embassy,” he told Agence France Presse. “These people pose a threat not only to Ennahda but to the country’s civil liberties and security,” he added.
Responding to criticism that Tunisian authorities have yet to arrest anybody for the attack on the US Embassy, the Ennahda leader compared Abu Iyad, the leader of Tunisia’s Salafist jihadist movement, to Osama Bin Laden. “Bin Laden remained free for several years. The international secret services spent a long time chasing him before finally being able to stop him,” he said.
But less than 24 hours later, he asked to “slightly modify” his accusation that Salafist jihadists, “pose a threat.” He said on national TV that “his statements were distorted and reported imprecisely,” adding that “those who attacked the US Embassy in Tunis do not belong to the Salafist movement. They are criminals and terrorists.”
Ghannouchi (right) told local media that he lacked “any desire to fight a religious group,” stating that “Salafist jihadists constitute an integral part of Tunisian society.”
Ennahda’s need to maintain party unity and appease a membership base sympathetic to Salafi ideology lies behind this “double discourse,” say analysts.
“The double talk of Ghannouchi can be explained based on electioneering purposes. Ennahda includes a quasi-Salafist radical wing, which is part of the party’s leadership, represented by Sadok Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chourou,” said Naji Jalloul, an expert on Islamist movements.
“Ghannouchi cannot ignore these two figures in his electoral strategy, especially given that the results of the Troika government are not terribly impressive at the socio-economic level,” he said. ‘The leader of Ennahda is, therefore, caught between a desire to sell his moderate Islam to the West and the requirements of his radical group. This explains the double talk strategy.”
Political violence is the major threat to Tunisia’s transition, according to a new report from Human Rights First. The introduction of blasphemy laws would undermine freedom of expression and provide a pretext for political violence against rights and democracy advocates, as in Pakistan, the report suggests.
“Whether and how blasphemy and other speech deemed offensive to religion or religious symbols is regulated in Tunisian law is a contentious issue in the transition process,” says Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “Rights and freedoms would be threatened by any broadening or strengthening of laws criminalizing allegedly blasphemous or offensive speech, and several such proposals have been made since the revolution that ousted former President Ben Ali.”
The threats to freedom of expression partly a legacy of authoritarian rule, but also a reflection of Salafist influence, said rights activist Romdhani.
“People here have been so deprived of freedom for so many years that they have a poor understanding of freedom of expression and how to express this, sometimes confusing it with anarchy,” he said. “These practices are being encouraged by the wave of preachers visiting Tunisia from the Gulf or the Middle East.”
First, it appears that the Salafists are attracting a lot more young people from the slums that surround large cities (specifically, Tunis, Sousse and Sfax) than from the cities or the rural areas. The second phenomenon is that despite the “limited” numbers of jihadist Salafists, they have proved their ability to persist and remain active…not only in violent protests but also in proselytizing and charitable work.
Alarm over the recent attacks has been overblown when taken in a broader regional context, said Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa analyst of the London-based Eurasia group.
“If we compare the situation in Tunisia to the rest of the region, particularly Libya and Algeria, it is pretty much under control,” he told AP, adding that state and foreign interests were not under any significant threat.
He said that part of the problem is how demoralized security forces have been since the fall of Ben Ali, sapping their ability to maintain border security as well as in the past.
“They are countering the problem with limited resources and security forces are downbeat,” he said. “They feel powerless.”