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Oct 5, 2012 | 10:17 GMT

5 mins read

The Limits of Salafists in Tunisia


On Oct. 4, the administration of Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki extended the state of emergency in Tunisia until Oct. 31 to ensure the security of diplomatic missions. Two days earlier, Marzouki called Tunisian Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia a "cancer," according to Al-Hayat news agency, and later expressed concern about militant threats present in southern Libya and Algeria.

A prolonged militant threat similar to that faced in Egypt, Algeria or Libya is unlikely to take root in Tunisia due to the nature of the country's political transition in 2011 and to its unique geography. However, the ability of politically minded Salafist groups to incite violent riots gives the Islamists leverage in the Tunisian political arena — an enduring concern for the country's fledgling government as it attempts to navigate economic and political challenges ahead.

When Arab unrest sparked political transitions across the Middle East in 2011, it created vacuums of power in traditional militant strongholds throughout the region. This allowed militants to return and renew operations in places such as Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and eastern Libya. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, ultraconservative Salafists operate across an array of religious, social and political lines — and some of the groups seem capable of posing a real threat.

The Limits of Salafists in Tunisia

North Africa Unrest

In March 2011, Tunisia's transitional government pardoned several former militants, including Seif Allah Ben Hussein, known commonly as Abu Ayad. Like many militants in Libya, the Tunisian fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s and had a close relationship with al Qaeda. In 2000, along with another militant named Tarek Maaroufi, Abu Ayad founded the jihadist Tunisian Combatant Group, which in 2006 was folded into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the global jihadist group's North African franchise.

After his pardon, Abu Ayad formed Ansar al-Sharia, a socio-religious Salafist organization that likely has influence among certain Tunisian political parties. There are other Islamist groups called Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt, Morocco and Libya, and they likely communicate with their Tunisian counterpart at some level. The alleged involvement of the Libyan Ansar al-Sharia in the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi makes the Tunisian Islamist group worth monitoring.

Yet, unlike many of its neighbors, Tunisia has not seen serious militant attacks since the Arab Spring began. Moreover, Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia officially rejects violence and is better known domestically for organizing protests and discussion forums about Sharia. Considering the Islamist group's roots and the prevalence of Libyan weapons in Tunisia, the fact that Tunis does not face the same militant threats as cities such as Benghazi reflects some characteristics unique to Tunisia.

Distinguishing Constraints

Although longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was removed from government in 2011, the country's basic structures of power, including the military and intelligence services, remained intact. In contrast, Libya underwent a grueling civil war that ruptured former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's network of tribal alliances and institutions, uprooting the entire system. Tunisia therefore has a more mature and cohesive security apparatus that is well equipped to contain Islamist threats.

The Tunisian government also benefits from the country's compact geography, which denies jihadist groups ideal territory for bases. This contrasts with places such as Algeria's mountainous Kabylie region, a stronghold for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Similarly, Libyan militants exploit the lack of authority around Benghazi, which is separated by 950 kilometers (600 miles) of desert from the central government in Tripoli.

Jihadists in Sinai benefit from the Gulf of Suez, which separates the peninsula from mainland Egypt. Such geographic bases help militant groups sustain prolonged insurgencies by complicating the ability of security forces to project authority or mobilize security forces to the areas. The reach of Tunisia's security establishment, by comparison, extends fully to its borders.

Moreover, unlike in Algeria and Libya, Tunisian Salafists have a political voice through the recently licensed Reform Front Party, the membership of which likely overlaps considerably with Ansar al-Sharia. If a more militant Salafist element does arise in Tunisia, the party could perform the same function as the Salafist Nour Party in Egypt, which has served as an intermediary between the government and jihadists in Sinai.

Combined, these factors will likely prevent an insurgent-style threat from emerging in Tunisia. However, access to heavy weapons in the country, along with the wide array of relatively insecure Western tourist targets and Jewish historical sites, makes isolated jihadist attacks possible. The threat could arise from militants within Ansar al-Sharia that use the organization as cover (say, by launching an attack during a political protest, as happened in Benghazi), a different local element, or a foreign element that manages to penetrate Tunisia's borders.

Ansar al-Sharia's Leverage

While Ansar al-Sharia may not present an immediate jihadist threat, the Salafist organization's ability to incite violent protests gives it considerable leverage. In June, for example, an art exhibition that included a piece spelling out "Allah" with ants sparked a week and a half of violent protests throughout the country. Ansar al-Sharia can use such demonstrations to extact concessions — such as permission to create a political party or the inclusion of Sharia in the constitution — or to stall key phases of the political process. For example, Tunisia's Constitution has yet to be written and will likely be completed long after the Oct. 23 deadline set in May by Constitution Assembly leader Mustapha Ben Jaafar. If unrest is renewed, this process could stretch into 2013 — with the constitution still needing to be ratified through a public referendum.

Demonstrations held Sept. 14 magnified Ansar al-Sharia's political power. Rioters responding to the anti-Islam video produced in the United States targeted the U.S. Embassy and a U.S. school; four Tunisians were killed and hundreds more were injured in subsequent clashes. The timing of the protests was notable; they took place on the Friday after the Benghazi attack and a large-scale protest in Egypt.

Tunisia has reason to be particularly concerned by the targeting of Western facilities. Historically, a significant portion of the country's economy has been related to tourism. In 2001, for example, the sector accounted for 40 percent of foreign exchange receipts until the 9/11 attacks caused a plunge in visitors. The sector recovered at a steady pace until the 2011 Arab unrest halted traffic again. Containing the Salafist threat, and managing the perception of one, will be important to the sector's recovery.

Moreover, international aid will be critical to country's transition period. However, most of the assistance pledged so far by the international community has not yet been received, due in part to Europe's economic crisis (Tunisia has received a $100 million grant and $400 million bond from the United States). Thus, Tunis cannot tolerate threats against its western partners — especially due to the country's size and location. Nestled between Algeria and Libya — two large oil producers with considerable regional sway — Tunisia needs external support to sustain its own influence.

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