Salafist Unrest and the Threat to Tunisian Democracy

5 MINS READNov 8, 2012 | 11:15 GMT
Tunisian Salafists rally in Tunis on Nov. 6

Growing Salafist unrest is adding to the woes of Tunisia's interim government. The country's ruling mainstream Islamist party, Ennahda, already has been struggling to deliver basic services and craft a new constitution. Now, Salafists are exacerbating preexisting tensions between Ennahda and its secular coalition partners, while seeking to cull Islamist support from the ruling party.

In response to rising security and political tensions, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki on Oct. 31 extended the country's state of emergency by three months, but the fracturing of Islamist political parties in Tunisia is approaching a critical point. For Ennahda, Salafist opposition is a serious challenge. For Tunisia, ultra-conservative religious and political activism threatens to wreck the transitional process, which would have an impact across the region.

On Nov. 1, while appearing on a talk show panel with Tunisia's interior minister, Salafist Imam Nasreddine Aloui declared war on the country's ruling party, saying: "I am going to wage jihad on these people because the interior minister and the leaders of Ennahda have chosen the United States as their god. It is the Americans who are writing the laws and the new constitution." On Nov. 3, the Tunisian army was deployed to help police contain street protests stemming from the death of Aloui's predecessor, who was killed when he and other militants attacked a pair of national guard posts in the Manouba suburb of Tunis. The attacks were apparently motivated by the arrest of a Salafist suspected of assaulting the head of Manouba's public security brigade.

Each of these events can be traced back to former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's fall in 2011, which created space for Salafists to thrive.

Tunisia's Salafists

Salafist Unrest and the Threat to Tunisian Democracy  Read more: Salafist Unrest and the Threat to Tunisian Democracy

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The tens of thousands of Salafists in Tunisia are quite fragmented and are divided among militant, political and civil society groups. The Salafist population includes an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 jihadists — a considerable bloc if they launched an armed struggle. The most notorious jihadist group is Ansar al-Sharia. The group's leader, Seif Allah Ben Hussein (known commonly as Abu Ayad), spent several years in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and reportedly was involved with the team that assassinated the country's most prominent anti-Taliban leader two days before 9/11. 

Since Abu Ayad was released from prison after the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011, Ansar al-Sharia has largely refrained from using armed force to try and topple Tunisia's new government. The group apparently does not have the appetite for a sustained insurgency. Instead, it has tried to expand its influence in Tunisian society while hoping that the government will continue to weaken. The group has focused primarily on vigilante assaults and proselytizing, which it uses to expand and mobilize support. Salafists reportedly control roughly 100 mosques in Tunisia, including some that were taken by force. Ansar al-Sharia has also attacked hotels where liquor is sold, cinemas, art galleries, shops, police stations and other places that the group considers to be supporting un-Islamic activity.

In the political realm, a Tunisian Salafist party called Jabhat al-Islah was founded in 2011. Although the party represents an older generation of former radicals and militants, it is somewhat moderate and relatively small. Jabhat is participating in the country's electoral process, but it remains uncomfortable with democracy, especially the lawmaking process. There are also non-violent, apolitical Salafist civil society groups that focus solely on preaching their austere interpretation of Islam, as well as Salafist elements with reported links to organized crime syndicates.

Ennahda's Balancing Act

Since taking office after parliamentary elections in October 2011, Ennahda has been struggling to balance the country's Salafist movement with the party's two secularist coalition partners, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol. Ennahda has attempted to co-opt Salafist support through dialogue, incentives and leniency, but the party has largely failed. Instead, its conciliatory approach appears to have emboldened the Salafists, as demonstrated by recent riots and the Sept. 14 attack on the U.S. Embassy. Moreover, arrests of some Salafists made during the investigation into the attack have further inflamed tensions, leading to large protests this past week.

As a result, Ennahda has begun to face significant opposition, especially from secularists who are suspicious of the ruling party's commitment to establishing a civil state that is not dominated by Islamists and who accuse the party of collaborating with the Salafists. Fueling such suspicions, a controversial video posted on YouTube in early October showed Ennahda's founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, advising Salafist leaders on how to constitutionally pursue their goals.

Ultimately, the Salafists are seeking to undermine Ennahda's Islamist credentials to draw support away the ruling party's conservative base. Many Salafists openly have admitted that they are working towards this goal. For example, the Telegraph recently quoted a Tunisian militant who fought in the Libyan civil war as saying he did not return to Tunisia with weapons because the Salafists could instead gain support by exploiting Tunisian conservatives' growing disillusionment with Ennahda.

Additional Complications

Ennahda is divided internally on how to handle the Salafist challenge, since its overlapping constituencies include both conservative and liberal Islamists as well as non-Islamist Muslims. This is why — until recently — the government has refrained from using force to contain the Salafists. However, this changed after the U.S. Embassy attack, when international pressure began compounding Ennahda's domestic problems.

Political pressure is also coming from Tunisia's security establishment. On Nov. 2, hundreds of police, national guard, civil defense and presidential guard personnel participated in a demonstration against Salafist assaults on security forces. Tensions also exist between internal security elements and their new political bosses. The army currently shares the government's interest in seeing democratic governance take root in Tunisia. But if the civilian government fails to stabilize the country, the military could take a more direct governing role.

Further complicating matters are former members of the Ben Ali regime who have retained roles in the security establishment or bureaucracy. Some such officials have been seeking to exploit the fractures among Islamists to undermine the transitional government. Meanwhile, secularists have begun uniting under the banner of a new movement called Nida Tunis, which is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2013.

This environment does not bode well for the transition to democracy or the mainstreaming of radical Islamists in the country where the Arab Spring began. Should progress in Tunisia be derailed, it would negatively impact political transitions in neighboring Egypt and the wider Arab world, where some civil uprisings are already descending into civil war.

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