Tunisian authorities moved to close radical Islamist mosques over the weekend, as well as television and radio stations and websites, known for having jihadist links and not under government control. Some sixty radical Islamists have also been arrested in recent days. The measures taken by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa come in the wake of Wednesday’s twin attacks on security forces – the worst in over fifty years – by Islamist militants, which killed fifteen people and injured 20. An Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has claimed responsibility for the attack.
In many ways, the current, caretaker government is cleaning up its predecessor’s mess. Under the leadership of moderate Islamist party Ennahda, Tunisia – long the region’s most secular country – saw the emergence of ultra conservative Salafists following the ouster of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Fearful of alienating its conservative base, Ennahda adopted a lax approach to Islamists; a wave of religious violence culmintated with two political assassinations in 2013, and a subsequent political crisis as the Tunisian public — and nascent opposition – called for the government to step down. After a few halfhearted measures, i.e., dismantling preaching tents and handing light sentences to a handful of extremists (all while curbing civil liberties), and a protracted power struggle, the Ennahda-led cabinet resigned in January 2014.
Now, under Prime Minister Jomaa, the Tunisia military has intensified its efforts to roust militants in the region bordering Algeria near the Chaambi mountains. Though the jihadists reportedly number a few dozen (according to military sources), they have nonetheless carried out a series of deadly attacks targeting security forces, and on one occasion a tourist locale, over the past year. At the same time, certain Salafist sects have been waging a nonviolent war within Tunisia’s impoverished hinterlands, taking over mosques which allegedly serve as recruitment centers for young fighters going to Syria to join extremist forces.
Expanding on its crackdown on unregulated media and mosques, government officials issued a statement on July 18 noting their intention to prosecute anyone who makes statements in the media that are deemed “offensive” to national security. (The criteria to determine offensive content were not specified.) Unsurprisingly, the threat has elicited some pushback, notably from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), which responded, “We fear that such a decree will be used in undermining freedom of opinion and expression in Tunisia and in prosecuting activists.”
So, Jomaa’s government may end up blurring the lines on freedom of expression – all the while edging uncomfortably close to Ennahda’s precedent of governance. Nonetheless, over the next few months, expect the government’s offensive to intensify. (Remember that cash-strapped Tunisia needs to project an image of security and stability to international observers and investors.) At least until this fall when national elections are set to take place, and yet another government will take over.