By the Blouin News World staff

Tunisia’s Salafist tangle and the long road to stability

by in Africa.

A young Tunisian boy holds a banner as Tunisian Salafist Muslims attend a rally in Kairouan on May 20, 2012.

A young Tunisian boy holds a banner at a Salafist rally in Kairouan on May 20, 2012. AFP PHOTO / FETHI BELAID

In their most aggressive move yet, the Tunisian government blocked a Salafist rally from taking place in the holy city of Kairouan on Sunday, with the aid of 11,000 policemen and heavy security cordons. Although related violence broke out in a Tunis suburb between members of Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST), a jihadist group with ties to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and police — at least one extremist was killed and 15 policemen were wounded — the warfare promised by AST’s fugitive leader was largely avoided. On Thursday, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi had warned: “To the tyrants who think they are Islamists . . . know that the stupid things you are doing are dragging you to war.” Few of the rally’s expected 40,000 participants showed up, dissuaded by the massive police presence, checkpoints, and vehicle searches; following the clashes, authorities arrested some 200 AST members.

Although the government, led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda, had initially pursued a waffling approach to violence by ultraconservative Salafists — prompting accusations of laxness and, more damningly, of collaboration with the sect — the ruling party changed its tactics following a cabinet shuffle in February, and bolstered by the discovery of multiple jihadist training camps this spring: under the leadership of prime minister Ali Larayedh, Ennahda’s tacit approval of the movement has evolved into outright condemnation. (Little surprise given that national elections are mere months away). This has translated to new measures to track jihadist recruiting cells for Syria, use of tear gas to disperse Salafist meetings, dismantling of preaching tents and an aggressive campaign against armed militants near the Algerian border.

While the Salafists are often qualified as a foreign import (i.e., the offspring of violent jihads waged abroad), notably by local media outlets, the religious extremists unarguably have domestic roots. During the reign of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, conservative and moderate Islamist groups alike were banned or imprisoned. These groups included the Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF),  a radical offshoot of Ennahda’s predecessor, the Islamic Tendency Movement. TIF would, in turn, later birth Tunisia’s first legalized Salafist political party, Jabhat al-Islah, or the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front. After Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, these repressed Salafist factions re-emerged. Under the General Amnesty Law, approximately 1,800 Salafist prisoners were liberated. This in-country resurgence was augmented by several thousand Salafist jihadists home from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia, and determined to bring sharia, or Islamic, rule to Tunisia. Two less-radical factions have also emerged post-Arab Spring: scriptural Salafists who eschew political participation in favor of a purist version of Islam — such as the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform, an Islamist militia group that emphatically espouses Sharia law — and more politically engaged groups that reject violence like Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir (quite marginal compared to their Egyptian counterparts). Today, Tunisia’s Salafists are estimated to number between 3,000 and 10,000 (with as many as 50,000 non-party supporters), and are often erroneously depicted as a cohesive group by international and domestic media. This characterization belies a number of ideological complexities.

While Tunisian jihadists largely acquired their battlefield experience abroad — notably in Syria and Mali in recent months — their activities have been inching closer to home since September 2012 when members of AST, including Abu Iyad, allegedly bombed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Salafist jihadists are also suspected of involvement in the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6, 2013. During this period, the Tunisian army seized two large arms caches believed to belong to AST, as well as jihadist training camps along the Algerian and Libyan borders — discoveries which prompted an ongoing manhunt for two armed groups of jihadists believed to be veterans of the Mali conflict with ties to AQIM. Algeria has deployed 6,000 troops to the border region to assist the operation. In early May, 37 suspects were arrested, including two believed to have murdered a police officer near Tunis after a Salafist fatwa was issued against him.

According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, such developments may indicate that the Salafist jihadists are “preparing for a long-term war against the state.” Salafists are also waging ideological warfare, which, while focused more on proselytizing than jihad, has nonetheless employed violent methods. (That said, it remains difficult to identify whether the actors behind recent clashes with secularists are jihadists or other, violently inclined factions within the Salafist movement.) In recent months, Salafist protestors have targeted Sufi shrines, art exhibits, establishments that sell alcohol and secular universities. Under AST leadership, factions are also conducting a grassroots campaign (so to speak) designed to supplant imams whom the Islamic ideologues deem too moderate. They have not slacked on the culture-war front, either, violently disrupting a dance performance, assaulting a school director who barred the entry of a veiled student, and clashing with high schoolers performing the Harlem Shake. These incidents garnered relatively widespread media coverage, but the controversy surrounding Amina Tyler, a 19-year old activist, and her topless revolt earned Tunisian Salafists their broadest notoriety yet. On March 20, Adel Almi, a top Salafist cleric and head of the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform, issued a fatwa on Tyler: his reaction inspired a wave of international protests – notably by Femen activists. (These stood, it should be noted, in stark contrast to the muted response to Belaid’s assassination outside of Tunisia.) Ennahda officials also condemned Tyler’s actions, albeit less dramatically, and on Sunday, in rough simultaneity with the rally, the activist was arrested in Kairouan for her “immoral acts.”

Salafism remains a minority movement (and the jihadists a minority within a minority). Nevertheless, the movement’s growing success harms Ennahda as it stems, in large part, from the government’s lackluster leadership. Salafist groups have successfully played off Ennahda’s domestic policy failings by filling basic humanitarian needs, and providing educational, mediation and administrative services. They also serve as morality police in Tunisia’s impoverished southern and interior regions where residents feel disenfranchised and alienated from the more prosperous, secularized areas of the country. Under the guise of an “anti-system actor,” says Gartenstein-Ross, Salafists visit neglected areas where they “don’t just talk about jihad or Bin Laden — they hand out food, sometimes clothing, sometimes medical supplies, sometimes they have convoys with doctors.” As a result, residents “would have a good view of them  . . . they wouldn’t think too hard about the specifics of Salafism or Salafi jihadism.” Tunisian blogger Lina ben Mhenni notes this perception is heightened by the view held by many youths that “secularism and moderation are related to dictatorship and repression. For them, religious groups represent the alternative.”

The larger Salafist jihadist groups, notably AST, have proven particularly adept at publicizing their activities via social media. What’s more, they appear to be benefiting from the recent influx of negative media attention. “When the Salafists are able to carry out an attack on a school, or beat up a woman, or beat up some foreigners, that’s something which ripples through the country,” says Gartenstein-Ross. “People talk about it and that further adds to the perception. It’s negative publicity but I think that Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia and Salafi jihadists don’t see that negative publicity as a bad thing.”

Despite their limited numbers, the Salafists’ visibility has placed the movement squarely at the heart of an intensifying socio-political debate on Ennahda’s credibility. Critiques have come from all quarters: secular opposition groups, like the Nidaa Tounes party, wary of Ennahda’s self-proclaimed moderate stance; Salafists who feel the ruling Islamist party is not radical enough; and Tunisians frustrated with the country’s stagnation since the ouster of Ben Ali, as well as the recent uptick in political violence. In the wake of Belaid’s assassination, which for many highlighted the Ennadha party’s inability, or unwillingness, to take aggressive measures against Salafist groups, Tunisia’s Islamist-secularist rift has deepened, as has infighting within the country’s ruling coalition. (Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Larayedh’s predecessor, was forced to resign after his proposal to create a cabinet of technocrats was scrapped by his own party.)

But while the Tunisian political landscape has been polarized in the wake of the 2011 uprising and the subsequent emergence of Salafist groups, the on-the-ground reality of that polarization is more fluid. Yes, an ideological divide between secularists and Islamists exists but, as states Francesco Cavatorta, of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University and an extensive writer on Islamist movements, that “divide is at times stronger in the media and in the perceptions of Tunisians than it is in reality.” If Islamist political parties took power after the revolution in Tunisia, it is more likely a reflection of Tunisians’ belief that Ennahda offered a coordinated and sympathetic platform and would address past abuses than a mandate for sharia law. (Indeed, according to a December 2012/January 2013 opinion poll, Tunisians are actually growing more ambivalent about religion.) And despite the ideological bent of both local and international media coverage, many Tunisians believe that solutions lie elsewhere.

Namely the country’s economy. Most of Tunisia is still preoccupied by the same concerns that prompted the 2011 uprising — frustrations with economic instability and political repression, rather than concerns about identity or religion. (This distinction was largely responsible for Western support for the uprising.) Tunisians continue to struggle with unemployment rates higher than those under Ben Ali (in 2013, joblessness reached 17%, compared to 13% in 2010, while youth unemployment surpassed 30%) and a government so far incapable of addressing economic challenges that hinder job creation — Ennahda has yet to fulfill a promise to create 20,000 new public-sector jobs — and discourage foreign investment. Widespread anger over the country’s economic woes has translated into frequent strikes and sit-ins as well as more violent clashes between protestors and authorities. The poll cited above reflects the prevailing economic focus: 73% of survey respondents viewed employment as their main priority whereas 9% of respondents cited security as the most pressing problem facing Tunisia (a 6-point increase over the previous year.) As Cavatorta puts it, “while the media and the international community might be interested in the discussion about who’s a secular, who’s an Islamist, what does it mean for women, what does it mean for minorities . . . most people are actually intensely focused on trying to come to grips with the idea that economic growth is absolutely necessary. And that has very little to do with secularism and Islamism.”

But even if Tunisia’s ideological divide is neither as deep nor as recent as commonly portrayed, the Ennahda-led government is nonetheless at a crossroads. Although the party’s Islamist leanings are not a problem for most Tunisians per se — Islamist parties enjoyed strong public support until early 2013 — its middle-line approach over the past eighteen months has proven disastrous. Belaid’s assassination, and the subsequent public outcry, is the starkest indicator of that. By failing to immediately adopt a clear and concerted position on religious extremism, Ennahda simultaneously fostered radical Salafism and earned public enmity, making the party vulnerable for attack from the secular opposition. (Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi has already announced his candidacy for president.) In the build-up to national elections scheduled to be held between October 15 and December 15, Ennahda will need to tackle a trio of herculean (but familiar, within the region) challenges: economic repair; a clarification of its own socio-political identity; and a serious move against Salafist violence, particularly following renewed threats from AST leaders following Sunday’s clashes.

One political hope gleams amid all this: Tunisia’s radical elements might be tempered with time. In much the same way that Ennahda was to some extent de-radicalized by political inclusion, some Salafist factions could feasibly be incorporated into Tunisia’s burgeoning political apparatus. Cavatorta notes that some Salafists are “realizing the benefits of operating in a democratic system [where] they can do or say, more or less, whatever they want.” Jabhat al-Islah has already announced it will run candidates in this year’s national election and two other legalized Salafist parties, al-Rahma and al-Asala, are likely to throw their hats in the ring as well. These parties have proven willing to sacrifice (or at least modify) their purist vision of Islam in the hopes of tangible legislative gains; indeed, representatives from Egypt’s successful Salafist political party, Nour, have encouraged Tunisian Salafists to enter politics for that reason.

Politically legitimated Salafism remains an optimistic solution, however. Groups like AST and the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform have proven particularly hostile to such integration. (That said, some AST members have endorsed a more moderate approach in order to expand recruitment). But declaring war on Salafist factions — Ennahda has taken great care to differentiate between scriptural Salafists and their more violent counterparts — carries even greater risks.  The Larayedh campaign will erode support from Ennahda’s conservative base, and if the nation’s political history is any guide, will provide fodder for further radicalizations. (Ennahda’s long-time reluctance to crack down on Salafists is a likely explanation for the lack of more extreme violence on Tunisian soil.) What’s more, Ennahda cannot resolve Tunisia’s ailments by arbitrarily jailing militants; such policies contributed to the creation of an autocratic, repressive state under Ben Ali.

But there may yet be a way forward for Tunisia outside the security strategies of the Larayedh government. Local and regional observers alike agree: it’s (still) the economy, stupid. Come autumn, and barring an economic miracle, Tunisians will vote with their pocketbooks. Given the external nature of the economic challenges Ennahda faces — the need to reassure foreign investors, trade that is largely tied to Europe’s limping economy, and a handicapped tourism industry — the party would be well advised to begin by addressing its domestic policy lacunae and eliminating the need for the parallel social aid structures the Salafists have built. (Look for the secular opposition and Salafist parties alike to capitalize on Ennahda’s failures in this respect as the election approaches.) This appropriation of a major element of Salafist recruitment will be critical if Ennahda or its successor hopes to avoid the same groundswell of economic discontent that sparked the 2011 uprising.

However, while the economic factors that drove the Arab Spring are still present, a less tangible Tunisian particularity may yet ease the transition to democracy. According to an early 2013 poll, a majority of Tunisians, though pessimistic about their future, prefer a democratic government — even if it means “an unstable and insecure Tunisia” — over a non-democratic and flourishing one. Which bodes well as Tunisia’s government attempts to rebuild infrastructure and the economy while holding religious extremism at bay. Such a measured outlook also hints that if Tunisia — and this is a big if — can get past its growing pains, the development of a stable democracy is still within reach.