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Tunisia's Nahda-led government takes on the Salafist challenge

January 28, 2014 at 1:49 am

Tunisia was the country that kick-started the Arab Spring. In December 2010, a desperate young man set himself on fire, and the ensuing protests led to the fall of dictator President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the country’s first democratic elections in decades (in October 2011). As neighbouring countries like Syria and Libya remain mired in conflict and bloodshed years after their respective uprisings began, Tunisia has dropped out of the international news somewhat. The first revolution in the Arab Spring, it has also been seen – broadly – as one of the most successful.

However, that does not mean that it has been a trouble-free transition, or that the elected government is in a comfortable position. Since the secular dictator Ben Ali was toppled, the country has been rocked by attacks blamed on Islamist militants, with a range of hard line Salafist groups forming.

On Sunday, members of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia clashed with Tunisian police after the government, led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda, banned its annual rally. Ansar al-Sharia, probably the most radical of Tunisia’s Islamist groups, openly supports al-Qaeda. It’s annual meeting last year drew 4000 people. Sunday’s main clashes took place in the central city of Kairouan, where the rally was due to take place, and in the capital city of Tunis, where a smaller religious meeting was also banned by police. Protesters threw stones and police fired teargas, and in Tunis, groups of Salafists protested, changing: “the rule of the tyrant should fall”. According to the state news agency, one protester died. It has been reported that police have arrested Ansar al-Sharia’s spokesman, Saifeddine Rais.

Given that Tunisia was a police state for decades under Ben Ali, state crackdowns have a painful resonance. Yet, moved by necessity, the current government has recently hardened his stance against these Islamist groups. The interior ministry justified its ban of Ansar al-Sharia’s gatherings by saying the group has “shown disdain for state institutions, incited violence against them and poses a threat to public security”. Followers of the organisation have been accused of attacking “impious” art galleries, police stations and cinemas in recent months. The government ban on Ansar al-Sharia meetings follows an announcement in early May that two groups being pursued by the army in the western region bordering Algeria are linked to al-Qaeda. Violent clashes between militants and security services in this region have dominated the domestic media in recent weeks.

There are several reasons for the government’s hardened stance. For starters, members of Tunisia’s broadly secular elite class are anxious about these extremist Salafists, who want to see religion play a bigger part in the country. Given their stringent interpretation of religion, this has raised anxieties about women’s rights, personal freedom, and democracy. Alongside these worries is the increased level of violence perpetrated by militant Islamist groups. The Tunisian police hold a Salafist accountable for assassinating secular opposition politician Chokri Belaid in February. The murder prompted huge street protests in Tunisia – the largest the county had seen since Ben Ali was overthrown.

How has this situation been allowed to flourish, and how much of a threat does it pose to the Tunisian government? The first point to make is that the ousting of a secular dictator provided a space in which religious organisations could flourish. The second is that the slow transition to democratic rule – with attempts by supporters of Ben Ali’s regime to come back into power, and prolonged haggling over the constitution – has further expanded that space. Opposition politicians accuse the government of being overly lenient on groups like Ansar al-Sharia. In a press conference last week, Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi said: “There is no place or future for terrorism in Tunisia”, but he also called for national dialogue with Salafists, whom he referred to as “our children.” Thirdly, and very significantly, the social problems that precipitated Ben Ali’s fall – high unemployment, poor living conditions, and poverty – are still causing discontent.

The role of international terrorist networks is not entirely clear, although AFP reported earlier this week that a top al-Qaeda leader used his Twitter account to praise Ansar al-Sharia, urging Tunisian Salafists to avoid rising to government provocations and to focus on retaining public support.

Tunisia is not the only Arab state to face problems with extremism. After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan Islamists have taken a prominent role, while Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood faces issues too. It is inevitable that after years of oppressive dictatorships and the suppression of civil society, extremist elements will emerge, and that brand new democratic state institutions will struggle to cope with these threats. It is a particularly difficult line to tread for the Islamist parties which have been elected: instinctively, they may not want to condemn religious groups, but these groups pose an existential threat to the stability of these new democratic states. In Tunisia, Ennahda appears to be belatedly wakening up to this serious risk to its ability to govern; it remains to be seen whether its tougher stance will be effective.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.