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Tunisia

Since Tunisians overthrew former president Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011, its transition to democracy has been pointed to as a shining example in contrast to more tenuous situations in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. While the elections for its constituent assembly went off without a hitch in October 2011, the past six months have proven far more contentious and difficult. A political, economic, and security malaise has cast a shadow over the prospects of a Tunisia living up to its expectation of providing a positive pathway to the rest of the region for transitioning to first stable and most progressive Arab democratic state.

Although many have worried about the rise in Salafism in Tunisia, there have been more immediate concerns over the shape and contours surrounding Tunisia’s future political arrangements. The constitution that was originally to be finished this October, a year after the elections has been reported will now be moved back to March 2013. Tunisian officials have yet to change the date of the next parliamentary elections, which are supposed to be at the same time as the completion of the constitution in March. Campaigning while completing a document that will provide the framework for Tunisia’s future is not the most effective way to secure a reasonable and non-politicized document.

Most troubling about the process of writing the constitution as well as developing a competitive political system is the fraying of secular and liberal parties. Party defections and individuals quitting their parties have decimated the two parties, CPR and Ettaktol, whom are in a coalition with the leading Islamist party Ennahda. This has put a wrench in the ability for these groups to apply pressure from the left to moderate Ennahda’s position. Without it, Ennahda has only had to worry about its right flank: the more conservative Islamist and Salafis parties Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the less moderate elements within its own party.

Without a strong secular and liberal opposition the idea of a moderate Islamist party becomes less likely when the only true challenge comes from the right. The failure of the secular/liberals to unite has created such an opening for Islamists. The controversial insertions in the draft of the constitution, which would criminalize blasphemy and limit the rights of women, are the first examples of what might be in store without a strong left-leaning opposition. While some might point to the preamble not including language about shari’a being source of law, Ennahda understands that it does not need it in the constitution because the process of gradual Islamization will take care of it overtime.

Questions surrounding whether Ennahda is up to the task of governing the country and providing a more robust economic future has also come under scrutiny. Many voted for Ennahda due to the belief that they would cleanse the government of corruption. Since in power though Ennahda has acted similarly to the prior regime in terms of nepotistic practices versus a meritocratic process in appointing individuals to governmental posts. Further, the economy continues to sputter yet Ennahda has deceptively reported foreign investment figures to make it appear that they have recovered to pre-revolution levels. However, it did not account for the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, which was approximately 20%. So in dollar terms, the foreign investment was considerably less than in 2010, but in nominal terms it showed a modest increase.

Another issue many Tunisians are worried about is the very public rise of Salafi intimidation and vigilantism. While much of it is unconnected to organized parties and associations the lack of accountability in response to actions such as harassment of women over clothing choice, confrontation over alcohol consumption, violence over un-Islamic art, and sectarian attacks over Shi’a and Sufi cultural practices has created an emboldened minority. Unfortunately, members of Ennahda have brushed much of this off as a foreign plot or elements within the former regime trying to arouse provocation. The truth is, Salafism has been in Tunisia since the 1980s, it only now has the ability to express itself openly. It is possible Ennahda is also playing politics since they are concerned they could lose votes in the upcoming election to Jabhat al-Islah or Hizb ut-Tahrir.

These actions though are one of the reasons that hinder secular and liberal politicians activists’ willingness to work with Ennahda. They believe as a result of the lack of response from Ennahda they are complicit. While it is questionable and doubtful that there is some conspiracy, the difference in police response when there are secular/liberal demonstrations in comparison to the lack of response when there are Salafi incidents has created a sense that at the very least Ennahda sympathizes with the Salafi causes.

Further, Ennahda’s counter-response to secular and liberal activists’ demonstrating and complaining about these incidents also raises questions over Ennahda’s ability to truly be a credible partner. If Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and who is viewed as the most moderate of Islamists in the region, is calling his political opponents extremists and enemies of Islam, it is a damning indictment against him, his party, and the notion that moderate Islamism is actually possible once in power.

While there are positive signs that secular and liberal Tunisians are fighting back against this, it is usually in the form of street activism, which does not necessarily translate into electoral or policy successes. The creation of Nida’ Tunis by a former Ben Ali hand Beji Caid el-Sebsi has given some hope that it might unite forces from the Tunisian left. Many are worried thought that because of el-Sebsi’s past it discredits the cause and El-Sebsi’s project is not actually liberal.

The lefts infighting and impotence and Ennahda’s lack of political courage and amateurism have led to an unfortunate state of affairs in Tunisia. Increased political polarization, a stagnant economy, and feelings of insecurity have created a situation in Tunisia where many are worried about the future of the country. It suggests that despite the high hopes regarding Tunisia being an outlier in its transition, it is in fact more in line with the other countries in the region. Tunisia is just not as relatively dysfunctional and there is still a glimmer of hope for a positive outcome. If the current trajectory continues on this course though it does not portend to an optimistic future.

 

The legalization and participation of Salafi parties in the democratic process is one of the recent trends to emerge from the Arab uprisings. Like Egypt, which legalized three Salafi parties for its elections, and Yemen, which recently legalized its own Salafi party, Tunisialicensed the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front (Hizb Jabhat al-Islah al-Islamiyya al-Tunisiyya; Jabhat al-Islah for short, or JI) on March 29, 2012.

Previously, the transitional government led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el-Sebsi rejected JI’s demands for official recognition on two separate occasions because of national security concerns. In contrast, the current ruling party, Ennahda, supports the legalization of Salafi groups both because of its own history in the opposition (where it experienced harsh crackdown) and the practical considerations of governing an ideologically polarized country. Ennahda seems to believe that by bringing groups like JI into the system, it can send a clear signal: if one wants to take part in shaping the future of Tunisia, one must buy into the democratic process.

Jabhat al-Islah is clearly attempting to navigate this new terrain and balance Salafi values in simultaneous conformation to new norms. Despite having similar leadership roots to anotherjabha, the Front Islamique Tunisien (FIT)—which advocated terrorism—JI is not inciting youth to wage wars of jihad abroad, nor are they against participation in democratic elections. In fact, members of JI ran for the Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011 as independents and as members of the Tunisian Labor and Reform Front (Jabhat al-‘Amil wal-Islah al-Tunisiyya). JI leader Muhammad al-Khawjah, a former professor at the University of Tunis, explained: “It is no longer the time for armed jihad…we believe Islam is a religion of democracy and freedom.”

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On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements.

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition.

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Last weekend, thousands of Salafis filled the streets of Avenue Habib Bourguiba demonstrating in support of the Qur‘an. It was overshadowed though by the actions of some climbing the clock tower and confronting a theater group staging a separate event at the Municipal Theater nearby. Some news that went unnoticed though was the return of Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian who had recently been released from Belgian prison after serving for a number of terror charges, who arrived and also attended the Salafi show of force last Sunday.

According to Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better know as Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi), who co-founded the Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) with Maaroufi in June 2000 and currently the leader of the salafi-jihadi group Ansar al-Shari‘ah in Tunisia (AST), in an interview this past Friday with the Tunisian Le Temps newspaper, Maaroufi’s stay would only last ten days. Though it is possible that Maaroufi may be visiting family, he lived his entire adult life in Brussels and was stripped of his Belgian citizenship while imprisoned in January 2009. Therefore, it is highly unlikely Maaroufi will be returning to Belgium. This raises two important questions: (1) does Maaroufi still believe in the global jihadi worldview and (2) where does he plan to go after his stay in Tunisia (if he even decides to leave)? Answering these two questions may help determine what his future course is and what it may mean for Tunisia.

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Yesterday, the salafi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia provided aid in a convoy to residents in the city of Haydrah (Haïdra) in West Central Tunisia who have been hit hard by extremely cold weather. This may give pause and alarm to the elites in Tunis. As Erik Churchill, based in Tunisia and an independent development consultant, pointed out to me: “The French speaking elites have been patting themselves on the back the last few weeks for their ability tomobilize aid to these regions. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s work shows that the elites (both secular and an-Nahdha) do not have a monopoly on this kind of social work.”

Over the previous few weeks, there has been a major cold front, which included sub-zero temperatures and snow in northwest and west central Tunisia in regions within the governorates of Jendouba and Kasserine. Due to the remoteness of some of the locations and coinciding with many strikes and protests by factory and distribution center workers, there has been a major shortage of essential goods to stay warm and replenish food supplies. According toTunisia-Live:

Despite the fact that the new interim president and members of the interim government have visited several regions of the country in the past week, no efficient measures were taken to deal with the scarcity of essential goods in the North West.

However, while the government has failed to provide an answer, Tunisian citizens have tried to create solutions. A group of Tunisians living in Germany started a volunteering company, using social networking to collect covers and clothes for those struggling with the cold in the deprived rural areas of the north-west. The group of Tunisian-Germans were looking for more volunteers within Tunisia to help them deliver covers and clothes to families in need.

Additionally, Qatar and UAE both sent airplane loads of supplies. There are also indigenous Tunisian groups that have attempted to assist, including El Kolna Twensa, Le PaCTE Tunisien, the Enfidha airport workers, and the Assabah/Le Temps newspaper group. Part of the issue is the lack of access due to roads being blocked by as many as 2.5 feet of snow in very rural areas. Although efforts were difficult, an-Nahdha did mobilize some of its supporters to help with relief efforts.

The secular-affiliated relief groups and organizations have targeted its aid more so to the governorate of Jendouba, since that region is viewed as more independent, moderate and socially liberal; whereas areas in the governorate of Kasserine are seen as more amenable to the message of a group like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia. Although the snow has receded in some of the areas, the temperatures remain cold and residents such as in the city of Haydrah, which is in the governorate of Kasserine and about an hour northwest of the city of Kasserine, are still struggling to survive the harsh conditions.

On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihad fi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate. One can see a variety of pictures from Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s da’wah activities that assisted the residents in Haydrah below.

Interestingly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is filling the vacuum of the Tunisian government, which is dealing with issues related to the economy, writing the constitution, and maintaining order while also redressing many grievances workers have. This type of social work had been what brought popularity to groups such as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt (and to a lesser extent an-Nahda in Tunisia because although Ben Ali’s former regime was corrupted they provided services far better than the Egyptian government). Assisting in social work gave space to preach ones ideology. As a result, if Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is able to continue with similar efforts along with protesting cultural policies (the niqab and appropriate levels of freedom of expression/speech), one may see its small movement gain wider popularity. This could be especially true in rural areas where many citizens are more conservative, religious, and extremely disillusioned with the governments lack of attention to it. Churchill concurs stating: “an-Nahdha is very concerned that their social bona fides could be usurped by more extreme elements.”

Although in differing contexts, one sees similar efforts to provide services and governance in Yemen by Ansar al-Shari’ah in Yemen as well as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia. This differs from previous methods by jihadis, which did not emphasize providing social services and basic needs like the case of al-Qa’ida in Iraq or even al-Qa’ida Central to local populaces. From this, a potential pattern is emerging whereby jihadis have learned the valuable lesson of providing for locals to curry more support versus blindly just calling for jihad and rhetorically speaking about a future Islamic state. In short, they are actually (dare I say) on a minuscule level providing a positive good versus just wrecking havoc through audacious suicide attacks and bombings. Either way, not only should the secularists in Tunis be worried about the potentially rising popularity of anti-systemic pan-Islamists like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia, but an important aspect of an-Nahda’s raison d’être and credibility is being challenged in the same way an-Nahda did to the old regime.

Convoy on its way to the City of Haydrah from the City of Kasserine

Unloading Aid From the Trucks and Vans

Distribution of the Aid

‘Asr (Afternoon) Prayer Following the Delivery of Aid

Ansar al-Shari’ah’s Caravan of Aid Leaves Haydrah

al-Qayrawān Media Foundation (QMF) actually originally launched in late April 2011 when it also set up a new group in Tunisia named Anṣār al-Sharī’ah in Tunisia (AST). I have been researching these guys since they first came onto the scene last spring. For background on QMF/AST check out my articles for the CTC Sentinel and the Washington Institute. The below statement announces that QMF will officially start releasing content to the jihādī forums, specifically Shamūkh al-Islām, meaning that AST is officially in the AQ orbit. Nearly twelve months after Tunsians deposed the former regime, AQ has a group that believes in its worldview and is officially sanctioned to post its content to its online forums. It should be noted that that they are a marginal voice in Tunisia, yet it is definitely something to keep ones eyes on.

Click the following link for a safe PDF copy: al-Qayrawān Media Foundation — “Statement of its Official Launch”

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Source: http://www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=141296