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Tunisians Fear Growing Threat of Radical Islamists

  • Lisa Bryant

Supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia clash with riot police at Hai al-Tadamon in Tunis, May 19, 2013.

Supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia clash with riot police at Hai al-Tadamon in Tunis, May 19, 2013.

Police in Tunisia fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing Islamists in two cities after the government banned the hardline Ansar al-Shariah group from staging its annual congress Sunday. The events underscore the growing clout of Muslim extremists in the once staunchly secular North African country.

The assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February sparked Tunisia's biggest popular demonstration since its 2011 revolution. Police blame a Salafist Muslim for his death, underscoring fears Tunisia is entering a new and dangerous chapter in its history.

More recent events have reinforced these concerns.

Earlier this month, roadside bombs wounded 16 Tunisian soldiers as they tried to hunt down militants in the country's mountainous border with Algeria. Some Islamists have joined jihadists in Syria and Algeria. And the country faces growing defiance from Salafists, who have attacked artists and other targets, including the United States embassy last year, as they try to impose their brand of hardline Islam.

Such events were unimaginable in this small nation just a few years ago. Under authoritarian ex-president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia ranked among the most secular countries in the Arab world and a favorite holiday spot for European tourists.

A former minister during the Ben Ali period, Hatem Ben Salem, is alarmed at what is happening to his country. Like many critics, he blames the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party for failing to crack down on the Salafists.

"The whole country fears that we will engage in a civil war. And that is why I think the government is now taking things quite seriously... although I think they are responsible for the situation, because they have let these people do what they want... and threaten the country like they do," said Ben Salem.

In the past, Ennahda has argued Tunisia's fledgling democracy must allow for free expression from all parts of society. The party suffered under Ben Ali. Many of its members were jailed or went into exile - including Ennahda's spiritual leader, Rachid Ghannouchi.

But in recent weeks, the party has adopted a tougher stance against militant Islam. Police have clashed with Salafists and authorities banned radical hardline group Ansar al-Shariah from staging its annual meeting in the central city of Kairouan.

In a recent interview on France 24 TV, Ennahda's Ghannouchi condemned all forms of extremism. But he appeared to downplay the scope of the threat, for example describing a small group of mercenaries as being behind Belaid's assassination.

Concerns of Islamist extremism are not limited to Tunisia. Neighboring Algeria fought a horrific civil war against Islamists in the 1990s. In January, Algiers crushed an Islamist attack on its In Amenas gas plant; 11 Tunisians figured among the militants.

Concerns are also growing that Islamists routed from Mali are fueling a growing insurgency in Tunisia's other neighbor, Libya.

Former Tunisian minister Ben Salem worries that militant Islam is fast becoming a regional threat in North Africa - and for the international community as a whole.

"They have started in many places, specifically in the south of Algeria and north of Mali. And now they are in Tunisia and Libya. They will certainly be on the borders with Egypt. And it starts like that. So now we need to react and have a common position," he said.

But economist and opposition politician Mahmoud Ben Romthane does not believe terrorism will take root in Tunisia.

Ben Romthane points to Tunisia's tradition as a moderate nation. He says Tunisians also know that peace is fundamental to their existence as a nation. The answer, he says, lies in going forward politically, including ensuring elections scheduled for the end of the year are free and transparent.

Ben Salem believes Tunisia now needs a unity government, joined in the common cause of eradicating Islamist extremism.
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