News / Africa

Analysis: Salafists Crackdown Tests Tunisia's Stability

Riot officer fires teargas during clashes with supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia at Hai al Tadamon, Tunis, May 19, 2013.
Riot officer fires teargas during clashes with supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia at Hai al Tadamon, Tunis, May 19, 2013.
Reuters
For the first time since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, relations between mainstream Islamists in government and radical Salafist Muslim activists have reached breaking point, sparking deadly clashes in two Tunisian cities.
 
The rupture between the Ennahda party, the Tunisian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood which governs in coalition with secular parties, and the Ansar al-Sharia movement could have ramifications across North Africa, potentially fuelling armed insurrection in Tunisia and neighboring Algeria.
 
Clashes between police and Ansar supporters on Sunday, in which one person was killed and dozens wounded, highlighted the rise of fundamentalist Salafist groups in the nascent North African democracy, empowered by a new atmosphere of freedom.
 
The violence erupted after the government banned an annual preaching rally in the central city of Kairouan, a historic center of Islamic learning, and other towns. A young man was killed in the Ettadamen district of the capital Tunis.
 
"It seems like Ennahda have finally put their foot down, but that shouldn't be applauded because over the last two years they have tolerated the growth of Salafism and done nothing about it," said Aaron Zelin, an expert on Tunisia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
 
"There is likely to be more confrontation in the short to medium term," he said. "There could be a cycle of low-level conflict, but neither side has an interest in it becoming larger-scale."
 
While many Salafists were jailed under the authoritarian rule of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, they have benefited from the freedom created by the revolution that toppled him in January 2011.
 
Ansar al-Sharia is the most radical Islamist group to emerge in what was long one of the most secular Arab countries. It poses a test to the authority of the moderate Islamist-led government and to the stability of Tunisia, a country of 11 million.
 
Zelin estimated that the movement, which is not officially registered, has at least 20,000 activists and is gaining support fast among young people disenchanted with Ennahda's failure to anchor Islamic sharia law in the constitution, and alienated by unemployment and lack of economic opportunity.
 
Ansar's spokesman, Saif Eddine Rais, said last week the group had "tens of thousands" of supporters. Easy to recognize in their bright orange vests, its followers engage in proselytizing and charity work, providing food, medicines and community support in areas where the state is often absent.
 
The clashes were not the first bout of fighting between Salafists and police. This time, however, the government showed its determination to crack down on the radicals as it deployed mass force to prevent the public meeting.
 
The standoff came as the army pursued dozens of suspected al-Qaida-linked militants near the western border with Algeria. The government accuses Ansar al-Sharia of links to al-Qaida, although the Salafists dispute this.
 
"Salafists have felt targeted and this has only added to their frustration," said Alaya Allani, a specialist on Islamist groups. "These events are slowing [Tunisia's] democratic transition and delaying the recovery from an economic crisis."
 
A smaller, more moderate Salafist party, Hezb Ettahrir, had condemned the violence.
 
Al-Qaida links?

Tunisia was the first country to stage an "Arab Spring" uprising, inspiring similar revolutions in Egypt and Libya. It has since sought to ease economic and financial problems.
 
The Salafists, who model their lifestyle on the Prophet Mohammad and his companions, seek a broader role for religion in public life, alarming a secular elite that fears such a move would undermine individual freedoms, women's rights and democracy.
 
In a sign they do not recognize the state, protesters on Sunday burned Tunisian flags and in some places replaced them with a black banner in support of Al-Qaida. Chants included "The rule of the tyrant must fall" and "Join the Muslim army."
 
Ansar al-Sharia, whose fugitive leader Saifallah Benahssine — also known as Abu Iyadh — is a former al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan, is seeking to establish an Islamic state in Tunisia and says democracy is blasphemous.
 
At a news conference ahead of the planned rally, spokesman Rais said: "Now we have institutions, the structure and we are preparing ourselves to apply the law of God in Tunisia. We will only take part in elections if only Islamists can participate."
 
Rais was arrested in Kairouan on Sunday and Ansar al-Sharia has called for protests on Friday to demand his release, possibly setting up another round of clashes.
 
In September, thousands of Salafists attacked the U.S. embassy. Four people were killed in the disturbances, which began as a protest over a film that mocked the Prophet Mohammed. Benahssine has been in hiding since then.
 
Salafists have also attacked cinemas and wine vendors, picketed secular cultural events and universities, and burned Sufi Muslim shrines. But so far there have been few arrests despite pressure from the United States and former colonial power France.
 
Police also blame a Salafist who is on the run for the assassination of secular opposition politician Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6, which provoked the biggest street protests in Tunisia since the overthrow of Ben Ali.
 
The latest crackdown came after the army said 10 Tunisian soldiers were wounded near the Algerian border in mine explosions in the Jebel Chaambi mountain region where Islamist militants are said to be setting up a training camp.
 
In the past few months, police have found large caches of weapons in Tunis and other cities and arrested 16 militants who they said were seeking to establish an Islamic state.
 
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said on Saturday Ansar al-Sharia was linked to terrorism, although the authorities have produced no proof. The same day, the regional arm of al Qaeda issued a statement urging the group to defy the crackdown.
 
Many Tunisians say they fear for their peace and civil liberties if radical groups become too powerful.
 
"The revolution gave Salafists freedom and they want to impose their way by force," said Alia Sassi, 24, who works in a travel agency. "There is a real fear jihadis will pass onto bombings. We want to live in peace, we don't want our country to become a new Afghanistan."
 
Ennahda faces a balancing act. If it arrests more Salafists and forces Ansar al-Sharia underground, it could drive more young Tunisians towards violence, harming the economy and alienating its own more conservative wing.
 
Ennahda's veteran moderate leader Rachid Ghannouchi left the door ajar last week, saying "I am always for dialogue with the Salafists if they don't carry arms and want to talk, but there can be no dialogue now with terrorists who are carrying arms in Jebel Chaambi."
 
Algeria worried

Diplomats say neighboring Algeria, which fought a decade-long civil war with Islamists in the 1990s in which more than 150,000 people died, is deeply concerned and has reinforced army units at the Tunisian border.
 
"Algeria is clearly very worried and feels almost a siege mentality," Zelin said, noting that the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and French military intervention against al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist rebels in Mali this year had increased the flow of weapons and fighters onto its soil.
 
Paradoxically, Egypt's Salafists have taken the opposite direction to their Tunisian counterparts.
 
All the main radical Islamist movements, including those involved in armed struggle in the 1990s and the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat, have renounced violence and joined the political system, and none has lent support to al Qaeda militants operating in the lawless Sinai Peninsula.
 
Indeed, the largest Egyptian Salafist group, the Nour party, is seeking to project itself as more democratic and open than the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

You May Like

Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving

Feasts centering on turkeys with an array of traditional sides and desserts are part of the holiday's traditions, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Paradei
X
Anush Avetisyan
November 26, 2014 10:57 PM
Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid