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

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

1 Billion People Used Facebook on Single Day

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the accomplishment in a posting on the social media site More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs