News / Africa

Tunisians Fear Growing Threat of Radical Islamists

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.
Lisa Bryant
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.

You May Like

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs