The Magazine

Where Spring Was Sprung

Tunisia and its jihadists.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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it is less than three years since the fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking the events that toppled dictator Ben Ali and launched the “Arab Spring.” Now, the high hopes of those days have faded, and Tunisia is in disarray, its society deeply divided and violence flaring. 

Rachid Ghannouchi

Rachid Ghannouchi

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On July 25, leading opposition member of parliament Mohamed Brahmi was shot 14 times in front of his house. The assassins used the same weapon that had been used to kill another opposition figure, Chokri Belaid, in February. The families of both victims put the blame squarely on Ennahda—the Muslim Brotherhood party in power since elections in October 2011—and its founder and leader, Rachid Ghannouchi. Outrage over the killings led to violence in several towns. Increasingly, the demonstrators’ calls for Ennahda to step down are being echoed among the political elite.

Demonstrations are drawing larger and younger crowds—some 50,000 people filled the streets of Tunis on August 6, the most since the revolution—and the protesters’ signs and chants are increasingly violent and personal: “Ghannouchi is a murderer!” The police respond with brutal repression. As longtime opposition journalist Taoufik ben Brik put it, “The post-Ennahda period has already begun. Not without Ennahda, but rather under Ennahda.”

At present, 82 of the 217 members of parliament are boycotting the assembly to protest Ennahda’s rule. One of them, Karima Sould, said, “The assassination of one of ours has come as an electric shock. It’s now or never. [Ennahda] got us with Belaid. We won’t be had twice.” Two camps—Islamist and anti-Islamist—are facing off, and the climate of hatred is such that at any moment a spark could ignite the country. Whether Ghannouchi will learn anything from the ouster of his “Brothers” in Egypt remains to be seen, but his hardline statements suggest he hasn’t so far.

Also unclear at this writing is what action will be taken by the UGTT, a 750,000-strong trade union (in a country of 10 million) known as “El Makina” (the machine), which plays a role in Tunisian affairs sometimes likened to that of the army in Egypt. The UGTT was the driving force behind Ben Ali’s fall and could very well take the lead in turning Ennahda out. Polls suggest that public support for Ennahda is collapsing (Gallup put approval for the party at 32 percent in May, down from 56 percent in March 2012). And the economy is in a disastrous state. On August 16, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Tunisia’s credit rating (for the second time this year) to B. 

As for national security, a Tunisie Sondage poll conducted in early August found that 65 percent of Tunisians considered the terrorist threat high, and 74 percent blamed it on Ennahda’s lenience towards jihadists. Until a recent falling out, Ennahda maintained close relations with Salafist groups, notably Ansar al Sharia. It is a member of that group, convicted terrorist Boubakeur el-Hakim, who is suspected of both high-profile assassinations this year. A French citizen who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, Hakim was convicted by a French court in 2008 of recruiting French jihadists to fight in Iraq, but he was released from prison in 2011. In addition, the Ennahda government has ceded control of dozens of mosques to jihadists, who have used them to recruit extensively. 

Alaya Allani, a leading historian of Islamism and professor at Manouba University near Tunis, estimates that the number of jihadists in the country has rocketed from 800 a year ago to some 3,000-4,000 today. The Salafist wing of Ennahda has steadily reached out to jihadists for both ideological and opportunistic reasons. And the leading terrorist organization in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as long ago as October 2012 embraced Ennahda’s goal of implementing sharia in Tunisia.

Now AQIM is making its presence felt. On July 30, AQIM militants savagely murdered nine Tunisian soldiers on the Algerian-Tunisian border. Some AQIM operatives, veterans of the fight in Mali, are joining forces with Tunisian Salafists kicked out of Syria. Even though the Algeria-Tunisia border is formally closed, it is far from sealed, and Algerian extremists are helping their Tunisian counterparts manufacture IEDs. Furthermore, Algeria has refused to cooperate with the Islamist regime in Tunisia because of its Salafist elements. It took no one by surprise when a terrorist blew himself up on August 2 while building a bomb in a suburb of Tunis.

Between domestic unrest and the deliberate meddling of jihadists from abroad, Tunisia is poised for continuing and possibly explosive instability.

Olivier Guitta is the director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign affairs think tank in London.

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