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Habib Sayah

Constitutions, Extremism, Featured, Islamist Politics, Political Parties, Tunisia

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While the spotlights in Tunisia are turned toward the struggle between the ruling Islamist party Ennahdha and the rising secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, another player is preparing to take the stage. As tens of thousands of Tunisians gathered at the Jellaz cemetery in Tunis for the funeral of slain secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, a jihadi organization named Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) has begun placing its pieces on the chessboard.

The genesis of Ansar al-Sharia

After Ben Ali’s ouster, the Tunisian transitional government released scores of Islamist political prisoners. Among them were several jihadi veterans with combat experience from Af-Pak, including Seif Allah Ben Hassine, also known as “Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi,” the charismatic mastermind behind the foundation of AST in April 2011.

Abu Iyadh earned his nom de guerre in Afghanistan where he set up the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda based in Jalalabad. Arrested in Turkey in 2003, he was extradited to Tunisia where he was sentenced to 43 years in prison. Freed by the revolution, Abu Iyadh capitalized on the network he built among the detainees together with the glory that comes with his status as an Af-Pak jihadi veteran. With these assets in hand, Abu Iyadh has toured the country for months, delivering preaches in mosques, indoctrinating thousands of youngsters who embrace his jihadi doctrines. Within the first year of AST’s creation, Abu Iyadh has not only succeeded in recruiting approximately 10,000 young Salafis, but under his leadership, AST has essentially subsumed the emerging Salafi movement, thus becoming the indisputable reference in that arena.

Jihad: the dark side of Salafism in Tunisia

In what seems more like a succession of marketing moves than acts of pure faith, AST made its first appearances on the public scene by assaulting secular figures and carrying out attacks against theatres and TV stations. In June 2012, Abu Iyadh ordered the ransacking of the "Spring of the Arts" exhibition in La Marsa, the day after he received the anointment of al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri and the blessing of the influential jihadi ideologist Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, who had just issued a fatwa in which he authorized Muslims to join jihad in Tunisia under Abu Iyadh's command. The Islamist government’s reaction illustrated the ongoing passive indifference toward the several violent actions carried out by AST. Indeed, instead of putting an end to the escalating violence perpetrated by AST, the Tunisian government absurdly blamed the secular artists and held them responsible for the attack. By then, Abu Iyadh had already openly stated his jihadi purpose.

On September 14, 2012, Abu Iyadh successfully waged the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Despite the prior announcement of his intentions, the police forces passively allowed AST’s troops to invade the compound. In spite of the insistence of the U.S. Department of State, and notwithstanding hard evidence of Abu Iyadh’s involvement, the Tunisian government let him free and swept the issue by arresting a few Salafi militants.

Competing with the state for popular support

In the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy attack, Abu Iyadh focused his organisation’s efforts on charity work. AST has distributed water and food in the poorest urban and rural areas, and has provided free medical services (their physicians have even issued prescriptions on Ansar al-Sharia letterhead). With popular dissatisfaction of Tunisia’s political spectrum on the rise, these so-called humanitarian actions are systematically filmed and propaganda videos showing the population’s support of AST are broadcasted on the web. Not only are they building up a network of sympathizers, but they are also trying to prove that they have the capacity to replace the state in its functions should the Republic fall and be replaced by a caliphate.

In the wake of Chokri Belaid’s assassination, a context characterized by growing unrest and the government’s inability to maintain its grip on the security forces, AST has jumped at the chance to compete with the state. With little or no police presence in areas where looters have been operating, AST has deployed its own militias. AST vigilantes sporting bright orange vests can now be found patrolling the streets in cities such as Bizerte, Qayrawan, and Sfax, as well as in some neighborhoods in greater Tunis. These so-called security committees consist of convoys usually comprised of several motorbikes and a dozen pickup trucks transporting young Salafis holding sticks, knives, and swords. Intimidating both the looters and Ennahdha’s secular opponents, the patrols are serving a political purpose: filling the void left by the police, thus proving once again that the Salafis are in a better position than the state when it comes to ensuring the safety of the population.

In a relationship, and it’s complicated

The relationship between Ennahdha and AST has always been very complex. Abu Iyadh has many close allies among Ennahdha hardliners, such as parliamentarian Sadok Chourou, who publicly stated that those who demonstrate against the government are Allah’s enemies and should be dismembered and crucified, and was the guest speaker of AST’s first annual conference in Sidi Bouzid in 2011. On the other side, some moderates in Ennahdha like Prime Minister Jebali have taken a stand against political violence by endorsing democracy. In the middle sits Ennahdha’s overseer Rachid Ghannouchi, who is still sending conflicting messages to the secular opposition and Tunisia’s western partners on the one hand, and to the Salafis on the other.

Within Ennahdha, the debate over how to deal with AST has been the hot issue that could reveal Ennahdha’s internal divisions and convince some of its members to secede. Prime Minister Jebali and the Minister of Interior Ali Larayedh have never mentioned AST as a suspect, nor have they threatened to prosecute them for the violent attacks. Fear of stoking divisions within their party, in addition to exposing the ambiguous relationship between the party and the jihadi faction, has kept Jebali and Larayedh from decisive action.

Now, Ennahdha is undergoing a severe crisis. Isolated and disavowed by his fellow party leaders, Prime Minister Jebali is pragmatically moving toward reconciliation with the secular opposition. Meanwhile, the hardliners are extending their influence, fostering further polarization and radicalization of the party, which is facing attacks from all directions due to suspicion of involvement in Belaid’s assassination as well as its inability to undertake the necessary reforms to quell unemployment and inflation.

In this context, where Ennahdha is at the same time divided, radicalizing, and considerably weakened, Abu Iyadh seems to have launched a hostile takeover bid on the party. In an interview released a few days prior to Belaid’s death, Abu Iyadh called for the unification of the Islamist political spectrum in order to defeat Tunisia’s secular movement. Ennahdha’s response came soon enough. The day after Belaid’s funeral, in a rally held by Ennahdha, one of the speakers called for the unification of the Islamist movement in a new troika that would be comprised of Ennahdha, Hizb al-Tahrir, and the “Salafis,” meaning of course AST. The masquerade is over.

Interestingly, AST’s security committees have joined forces with the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), which are Islamic youth organizations connected to Ennahdha’s hard wing. The LPR are prone to verbal as well as physical violence toward secularists and have issued death threats against Ennahdha’s adversaries on multiple occasions. This synergy may indicate that from now on Ennahdha’s hardliners are relying on Abu Iyadh to undermine the rise of the secular opposition.

On the path toward insurgency?

The turmoil following Belaid’s assassination might speed up the implementation of Abu Iyadh’s agenda. Widespread discontent creates the most favorable environment for a jihadi organization such as AST to act. Ennahdha’s potential division would be a golden occasion for Abu Iyadh to seduce the hardliners into an alliance on his own terms. Ghannouchi’s party is indeed within a hair of losing its government, and Abu Iyadh has already declared that in such a scenario, the secularists would have to “walk over our dead bodies.”

Meanwhile, the ferments of insurgency are germinating. All of AST’s past actions are not anodyne, but part of a more complex pattern aimed at undermining the authority of the state while winning over a meaningful part of the population. If the cycle of political violence does not come to an end soon enough, AST may unleash a large-scale insurgency. For the moment, it is impossible to assess the Salafi movement’s chances of success, but even if they fail, a mere attempt from their part might durably subvert the democratic transition and destabilize the country which is already in a fragile geopolitical context.

Now that the threat posed by AST is more tangible, it should be treated as a pre-insurgency situation. In this respect, effective counter-measures to AST’s strategy should be taken without delay. The societal problems AST is capitalizing on should be addressed immediately by both the state and secular civil society. Together, they must act to ensure the substantial security of the population and provide social services where they are needed while utilizing strategic communication in an effective way. Moreover, to undermine the extremists, civil society and political actors ought to provide an alternate ideology, not in conflict with Islamic values, but consistent with Tunisia’s liberal and tolerant religious heritage. Above all, it is essential that they start building rapport with the population.

Habib M. Sayah is a Tunisian lawyer and the Director of the Kheireddine Institute, a think-tank dedicated to promoting individual liberty and free-market ideas in Tunisia.