Mohamed Bechri

Mohamed Bechri

Elections, Extremism, Featured, Tunisia

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Soon after the fall of former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, radical Islamists took over about a thousand mosques across Tunisia – roughly one fifth of the country’s total, according to the Ministry of Interior. They removed those imams affiliated with the ousted regime and, in many cases, replaced them with ones that adhere to Salafism, establishing a presence on the ground for Salafis to mobilize followers, gain resources, and disseminate their ideology directly.

Unlike former president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali did not differentiate between Salafism and the mainstream, politically-active Islamic movements while he was in power. He harshly repressed Islamists of all stripes, so for years, they relied primarily on television channels broadcasting from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to carry their messages. But in the wake of the revolution, they saw an opportunity to gain a foothold and they seized it.

Since then, many Salafis seem to have undergone a quick and pragmatic shift from vilifying democracy to embracing it. This has paved the way for the first Salafi political party in Tunisia, Jabhat al-Islah, followed by the al-Asalah and al-Rahmah parties. At first, these parties were regarded as potential future partners of Ennahda, Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist political party. But their reach is restricted mostly to poorer neighborhoods in Tunis and other cities, such as Sfax, al-Qayrawan, and Bizerte. In fact, based on polling conducted by the International Republican Institute and domestic pollsters, there seems to be little popular support among Tunisians for these parties.

Three factors explain why this is the case. First, the public sees a link between Salafi religious incitement and violence, especially after last year’s high-profile assassinations of opposition leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. Moreover, since the radical group Ansar al-Sharia was branded a terrorist organization by the Tunisian government in August 2013, it seems increasingly clear that the line between Salafis who embrace violence and those who claim to accept democracy is blurry. This has decreased the appeal of Salafi political alternatives to Ennahda and undermined their cause. After all, if Ennahda failed to rule the country, there is no reason to expect that the Salafis will do a better job.

Second, Salafi television channels broadcasted from abroad as well as the visits of foreign clerics to Tunisia has turned out to be a double-edged sword. While they have helped promote Salafi ideology, they have also convinced many Tunisians that Salafism is alien to their country, history, and traditions.

Third, as a part of a counterterrorism offensive, the Tunisian authorities are targeting foreign financing for Salafi-affiliated associations and political parties. This will likely reduce the Salafis’ resources and, in turn, hamper their activities to build support nationwide.

Now that Ennahda is out of office and security is a high priority for the cabinet, the expectation is that mosques under Salafi control will be brought back under the aegis of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In fact, according to a ministry spokesman, the number of mosques under Salafi control has already declined from nearly 350 to less than fifty-two since the country’s non-partisan cabinet was formed four months ago. The government will likely wrest back control of the remaining mosques soon.

With the Salafis sidelined politically, undercut ideologically, and restricted financially, the outcome of the upcoming elections will likely be a cohabitation between Ennahda, the main opposition party Nidaa Tounes, and the remnants of the former ruling Destour Party – without any Salafi representation. While this may result in a fragile political regime, it will prevent the reversal of Tunisia’s hard-won modernization.

Mohamed Bechri is the former director of the Tunisian section of Amnesty International.