Lara Vergnaud
Last updated: 7 June, 2013

Tunisia’s Salafist tango and the long road to stability

If Tunisia – and this is a big if – can get past its growing pains such as a troubled economy and growth of radical Salafi groups, the development of a stable democracy is still within reach, writes Lara Vergnaud.

Tunisia’s Islamist government, led by the moderate Ennahda party, has long struggled to rein in Salafist extremism, flip flopping from tacit approval of the ultraconservative movement to outright condemnation.

Following a crackdown on a Salafist rally in Kairouan on May 19, authorities handed down two-year sentences on Tuesday to participants in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis, prompting many observers to question whether the move was a return to Ennahda’s former leniency (the American embassy is reportedly “deeply troubled” by the sentencing).

The light punishment reflects a broad political calculus at play: Ennahda’s desire to build momentum in the run-up to national elections scheduled for fall/winter 2013 without alienating either its conservative base or a large moderate constituency troubled by insecurity – and all without inviting more radical extremism to Tunisian soil.

Ennahda’s approach to Salafism took a decidedly firmer tone following a cabinet shuffle in February in the wake of the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, which was then bolstered by the discovery of multiple Salafist jihadist training camps this spring. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, Ennahda has adopted a slate of new measures such as tracking Salafist jihadist recruiting cells for Syria, the use of tear gas to disperse Salafist meetings, the dismantling of preaching tents, and an aggressive campaign against armed militants near the Algerian border.

FOR MORE CONTEXT Bassem Aly: Salafists are lucky

These are necessary measures if, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, suggested in an interview, the Salafist jihadists are “preparing for a long-term war against the state.”

Most of Tunisia is preoccupied with economic instability rather than concerns about identity or religion

Though Salafism remains a minority movement, its growing success harms Ennahda as it stems, in large part, from the government’s lackluster leadership. Salafist groups have successfully played off the ruling party’s domestic policy failings by filling basic humanitarian needs, and providing educational, mediation and administrative services. They also serve as morality police in Tunisia’s impoverished southern and interior regions where residents feel disenfranchised and alienated from the more prosperous, secularized areas of the country.

Under the guise of an “anti-system actor,” as Gartenstein-Ross puts it, Salafists visit neglected areas where they “don’t just talk about jihad or Bin Laden – they hand out food, sometimes clothing, sometimes medical supplies, sometimes they have convoys with doctors.” Tunisian blogger Lina ben Mhenni notes that many youths believe “secularism and moderation are related to dictatorship and repression. For them, religious groups represent the alternative.”

Despite their limited numbers, the Salafists have emerged squarely at the heart of an intensifying socio-political debate on Ennahda’s credibility. Critiques have come from all quarters: secular opposition groups, like the Nidaa Tounes party, wary of Ennahda’s self-proclaimed moderate stance; Salafists who feel the ruling Islamist party is not radical enough; and Tunisians frustrated with the country’s stagnation since the ouster of strongman Zine al Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, as well as the recent uptick in political violence.

In the wake of Belaid’s assassination, which for many highlighted the Ennadha party’s inability, or unwillingness, to take aggressive measures against Salafist groups, Tunisia’s Islamist-secularist rift has deepened, as has infighting within the country’s ruling coalition. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, Larayedh’s predecessor, was forced to resign after his proposal to create a cabinet of technocrats was scrapped by his own party.

Today, the Ennahda-led government is at a crossroads. Although the party’s Islamist leanings are not a problem for most Tunisians per se – Islamist parties enjoyed strong public support until early 2013 – its middle-of-the-road approach over the past eighteen months has proven disastrous. Belaid’s assassination, and the subsequent public outcry, is the starkest indicator of that. By failing to immediately adopt a clear and concerted position on religious extremism, Ennahda simultaneously fostered radical Salafism and earned public enmity, making the party vulnerable to attack from the secular opposition (Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi has already announced his candidacy for president).

In the months preceding national elections scheduled to be held sometime between October 15 and December 15, Ennahda will need to tackle a trio of herculean challenges: economic repair, a clarification of its own socio-political identity, and a serious move against Salafist violence.

One political hope gleams amid all this: Tunisia’s radical elements might be tempered with time. In much the same way that Ennahda was to some extent de-radicalized by political inclusion, some Salafist factions could feasibly be incorporated into Tunisia’s burgeoning political apparatus. Jabhat al-Islah has already announced it will run candidates in this year’s national election and two other legalized Salafist parties, al-Rahma and al-Asala, are likely to throw their hats in the ring as well.

These parties have proven willing to sacrifice – or at least modify – their purist vision of Islam in the hopes of tangible legislative gains. Indeed, representatives from Egypt’s successful Salafist political party, Nour, have encouraged Tunisian Salafists to enter politics to that end. Politically legitimated Salafism remains an optimistic solution, however, as large groups like Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia and the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform have proven particularly hostile to such integration.

ALSO READ Dancing resistance in Tunisia continues

But declaring war on Salafist factions carries even greater risks. The Larayedh security campaign will inevitably erode support from Ennahda’s conservative base despite more half-hearted measures such as Tuesday’s sentencing. And if the nation’s political history is any guide, it will provide fodder for further radicalizations (Ennahda’s long-time reluctance to crack down on Salafists is a likely explanation for the lack of more extreme violence on Tunisian soil). What’s more, Ennahda cannot resolve Tunisia’s ailments by arbitrarily jailing militants; such policies contributed to the creation of an autocratic, repressive state under Ben Ali.

But there may yet be a way forward for Tunisia, if not its current ruling party. Local and regional observers alike agree: it’s (still) the economy, stupid. Most of Tunisia is preoccupied with economic instability – a key frustration that prompted the 2011 uprising – rather than concerns about identity or religion. Which means that come autumn, and barring an economic miracle, Tunisians will vote with their pocketbooks.

Given the external nature of the economic challenges Ennahda faces – the need to reassure foreign investors, trade that is largely tied to Europe’s limping economy, and a handicapped tourism industry – the party would be well advised to begin by addressing its domestic policy lacunae and eliminating – or at least reducing – the need for the parallel social aid structures the Salafists have built (look for the secular opposition and Salafist parties alike to capitalize on Ennahda’s social welfare shortcomings as the election approaches). This appropriation of a major element of Salafist recruitment will be critical if Ennahda or its successor hopes to avoid the same groundswell of economic discontent that sparked the 2011 uprising.

However, while the economic factors that drove the Arab Spring are still present, a less tangible Tunisian particularity may yet ease the transition to democracy. According to an early 2013 poll, a majority of Tunisians, though pessimistic about their future, prefer a democratic government – even if it means “an unstable and insecure Tunisia” – over a non-democratic and flourishing one. This bodes well as Tunisia’s government attempts to rebuild infrastructure and the economy while holding religious extremism at bay. Such a measured outlook also hints that if Tunisia – and this is a big if – can get past its growing pains, the development of a stable democracy is still within reach.

The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East. A version of the article originally appeared in Blouin News.

EDITOR’S PICK Salafis and secularists breaking stereotypes over coffee