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Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Report 137 / Middle East & North Africa

Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge

As Tunisia faces the most critical phase of its transition after Chokri Belaïd’s assassination, its leaders must devise a calibrated response to the various challenges posed by the rise of Salafism.

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Executive Summary

The assassination of Chokri Belaïd, a prominent opposition politician, has thrown Tunisia into its worst crisis since the January 2011 ouster of President Ben Ali. Al­though culprits have yet to be identified, suspicions swiftly turned to individuals with ties to the Salafi movements. Founded or not, such beliefs once again have brought this issue to the fore. Many non-Islamists see ample evidence of the dangers Salafis embody; worse, they suspect that, behind their ostensible differences, Salafis and An-Nahda, the ruling Islamist party, share similar designs. At a time when the country increasingly is polarised and the situation in the Maghreb increasingly shaky, Tunisia must provide differentiated social, ideological and political answers to three distinct problems: the marginalisation of young citizens for whom Salafism – and, occasionally, violence – is an easy way out; the haziness that surrounds both An-Nahda’s views and the country’s religious identity; and the jihadi threat that ought to be neither ignored, nor exaggerated.

As elsewhere throughout the region, the Salafi phenomenon has been steadily growing – both its scripturalist component, a quietist type of Islamism that promotes immersion in sacred texts, and its jihadi component, which typically advocates armed resistance against impious forces. It made initial inroads under Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, a response to the repression inflicted on Islamists in general and An-Nahda in particular. A new generation of young Islamists, relatively unfamiliar with An-Nahda, has become fascinated by stories of the Chechen, Iraqi and Afghan resistance.

All that was changed by the 2010-2011 uprising. Scripturalist Salafis, rather discreet and loyal under Ben Ali, began to both vigorously promote their more doctrinaire ideas and pressure An-Nahda, notably on the role of Sharia (or Islamic law) in the new constitution. For their part, jihadis back armed struggle outside of Tunisia, even recruiting fighters for the cause, notably in Syria. Yet they claim to have renounced violence in their own country. Tunisia, they assert, no longer is a land of jihad. It is a land of preaching in which jihadis should take root peacefully, taking advantage of general disorder and the emergence of lawless areas in order to advance Islamic law. As a result, non-Islamists have grown more and more anxious, many among them accusing An-Nahda of conniving with the Salafis and of sharing their ultimate goals.

For now, despite the former regime’s ouster, the security vacuum, economic problems, strikes and various protest movements as well as the release and return from exile of numerous jihadis, Tunisia has experienced neither armed conflict, nor widespread violence nor major terrorist attacks. Most instances of Salafi violence – the most striking of which was the 14 September 2012 assault on the U.S. embassy – have been more dramatic than deadly. An-Nahda played no small part, helping to avert the worst thanks to its prudent management of radical religious groups through a mix of dialogue, persuasion and co-optation.

Yet, such management has its limitations. An-Nahda finds itself in an increasingly uncomfortable position, caught between non-Islamists who accuse it of excessive leniency and laxity in dealing with the security threat and Salafis who denounce it whenever it takes a harder line. Based on circumstances – a flare-up in violence or a wave of arrests – the party is condemned by either the former or the latter. An-Nahda itself is divided: between religious preachers and pragmatic politicians as well as between its leadership’s more flexible positions and the core beliefs of its militant base. Politically, such tensions give rise to an acute dilemma: the more the party highlights its religious identity, the more it worries non-Islamists; the more it follows a pragmatic line, the more it alienates its constituency and creates an opening for the Salafis.

There is not much doubt that the non-Islamist opposition has displayed excessive and premature alarm and that it sometimes levels unsubstantiated accusations. Nor is there much question that it is finding it hard to accept the reality of Islamists governing their country. But the fact that they are exaggerated does not mean that these fears are baseless. Rather, it means that one must clearly define and distinguish them, and offer finely-tuned remedies. To arbitrarily lump together incidents linked to poverty and unemployment, attempts to impose a strict moral order, a political assassination and jihadi violence would only draw Salafis toward their more radical wings.

The first trend involves the growing presence of militant Salafis in poor neighbourhoods. They have stepped in to fill the vacuum created by atrophying public services in marginalised areas; in some places, they have become key economic actors. They are known to help with schooling and serve as mediators in local conflicts, administrative issues and even marital problems. In many poor villages and urban centres, they are deeply engaged in the informal economy.

The second trend has to do with the spread of a more dogmatic form of religious expression, signalling a tug of war between two conceptions of Islam, one more and the other less tolerant. Initially relatively minor, vigilante-style violence has become increasingly commonplace; some citizens are reluctant to conduct their business publicly, fearful of provoking the Salafis’ ire. The Salafis’ influence also is manifested through their control over places of worship and of learning. An-Nahda wagers that this radicalisation of religious discourse is a temporary phenomenon, the unavoidable letting-out of pent-up frustrations after years of repression. It is confident that, by integrating the Salafis into the political system, they will become more moderate. But many party critics view this as a risky gamble that will hasten society’s gradual Islamisation from below.

The third trend concerns the existence of armed groups. They have yet to conduct large-scale operations. True, many Tunisian jihadis have been departing for Syria, Mali or Algeria, where they constituted a large portion of the hostage-takers at the In Amenas gas plant. But most jihadis seem willing to focus on proselytising in Tunisia and, at least for now, are not prepared to engage in more serious violence on its soil.

Yet this could get worse. Instability in the Maghreb, porous borders with Libya and Algeria, as well as the eventual return of jihadis from abroad, could spell trouble. Already, the government has had to harden its stance given the rise in violent incidents; the jihadis’ tougher discourse vis-à-vis An-Nahda; and growing pressure from parts of public opinion, elements within the interior ministry and, in the wake of the attack on their ambassador, the U.S. As a result, relations between Salafi jihadis and An-Nahda followers have deteriorated. This could lead to a vicious cycle between intensified repression and Salafi radicalisation.

The government and An-Nahda face considerable challenges, made all the more urgent by Chokri Belaïd’s murder. The most immediate task is to resolve the current political crisis. Beyond that, it will be to devise responses calibrated to these distinct problems while avoiding a cookie-cutter approach that would stigmatise the most devout of their citizens; provide greater coherence to an increasingly cacophonous religious space while reassuring secularists; bolster law and order without embracing an exclusively security agenda and while reforming the police and judiciary; and, finally, strengthen cooperation with neighbouring countries in a tense and chaotic context.

In the absence of an appropriate answer by the authorities and the dominant Islamist party, violence in all its shades – whether tied to social, demographic, urban, political or religious causes – could well cross a perilous threshold.

Tunis/Brussels, 13 February 2013

Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.