The Salafists’ “attack” on the College of Arts in Tunis’ northern suburb of Manouba last week marked the return of the Salafists threat to the burgeoning Tunisian democratic experiment. During this incident, they removed the Tunisian flag and replaced it with their black banner, sparking a wave of public condemnation of the Salafists. However, the Manouba incident, which resulted in the injury of at least five students being attacked, is only the tip of iceberg. Violent fundamentalist movements are roaming the country while the state is powerless to stop them.
Following the successful Tunisian revolution, hundreds of Salafists with links to Al-Qaeda from their time in prison formed groups which, although few in number, do not hesitate to use violence in a society historically accustomed to moderation.
Many intellectuals refuse to call these groups Salafists, given that the Salafist movement emerged between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as part of a reform movement for peaceful change. Salafists nowadays go after women in the streets to force them to wear the hijab or niqab. They raid libraries, tearing up books and censoring others, and threaten to burn down shops should their owners not comply with their demands. They have also invaded coastal resorts during the summertime to drive women out or force them to wear jilbabs. The latest Salafist demonstration took place in the city of Sousse, one of the country’s main resort towns, where they attempted to drive tourists out. These kinds of activities will lead to the destruction of tourism, an economic sector that generates almost a fifth of the country's income.
From Afghanistan to Iraq and Algeria
It is difficult to overlook the links between the Tunisian Salafist jihadists and Al-Qaeda. Its most prominent members have been involved in armed attacks inside and outside of Tunisia. The Tunisian Salafist jihadists carried out suicide attacks in Iraq after traveling to Afghanistan. Many of them returned home after the revolution, where they move about freely today. The public was made aware of their presence during the largest single prosecution of their members in late 2006, following the discovery of a training camp in Mount Tbornq, south of the capital. The camp was managed by Assad Sassi, who trained with the Algerian “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.” This group later turned into Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Sassi and a few well-trained members, including a Mauritanian, snuck into Tunisia to carry out attacks. The Tunisian army discovered his camp and surrounded it on December 23, 2006. Sassi was later killed in a battle fought in the city of Suleiman at the foot of Mount Tbornq, ten days after the initial gunfight. The other group members were arrested. Among the Tunisian Salafist leadership today is Saifallah bin Hussein, who heads the organization known as the “Supporters of the Sharia.” He is a pupil of Abu Qatada, from Jordan, and is said to have operated a training camp in Afghanistan for Maghrebi fighters before he was arrested and imprisoned in Tunisia.
Bin Hussein and members of the Suleiman group left the prison after the revolution. They formed pressure groups which were initially concentrated in the Libyan border areas to support the refugees. They prevented groups from playing music to entertain those refugees. It is likely that these Tunisian Salafist jihadists are an integral part of an international network. The so-called “Supporters of the Sharia” is the same organization under which Al-Qaeda Salafists operate in Yemen. The methods used to control small towns and alienate the local authorities are the same in Yemen and Tunisia alike. If it weren’t for the security forces’ intervention in support of the inhabitants of Menzel Bourguiba last year and Sjnan early this year, the Salafis would have tightened their grip on the two cities. A local TV channel showed Salafists detaining a citizen in the city of Kairouan after accusing him of theft. He was being interrogated, and his accusers were trying to persuade him to repent when the security forces stormed in and took him.
It is by these means that the Salafis associated with Al-Qaeda seek to establish Islamic rule. Even if they want to do so initially only within a small stronghold, they hope to expand their emirate later. The formation of the “Emirate of Sjnan” was a clear warning sign which pushed authorities to defend it a few days later. It is curious that Yemen and Tunisia have been facing similar events in terms of the emergence of Salafist emirates despite the big steps that Tunisians have taken in terms of modernization of their society and state since the nineteenth century. The Salafist dress code reflects the nature of the condition which they want to impose on the country: one modelled after the “Taliban” Afghani movement. In the first few months following the overthrow of the former regime, white shirts and long beards appeared in the streets of Tunisia. It was like a scene emerging from the caves of history, both provocative and surprising in nature. However, today a sense of conformism is prevailing in Tunisian society as this group claims to rule in the name of Allah, and attempts to impose its will in a process far from peaceful. The attack on the Faculty of Arts in Manouba was only one of the violent manifestations of this community, which has its roots in Central Asia.
However, the Salafists are not alone in their fight to eliminate the gains that the Tunisian community has achieved through nearly a century or progress. Social-reform movements allowed girls into schools and freed women from constraints imposed upon them which had nothing to do with Islam. The Salafists today are supported by the Al-Tahrir party, which — although not legally licensed — still moves about freely. It is also supported by the “Association of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” formed by members of the ruling Ennahda party. This group elected to change its name to the “Association of Moderation” after public outcry resulted from its announcement. Harmony materialized between these groups as they all focused on using mosques to mobilize the population, especially after Friday prayers. This has taken place in spite of the ruling party’s repeated official statements about the need to distance places of worship from political debates. This alliance is being supported by the leadership of Ennahda, which is calling for the legalization of Al-Tahrir and the Salafist movement and their involvement in official matters. Leading members of Ennahda, such as Habib Al Lawz and the movement’s founder Sadek Chourou, have pleaded for hard-line policies similar to those advocated for by the Salafists in the Constituent Assembly. However, analysts say that electoral targets are behind this attitude which aims to transform the two organizations into the long arm of Ennahda party in the forthcoming campaign. This pattern is recognizable from what happened in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Al-Nour party. Others say that Ennahda’s courtship of the Salafists is meant to reassure hard-liners within Ennahda. These individuals hold an agenda not so distant from that of the Salafists, and it was able to get them into the Constituent Assembly.
Shuffling the Cards
The Tunisian elite’s concerns regarding this scenario are legitimate. Dealing with this Salafist movement based on violence opens the door to intellectual and social strife. To leave those calling for a subjection of society to their views by force is a serious manner indeed. The community and security forces will be forced to contend with groups which use the current climate of freedom to plan for acts of violence. This is what happened when an armed group was discovered in the region of Bir Ali Ben Khalifa in the south. They were transporting weapons from Libya to northern Tunisia to carry out terrorist attacks. According to the Interior Minister, the investigation proved that some of its members originated with the Solomon group, which was released after the revolution. Two of them were killed and one was captured during clashes with the army in Bir Ali.
This was not the first attack to take place after the revolution. Members of the Solomon group recruited a senior officer in the northern village of Al Rouhia last year before the army was able to subdue them. There is no doubt that this organization extends to Algeria, to the coast and into the Sahara. Its extent points to a possible link with Al-Qaeda. The government — or at least some Ennahda leaders — believes that the way to deal with these actors is to give them license to operate in a realm of legitimacy with the hope that they will abandon violence.
Over the past century, Tunisia was at the forefront of Arab society. It was characterized by high social mobility and an ability to actively move toward modernization while maintaining its Arab-Islamic disposition. If the Tunisians today overlook the dangers of dismantling this mobility, and begin to follow violent ideologies (which it will, based on the projections for the elections), then the country will enter a cycle of conflicts well known to the Orient. This will destroy the cohesion that has forever been one of this country’s advantages.