Tunisia's Political Rancor Cancels Ennahda-Salfist Honeymoon

The attack on the US embassy in Tunisia on Sept. 14 seems to have ended the honeymoon between the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, and the Salafist movements, especially Ansar al-Sharia, which is led by Abu Iyad. Raouf Ben Hedi reports.

al-monitor Salafist protesters hold up a Quran during a protest demanding the inclusion of Islamic law in the constitution, in Tunis, March 23, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

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salafist, jihadists in tunisia, jihadists, islamist, ennahda

Sep 29, 2012

“The enemy is Ennahda.” That short sentence perfectly summarizes what the Tunisian Salafist movements’ activists and supporters are thinking. Written in the color of blood, that sentence has been everywhere on their social networking pages since late evening Sunday, Sept. 23, when Hassan Brik, the official of the Ansar al-Sharia’s outreach office, was arrested. The Salafists resent the government, the ruling party, and some Ennahda officials who welcomed the arrest.

The honeymoon between Ennahda and its Salafists “progeny” has ended. And so has the impunity that the latter have been enjoying. The government seems to have tightened the screws after the serious incident at the US Embassy. The government mainly accuses Salafist groups for that incident.

This change in tactics by Ennahda has angered Salafist militants. For them, the number one enemy is now Ennahda because that Islamist movement has betrayed the “cause” in order to satisfy the Westerners.

For 10 days, the Salafists saw themselves being turned into scapegoats. They deny being behind the violence that targeted the US embassy. They say that they have only expressed their anger toward the American “devil” without ever having used violence. They do not understand why they are the only ones being accused while “all segments of society” have gone out to defend Prophet Mohammad against attacks from infidels.

Tensions rose after the killing of one of their members and the attempted arrest of Sheikh Abu Iyad on Friday, Sept. 14.

Their anger was further fueled by statements from Ennahda President Rachid Ghannouchi and from several government members who have promised a severe response to the attack against the US embassy, which the Salafists were quickly accused of.

According to the Salafists, the accusations are baseless and they are outraged that Ali Laarayedh has used the police against them.

Two days after the US Embassy attack, which happened on Sunday, Sept. 16, Sheikh Abu Iyad was sought at the funeral of those who have been “martyred” at the hands of the army and the infidel “taghoot” [tyrant]. That information was according to Shems FM. But the Interior Ministry denied it shortly afterward.

The Salafists, however, confirmed the presence of their leader at the funeral and prepared for a second provocation, which [would] be spectacular. On Monday, Sept. 17, they announced that Abu Iyad will deliver a sermon that day and they gave out the time and place. The mosque where the sermon was to be held was surrounded by the police, but that did not prevent the Salafists from arriving in droves. As was expected, Abu Iyad came and delivered his speech before quietly slipping away from under the noses of the police and special forces. The media, including Al-Jazeera, were present, which prevented the Interior Ministry from denying anything. The Interior Ministry said that it was a tactical decision to avoid a confrontation in the city center.

The Salafist leader rejected the accusations by the government and the ruling party. He declared what, to him, is obvious: The government is nothing compared to the umma [Islamic nation].

Three days later, it was the turn of Hassen Brik, the official of Ansar al-Sharia’s outreach office. He was invited to Shems FM and took the opportunity to defend his comrades and reject the government’s and the ruling party’s “unfounded and defamatory” accusations. He said that the government is employing a double standard. “Why is the law strictly applied against the Salafists but not to the Islamists close to Ennahda?” he asked.

The police reacted by quickly surrounding Shems FM, forcing him to take refuge inside the premises of the radio station. He then called his lawyers and supporters to the rescue. The police backed off. But they arrested him 48 hours later at el-Khadhra city on Sunday, Sept. 23, shortly before 10 p.m. It is still not clear why he was arrested.

The Salafists are only angry with Ennahda. They have no doubt that it is the ruling party that is spearheading the campaign against them.

As of this morning, Monday, Sept. 24, the comments on their Facebook page are about the reaction of the Ennahda official in La Goulette, Nawfel Jebali, who joked about the arrest of Hassan Brik.

Also on Facebook, they are trying to stir up the crowd with a picture of Jebali. “Today, it is him. Tomorrow, it’s you,” they write. They draw Ennahda’s logo in blood. They exchange a video of the “tyrant” Rachid Ghannouchi, whose discourse has dramatically changed after he came to power. The title of the video is “Tunisia’s tyrant is moving closer to the West by using the blood of Muslims defending their Prophet.”

The Salafists have no doubt that their enemy is Ennahda, which is headed by the duo Rached Ghannouchi and Ali Laarayedh. They are convinced that Ennahda is subservient to the American “satanic enemy.”

Meanwhile, the government and its Ennahda leaders are speaking in two voices. On the one hand, they are trying to placate Westerners by making many interviews and statements that emphasize the primacy of the law and the state. Rafik Abdessalem was dispatched to Washington to reassure Hillary Clinton who, with a little diplomacy, harshly reprimanded him. They are using the attack on the embassy to demonize the Salafists and the “outlaws.” But on Tunisian media, their discourse is different and they are more or less conciliatory toward the Salafists. During an appearance on the number one public TV station, Rached Ghannouchi even denied an AFP report.

The young Ennahda members are calling for reconciliation with their Salafists “brothers” by indirectly implying that if the Salafists consider Ennahda as their enemy, that would place the Salafists in the same camp with the RCD [the dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally], the secularists, and the left!

But that argument is not resonating with the angry Salafists. They are seeing the wave of arrests targeting them. They are comparing it to what is happening in Egypt (where there has been 14 death sentences against Salafists) and they fear that their turn is coming soon. They are preparing, unless all that is just an act!

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