Salafist Influence Grows in Tunisia

The Salafist movement in Tunisia is growing and the Ennahda government has done little to challenge it,  Hana Zbeiss reports, leading Tunisians to  worry about escalating violence.

al-monitor Demonstrators demand for the release of Salafist protesters arrested in connection with the September attack on the US embassy, in front of the justice ministry in Tunis, Nov. 6, 2012. The placard reads, "Where is the justice for the prisoners?"  Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

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salafist, jihadists in tunisia, jihadists, islamist, ennahda

Nov 13, 2012

“It was an emotional reaction by one of the brothers,” said Ahmad, a follower of Jihadist Salafism in Tunisia, about the statements made by the Imam of al-Noor Mosque in the town of Douar Hicher in which he called on the Salafist youth to carry their coffins over their shoulders, in a declaration of armed jihad.

The announcement, which was made directly on air via a Tunisian satellite channel, frightened all Tunisians.

“Many women, men and elderly citizens came in great panic to the National Guard Center in Douar Hicher in the morning to request help from the security services,” a policeman at the center said.

Although an investigation was launched against Imam Nasruddine al-Alawi, a sense of shock still hangs over the country.

The recent acts of violence that took place in this low-income area in the capital, ​​Tunis — which saw unprecedented clashes between security agents and Salafists, killing two people from the Salafist side and seriously injuring four policemen — confirmed to Tunisians that the country has actually entered into a spiral of violence with unknown consequences.

The Salafist current has continued to grow since the revolution, after the release of [Salafist] prisoners under the General Amnesty Law and the return of many jihadists to Tunisia after waging jihad in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.

The estimated number of supporters is currently around 10,000. It is a figure that is subject to increase due to the extensive activity of the Salafists and the frustration experienced by a great number of youth living in disadvantaged areas after realizing their government's inability to meet their demands for jobs and development.

The Salafist current does not conceal its rapprochement with al-Qaeda. It has stated that on many occasions, which increases concerns about its intention to move to an armed struggle at some point.

Until the recent statement by the Imam of the al-Noor Mosque, Salafist leaders, namely Abu Ayyad, considered Tunisia to be “a land for advocating [Islam], not Jihad.”

However, observers believe that the possibility of a transition to armed violence has become very likely, especially in light of the restrictions exercised by the Ennahda government against the Salafists following the U.S. embassy events on Sep. 14, and the extensive arrests among their ranks. The [Salafists] have stepped up their tone against the Islamists, and have come to accuse them of collaborating with the Americans and of courting the representatives of the secular left.

Security forces protesting

Though not the first of its kind, the recent targeting of the police and the escalating pace and intensity of this targeting have confirmed beyond a doubt that the Salafist movement is targeting symbols of the state.

The attack on Maj. Wissam Bin-Suleiman, chief of the public security unit in Douar Hicher — which resulted in a fractured skull — the attack on the police station in the same area two days later, and the bloody confrontations between Salafists and security forces on the night of Oct. 30 have shown the extent of tension between the two parties. On that same night, a Salafist climbed to the top of the al-Nour mosque’s minaret and screamed into the microphone “Come to jihad,” calling all supporters of the current to join their brothers in resisting “tyranny.”

This escalation was met by a wave of protests by security forces. Security unions organized sit-ins in Douar Hicher and in front of the Interior Ministry in downtown Tunis to denounce the systematic attacks against them and their families, which have become easy victims for reprisals by the Salafists. They demanded that the state protect them and allow them to enforce the law on these extremists.

The security agents complained of the Ennahda-affiliated Interior Minister Ali al-Areed’s procrastination in giving instructions to the police to intervene each time that Salafists assault public and private property and persons.

“Even worse is that whenever we arrest some of them and refer them to court, the judiciary releases them after a few days. How would you want us to work under such circumstances?” says Sami al-Qanawi, general clerk in the National Guard Association of Manouba.

What is further angering the security forces is that whenever they fire live bullets in self-defense — as allowed by law — they are punished and imprisoned.

“We found ourselves caught between a systematic assault by the Salafists, and negligence on the part of the authorities to protect us legally,” says Mounir al-Khumaily, assistant general clerk of the public security units union.

A policy of appeasement and insulting the state

Dr. Alia al-Ilani, a researcher who studies Islamic movements in the Arab Maghreb, said that “the Ennahda Movement used to come up with excuses so as not to confront the Salafist current, and Ennahda head Rachid Ghannouchi said several times that the Salafist violations must be addressed patiently even if the process takes many years. This encouraged the Salafists to [further] encroach on the state.”

Ilani added: “Today, violence is being directed at security forces, which means that we have reached the most serious phase of its use. Security men represent the state, and they are the most important elements in state stability.”

The Salafists have no intention of calming things down, despite the repeated claims of their leaders that they are not advocates of jihad and that they have been lured into violence so that their image among Tunisians would be tarnished.

What was revealed by a French newspaper about the existence of training camps in the north and south of Tunisia reinforced the belief that the [Salafists] have an intention to declare armed jihad and impose an Islamic state by force.

This information, although denied by the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, did not come out of the blue. Interior Minister Areed confirmed to French newspaper Le Monde in March that jihadist groups are training for fighting in sports halls.

Therefore, the future is open to the possibility that [the situation in Tunis] will spiral into a cycle of violence.

Here, the Algerian scenario of the 1990s comes to mind. Between the Islamic government’s attempts to minimize the seriousness of the situation and mobilize the opposition — which continues to demand the withdrawal of sovereign ministries from the hands of the Ennahda Party — the Tunisian people remain in a constant state of fear and suspicion regarding the country’s possible fall into the clutches of terrorism.

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