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Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party turns on Salafists

The clash between Tunisia's ruling Islamist Ennahda party and the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia escalated over the weekend, when Prime Minister Ali Larayedh linked the Salafist group with terrorism. But what does this mean for Tunisia's security?


The war of words between Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party and the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia group metamorphosed into pitched street battles over the weekend and looks set to escalate with the Salafist group’s call for a protest on Friday.

Ansar al-Sharia's spokesman Seifeddine Rais was arrested in the central Tunisian town of Kairouan on Sunday.
Ansar al-Sharia's spokesman Seifeddine Rais was arrested in the central Tunisian town of Kairouan on Sunday.

In a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page, Ansar al-Sharia called “all Muslims to a protest in support of Ansar al-Sharia's spokesman Seifeddine Rais, in front of the headquarters of Ennahda” in the central Tunisian city of Kairouan.

The outspoken Rais was arrested in Kairouan at dawn on Sunday as he was jogging before a massive police presence deployed to block the group’s third annual congress, which was banned by the government.

Following the government ban, Ansar al-Sharia issued last-minute instructions to its members to rally instead in the Tunis suburb of Hay Ettadamen, where clashes with the police killed at least one person and wounded 18 others – including 15 policemen.

A day before the group’s planned congress, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh used the “T” word, linking the group for the first time to terrorism.

“Ansar al-Sharia is an illegal organisation which defies and provokes state authority,” Larayedh told Tunisian state television. “It has ties to and is involved in terrorism.”

The emir thanks ‘tyrants’ for propagating his message

Shortly after Ennahda came to power by forming a coalition in late 2011 following the ouster of Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the moderate Islamist party was criticized for its failure to prevent a hardline Islamist surge. The criticisms gained international attention on September 14, 2012, when Salafists attacked the US embassy in Tunis.

But faced with the threat of al Qaeda-linked jihadist militants hiding near the Algerian border and crackdowns on arms trafficking networks from neighbouring Libya and Algeria, Ennahda has since hardened its position.

The ban on Ansar al-Sharia’s congress in Kairouan marked a significant surge of hostility between the moderate Islamist party and the Tunisian Salafist group.

For independent researcher Fabio Merone, who is an expert on Tunisian Salafist jihadist movements, Ansar al-Sharia lost its battle with the state when it decided to hold its congress in the Hay Ettadamen neighbourhood of Tunis and other cities such as Ben Gardane in southern Tunisia, despite the official ban.

"They finally chose confrontation, especially with the improvised congress in Hay Ettadamen,” said Merone. “They showed some political immaturity."

The process of "dual dynamic integration and institutionalisation" that ICG (International Crisis Group) researcher Michael Ayari ascribed to Ansar al-Sharia, in his report "Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge,” appeared to have failed on Sunday.

In a message posted on Ansar al-Sharia’s Facebook page following Sunday’s clashes, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, the group’s emir, took a more confrontational line.

Referring to Ennahda as “hameka” – the Arabic word for tyrant, which the moderate Islamist party used to describe Ben Ali – Abu Iyad thanked the 'tyrants' for Sunday’s crackdown, noting that it helped propagate the group’s message.

A disciple of well-known al Qaeda cleric Abu Qatada, Abu Iyad is wanted for his alleged role in the September 2012 attack on the US embassy in Tunis, but he has so far not been arrested.

Creating a scapegoat

More than two years after Tunisia triggered the Arab uprisings and subsequent political rise of Muslim Brotherhood parties in the region, Ennahda is distancing itself from Salafist groups.

Days before Prime Minister Larayedh officially banned the Ansar congress in Kairouan, Ennahda co-founder Rached Ghannouchi warned that the government would not allow the annual congress to take place.

In a March 26 interview with the French daily, Le Monde, Larayedh noted that there are Salafist factions "that advocate violence and terrorism," before adding, "There is no dialogue with those who are at war with society."

But while Ennahda has waged a war of words against Ansar al-Sharia over the past few months, the real change, sparked by Sunday’s events, has been the use of the term "terrorist".

While many Tunisians – including Ennahda critics – welcomed the prime minister’s tough rhetoric, some experts worry about the potential security consequences.

"Ansar al-Sharia is the ideal scapegoat for a security policy that does not know how to handle the issue of terrorism,” said Ayari. “We’re heading toward an escalation of violence and the question today is whether the Tunisian state has the means to handle this situation."

The events of the weekend, according to Ayari, have highlighted Ansar al-Sharia’s role as a vehicle of popular discontent. "The movement has attracted people who are disappointed with the revolution and any security policy must be accompanied by a social policy, which is not always the case."


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