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A New Turn in Tunisia?

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Anis Mili/Reuters
A woman with a picture of the anti-Islamist leader Chokri Belaïd at a ceremony to mourn his assassination, Tunis, March 16, 2013

In a plaza beside the mosque I encountered a burly vendor of jihadist flags who identified himself only as Yassin. He had a thick black beard, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and long, curly black hair that flowed from beneath his tan Taliban-style cap. Yassin had appeared in the news in March 2012, when photographers snapped pictures of him tearing down the Tunisian flag in front of Manouba University and replacing it with a black jihadist banner. Now, he told me, he was getting ready for another potentially violent confrontation: a large gathering of Salafists scheduled for the following Sunday in Kairouan, the Islamic cultural capital of Tunisia, a hundred miles south of Tunis. The Tunisian government had refused to give the group a permit and threatened to arrest anyone who showed up, but Yassin said that the Salafists would not be dissuaded. “Ansar al-Sharia does not want to ask for any authorization, because we don’t recognize the ones who are giving the authorizations,” he told me.

Yassin wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with jihadist imagery: on the front, a map of Syria with a Kalashnikov- carrying fighter from the Jabhat al-Nusra, the radical Islamic rebel group in Syria that has recruited many fighters from Tunisia; on the back, a portrait of Osama bin Laden accompanied by the legend “Jihad Is Not a Crime.” A picture of the World Trade Center, with a jet about to strike, adorned his shoulder. It suggested the Adidas logo, but instead of “Adidas,” it read “alqaïda.” “The police threw me in jail for wearing my T-shirt, and held me for four days,” he told me, grinning. “But they had to let me go, because there is no law against defending my views.” What were those views? “Al-Qaeda represents Islam, and al-Qaeda defends Islam,” he replied. Despite the incendiary messages on his T-shirt, Yassin insisted that he had entered a pacifist phase. “I’m doing dawaa, making people aware of their religious obligations,” he told me. “I’m not killing people.”

After leaving the mosque, I drove to Menzah, a middle-class neighborhood north of downtown Tunis. In the parking lot of a run-down, nine-story apartment building off a quiet road lined with pine and eucalyptus trees, I was shown a small memorial with candles and scrawled messages for Chokri Belaïd, the outspoken critic of the Islamists who had been killed here three months earlier. Belaïd had a strong following among the country’s miners, dockworkers, and other laborers. Although his party had won only 2 percent of the vote in the October 2011 election, he had since won the support of the country’s powerful trade union association and was putting together a coalition of left-wing parties called the Popular Front.

Some political analysts predicted that a Belaïd-led coalition could have won 10 to 15 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary election. He was often seen on Tunisia’s television talk shows and news broadcasts during the past year, attacking the Islamists and warning about the creeping religious transformation of the country. At eight o’clock in the morning on February 6, Belaïd left his building and stepped into the passenger seat of a car that was waiting for him; an assailant emerged from behind a hedge, shot him through the window four times, then sped away on a motorcycle.

Police swiftly arrested four suspects, all of them Salafists in their thirties and forties, and claimed that they had identified the triggerman as Kamel Gathgathi, reportedly once a student in the United States, who is believed to have fled abroad. The interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, said the suspects belong to an “Islamist cell” that had set out to murder prominent secular politicians. But according to Abdel Majid Belaïd, the murdered man’s older brother, the government’s theory didn’t make sense. “Belaïd always said that the Salafists were not out to get him, that it was Ennahda who had motive to kill him,” he told me. “They were political rivals.” A few days earlier, an investigating judge in the case had summoned for questioning a top Ennahda official based in Paris who had been seen lurking around Belaïd’s apartment building three months before he was killed. “We all know that Ennahda is not one,” said Morjane, the former Ben Ali foreign minister. “It is clear that they have their hard-liners.”

Ghannouchi denied any involvement: Islamic radicals, he told me, “want to destabilize the situation by assassinating an opponent of Ennahda…. They are even accusing me of personally being behind the murder. And because of this I’ve taken a few people to court.”

But many people remain skeptical. In front of the Ministry of the Interior building on the Avenue Bourguiba, the site of anti–Ben Ali protests during the revolution, I came across several hundred supporters of Belaïd who were commemorating the one-hundred-day anniversary of his assassination. The protesters carried placards in French, English, and Arabic that read “Who killed Chokri?” and chanted, “Ghannouchi killed Belaïd.” “Ennahda is involved in the killing,” a speaker from Belaïd’s party told the crowd. “This is the counterrevolution, and we want the government to say the truth.”

Before I left Tunisia in May, the relationship between the Salafists and Ennahda seemed to be growing more contentious. Nine members of security forces were injured by land mines during a sweep around the Jebel ech Chambi, which turned up sixteen arms caches and materials for making explosives. Meanwhile, on Sunday, May 19, the government responded strongly to Ansar al-Sharia’s vow to bring 40,000 followers to its annual congress in Kairouan, where they planned to rally around the city’s seventh-century Grand Mosque and call for sharia law. Tunisia’s prime minister, Ali Larayedh, a member of Ennahda, declared that the gathering was a “threat to public order” and announced that no permits would be allowed. Police and soldiers were deployed across the country, taking up positions on highways, exit ramps, and the streets of Kairouan. Ansar al-Sharia told its members to meet instead in the poor Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen, a Salafist stronghold, and in the clashes that followed, one Salafist died, eighteen were injured, and two hundred were arrested. Among those picked up in the fighting by security forces, I later learned, was Yassin—the burly jihadist wearing the black al-Qaeda T-shirt whom I had met at the al-Fatah Mosque. He was now in a Tunis jail, a comrade said, and “We don’t know when they will let him out.”

The courts also seemed to have turned against the Salafists. At the university, Habib Kazdaghli was acquitted of the assault charge; the two Salafist women who had burst into his office more than a year ago were convicted of trespassing. “I think that the tide has turned against the extremists,” he told me. But in his office in downtown Tunis, Rachid Ghannouchi said that he had little sympathy for Kazdaghli. “He is a Marxist, and they don’t believe in the right of people to practice their religion,” he said, making reference to the dean’s one-time membership in the Communist Party. “He is refusing to find a compromise.” That may, however, be just posturing. Ennahda’s popularity is dropping in the polls, largely both because of its failure to deal decisively with Salafist violence and because of Tunisia’s stagnant economy; some political analysts say that the Islamists could get as little as 30 percent of the popular vote in the election, down from 41 percent in October 2011.

Ennahda’s weakened position may force it to align itself further with the secular Democrats—it now dominates a coalition known as the “troika” with two centrist parties—and also to distance itself decisively from the Salafists. “There is a split taking place with Ennahda now,” I was told by a political observer who knows Ghannouchi well. “The hard-liners are being pushed aside.” If these trends continue, and it is far from sure that they will, the surge of Islamic extremism that has shaken the country for the last two years may have the effect of moving Tunisia toward a path of moderation.

—June 13, 2013

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