The Brownshirts of the Arab Spring: Tunisia’s Salafists (Part 1)

The Greek Orthodox Church in Tunis, recently desecrated by Salafist mobs.

The Greek Orthodox Church in Tunis, recently desecrated by Salafist mobs.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

All Is Not Well in Tunisia

Although it — the Arab Spring — began in Tunisia, much of the media attention here in the United States has moved on to Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Syria, where in some ways the stakes are higher and the dangers multiplying. True enough Tunisia did have relatively peaceful, democratic elections in October of 2011 and a political process continues to unfold. Strangely, during the Ben Ali years, Tunisia was put forth as a poster child for IMF structural adjustment programs, programs which helped undermine the country’s economy and trigger the uprising. In the post Ben Ali period, Tunisia is again being held up as a model! — this time a model of transition (but from what to what?).

But all is not well in the country.

The socio-economic crisis continues to deepen by the day. Throughout the country there are daily strikes, demonstrations, protests. Virtually every sector of the economy has been on strike be it in the public or private sector, but unemployment continues to rise and is worse than during the Ben Ali period. Outside of the main cities social and government services remain crippled; infra-structural relief to the interior is virtually non-existent. While Ben Ali’s old ruling party, the Rassamblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD), was dissolved, many of its former cadre and players have found a home, or made their peace, with the main party in power, Ennahda, a moderate Islamic party that supports neo-liberal economic policies and U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa

The economic program of the new government is virtually no different from that of the deposed one; the ministry of interior– the source of repressions, if not crimes against humanity against the population in the Ben Ali years — has hardly been touched — nor has the police force, both of which are now being integrated and mobilized to serve Ennahda’s interests and to solidify its control of the Tunisian political space.

Tunisia’s Arab Spring is shaping up to be a case of ‘all the change necessary to maintain the status quo’ despite all the formal celebrations of ‘the revolution’. Now, to make matters worse, something novel and unfortunately insidious, at least in the Tunisian context, is taking place: the emergence and dramatic growth of the country’s Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist) movement, a movement that had virtually no popular base in this North African country known for its political and religious moderation.

The Salafist Shadow Over Tunisia

The Salafists are casting a larger and larger shadow over Tunisia. Some were victims of Ben Ali’s prisons whose righteous rage has been manipulated. Others have joined from the ranks of the large Tunisian lumpen proletariat — the permanently unemployed, whose numbers are growing. Although Salafists remain essentially a fringe group, mostly foreign to the Tunisian political experience, their numbers and influence are growing. Money to support their activities is streaming in from abroad.

It started before the October 24, 2011 national elections to determine Tunisia’s constituent assembly. Given Tunisian recent history and its generally mild, tolerant forms of Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist crusade, an overall offensive, appeared rather odd, out of character. Indeed most observers — myself included — wrote it off as a limited campaign of fringe zealots, heavily funded by outsiders, be they Saudi or Qatari, who should not be taken too seriously.

True enough, the Salafists had come to the fore in the months after Zine Ben Ali and family fled the country on January 14, 2011. Several hundred had protested in front of Tunis’ main synagogue with their twin themes of Shari’a and virulent anti-Jewish chants. The taunting of women began almost immediately as did the threatening phone calls and anonymous letters to leading journalists, cultural figures.

Then a few weeks before the October, 2011 elections, a Salafist campaign exploded in opposition to an Iranian animated cartoon ‘Persepolis’ which showed an image of God as a kindly old man. True the image of God in human form is considered taboo in Islam — something the filmmakers must have been cognizant of — but oddly enough several years prior the film had played in Tunisia with very little controversy. This time, what I would call a ‘pre-fabricated’ political storm erupted, and as it did, the pre-election discussion shifted away from the socio-economic crisis, which had triggered the Tunisian uprising in the first place and focused instead on the requirements for being a good Muslim rather than a good citizen.

From the elections until today (early June 2012), the situation has only deteriorated and at an alarming rate. Salafist mobs – little more than the brown shirts of the Tunisian Revolution – have attacked media outlets, burned down bars and liquor stores, intimidated women, physically attacked anyone with whom they disagree. The number of incidents has multiplied while the transitional government has done little to nothing to intervene, giving the Salafists a free hand nationwide.

Ennahda’s Approach: Face Left While Moving Right

While the current government consists of a coalition of three parties, two of which are secular, one of which considers itself politically moderate Islamic, it is the latter, Ennahda, that essentially runs the show and controls the government. With the powers of the president having been essentially eviscerated, it is the prime minister and the minister of the interior, both Ennahda men, who have considerable powers concentrated in their hands.

Ennahda’s approach is becoming clearer — make surface alliances with secular parties (Marzouki [CPR] and and Ettaktol) while making informal — or secret alliances with Salafists…together they share more and more key posts in the new Tunisian government and are consolidating their hold on power. The formal (and legal) alliance that Ennahdha has with the Congress Pour la Republique (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberty (called Ettakotal) has been for little more than show, for foreign powers, to show a smiling and ‘liberal’ face to the West. Far more important to Ennahda to date has been its informal alliance with the Salafists who they have essentially let run wild and whose actions Ennahda either tolerates or excuses.

A division of labor between the two Islamic strands has been worked out. Ennahda concerns itself with the political and legal system while the Salafists have not so much through ‘dialogue’ but instead through thug tactics quickly strengthened its position in the country’s mosques, schools and media. That such a marginal group as the Tunisian Salafists could make such dramatic gains and in the process, polarize the country as never before, could not be possible without the tactic and oftentimes open support of Ennahda. Television stations have been attacked; the government did nothing’ bars and liquor stores burned down in many places as police and military stand by watching. Demonstrations of more secular elements have been attacked; the government blames the victims, not the attackers. A university dean was beat up, nothing done to stop the Salafists attackers, etc. etc.

And as often happens with cowards and brown shirts like the Tunisian Salafists, having been given the green light by the Tunisian government, these elements have only gotten increasingly emboldened, their tactics more and more aggressive and violent, so that now it becomes more difficulty to reign them in.

Ennahda’s cozying up to the Salafists might have more to do with its global and regional relations than with internal Tunisian dynamics. Although the United States — the Obama Administration in particular, but a number of European countries as well — celebrated the Tunisian political changes, this support did not materialize into a great deal of financial aid. The sums offered by the U.S. and U.K. are more symbolic than real. Ennahda has made it clear in its actions and statements that it preferred a closer relation with the U.S. and a somewhat more distant relationship with France. It had hoped such actions would translate into a major U.S. aid package. Didn’t happen.

While pleased with the Tunisian shift, the Obama Administration did not match its words with financial deeds. But Tunisia is in deep crisis — in real trouble and in need of a great deal of financial help. The aid that did not come from the U.S. and its European allies did come from Qatar and the Saudis…but with strings attached, the strings being an agreement that Ennahda — which is not an Islamic fundamentalist movement — permit Tunisia’s Salafists to operate far more openly and with more impunity than in the past. Caught between its own political vision and its dire need for financial support, Ennahda chose the ‘practical’ rather than the more principled path. If this hypothesis is correct — and I believe it is — the Obama Administration’s financial inactivity is at least in part responsible for Ennahda’s political shift to the right.

Under the Radar Screen the U.S. Supports Islamic Fundamentalism

Actually ‘under the radar screen’ most of the time — but where it really counts — both the British and the U.S. have had long and enduring political relationships — cooperation with Islamic fundamentalists — even the most retrograde among them — in order to protect their vested interested in the Middle East.

The Salafists in Tunisia are being used, as they often have been in the past throughout the Middle East, to ‘divide and conquer’. As in Egypt, first and foremost, their role is to act as a brake on the progressive economic and political momentum of the Arab Spring which forced Ben Ali from power. Although poorly publicized in the U.S. media, they are becoming increasingly brutal in their methods, attacking democratic, more genuinely moderate Moslem and secular elements almost at will. Encouraged and funded throughout the region by the Saudis and Qataris, despite their increasingly bullying and violent tactics, Tunisia’s Salafists seem to enjoy something close to immunity from prosecution. For some time now, they are being given a green light to attack progressive and secular institutions with something close to impunity; to amplify their role, now a Salafist party is being granted formal legal status.

Examples of Salafist tactics have been reported virtually every day for the past year in the Tunisian media, both in Arabic and French, as well as now in the English language press agency, Tunisia Live. To provide just a couple of the more recent examples:

• On this past May 19, in Sidi Bouzid, the town where Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in December of 2010 triggering the Tunisian Arab Spring “a large group of Salafists burned down bars as well as the house of a bar owner in their violent campaign against the sale of alcohol” (Tunisia Live! May 20, 2012). The police responded by going back to their offices and locked themselves in.” Concerning the Salafists a resident commented, “I know [them]; some of them were drunkards a week ago and now they are pretending to be the voice of God in Sidibouzid”, which he referred to as “Bouzidistan”

• The day after the Sidibouzid bar burnings, thousands of hard-line Salafists held their second annual meeting, this time in Kairouan. Some dressed in Afghan military garb and waving swords, others wearing long beards, robes and caps, they unfurled their banner atop the minaret of the city’s mosque, the most ancient in Africa and the third holiest in Islam after Mecca and Jerusalem. Their chants includes lyrics such as “We are all children of Obama [bin Laden], and “Khaybar, Khaybar, Jews, Jews the army of Mohammed is back”. Khaybar is a reference to a place in Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Mohammed led his armies to massacre and expel Jews.

One of the Kairoan meeting’s organizers, Ridha Bel Haj, who leads the banned Hizb Ettahrir political party, in an effort to re-write the history of the Arab Spring commented “The revolution was made so that sharia cold be applied.” (Actually the Tunisian Revolution had little to do with either Islam or Sharia — it was a protest against socio-economic conditions, extreme political repression, and in the movement that overthrew Ben Ali, the likes of Bel Haj and his ilk were nowhere to be seen!).

These are only the latest in what has been a spree of Salafist confrontations, targeting the country’s women, educational system, media, cultural figures and religious minority communities. Although the elected government has repeatedly made official statements in support of the country’s 1,500 or so Jewish Community, the Salafists have engaged in shrill and virulent anti-semitic language. Their supporters have also attacked and desecrated the country’s only Greek Orthodox Church in Tunis.