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Unfortunately, all these political fights come at a time when Tunisia’s transitional government – nearly paralyzed by the nation’s skyrocketing unemployment and inflation — is at its weakest point. So, in an attempt to take full advantage of this political instability comes al Qaeda, in particular its North African offshoot, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).
While Tunisian security forces under Ben Ali had been fairly effective in keeping a tight lid on this terror outfit — despite some raging battles with the group in 2006 and 2007 — his departure has created an opening for the terrorist organization to further exploit. According to Tunisia’s Minister of the Interior, Naji Zairi, al Qaeda has been “extremely active” along its borders with Algeria and Libya.
For example, only days ago several armed al Qaeda members tried to attack Tunisian security forces along the Tunisian-Algerian border in attempt to gain entrance into the country. That incident followed two earlier ones in May 2011: the capture by Tunisian security forces of two al Qaeda members carrying several bombs and explosive vests; and a shootout between nine al Qaeda insurgents and Tunisian forces in the Tunisian town of Rouhia.
Of course, the influx of al Qaeda has been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in Libya, one which has sent over 400,000 Libyan refugees fleeing into Tunisia. Regional security officials have long suspected AQIM of using the chaotic environment to smuggle weapons out of Libya into Tunisia, Mali, and Algeria.
In fact, Algerian officials have been calling Libya an open arms market that is being used strictly to strengthen AQIM. The result, according to Algeria’s Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel, has been an escalation in clashes between AQIM and the security forces of Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Sadly, al Qaeda doesn’t necessarily need to smuggle too many of its operatives into Tunisia. That’s because shortly after Ben Ali’s ouster in January, some 11,000 inmates escaped from Tunisian prisons, many of whom were captured AQIM and other Salafist insurgents. The latest and most noteworthy escapes came in April when over 800 inmates escaped from two Tunisian prisons; and in May when 58 inmates escaped from the southern Tunisian city of Sfax.
The bitter irony in these events is that the Tunisian ouster of one tyrannical regime may in all likelihood result in an equally, if not more, repressive group in its place. However, while that outcome may be disheartening for many in Tunisia’s pro-democracy movement, it certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise.
It’s a scenario similarly being played out today in Egypt, one in which Egypt’s military has just announced that it will likely move its own parliamentary election from September to November. Unfortunately, one can only delay the inevitable for so long. For Tunisia, its day of reckoning is now in October and the outcomes becoming distressingly clear.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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