Tunisia Falling

An emboldened Islamist movement gains ground.

As it prepares for its first General Election, Tunisia’s fledgling attempt toward democratic rule is being heavily threatened by an emboldened Islamist movement and an increased al Qaeda presence.

Tunisia’s Islamist movement is led by Ennahda, the Tunisian Islamist party inspired by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Ennahda -- which had been banned by former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali since its 1981 inception -- was legalized in March 2011 following Ben Ali’s ouster.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda has been viewed as having the organizational expertise and large membership to make it the odds on favorite in any parliamentarian election. With that in mind, Tunisia’s interim government recently moved its originally scheduled July Election to October in an effort to help the country’s disparate group of loosely organized, secularist parties better prevail against the more organized Ennahda.

Not surprisingly, that decision was denounced by Ennahda leaders but hailed by pro-democracy advocates, one who said that holding the July election would have entailed political “suicide” for anti-Islamist groups.

Yet, even though the victors in the October 2011 election will be charged with rewriting Tunisia’s Constitution, Tunisia’s interim leaders have been quick to downplay the adverse impact of an Islamist electoral victory.

While acknowledging that Ennahda could garner up to 20 percent of the vote, Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Mouldi Kefi said its effect would be minimal because it would still have to form a “coalition to work with the others parties and the other political forces.”

For his part, Ennahda’s leader and founder Rached Ghannouchi -- who returned from exile upon the ouster of Ben Ali -- has also tried to downplay his group’s radical Islamist intentions, saying his party is committed toward “implementing democracy and a parliamentary system.”

Yet, despite Ghannouchi’s statements, others believe that Ennahda is waging a public relations campaign to conceal its true intentions, which center on the creation of a Sharia-based Islamist state. Perhaps that view was best expressed by one Tunisian pro-democracy advocate who said of the Islamists, “They’re doing doublespeak, and everyone knows it.”

While Ennahda may be trying to hide its true aims, the same can’t be said for Al-tahrir, the Tunisian Salafist party. Although the party has yet to be declared legal by the Tunisian government, it nonetheless has been busily advocating for its agenda, which openly calls for a return to a caliph-run Islamic state.

A recent glimpse of Al-tahir’s grassroots campaign included its attack on the first meeting of Tunisia’s Democratic Modernist Pole, a coalition of Tunisia’s democratic and largely secularist political parties that includes the Al-Tajdid Movement, the Socialist Left Party, and the Republican Consensus.”

A second example of Al-tahir’s work came shortly afterwards when a group of armed Salafists protesting against ‘modernism” and “freedom” vandalized a movie screening of two films on secularism and religion, threatening its patrons with death. In a revealing glimpse into its own allegiances, the Ennahda party subsequently issued a statement absolving the Salafist attackers but finding instead that the theater goers were “being provocative.”

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.