This month’s news that Mehdi Jomaa will serve as Prime Minister of a caretaker government bodes well for Tunisia’s democratic transition that had been derailed by six months of political brinksmanship. While Tunisia has been spared the large-scale human rights abuses and chaotic turmoil of the other post-Arab Spring states, a growing al Qaeda presence threatens to destabilize the country and undermine the democratic aspirations that fueled the Jasmine Revolution. At this juncture it appears that both democrats and al Qaeda affiliated jihadists have similar potential to shape post-revolutionary Tunisia’s future, given the risk that the Mount Chaambi area (situated along the Algerian border) will continue to serve as a hub for international jihadist forces.
Under the authoritarian and staunchly secular regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s Islamists and members of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood branch, Ennahda (Tunisia’s current ruling party), were routinely detained, tortured and executed under the ancien regime. Democratic and human rights activists were also targets of security force assassinations, beatings and death threats. As a result, Islamists had minimal impact on society. Although they were not a significant force behind the anti-regime demonstrations of January 2011, the post-revolutionary power vacuum has been partially filled by hard line Salafist currents. In Tunisia, the Salafists constitute a small group within the larger Islamist specter, yet they have proven capable of impacting the course of events in the post-Ben Ali period through violent and non-violent means.
Al Qaeda-affiliated Salafist militias in Tunisia — such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia, and the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade (UINB) — have shown a determination to carry out their ultra-orthodox and rigid agenda by waging armed assaults against Sufi shrines, brothels, cinemas and establishments that serve alcohol. Salafist vigilante groups have also threatened women seen in public without their husbands. These vigilantes have directly challenged the state’s authority by creating parallel justice systems, based on a rigid interpretation of Sharia law. Such unofficial judiciaries have been increasingly popular in certain areas where locals believe that alternative legal systems are more efficient and less corrupt that the state judiciary. Officials in Tunis have responded by banning Salafist political parties from the mainstream political system, and waging crackdowns on the movement at rallies.
No-man’s Land in Mt. Chaambi
In this mountainous terrain, al Qaeda training cells formed in December 2012. After being dislodged from northern Mali by the French military during January 2013, many AQIM militants returned to Tunisia and established training camps in Mt. Chaambi. Algeria’s counter-insurgency operations throughout its Saharan terrain also pushed scores of Tunisian jihadists back into western Tunisia, where the state has far less experience cracking down on Islamist insurgents. Violence in western Tunisia over the past six months has resulted in the death of more than a dozen Tunisian soldiers and several dozen al Qaeda suspects.
These jihadists’ life experience and world views shed light on their political objectives. In recent years, many Tunisian jihadists have travelled to Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Mali and Syria to join ranks with fellow jihadists against “infidel” governments and foreign military occupiers. Tunisia has contributed more jihadists to fight against the Syrian government than any other country in the world. Eleven of the 29 jihadists who died in the bloody hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas complex in southern Algeria last January were Tunisian. Such evidence indicates that the Mt. Chaambi-based jihadists are willing to sacrifice their lives in conflicts far removed from Tunisia, in pursuit of international objectives. This is not to imply, however, that such militant groups will not continue spilling blood on Tunisian soil in pursuit of more local objectives. Rather, it suggests that their agenda in Tunisia fits a grander vision. Clearly, the al Qaeda cells in Mt. Chaambi pose a threat not only to Tunisia, but all regional states.
The growing trend among Tunisia’s jihadists to fight in foreign conflicts has grave implications for Tunisia’s security environment. Simply put, jihadists are expected to return to Mt. Chaambi with battle-hardened skills and discipline before pointing their guns at Tunisia’s military, which has failed to dislodge them from the Kasserine region. In this respect, a parallel may be drawn to the experience of Algerian authorities who battled Islamist insurgents during the 1990s, after Algeria’s “Afghan Arabs” gained valuable experience fighting the Russians in Afghanistan during the previous decade.
This threat has put pressure on Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government to balance its Islamist ideology with concerns for the country’s delicate security environment. Tunisia was the second Arab government to sever ties with Damascus and Tunisian authorities have clamped down on its citizens travelling to Syria. This underscores the implied potential for destabilizing spill-over effects from the Syrian crisis to be felt well beyond Syria’s immediate neighbors.
Without major reserves of hydrocarbon resources, Tunisia’s economy has historically depended on tourism to generate a significant portion of its foreign exchange. In spite of Ben Ali’s repressive orientation toward Islamists, Tunisia enjoyed a reputation as being among the most progressive Muslim majority countries on gender-related issues, which enabled the tourism industry to thrive during his reign. Geographic proximity to Italy, widespread use of the French language, and relative stability facilitated the Tunisian tourism industry’s growth for decades.
While Tunisia’s tourism sector has suffered greatly since Ben Ali’s ouster, there is no evidence that the decline resulted from al Qaeda’s growing influence in Mt. Chaambi, situated hundreds of miles from the coastal towns where the resorts are situated. However, the country experienced a shock after a suicide bomber exploded on a beach in the resort town of Sousse on October 30. The same day police found another would-be suicide bomber with explosives several miles away, at the tomb of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. Fortunately, there have been no acts of terrorism on the coast since then.
In addition to the simmering jihadist threat, Prime Minister Jomaa will face immense pressure to improve Tunisia’s foreign investment climate. Tunisia’s political and social tensions were cited by the credit ratings company Standard and Poors as a primary reason for its decision to downgrade Tunisia to a BB- earlier this year. While the political breakthrough that Ennahda and the opposition achieved this month may provide foreign investors with more confidence in the country, the government understands the importance of containing al Qaeda’s presence in Tunisia to the Mt. Chaambi area and safeguarding the tourism sector.
Democratic transitions that follow decades of dictatorship often generate new levels of instability and uncertainty in the short and medium term. The course of Tunisia’s transition toward democracy will certainly be influenced by the caretaker government’s handling of the al Qaeda menace. Now that Tunisia’s heightened political tensions have cooled in light of the compromise reached earlier this month, the state is, at least for the time being, in a better position to address this growing challenge. At this juncture, jihadist currents — within and outside Tunisia — have potential to cause further social disarray and political violence. If the caretaker government fails to effectively address Tunisia’s sociocultural, economic and security dilemmas, radical Islamists may prove increasingly influential in shaping the country’s future.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book “Managing Country Risk.” Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington.
This article appeared at The Huffington Post and is reprinted with permission.