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Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge

As Tunisia faces the most critical phase of its transition after Chokri Belaïd’s assassination, its leaders must devise a calibrated response to the various challenges posed by the rise of Salafism.

(Source: peace & collaborative development network)

Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines three distinct problems: the marginalisation of young citizens for whom Salafism – and, occasionally, violence – is an easy way out; ambiguity surrounding both the views of An-Nahda, the ruling Islamist party, and the country’s religious identity; and a jihadi threat that ought to be neither ignored, nor exaggerated. It also outlines steps necessary to tackle the immediate crisis following Belaïd’s murder.

As elsewhere throughout the region, the Salafi phenomenon has been steadily growing for years and accelerated in the wake of the 2010-2011 uprising. Yet, for now, despite the former regime’s ouster, the security vacuum, economic problems, strikes and various protest movements as well as the release and return from exile of numerous jihadis, the country has experienced neither armed conflict, nor widespread violence nor major terrorist attack. An-Nahda helped avert the worst thanks to its prudent management of radical religious groups through a mix of dialogue, persuasion and co-optation.

But such management has its limitations. An-Nahda is in an increasingly uncomfortable position, caught between non-Islamists who accuse it of excessive laxity and Salafis who denounce it whenever it takes a harder line.

“Politically, these tensions are giving rise to an acute dilemma”, said Michaël Ayari, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Tunisia. “The more the party highlights its religious identity, the more it worries non-Islamists; the more it follows a pragmatic line, the more it alienates its constituency and creates an opening for Salafis."

There is not much doubt that the non-Islamist opposition has displayed excessive alarm and that it sometimes levels unsubstantiated accusations. Nor is there much question that it is finding it hard to accept the reality of Islamists governing their country. But the fact that they are exaggerated does not mean that these fears are baseless. Rather, it means that one must clearly define and distinguish them, and offer finely-tuned remedies. Arbitrarily lumping together incidents linked to poverty and unemployment, attempts to impose a strict moral order, a political assassination and jihadi violence would only draw Salafis toward their more radical wings.

The most immediate task is to resolve the current political crisis. Establishing an independent commission to investigate the assassination and an all-party dialogue committee to agree on a roadmap for the transition would be important steps. Beyond that, measures are required to provide social and economic support to underprivileged areas; promote a version of Islam rooted in Tunisia’s reformist movement; and bolster security by better equipping and training police and security forces, notably in non-lethal crowd control, as well as ensuring closer cooperation with bordering countries.

“The government and An-Nahda face considerable challenges, made all the more urgent by Chokri Belaïd’s murder”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “In the absence of an appropriate answer by the authorities and the dominant Islamist party, violence in all its shades – whether tied to social, demographic, urban, political or religious causes – could well cross a perilous threshold”.

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