Violent Islamists fighting the police is not a sight which sits easily with what should be the on-going hope and optimism of the Arab Spring. Freedom and democracy were the watchwords of the protestors who achieved so much across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, sweeping old orders aside and pledging to replace brutal repression with enlightened reform.
In this respect, clashes between armed officers and hardline religious demonstrators in Tunisia are of particular concern. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s former fiefdom was the cradle of the Arab Spring – its revolution was brief, relatively peaceful and initially massively successful. Ben Ali was ousted as early as January 2011, as subsequent free and democratic elections saw a moderate coalition government formed between the Islamist Ennahda party, along with the left-leaning Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol.
Tunisian al-Qaeda sympathizers are said to be behind terrorist outrages including the murder of secular politician Chokri Belaid in February and an attack on America’s Tunis embassy five months before. Ennahda has, meanwhile, responded to a growing wave of Salafist support, with Prime Minister Ali Laraydeh preventing a rally of the militant Ansar al-Shariah group. In turn, Ansar al-Shariah tried to defy the ban on its annual march in the capital city, sparking weekend street confrontations between the authorities and the Salafists which spread to the central Tunisian city of Kairouan. At least one protester has been killed and numerous police officers badly injured.
Spirit of the Arab Spring
Cue the kind of images and news reports which fall into the hands of those who believe the spirit of the Arab Spring is spent and – even worse – that all the revolutions were a mistake. Many Salafists were jailed by the Arab dictators, but freedom has given them a chance to flourish in a manner which is seen as being extremely dangerous – not just to the affected countries, but to the entire region. In Tunisia’s case, if the under-funded security services cannot keep them in check, then it is feared that they will join up with allies in instable neighbours like Libya and Egypt. Algeria’s army has already strengthened its borders with Tunisia because of what it sees as the threat of an invasion of radicals.
One should certainly not underestimate the sinister nature of Ansar al-Shariah factions, and indeed the rise of Salafism in Tunisia which they represent. Although Ansar al-Shariah denies formal links with al-Qaeda its leader, Saifallah Benahssine, surely fought western forces in Afghanistan as jihadist. The organisation maintains that the omission of Sharia Law from Tunisia’s new constitution was a crime, and some members go so far as to brand democracy blasphemous. Such a perspective, supported by video recordings and photographs of black al-Qaeda flags being waved on Tunisian streets definitely conveys a sense of failure.
In fact, this view is as simplistic as the riot scenes which invariably accompany it. For a start it belies the mass demonstrations against the violence which followed the killing of Chokri Belaid. Hundreds of thousands of Tunisians took to the street to insist that such barbarism was utterly unacceptable.
Tunisia has a population of 11 million, and Ansar al-Shariah, which is not officially recognised, is made up of a maximum 25,000 activists. Many are young people disillusioned by the country’s lack of economic progress and impressed by Ansar al-Shariah’s charity work providing food and medicine in impoverished areas. Many believe that a turnaround in Tunisia’s upward spiralling unemployment rate – especially among the youth – will be the best way of reversing Ansar al-Shariah recruitment.
Nobody ever pretended that the transition to democracy in countries like Tunisia would be an instant one, any more than a sluggish economy would be fixed overnight. One of the main reasons for Tunisia experiencing such a successful revolution in the first place was because it is a relatively homogenous country, with a highly educated population. It has no tradition of letting extremists thrive, instead leaving able technocrats to resolve economic and social problems. The country’s large middle class is as supportive of its new democratic institutions as it is of gender equality and other liberal measures.
Just as violent extremism regularly blights countries like Britain and America, so radical dissent is inevitable in Arab Spring countries like Tunisia. This will continue to range from outrageous acts of terrorism to attacks against the police. The whole point of a democracy is that it is meant to try and reconcile wildly polarised interest groups, and that it often fails. Tunisia is no different from any other democracy, least of all the mature ones.
The Arab Spring was not about creating utopia, nor indeed quick-fix solutions to anything in particular. It was about articulating the massive problems holding the Arab world back, and putting them out to a global audience. One of its endemic problems is political violence, and the profound indignation which resilient Tunisians are expressing against it illustrates how intolerable this situation is to a vast majority of them who do indeed remain hopeful and optimistic about their future.