Two years after Tunisia became the first country to undergo regime change and the ousting of President Ben Ali through the phenomenon which was to be doubt “The Arab Spring”, the assassination of the prominent opposition leader Shokri Belaid has cast Tunisia, and with it the An-Nahda government of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali into the worst crisis since early 2011. With Egypt in turmoil, Libya far from stable, Mali in a state of war, Mauritania having experienced the first fire-fights between purported Al-Qaeda troops and “French” military forces, and a growing influence of Salafist groups in Tunisia and the region, who sweep or are being swept into the ensuing power vacuum, the security, stability and integrity of Tunisia is increasingly becoming more vulnerable. Tunisia urgently needs an inclusive political leadership and reform.
Neither the identity of the assassin of Shokri Belaid, nor his eventual affiliation to an organization are yet known with any certainty. What is certain however, is that Tunisians, and especially those, who belong or support Tunisia´s coalition of opposition parties, can`t be convinced, that Shokri Belaid was murdered by a lone assassin.
The comparison with a Tunisian Lee Harvey Oswald, the purported lone assassin of former US-President John F. Kennedy, who killed the American president with a magic bullet that after causing several wounds in two people and dented a car, landed in pristine condition on the coroners table comes to mind. Tunisian´s “understandably” have a hard time believing, that the assassination of Belaid was not a conspiracy, and even the majority of An-Nahda supporters subscribe to, that the assassination of Balaid was politically motivated and a conspiracy.
The question that plagues the country and its people is, whether anyone within the administration has been involved in the foul play by playing the Salafist card, whether the assassination is to be blamed on extremists, Salafists, who acted without any coordination with An-Nahda, or without coordination with any of the foreign intelligence services, who would benefit from a destabilized Tunisia. These are important questions and there are few answers that could satisfy Tunisian´s need to know. An unbiased and full investigation is needed.
A fact that speaks in favor of the hypothesis that Salafist elements and elements within An-Nahda planned a joint operation is, that both the Salafist groups in Tunisia and An-Nahda share many of their political goals. Salafism is, after all, not exclusively armed Jihad. It is a religious and political philosophy; a strange hybrid of fascism, socialism, religious puritanism, and for the most radical among its subscribers, it is spiced with the concept of armed struggle. In that sense, An-Nahda and Salafists have much in common.
If Tunisia had serious problems with socio-economical imbalances before “The Arab Spring” arrived in 2011, the situation of the unemployed, the working class and anyone in the low-income range has gotten worse since 2011. Also the middle class has suffered considerably. Social injustice, high unemployment, underemployment, poverty and corruption are the perfect spawning ground for Salafist extremism as, well as for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Both Salafist charities and Muslim Brotherhood associated charities thrive in environments, where people are driven to them because they can´t make both ends meet with their meager or non-existent paycheck. Especially the young ones are easy targets for recruitment.Some of them are then carefully being vetted and indoctrinated, and recruited to wage holy war.
The difference between Salafists and Muslim Brothers in this regard is philosophical, hypothetical, and without much practical consequence other than, that one is financed by Saudi-Arabia and the other by Qatar, and that the one is predominantly recruiting for Jihad and Al-Qaeda associated organizations, while the other is surrounding itself with an aura of international respectability establishes political parties, and organizes the recruitment into militant organizations with a little more of a charade.
How hypothetical the difference is with regard to the militant aspect, is best demonstrated by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Freedom and Justice Party of Turkey´s Prime Minister R. Tayyip Erdogan, in 2007, received a check of USD 10 billion, to prepare the Muslim Brotherhood of Turkey for the “coincidentally appearing Arab Spring” in 2011 and the war on Syria.
Forget about terrorism theories like those of the US-American, Iranian born scholar Fathali M. Moghaddam, who writes about “perceived injustice” as the first step on a staircase to terrorism. The operand factor is not perceived injustice, but the question whether there is injustice that can be perceived. Radicalism of almost any brand thrives when there is a sufficient amount of injustice to be perceived. On the other hand, also the exaggeration of “The Salafist Threat” is potentially dangerous.
Not only does it easily lead to Islamophobia; it also lends an aura of mystique to extremist groups, which can be as attractive for impoverished, disenfranchised and identity seeking youths, as the candlelight for the moth.
Many of the youth, who experienced the intoxicating rush of the Arab Spring in 2011, the frenzy and ecstasy of masses in motion, who never had the chance to study the differences between political and economical philosophies, who know nothing about scientific socialism and even less about the true character of An-Nahda, who have no work, no money for education, no money to get married or even to go out to meet a partner and pay a decent dinner once per month, are fatally attracted by the almost mythological tales of the glorious resistance fighters in Afghanistan, of Chechen heroes who protect Muslim brothers and sisters from the satanic, atheist Russian empire, and then, of course, there is always the promise of money.
Go and fight Jihad for three years, come back and have enough money to start a family and a life. The difference between the motivational factors, which make some to join Salafist Jihad organizations, and those, which make others join the French Foreign legion are minimal; also the differences in the utility of the French Foreign legion or other NATO countries all volunteer corps and the “terrorists” are minimal. There is no draft in NATO countries. Soldiers, NATO and Salafists alike, are predominantly recruited in the under-privileged social strata.
Post-modern terrorist organizations, “Al-Qaeda, and NATO. The one is the reason for the procurement of the other, and at the very top of the pyramid, in the lobby of government, the need to know meetings of intelligence services, and the suburban apartments in high-rise buildings, with garage and good traffic connections to main roads, the two interface in a joint command structure.
Knowing these facts, it can hardly be surprising, that those political parties in Tunisia, whose political philosophy is based in the separation of religion and state, are weary, and suspicious that An-Nahda and Tunisia´s Salafists ultimately, at the rogue government level, at the need to know only level, and in the suburbia apartment, are sharing joint goals, are developing joint strategies.
In spite of regime change and a security vacuum, in spite of mass strikes and severe economic problems, in spite of increased poverty and social injustice, the return of large numbers of Jihadis from deployment abroad, and in spite of the fact, that Salafist organizations have perfect recruitment conditions in Tunisia, the country and Tunisians have so far, gotten away with being the butter-front of the Arab Spring´s Jihad. It has in a certain sense, remained the land of milk and honey, where wary Jihadis return to, relax and drink camel milk and tea or worse, when the Imam can´t see it.
Tunisia has so far been spared for mass armed violence. No major terrorist attack has chocked the nation and its people. An-Nahda and the Salafists have enough in common to keep a volatile balance of power, law and order and an informal form of power sharing. Dialog between Salafists and Muslim Brothers and shared aspects of their philosophy, have kept the balance, even though there are divisions, even within An-Nahda and within Salafist organizations. The problems for both arise at the interface between realpolitic and religious philosophy, between international respectability and and their real islamo-fascist nature and identity.
The assassination of Shokri Belaid however, has provoked a response; even from the feel-good secularists who would be content with a Muslim Brotherhood government as long as something would be done about unemployment, poverty, social injustice and the already chronic instability of the country´s economy.
The Trade Union of Tunisia has 500,000 members who can, given there is a need to do so, be activated within days. It still has the potential to paralyze the country. The assassination of Belaid has most likely made even the most placid left-wingers understand, that the Islamic radicalism which has been in Tunisia for a long time, while using Tunisia as the land of milk and honey, has begun to sap the milk and honey of liberalism, tolerance, diversity and respect out of the country´s political and social discourse.
Tunisia is, even though it may seem relatively calm, at a political boiling point. The pressure could at any moment explode the pressure cooker The problem for Tunisia and those who want to solve, rather than to aggravate the country´s situation is, that the pressure-cooker is so hot, that anyone who wants to remove it from the fire risks to burn his fingers, and to drop the entire situation on the floor.
Attempts by An-Nahda, to appease radicals among its own ranks as well as among the Salafists, by either ignoring the fact that radical militants are slowly but progressively establishing regional autonomy, or by cracking even harder down on the opposition parties and secularists will lead to violent confrontations. The cooker will burst and the hot water and steam will envelope the entire country.
Attempts by An-Nahda to appease the opposition parties and secularists, by marginalizing moderate Muslim Brothers or moderate Salafists would backfire, and backfire badly for An-Nahda. It would create a revolution from within as well as and external revolution.
Taking it for granted that any move in any direction will aggravate some aspects of the problem, the worst that can be done however, is to freeze in fear of the consequences. Tunisia needs politicians with integrity, who share the burden of burning their fingers and who remove that pressure-cooker all together before it explodes. Tunisia urgently needs a courageous political leadership that acts proactively and with integrity rather than on the basis of populism.
The establishment of an interim, broad coalition government of technocrats is not only a feasible solution, it is urgently necessary. That is, provided that the technocrats are motivated to act in the best interest of all Tunisians. A grand coalition government would carry the confrontation of ideas from the streets into a politically manageable framework.
A grand coalition government could establish a ministerial commission for national dialog to end the violence and prevent the recurrence of violence. The commission could chair meetings between all segments of Tunisia´s political, social, ethnic and religious discourse.
The establishment of a constitutional council with participation of all political parties to draft a new constitution, would reduce many of the anxieties that worry Tunisians on all sides of the political discourse. As a basis for the work of the constitutional council, the principles of equality, diversity, protection of minorities, the division of religion, state and law, but the identification of Tunisia as a culturally Northern African Muslim nation could potentially transform many of the anxieties which currently are driving the conflict, into a potential for driving progress and stability.
Tunisia also, and urgently so, needs to remedy its social and economical problems. Interest-free, government guarantied loans for construction and social housing projects, for the development of infrastructure, for research and development, for feasible tourism projects, for and other job-creating measures are urgently needed.
Guarantied minimum wages that are sufficient to bolster a middle class are as urgently needed, as social programs which integrate the socio-economically vulnerable and underprivileged into the main-stream. Interest-free loans for agricultural programs which turn parts of Tunisia´s desert into fertile land, which make the country more self-sustaining, are urgently needed.
Government funding for education, including higher education to create a Tunisia that will be able to compete with neighboring Europe is one other program that could help turn Tunisia around. A coalition government that would focus on progress, Tunisian national identity and reform, rather than on nuances in law, oppression of minorities and differences, would be the best way to steal the winds from those who sail best in a climate of uncertainty, poverty, division and extremism.
Christof Lehmann 17.02.2013