In the wake of its electoral victory, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, opened the political space to conservative movements that stood further to their political right. The party encouraged Salafi groups to renounce violence, organize parties, and join the political process. This was a radical change from the stance of the interim government, which had denied permits to Salafi parties, questioning their commitment to democratic principles. Ennahda members and activists were optimistic that involvement in the give and take of democratic politics would incentivize the Salafis to moderate their more radical views. However, after the combination of two high-profile political assassinations and escalating jihadi and vigilante violence has triggered a deepening political crisis, Ennahda’s strategy of accommodation appears to have backfired.

Many Ennahda members voiced the opinion that Salafi radicalism was a byproduct of the oppressive Ben Ali regime and that once Salafis were provided space to vent their grievances, they would come to see the wisdom of engaging in the political process. After the September 14, 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis that left four dead, Rachid Ghannouchi sat down for an interview with Le Monde newspaper defending the strategy of accommodation that Ennahda had followed toward Tunisia’s Salafi movement since coming to power against criticism from secular parties that the government’s hands-off approach to growing Salafi activism was enabling violence and vigilantism. 

Ennahda’s political liberalization has paved the way for the formation and official recognition of several Salafi and Pan-Islamist parties. The most prominent, Jabhat al-Islah, was founded by Mohamad al-Khawjah, a former member of the Tunisian Islamic Front who has lived in exile in London since the 1980s. Khawjah advocated terrorism against the state in the 1980s, though he has since renounced violence and embraced democracy. Other newly recognized Salafi parties include Hizb al-Asala and Hizb al-Rahma, as well as the Pan-Islamist Hizb al-Tahrir. These parties represent a break from the traditional Salafi position that rejected participation in party politics as immoral and divisive. The most prominent Salafi organization in Tunisia, Ansar al-Shariah, has rejected the formation of political parties, instead advocating that members devote themselves to preaching and charity.  

In spite of Ennahda’s sincere attempts to open a dialogue with the Salafi movement, activism and violence steadily increased through 2012 and 2013 (see Figure 1). Vigilante attacks against civilians have attracted international attention and the ire of Tunisia’s secularists. However, the Ennahda-led government has publicly resisted cracking down on Salafi groups, citing fears that repression would further radicalize them. Ghannouchi has continued to defend this position even in the wake of violence, despite its political cost. The government eventually moved to address Salafi activism and jihadi violence more directly in early 2013, yet there is little indication that levels of violence have since decreased. In fact, confronting Ansar al-Sharia more directly may lead to more violence: their leader Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi has warned that this new crackdown would push the movement into open confrontation with the state.

Graph is provided by the author

Figure is provided by the author based on figures from ACLED.

Escalating insecurity and the assassination of secular MP Mohamed Brahmi on July 25 has thrown Tunisia into a devolving political crisis. The government quickly accused known Tunisian jihadi Abu Bakr al-Hakim of the assassination and alleged that he was a member of Ansar al-Sharia with links to al-Qaeda. For the secular opposition, this was another indication that Ennahda’s soft approach was enabling extremist violence. Subsequently, the opposition began demanding the government’s resignation and the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly. Scores of the Assembly’s 217 members boycotted the proceedings, and Assembly president Mustafa Ben Jaafar suspended sessions until dialogue resolves the crisis.  

So what went wrong? Three factors have contributed to undermining Ennahda’s strategy of engagement with the Salafis. First, Ennahda optimistically assumed that integration in an open political process would necessarily moderate Tunisia’s Salafis. However, recent scholarship has shown that the factors affecting moderation of radical movements are diverse, complex, and contextual: it would be misleading to draw a straight line between political participation and moderation. Ennahda itself represents a compelling counter-example of a radical Islamist movement that has achieved moderation, despite years of repression, exclusion, and marginalization. In short, Ennahda may have misjudged the power of an open political process and the willingness of Salafis to engage therein. 

The second factor has been the inability of Salafi political parties to attract significant support. A 2012 poll by the International Republican Institute failed to register support for any of Tunisia’s Salafi parties. For example, the leadership of the prominent party Jabhat al-Islah is dominated by older activists who have spent much of the last two decades in exile, which limits their connections to a youthful domestic base. To many young Salafi activists, the very idea of political parties runs counter to the values of unity that Salafism preaches.

The final factor that has undermined Ennahda’s strategy is the context of a contentious and delicate political process with Tunisia’s secular political parties and constituencies. Ennahda’s approach has required a certain amount of leniency when it comes to Salafi violence, but this leniency has, at least in the short-term, served to alienate and empower secular groups that are now calling for the dissolution of the Ennahda-led government. The secular-backed military coup in Egypt has only made this tension more immediate and acute.  

Underlying these factors are several misunderstandings about nature of the Salafi movement in Tunisia by many of the main actors, which has led to poor policy choices. One is Ennahda’s desire to see today’s Salafis as younger, more enthusiastic reflections of themselves, which has led many of its members to overlook the significant differences that distinguish youth from the older generation represented in the party’s leadership. Influenced by foreign fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped by the fatwas of Saudi preachers made available through satellite television, and confined by a repressive state apparatus, this new strand of Salafi activism is younger, more radical, and more deeply influenced by international jihad than the exiled leadership of Ennahda. Conversely, Tunisia’s secular opposition and Western analysts alike are tempted to see the Salafi movement as an imported phenomenon—or a vanguard for international jihadi organizations. This has led many to overlook the unique social and demographic factors in Tunisia that drive Salafi mobilization. Decades of economic and social marginalization have created a population of disaffected youth with few economic opportunities that have proved to be fertile ground for Salafi recruitment. While Salafi preaching was tolerated in Mubarak’s Egypt because it was apolitical and provided a useful foil to the more politically oriented Muslim Brotherhood, any expressions of conservative religiosity were harshly repressed in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Thousands of young Tunisian Salafis were jailed in the 2000s, an experience which helped further radicalize young Salafis while also providing new opportunities for preaching and recruitment amongst the captive population.

Recent research has helped dispel some of these assumptions and paint a clearer picture of the Salafi movement’s dynamics. Some Tunisia scholars have highlighted the importance of economic and social marginalization in framing the Salafi movement and the anti-institutionalism that imbues the movement’s grassroots. Others have shown how Salafism represents a unique subculture for the youngest generation of Islamist activists in Tunisia that eschews participation in institutional politics as immoral and hypocritical in favor of direct action and street politics. The Salafi movement’s rejection of institutional politics is very much engrained in the ethos of the movement, and this will continue to be a significant barrier to integration in the political process.

There is little indication that the cycle of violence in Tunisia will end soon. The conflict with jihadis at Jebal Chaambi has reached new levels of brutality in recent weeks and shows little sign of abating. In Tunis, a series of bomb attacks suggests that conflict may be intensifying in the capital itself. Although it is unclear who is responsible for these attacks, they may be an indication of Salafi activists moving into retaliatory confrontation with the state. If so, this will only serve to damage future attempts to engage Salafis in the democratic process, which would inevitably lead to more violence: a troubling prospect for Tunisia’s troubled transition.

Kevin Casey is a Senior Fellow with the Arctic Institute. He spent the last four years as a social scientist with the U.S. Army conducting strategic and operational research on the Middle East and North Africa.  

View this article's related infographic on trends of Salafi violence here.