The protest in front of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) flared up with lights, tension, anxiety and defiance soon after the demonstrators learnted of the ambush that killed nine soldiers in Tunisia’s North-western border with Algeria in the Chaambi Mount.
It has been a bloody week for the Arab Spring states, specifically for Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. In Tunisia, still adamant to push on with democratisation while ideological polarisation is widening, the latest killings comes days after the assassination of leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi.
Since 2011, Tunisia and Algeria’s relations have been less than optimal. The time has come for the two to work jointly on a chronic problem that neither can curb without internal collaboration; neighbouring and international efforts must also step up surveillance and security operations. Obviously the Chaambi, Le kef and Kasserine areas still have Salafist and al-Qaeda terrorists.
Tunisian security forces are now fighting more than one al-Qaeda franchise group, including the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade (UINB). These groups are tightening the noose on Tunisia and, judging by the large quantities of weapons confiscated (including from Libya), Tunisia may be the focus of the terrorist organisations.
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As far as Tunisia is concerned, the weakness of the country’s security forces may mean that Ansar Al-Shari’ah, UINB, and AQIM may be indeed itching for a head-on fight with the Tunisian state at a time of disarray, weak intelligence on the ground, heightened political polarisation and disaffected areas around Chaambi, Kasserine etc. being outside the reach of state authority – as if parallel authority is emerging in these areas, which is not yet the case. There will now be a call to ban Tunisia’s Salafists, go hard on their preaching activities altogether. It will be a huge challenge to Nahda, the ruling political party, which has so far chosen not to open up a front on which to confront the Salafist group.
Abu Iyadh and other Salafist leaders will be watching closely even if they deny responsibility to the recent killings, and it may be too late to avoid a fight with the army and the security forces. Some of this advice will come from expert risk assessors from countries like France, the US and the UK. Abu Iyadh learnt some of his trade in the UK in the 1990s, in Afghanistan and in Algeria through the Salafi group for Da’wah and Jihad.
Abu Iyadh is known to have threatened to plunge the country into an Afghanistan-like quagmire. Others may be operating in a wider arch of crisis in which they are now punishing existing systems for the purging of Islamists in Egypt. This may be a form of “jihad” declared against the prophets of democratisation after the exclusion of the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Similarly, the recent acts of terrorism may be aimed at embroiling the army in politics – as in Egypt.
Nahda must lead
The killings came a short time after the country’s embattled Islamist Prime Minister, Ali La’rayedh, addressed the nation to reject calls for a national salvation government and dismissal of the NCA. His only concessions are to speed up the NCA’s work so that constitution-framing is concluded by October 23, and elections are held on December 17, the date when Tunisia’s revolution began three years ago. He called for dialogue, which is always a good thing.
Unfortunately for him, his speech was rendered useless by the killings, and he might have to meet the opposition half-way by negotiating a national unity government of technocrats – also favoured by the NCA Speaker, Mustafa bin Ja’afar. It must be recalled that La’rayedh’s predecessor, Hammadi Jebali, had to quit government after his initiative for a government of technocrats back in February was rejected by his own party, Islamist Nahda and the other party to the ruling troika, President Moncef Marzouki.
The challenge for democratisation
If there’s any consolation, it’s that the latest protests kind of vindicate Jebali’s preference for a national unity government. It may be a bitter pill to swallow for Ghannouchi and his party, but going back to Jebali’s original plan does not mean admission of miscalculation. It would be miscalculation, in this context, not to admit it as a plan of action and without delay.
It is urgent that Nahda swiftly turns to sharing the burden of power at this critical moment. Dithering on this will hurt the party. Al-Qaeda seems to be breathing heavily over the jugular veins of the Tunisian state, hitting wherever and whenever it chooses and the country’s weak army may be no match to a mobile guerrilla force cushioned by public discontent in the mountainous and forested areas. On top of that, aid, training, and know-how from Algerian extremists further strengthen al-Qaeda affiliated cells.
Terrorists seem to be on a killing spree and the long-winded rants by the country’s politicians have to cede to speedy action lest the next hits target tourist installations – a death knell to the country’s fragile economy. Party politics must be put aside so that security is not compromised further and democratisation remains salvageable.
The opposition must not just play politics by always considering consensus and just by rejecting all concessionary and reconciliatory measures by the ruling Nahda. Yes, Nahda avoided confrontation with Salafists to avoid bloodshed. To head down the route of regional “salvation government”, would create parallel authorities that threaten centralised authority and the state itself. Nahda, too, must now accept a plan that was originally Jebali’s. This approach would safeguard the NCA as the essential unifying instrument for completing the remaining law-making steps to inaugurate institution and constitution-based democratisation.
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The country’s powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) must now change tact and avoid escalation: general strikes lose their effect when they are made so often and a first resort. It is not the time to be flexing muscle. This is a moment calling for calm and unity – above narrow-minded and short-term gain and scoring political points. Luckily the 60 or so lawmakers who suspended their membership from the NCA to stage an open a sit-in protest outside its Bardo headquarters did not all resign. Now they need to go inside and parley and avoid further escalation before things become uncontrollable and pear-shaped.
Similarly, Premier La’arayedh must rise above partisanship and belittle public sentiments of disappointment with all politicians. Identifying the demonstrators as putschists (himself) is cheap rhetoric; the same goes for Ghannouchi describing calls for protests as “ta’ishah” (astray) is inflammatory and haughty. And when Sahbi Ateeq, a leading Nahda figure, talks about “permitting the blood” (Arabic phrase meaning it’s okay to kill) of those inciting protest, it is time to discipline and even dismiss irresponsibly dangerous talk – condemned by Nahda and Ghannouchi.
Now it is time to rise above the riffraff and act responsibly in safeguarding the revolution’s gains. Thus ideology and party must not be prioritised over Tunisia. Ideology must be left out of national projects such as constitution-framing and overall sets of shared values and laws. The place to express ideology preferences must be done through party programmes. It is the only recipe there is for orderly democratic reconstruction. It is in this spirit that Tunisia will be able to measure up to the challenges of democracy and security in every sense.
Larbi Sadiki is a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transitions, and has been an academic at Australian National University, Exeter University, Westminster University and Qatar University. He is the author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).