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To prevent attacks, Tunisians must not sacrifice rights

Tunisia must stand up to authorities eroding civil liberties, if the Arab Spring's best hope is to keep its light alive

No-one should be surprised that the massacre on the beach at Port El Kantaoui has propelled Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Muslim-Brotherhood-style party, Ennahda, into issuing a stern call for “strong support for the security forces and the army in their sacred duty of combating terrorism”.  

Shock over the seaside murder of several dozen foreigners at the resort north of Sousse will take many weeks to fade and Ghannouchi’s reaction was predictable. Ever since the overthrow of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 and Ennahda’s restoration to legality, the party has struggled to convince Tunisians that it is as firm in the fight against extreme jihadis as any of the secular parties. This has been manifest in some highly controversial decisions. 

In 2013 when it led the government after a historic election victory, it took the dramatic step of outlawing the radical group Ansar al Sharia, declaring it to be a terrorist movement. Some 1,500 people were arrested on suspicion of links to Ansar al Sharia and participation in terrorist activity in 2013.  

Yet the cycle of jihadi violence and counter-terrorism detentions have continued to spiral upwards. In March this year came the attack on the complex in Tunis which houses the mosaic treasures of the Bardo museum as well as parliament. Although all but one of the 23 victims were foreigners, killed after gunmen ran into the museum and started shooting, the aim of the assault is still obscure; was it to undermine tourism and thereby weaken one of the mainstays of the country’s economy or was it a last-minute diversion from a more directly political effort to kill members of parliament who were in session, debating new laws to give the security forces more power?

Whatever the reason, a further tightening of security measures after the Bardo atrocity was not enough to deter last week’s massacre. Tourists lying on sunbeds by the sea are the softest of targets and it will never be possible to give them guaranteed protection from every attacker willing to sacrifice his or her own life.  

But while putting more armed guards in place at tourist and other sites makes sense, it is vital that precautions be kept defensive. Going on the counter-attack by rounding up suspects with little or no evidence against them and clamping down on radical organisations is likely to create yet more potential for danger.

Tunisia already has a giant pool of alienated, angry and jobless young men, a few of whom are prone to violence. Arresting more of them without sufficient cause and brutalising them is not the answer. Human rights organisations report that torture is widespread in Tunisian police stations and a climate of police impunity is leading to more use of torture and deaths in custody. 

Amna Guellali, Tunisia researcher for Human Rights Watch, quoted the Education Minister Neji Jalloul as saying on TV after the Bardo museum attack “Terrorists don’t respect human rights, so we shouldn’t respect theirs.” 

Guellali went on to report that in Tunisia “human rights activists have become the target of a stream of public opinion that holds them responsible for government negligence in the fight against terrorism”.  

Fabio Merone, a visiting professor at Laval University in Quebec who has lived for many years in Tunisia, studying Islamist movements, argues that if one is to understand the roots of recent terrorism in Tunisia, an important distinction needs to be drawn between the now-banned Ansar al Sharia and Okba Ibn Nafaa, a small brigade of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which took responsibility for the Bardo attack. The Interior Ministry makes no such distinction.

Ansar’s leadership, according to Merone, says Tunisia must be considered a land of preaching (dawa) and not of qital (fight).

“Abu Ayadh, the charismatic leader of the group, has added in several videos that between Ansar and the international jihadi movement there is an ideological link, but that this is neither political nor operational,” he writes.  

Unlike al Qaeda, Ansar has no apocalyptic vision or strategy. Instead it seeks an alternative to the disastrous social conditions of young Tunisians. It wins their support by claiming the government’s growing emphasis on security amounts to a return to the ousted dictatorship and says it is vital to build an Islamic front against the “deep state”.

Ennahda’s decision to ban Ansar has strengthened the Ansar case while the ban’s practical effect was the departure of hundreds of Salafi supporters of Ansar to go to Libya and Syria where they have joined the open war being conducted by IS in those countries. 

Others, in Merone’s assessment, joined Okba Ibn Nafaa, al Qaeda’s affiliate.   

War against war

Although some went quiet to avoid repression, the banning did not dry up the pool of potential recruits to jihadi militancy since it gave support to the notion that if the state is conducting war against Salafi views then Salafis have to conduct war against the state.  

The message of extremism which the Salafis preachers give the young people who come to them is thereby validated. This helps to explain why more Tunisians have gone to join IS than volunteers from any other country.

Now, in the wake of last week’s massacre, the Tunisian government is restricting yet more liberties. On Friday it announced the closure of around eighty unofficial mosques. The government has long exerted control over all mosques in the country, appointing, paying, and sacking their imams.  

To shut the few mosques that have developed independently and without a licence is unnecessarily repressive as well as counter-productive. Instead of meeting in the mosques, people will meet elsewhere while feeling they have yet another reason to despise and reject the state.

Other plans, announced by President Beiji Caid Essebsi, are to ban parties which brandish the black flag - a barely veiled move against Hizb ut-Tahrir. If implemented, this too will drive people underground. In the new climate of tightening repression Essebsi has even threatened to go after a recently formed civic protest movement, called “Where is the Oil?”   

The entirely peaceful movement, unconnected with any religious group or party, simply calls for transparency over the contracts Tunisia has signed or is planning to sign for oil exploration. Absurdly, Essebsi accused it of conducting a smear campaign and targeting the Tunisian state and its national security.  

Back to Ben Ali?

In the last few days some officials in Nidaa Tounes, the main party in government, have made the outrageous suggestion that the ruling party should form its own militia - a revival of a practice last used by Ben Ali.

Mohammed Ali, a member of Tunisia’s formerly exiled opposition from the Ben Ali period, who founded and now heads the UK-based TV station, Islam Channel, sees the Tunisian government’s growing use of repressive measures as disastrous. 

“You have to be tough on individuals who commit crimes but we shouldn’t ban anyone. Have as much freedom as possible. The biggest threat to al Qaeda and groups like it is freedom and democracy. This kind of ideology can only live in an atmosphere of human rights violations. Of course you need a security force, but it has to act within the law,” he says.

Which political party or grouping in Tunisia is going to have the courage to denounce what amounts to a creeping counter-revolution? The country has not regressed as far as Egypt’s current dictatorship and hopefully will not, since the Tunisian army has never intervened in politics so often or so comprehensively as in Egypt.  

Nor does the country have the sectarian divisions of Iraq or Syria which ruthless politicians can exploit. But the trend in Tunisia is deeply worrying.

Public anger growing

Some might hope that Ennahda will carry the banner for freedom and the protection of human rights, though the omens are not good. Public anger over the Port El Kantaoui and Bardo massacres is boiling over and it would take bold leadership for any party to call for an end to torture and fundamental police reform at this stage.   

Ennahda lost much of its remaining credibility after losing last year’s elections when it decided to accept an offer to become a junior member and receive just one ministerial portfolio in Tunisia’s coalition government which includes several members of the elite from Ben Ali’s time. 

Could Ennahda change its mind, break with the government and take up the defence of civil liberties as an opposition party? How much influence would it command?  

If not Ennahda, it is vital that other political groupings and the independent media mount a sustained public campaign in support of the few non-governmental organisations who are demanding the preservation of human rights in Tunisia. 

Otherwise, the last flickering flame of hope from the Arab spring is close to extinction - the very objective that the men and women of violent jihad have long had in their sights.

- Jonathan Steele is a veteran foreign correspondent and author of widely acclaimed studies of international relations. He was the Guardian's bureau chief in Washington in the late 1970s, and its Moscow bureau chief during the collapse of communism. He was educated at Cambridge and Yale universities, and has written books on Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, South Africa and Germany, including Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq (I.B.Tauris 2008) and Ghosts of Afghanistan: the Haunted Battleground (Portobello Books 2011).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Tunisia's Ennahdha Islamist Party Leader Rached Ghannouchi looks on during a handover ceremony attended by the country's newly elected government in Tunis on February 6, 2015. (AFP)