The Ennahda-led government has been reluctant to take a clear stand when it comes to radical groups initiating religious violence in Tunisia, the birthplace of the so called Arab Spring. Earlier this week the Tunisian government arrested Bilel Chaouachi for allegedly being involved in the September 14 attacks on the US embassy in Tunis.
Hardline groups harass artists, hampering them from performing on stage as was the case of the Iranian concert at a Sufi festival south of Tunis. Ultraconservative mobs last June targeted an art gallery in Tunis for artworks insulting Islam as the attackers claimed. The last working hotel bar in Sidi Bouzid was closed down by a group of a hundred Muslims on a quest to ban alcohol. The Government’s tolerance of those troublemakers has generated some criticism among Tunisians people who think these people act as if they are above the law. Some critics go so far to consider the Salafis the military wing of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.
Indeed, the Salafis in Tunisia are not a homogenous group. They are part of the social fabric of Tunisian society but have become much more visible following the toppling of the former president of Tunisia. One of the key features that unites Salafis in Tunisia is the belief in the application of sharia and the restoration of the caliphate. Their loyalty to their doctrine seems to exceed their loyalty to Tunisia. The Tunisian Salafis differ from their counterparts say in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt in the fact that they survive despite a secularized society. The totalitarian regime in Tunisia insisted on a secular society, taught little religious education in school, banned the wearing of the veil or beards for men, intimidated Islamists, controlled mosques and persecuted any youth regularly attending the mosques.
Hizb al-Tahrir, once banned under the Ben Ali iron fist, was granted a licence to practise under the leadership of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in July 2012. A leaked video of Rachid Ghannouchi the leader of Ennahda party showed him apparently reassuring two Salafist leaders that they would over time make headway with their vision through consolidating Islamist power and adopting a strategy of gradual but bold change. You could argue that excluding Salafists from the game of democracy would take the country backwards to one-party rule. On the other hand, the government seems to be less democratic and tolerant towards other popular political parties that may threaten their monopoly on votes in the next elections – parties like Nida Tounes, constantly criticized by the Ennahda party leaders for belonging to the remants of the old regime.
This favouritism on the part of the Ennahda party has likewise been detected in their appointment of loyalists of the movement to senior positions in the media, ministries and other sensitive posts. However, the lack of security and the rise of religious violence in Tunisian society and the failure of the government to tackle those issues has led to the deteriorating image of the party among those who once supported the Ennahda party and voted for them en masse. The party seems today changing tack, adopting a more severe application of law especially when foreign interests began to be targeted: namely the attack on the American embassy.
The Ennahda-led government seems to be torn between a paternalist attitude towards Salafists who they consider as their “children” or a more extremist version of themselves, and a more pragmatic attitude that will grant them the respect of the west when cracking down on the religious extremists as did their predecessor Ben Ali. This opportunistic approach will probably generate more violence and more divisions in Tunisian society. They are unwilling to go back to detaining and torturing “the Salafis” to win the satisfaction of the western hemisphere, but on the other hand, Tunisians are refusing to be returned to the middle ages.