Tunisia’s Salafists come to the fore

The legalization and participation of Salafist parties in the democratic process is one of the recent trends to emerge from the Arab uprisings. Like Egypt, which legalized three Salafist parties for its elections, and Yemen, which recently legalized its own Salafist party, Tunisia licensed the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front (Hizb Jabhat al-Islah al-Islamiyya al-Tunisiyya; Jabhat al-Islah) on March 29, 2012.Previously, the transitional government led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid al-Sebsi twice rejected Jabhat al-Islah’s demands for official recognition because of national security concerns. In contrast, the current ruling party, Ennahda, supports the legalization of Salafist groups both because of its own history in the opposition and the practical considerations of governing an ideologically polarized country. Ennahda seems to believe that by bringing groups like Jabhat al-Islah into the system it can send a clear signal: if one wants to take part in shaping the future of Tunisia, one must buy into the democratic process.

Jabhat al-Islah is clearly attempting to navigate this new terrain and balance Salafist values in simultaneous conformation to new norms. Despite having similar leadership roots to the Front Islamique Tunisien – which advocated terrorism – Jabhat al-Islah is not inciting youth to wage wars of jihad abroad, nor are they against participation in democratic elections. In fact, members of Jabhat al-Islah ran for the Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011 as independents and as members of the Tunisian Labor and Reform Front (Jabhat al-Amal wal-Islah al-Tunisiyya).

Jabhat al-Islah leader Mohammad al-Khawjah, a former professor at the University of Tunis, explained: “It is no longer the time for armed jihad ... we believe Islam is a religion of democracy and freedom.”

Jabhat al-Islah has since released an official platform that may make many Tunisian liberals bristle, but its itemization presents the party’s keen awareness of their context and country. While vague compared to the Egyptian Al-Nour’s views, Jabhat al-Islah’s platform is a window into the party’s idealized outcome of a future Tunisia – an attempt to negotiate the context of a democratic society while maintaining the prioritization of its Islamist values.

In that context, there are many areas that will undoubtedly need to be further fleshed out within the party platform. For example, Jabhat al-Islah mentions the importance of Tunisian sovereignty in its general objectives – only to later call for the removal of “artificial borders” in its political program (a likely allusion to a revived caliphate that supersedes local sovereignty – however unlikely its realization). In addition, while calling for Shariah to be applied to all aspects of life, the Front also notes that there are beneficial aspects of civil law that compliment Islamic law.

Additionally, the platform emphasizes areas in line with a classical liberal-democratic tradition; particularly, the importance of a separation of powers among different branches of government, as well as the rotation of power and the sanctity of election results. It also calls for guarantees of freedom in thought, expression, political action and belief, though it qualifies these to be in accordance with Islamic guidelines – again, illustrating tensions for future negotiation or factionalism within itself.

There is nothing specific in Jabhat al-Islah’s platform about safeguarding rights of the small Berber, Jewish, Christian and Ibadi Muslim communities, but during the party’s inaugural conference on July 8, party spokesman Saleh Bouazizi mentioned: “Their [minorities’] rights will be guaranteed ... In the old Islamic empire, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together” (referencing the dhimmi system which did not allot equal rights to non-Muslims). There is also no information about its views on foreign policy aside from explicitly mentioning its rejection of normalization with the “Zionist entity” (Israel) and support for the Palestinian cause.

Beyond the official line, Jabhat al-Islah has been very active in street politics. Pushing back against alleged claims that Salafists established an emirate in Sijnan in January, there was a party march a few days afterward, explaining that citizens wanted social development – not an emirate. Jabhat al-Islah also participated in major demonstrations in March and April in support of Islam and the Quran.

Also, the Front planned to have been involved with the protests against a controversial art exhibition in La Marsa in June, but cancelled these (as did other Islamists) because many believed it might lead to potential violence. Jabhat al-Islah was also involved with a variety of protests over the October 2011 Nessma TV broadcast of the animated film “Persepolis.” During this protest individuals recited the incendiary chant: “Khaybar Khaybar ya Yihud, Jaysh Mohammad Sawfa ya’ud,” a reference to when the prophet Mohammad defeated Jews in the town of Khaybar.

Jabhat al-Islah also participated in conferences in December 2011 and May 2012 on the “Arab Spring Revolutions.” These included more hard-line Salafist sheikhs like the Kuwaiti Hamid al-Ali, the Saudi Safir al-Hawali, and the Moroccan Mohammad al-Fizazzi. Jabhat al-Islah has also posted content on its Facebook page from the controversial conference that the Salafist-jihadist group Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia held in Al-Qayrawan in May as well as Abu Ayyub al-Tunisi’s recent call for jihad in the aftermath of the La Marsa violence. Tunisi’s call was roundly rejected by political figures – including Ennahda.

Crucially, unlike some other Salafist groups, Jabhat al-Islah shows no animosity toward Ennahda. During the legislative elections in October, the Front ran some candidates (as independents) in six electoral regions, and told its supporters to vote for Ennahda everywhere else. Jabhat al-Islah has also refrained from commenting on the process of legalization of other Islamist, most likely to avoid stepping on Ennahda’s toes. Ennahda co-founder Rashed Ghannouchi was also present at the opening of Jabhat al-Islah’s inaugural congress.

At the same time, Khawaja noted during the conference that “Ennahda made too many concessions to secular parties and leftist parties to gain power.” This give-and-take both will continue to play out not only in Tunisia with Jabhat al-Islah, but with other newly formed Salafist parties in the region.

Like Al-Nour, Jabhat al-Islah hopes to make its mark and show that it is far more popular than others believed. While individuals on its independent lists did not win any seats in the Tunisian constituent assembly, how the Front reacts to future flashpoints and performs in the elections in spring 2013 will provide further clues as to who Jabhat al-Islah is – and what impact it will have on Tunisia’s future.

Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 27, 2012, on page 7.




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