March 20, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Worst in Being First: Tunisia and the Second Chapter of the Arab Spring

  • Tunisia, the first Arab country to overthrow its longstanding government in last year’s Arab Spring revolutions, will enter into a more intense stage of internecine fighting between Islamists and secularists, as well as among the Islamists themselves.
  • This political and societal conflict will certainly be closely watched and likely emulated, by Islamists in the other Arab Spring countries, with the potential for region-wide instability.



As of mid-March 2012,the escalating conflict in Tunisia between not only Islamists and secularists, but also between Salafis (those who advocate a strict interpretation of Islam based on their view of the practices of the early Muslims) and relatively more moderate Islamists, will likely be closely watched, carefully studied, and skillfully copied by Salafis in the other Arab Spring countries. This emerging second chapter of the Arab Spring revolution will involve increasing tensions between subsets of populations that can offer intense rhetoric, but little experience in the realities of day-to-day governance and the give-and-take of the political process. While this is understandable given the fact that legal opposition parties did not previously exist in these countries, the potential for stability and growth in the region rests squarely on enthusiastic but inexperienced shoulders. Just as in 2011, when protests spurred by the Tunisian revolution challenged the authority of other Arab governments, the Salafi protests of 2012 will also rapidly spread beyond the country's borders. This time, however, those countries are even less prepared to handle such tensions.

In Tunisia, the relatively moderate stance of the leading Ahnada party is allowing for much more radical trends - such as the vision for unifying all Muslims countries as espoused by Hizb al-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation) - to gather steam. This has set up an almost certain near-term, decisive split not only between supporters of the Tunisian secular governmental tradition, but also between those, like Ahnada, who favor a moderate Islamic-influenced governance and those who demand an Islamic state in the mold of the Taliban. The unavoidable conflict that will unfold as the first of the Arab Spring countries determines its future will have a major influence on the future for a range of other countries, from Libya and Algeria in North African to Egypt, Yemen, and even Syria in the Middle East.

While all of these countries have their own unique set of historical issues that will intractably frame their respective political battles, it should be clear that the more radical/extreme Islamist groups share an ideology that transcends regional borders. Indeed, it is this purity of thought - the belief that current Arab governments, wherever formed, are illegitimate since they are not derived solely from Islam - that will ensure what happens in Tunisia will be watched and copied by like-minded people throughout the region. Being first to overthrow its government could mean that Tunisia is also first to enter a dramatically more dangerous stage, one in which Islamists fight each other as well as the secularists, a situation with huge repercussions for allies such as the United States and members of the European Union.

The images of young Salafis pulling down the Tunisian flag over the student union building of Manouba University in Tunis earlier this month, and replacing it with Islamic flags most recently associated with al-Qaida-inspired groups, was not an isolated incident of limited importance. Indeed, on March 17th, thousands of Salafi students marched in Tunis demanding the new constitution enshrine sharia law as its foundation. While this had been something wholly anathema to the long-established secular political traditions in the country, it is now seen simply as the starting point for more radical pushes. This bears repeating: while the Ahnada party has called for moderation and, in fact, denounced the pulling down of the country's flag at Manouba university, the political ground is quickly shifting under their feet; as a result, what was once considered unlikely and extreme will soon be considered the initial bargaining position for negotiations and compromise. The Salafis will either benefit from the understandable reluctance of the government to crack down on Islamic demonstrations for fear of association with the former regime, or benefit from the dramatic images and inflamed public passions should the government feel forced to crack down. By moving so hard to the extreme, the Salafis are ensuring that no matter what the outcome, Tunisia will not be the same country in 2013 that it was in the preceding two years.

The current makeup of the Tunisian government - at best a caretaker government attempting to maintain relative calm until the constitution is drafted and ratified - is unfortunately helping to ensure that the small proportion of Salafis in the country will exert an outsized influence relative to their actual numbers. Ahnada leader Rachid Ghannouchi is attempting a herculean task of installing what he asserts will be a moderate Islamic government in a country in which the majority of the population has only experienced either a secular government and fears its loss or a secular government and fears its return. The Salafis are taking advantage of the religious slant of Ahnada to organize in greater numbers and in upcoming weeks and months will attempt to seize the mantle of Islamist leadership from current officials who are burdened with the responsibility of actual governance.

Tunisia's close ties with the United States and Europe, long a source of strength to the regime of the deposed Bin Ali, will now be a source of leverage for the Salafis, who will work to portray any moderate government maintaining these close ties as simply Bin Ali clones dressed in Islamic clothes. This explains the lack of comment and publicity by U.S officials regarding events in Tunisia over the last several months; Washington is understandably hesitant to deliver a wedge issue into the hands of Salafis without gaining anything of value in return. This relative quiet will be increasingly harder to maintain as the debate in Tunisia becomes more radicalized and the second chapter of the Arab Spring unfolds in full measure.



Near-term Forecast:

  • Salafis and student street demonstrations will likely increase both in numbers and in violence, with the current government unable to effectively placate either side. Tunisian officials will be reluctant to crackdown on the Salafi-led demonstrations for fear of being accused of replicating the oppressive tactics associated with the past regime.

Long-term forecast:

  • Salafi extremists throughout the region will closely watch events in Tunisia, which is still seen as the best hope for a stable moderate Islamic democracy among Arab Spring countries. Violence or increased tensions in Tunisia will influence the other countries just as it did in 2011. Western governments will work to subtlety support moderate Islamists, but will ultimately be unable to exert any substantial influence on upcoming debates.



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