Tunisia's National Security is a Red Line
Among all the challenges faced by Tunisia since its 2011 revolution, the one it faces today is probably the most critical one and the most deserving of a common stand by all political protagonists.
Till very recently, the most pressing national task was to find a way to smooth the too-many and quite acute divisions brought to the surface by the de-inhibition of the political debate since the revolution. But developments during the last few days added a challenge of a different nature: the unwelcome intrusion of Al Qaeda into the national debate. Its chief, Ayman Al Zawahiri, took it upon himself to incite Tunisians to "rise up" against "Ennahdha," the ruling islamist party and winner of the October 2011 elections. The Egyptian-born heir to Ben Laden accused that party of being a western stooge that accepts a type of "moderate, centrist and enlightened Islam" which condones "nudist beaches and gambling casinos". He described the brand of Islam espoused by Ennahdha as "that of the US State Department, the European Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council." but Al Zawahiri was especially acrimonious about the fact that Ennahdha "accepted a constitution that does not have Islamic law as its sole basis," he said.
In his pronouncements against Ennahdha, Al Qaeda chief could not in fact be more against the grain of what the overwhelming majority of Tunisians agree about. Moderate Sunni Islam, which seems to infuriate him, is not anybody's political agenda. It is a deeply-rooted dimension of Tunisia's identity and not a foreign import. The decision by Ennahdha, last March, not to include a mention of the Sharia into the new Constitution was political. But it was a welcome decision which defused tensions across the political spectrum and appeased the concerns of many conservative and liberal Tunisians alike. Despite its puritanical spin, Al Zawahiri's attack on tourism is an attack on an essential economic activity for tens of thousands of Tunisians. Rached Ghannouchi, the president of Ennahdha party, addressed a surprisingly blunt rebuke to Al Zawahiri. "This man is a disaster for Islam and for Muslims," he said of the Al Qaeda's new chief. In replying to the implicit threat of terrorism, Ghannouchi did not blink. "Al Qaeda's project is one of destruction and civil war,” he declared.
The release of Al Zawahiri's audio-tape recording oddly coincided with a sudden outburst of violent protests in Tunisia over a controversial painting exhibition considered by some salafists and other conservatives as an "affront to sacred religious values". The incidents provoked a resurgence of the controversy about the role of Salafists in the country and the attitude of the government towards them. That debate has been going on since the electoral victory of Ennahdha, with the secular opposition accusing the main Islamist party, Ennahdha, of being too complacent about Salafist muscle-flexing throughout the country. The accusations only made worse the climate of fear and suspicion across the already-deep secular-islamist fault-line. Layers of stereotypes and preset notions bred by decades of conflicts, oppression and lack of dialogue have made these two main groups of society behave more like perfect strangers than members of the same community.
Considering the content of the unprecedented audio recording released by "Al Sahab Foundation" and the recent worrisome geo-strategic developments in the region, especially but not only in Northern Mali, the thinly-veiled threat by Al Qaeda can only be taken seriously. It is a threat not only to Tunisia's vital tourism industry but to the national security of the country. Recent Tunisian Air Force raids against armed positions in the Tataouine province have further shown that Al Qaeda's threat is no more a theoretical peril. A non-partisan national consensus about this challenge would be both timely and legitimate. The support of the International community to the country has been a welcome boost to the process of democratic transition and economic recovery. Tunisia should expect even more regional and international solidarity as it faces this national security threat.
But it is high time, also, for Tunisia's political class to go beyond its current zero-sum polarization. Political actors should maybe read more closely Al Zawahiri’s harangue. In his 12-minute message, the Al Qaeda chief has in fact underscored the common moderate political and religious traditions that unite Tunisians more than the factors dividing them. By the same token, he did reject Ennahdha’s interpretation of the faith the same way he denounced the legacy of Habib Bourguiba, the first president of the republic and father of Tunisia's post-independence secularism. He found both schools equally incompatible with his notion of Islam. Seen from the perspective of Al Zawahiri's universe, the differences between the identitary models of mainstream religious and secular parties of Tunisia today are, also, too inconsequential to matter. It is maybe time, therefore, for Tunisia's political protagonists all across the spectrum to look at their reality from the perspective of Al Zawahiri's universe. They could then realize that there is more that unites them than they are willing to admit. And maybe then, they can start to demonstrate true awareness that Tunisia's national security is a red line. Mohamed Nejib Larbi is a Tunisian analyst and academic.