Where Is Tunisia Heading?

, January 21, 2011

No. 581  January-February 2011

  • It’s not clear what role Libya is playing in developments in Tunisia. Mu’ammar Qaddafi, a close friend of deposed Tunisian President Ben Ali, contended that the Ben Ali regime was preferred by the Tunisians.
  • The elected Tunisian prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is himself a product of the Ben Ali system and his perspective is not assumed to differ from that of his predecessors. The composition of the interim Tunisian government demonstrates the direction the regime has chosen. The new faces in the government are all members of the legal opposition.
  •  At this stage, Ghannouchi did not bring into his government any Islamists, whose flagship party, the Tunisian Islamic Party, al-Nahda (Renaissance), has been outlawed. The exiled leader of al-Nahda, Rached Ghannouchi (no relation), announced that he wanted to join the unity government. Rached Ghannouchi has visited Tehran in recent years on a regular basis. He also carries a Sudanese passport, provided to him by the authorities in Khartoum at Iran’s request.
  • Iran has maintained a presence in the Tunisian arena for years. In 1987, documents found in the possession of an official of the Iranian Embassy arrested on the border between France and Switzerland testified to the ties that Iran maintains with Tunisian fundamentalists. As a result, Tunisia expelled Ahmad Kan’ani, the Iranian charge d’affaires in Tunis. That same year, a Tunisian named Lutfi, who had been recruited by Iran and underwent training there prior to joining a local network in Tunisia, unveiled to French police precise information regarding Iran’s subversive activity in Tunisia.
  • Many Tunisians have joined the ranks of Islamic extremists in Algeria and Afghanistan, and trained in camps in Pakistan before they returned to North Africa or were dispatched to Europe. Since 2008 Tunisia has become a target for Islamic terrorists. WikiLeaks documents revealed that the Americans were particularly concerned that a group which penetrated from Algeria had managed to recruit over 30 local activists in less than six weeks.

Tunisia is currently in a transitional stage. Until the dust settles, various political forces will attempt to put down markers in the internal Tunisian arena. Many represent ideological currents that have been absent since Tunisia’s deposed president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, came to power in 1987. A number of political forces have demonstrated that they are now on the political map or that they intend to enter it as soon as circumstances will allow.

The Forces Loyal to Ben Ali

The forces loyal to Ben Ali are currently engaged in a rearguard action, attempting to sow destruction, confusion, and fear among the masses. On January 16, Ali Seriati, the commander of the Presidential Guard, was arrested together with Slim Chiboub, one of Ben Ali’s brothers-in-law, and accused of plotting a revolution. Ben Ali’s nephew, Imad Trabelsi, who commanded the militias loyal to Ben Ali, was stabbed to death by one of his soldiers. That same day it was reported that the Tunisian army had taken over the presidential palace where a few hundred Ben Ali loyalists had fortified themselves. The army arrested about 1,700 militiamen, but a few pockets of resistance remained throughout the country.1

Many Ben Ali loyalists attempted to flee to Libya, where Mu’ammar Qaddafi, a close friend of Ben Ali, contended that the Ben Ali regime was preferred by the Tunisians. Qaddafi declared that Ben Ali remained the legal President of Tunisia, and that he was saddened by the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Qaddafi contended that WikiLeaks documents that described the corruption of the ruling family, and reportedly contributed to inciting passions against Ben Ali, were intended to “sow chaos” in Tunisia. Qaddafi wondered about the objective of the revolution: “What’s the purpose of it? Didn’t he [Ben Ali] tell you that he would leave power in another three years? Be patient for three years.” Finally, Qaddafi recommended to Tunisians to adopt the model of the Libyan regime “that constitutes the final objective of nations seeking democracy.”2

One cannot rule out the possibility of active Libyan intervention in Tunisian affairs. Libya’s subversive capacity was demonstrated in the past during the rule of Habib Bourguiba. This subversion did not manifest itself under the Ben Ali regime which did not constitute a threat to Libya. The Libyan Republic does not want on its western border a regime that is either too radical, too democratic, or too Islamist. Therefore, one cannot rule out the possibility of Libyan involvement in Tunisian affairs in an effort to stabilize the situation and primarily to ensure that Libya’s neighbor will be tolerable and won’t cast a shadow on the internal Libyan arena. It would be a surprise if Ben Ali’s henchmen think they will find a Libyan haven for their continued activity.

The Tunisian Political System

The Tunisian political system is confronting an extremely arduous task. Modern Tunisia, which experienced the extended rule of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has never known democracy. Since independence, Tunisia has been managed by an authoritarian regime camouflaged by an easy-going veneer. The transition to a multiparty and democratic regime is a totally different game. The elected prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, is himself a product of the Ben Ali system and it is difficult to assume that his perspective essentially differs from that of his predecessors. But reality dictates, first of all, patching the splits in the old ruling system and rallying around a formula that will produce relative tranquility until the presidential elections take place, as prescribed by the constitution, in less than 60 days.

A constitutional misstep that was previously committed, by declaring Prime Minister Ghannouchi the provisional president of Tunisia, was quickly remedied and the 77-year-old Fouad Mebazza (the president of the lower house of parliament) was sworn in as the temporary President of Tunisia, a day after Ben Ali’s flight.3

The leaders of the two opposition parties said the timetable set forth in the constitution was unrealistic and called for holding presidential elections within 6 to 7 months under international supervision. They want guarantees that the elections will be free, and want sufficient time to conduct an election campaign throughout the country, as the power of the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD) weakens. Ahmad Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition el-Tajdid (Renewal) party, noted: “The main thing for us at the moment is to put an end to all this disorder. We are in agreement on a number of principles for the new government” (i.e., not on all of them).

The New Tunisian Government

The composition of the Tunisian government announced on January 17 demonstrates the direction the regime has chosen. Interestingly, the Ministry of Information has been abolished. Some of the ministers who served in the previous government remain in their posts, such as Minister of Industry and Technology Afif Chelbi, Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane,  Minister of the Treasury Nouri Jouini, and, most importantly, Minister of Interior Ahmed Friaa and Minister of Defense Ridha Grira.

The new faces in the government are all figures who were members of the legal opposition: Minister of Regional Development Najib Chebbi, Minister of Health Mustafa Ben Jaafar, Minister of Education Ahmed Ibrahim, Minister of Justice Lazhar Kraoui, and Minister of Reforms Yadh Ben Achour. Ministerial posts were also given to three members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT): Hassine Demassi, Abdjelliel Bedoui, and Anouar Ben Kaddour. However, a few hours after the new government was presented, the three UGTT representatives resigned in protest over the inclusion of ministers that had served in the previous government.

Ghannouchi also appointed personages from outside parliament to his government, such as movie personality Moufida Tletli, who received the Ministry of Culture, and Slim Emamou, a well-known blogger who was appointed Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports.

Upon appointing the government, Ghannouchi announced that he intended to free all the political prisoners (without specifying who he was talking about) and grant full freedom of expression in Tunisia. Likewise, he canceled the prohibition on the Tunisian League for Human Rights.

At this stage, as expected, Ghannouchi did not bring any Islamists into his government, whose flagship party, al-Nahda (Renaissance), has been outlawed. Al-Nahda spokesman Houcine Jazri declared from France that the party will not present its own candidate for the Tunisian presidency. Nonetheless, the Islamist party plans to take part in the parliamentary elections, for if not, “there will not be a transfer of power [to the new parliament] without al-Nahda.”

Many other opposition elements were also left out of the new Tunisian government including Le Congres pour la Republique, Parti Communiste des Ouvriers Tunisiens, and La Ligue Tunisienne pour les Droits de l’Homme.

The leftist Munsef Marzouki said from his exile in Paris that we were dealing with a “masquerade” and announced his intention to contend for the presidency. Marzouki had tried his luck against Ben Ali in 1994 and failed to raise the required number of signatures to present his candidacy.

“The composition of the government is an outrage,” declared journalist Amira Yahyaoui, pointing to the appointment of six ministers from the previous government. True, new faces were appointed, but no one from the outlawed opposition was added. Finally, she expressed her concern over the possibility that “someone will steal the Tunisians’ revolution,” hinting that the brief time before the next presidential elections could work to the detriment of new contenders who did not belong to the governing apparatus.4

It should come as no surprise that opposition bodies demand an extension of the time set for the election of a new president. The longer the extension, the greater the prospects for a candidate who does not currently belong to the ruling establishment. Elections within 60 days confer a substantial advantage on the regime’s descendants.

The Tunisian Military

One cannot ignore the role of the Tunisian ground forces. Ben Ali saw to it that there would be no single commander for the Tunisian army on the model of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ben Ali, who himself was a graduate of the intelligence world, turned Tunisia into a state ruled by the police. He contented himself with appointing separate commanders for air, sea and land, with the ground forces comprising nearly 27,000 troops.

It was precisely the ground forces that brought about Ben Ali’s downfall. On January 13, Ben Ali demanded that the commander of the ground forces, Rachid Ammar, fire live ammunition at the demonstrators. Ammar refused and was summarily dismissed, but Ben Ali fled that very same day to Saudi Arabia and Ammar was restored to his post and became a national hero.5 Since then, Ammar has been managing the campaign against the militias loyal to Ben Ali and is trying to impose order in the streets. Ammar is not known to have made political comments, nor are his ideological tendencies clear. One cannot rule out the possibility that he will be elected president or, if the disturbances persist, that he will try to take over the country in order to restore order.

The Islamic Factor

A major question involves the domestic and external Islamic factors and their involvement in the Tunisian government. Already on January 14, from his place of exile in London (since 1993), the leader of al-Nahda, Rached Ghannouchi, who is not related to the prime minister, announced that he wanted to join the unity government and voiced surprise that no one had yet approached him. Rached Ghannouchi (born in 1941) studied philosophy in Damascus and then at the Sorbonne in Paris, and heads the party that he established in 1981. Thousands of its members were arrested in Tunisia during the 1990s. According to Amnesty International, nearly 100 of its members sat in Tunisian prisons in 2006, and this was after the release of 54 members that year. In November 2008, the last 21 al-Nahda prisoners in Tunisian jails were released. A few weeks later, Sadok Chourou, the de facto leader in Tunisia, was again imprisoned due to a newspaper interview, after having just been freed.

Rached Ghannouchi was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment in 1991 for his role in planning an assassination attempt against President Ben Ali. Ghannouchi to this day proclaims his innocence and that in reality this was a political show trial managed by the regime after his success in the parliamentary elections of 1989 when he captured 17 percent of the vote. Ghannouchi has announced that he intends to return shortly to his homeland. After the prime minister announced that members of the opposition and political exiles would be allowed to return to Tunisia, he stated: “I am preparing myself, I am preparing my return,” adding that “the Tunisian intifada succeeded in toppling the dictatorship of President Ben Ali….The West, led by France, supported him because they viewed him as a barrier against Islam, as performed by his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba.”6

Ghannouchi, who is well aware of the voices expressing reservations about his return, added that his party belonged to the Islamic-democratic current “that closely resembles” the concept of the Turkish AKP party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.7 Nevertheless, one should remember that Ghannouchi has visited Tehran on a regular basis in recent years. He also carries a Sudanese passport provided to him by the authorities in Khartoum at Iran’s request. During a conference that took place at a university in Algeria with visiting Iranian students, Ghannouchi declared that “efforts by Iranian youth provided inspiration to the Tunisian students in their opposition to Habib Bourguiba.8

In general, Iran itself maintains a presence in the Tunisian arena. In 1987, documents found in the possession of an official of the Iranian Embassy arrested on the border between France and Switzerland testified to the ties that Iran maintains with Tunisian fundamentalists. As a result, Tunisia expelled Ahmad Kan’ani, the Iranian charge d’affaires in Tunis. That same year, a Tunisian named Lutfi, who had been recruited by Iran and underwent training there prior to joining a local network in Tunisia, unveiled to French police precise information regarding Iran’s subversive activity in Tunisia. In March 1992, the Tunisian intelligence services uncovered a group that called itself “Islamic Jihad,” whose activities were supervised by a leader of the banned al-Nahda party.

A few months previously, Tunisian newspapers reported the arrest of 80 members of an Islamic movement with ties to Iran who were expected to engage in subversive activity throughout Tunisia. During a visit by an Iranian parliamentary delegation to Tunisia at the beginning of 1992, the Tunisians voiced complaints over Iranian support for fundamentalists throughout the Maghreb, and especially over Iran’s support for the party of Rached Ghannouchi.9

There can be no doubt that the main enemy of the Tunisian establishment during the years that Ben Ali ruled was the extreme Islamic element, which was repressed cruelly and with an iron hand, though he did not manage to prevent its sporadic appearance over the years.

Many Tunisians joined the ranks of the Islamic extremists in Algeria and Afghanistan, and trained in camps in Pakistan before they returned to North Africa or were dispatched to Europe. The Tunisian Serhan Ben Abdelmajid Fakhet was reputed to be the coordinator of the terrorist attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004. In Tunisia, a number of terror incidents were recorded including the suicide attack by Nizar Nawar against the synagogue in Jerba on April 11, 2002, that killed 21, the takeover attempt on a town in south Tunisia on January 3, 2007, the kidnapping of two Austrian tourists in southwest Tunisia at the beginning of 2008, and their release for ransom in Mali.10

Since 2008, Tunisia has become a target for Islamic terrorists. At the end of January a group of Salafists-Jihadists threatened terror attacks against the “Crusaders.” Some communiqués by these organizations also singled out the regime of the “secular Ben Ali” and called for damaging the Tunisian economy by attacking tourist venues.

WikiLeaks documents revealed that the Americans closely monitored the regime’s activity against armed Islamic groups and against Islamic elements in general.11 The Americans did not like the fact that the Ben Ali regime did not share information with them regarding certain organizations or the activities that it launched against Islamic elements. They cited, as an example, information about a group that arrived from Algeria that planned to attack the American and British embassies at the start of 2007. The Americans estimated that the equipment at the disposal of the Tunisian authorities in their war against the border infiltrators was poor and inefficient. They were particularly concerned about the porous Algerian border and the alarming fact that a group which had penetrated from Algeria had managed to recruit over 30 local activists in less than six weeks. The Americans learned from the press that the group involved five Tunisian citizens and a Mauritanian who joined them.

The Americans were also wary of an NGO called Da’wa al-Taligh, which has existed in Tunisia since the early 1970s and is engaged primarily in disseminating Islam, fearing that it would serve as a recruitment base for extremist activists.

In the end, American intelligence evaluators believed they had a lot to lose in Tunisia because “We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM and other extremist groups from putting down stakes there.”

The Risks Ahead

It is clear that the future political orientation of Tunisia is dependent on the army and security forces standing alongside the secular regime. A hands-off attitude is tantamount to giving a green light to Islamic groups led by al-Qaeda and Iran to take over Tunisia. This can take place gradually amidst integration into the existing political system or via violent measures. Aside from the army and security forces, there is no force in Tunisia that can physically oppose the activists. The Western powers can help only a little, provided that the determination to preserve a “democratic” regime in the style of Arab countries is also shared by the new leaders of Tunisia. The same applies for Egypt, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Morocco.

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Notes

1. www.JeuneAfrique.com,16/01/11; www.thetelegraph.co.uk, 16 January 2011.

2. Mathew Weaver, “Muammar Gaddafi condemns Tunisia uprising,” Guardian.co.uk, 16 January 2011.

3. Borzou Daragahi, “Tunisia gets another president, its third in 24 hours,” Latimes.com, 16 January 2011; Mark Tran, “Tunisian PM Ghannouchi prepares unity government to halt chaos,” Guardian.co.uk, 17 January 2011; “Tunisia seeks to form unity cabinet after Ben Ali fall,” BBC.co.uk 17 January 2011.

4. Frida Dahmani, “Premiere liste non-officielle pour un,” www.jeuneafrique.com; gouvernement en Tunisie, 16 January 2011; “Je crainsque les Tunisiens se fassentvolerleur revolution,” L’express.fr, 17 January 2011.

5. Wapedia.mobi/fr/Rachid_Ammar.

6. Fundamentalism in the Arab World, http:// Islamic-fundamentalism.info/ch 8, htm; “Rached Ghannouchiou le retour de l’Islamisme en Tunisie,” www.jeuneafrique.com, 15 January 2011.

7. Jeune Afrique, 16 January 2011.

8. Fundamentalism in the Arab World.

9. Ibid.

10. “Nouveau nid de l’Islam radical,” La Tunisie, www.narosnews.fr, 22 March 2008.

11. Al-Akhbar, Tunis, no. 1287, 9 December 2010.

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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.