TUNIS, Tunisia (RNS) Islamist militants across North Africa have been fighting governments in Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Mali for not imposing harsh Shariah law.
But Tunisia is pushing back.
The first to cast off a dictator and herald the Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere, Tunisia has been dealing with political unrest and terrorism from those who hoped to take advantage of the uncertain times to establish a Muslim theocracy.
Yet this country seems intent on not letting go of the fledgling democracy that came out of its Jasmine Revolution, to date perhaps the most successful of the Arab Spring. The protest movement that began with a simple act — a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire in December 2010 — and gave rise to uprisings across the country that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.
The country has developed significant counterterrorism forces that have been given the means to fight back, say analysts. And the government is infiltrating the once-sacrosanct haven of the mosque to root out imams accused of inciting violence.
“I would describe the overall sweep as a stunning success for the first phase of the crackdown,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Places like Benghazi and the Egyptian North Sinai are under widespread militant sway, and Mali needed a French invasion force to turn back a 2013 Islamist insurgency.
Militias roam Libya flush with weapons liberated from the stores of the deceased dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and in some cities control major governing functions. The northern Sinai is a nearly lawless zone where weapons trafficking is rampant. Al-Qaeda has infiltrated Western Iraq and has resisted Baghdad military efforts to force it out.
Tunisian authorities have faced billowing security threats as well.
In August, security forces launched heavy air and artillery strikes on militant hideouts in the Mount Chaambi area and have attacked repeatedly there for months. More than 20 members of Tunisia’s security forces were killed last year during operations against Islamist militants in the western portion of the country.
In 2013, two well-known secular political figures who opposed overt religious influence in the government were assassinated.
In February, Islamist militants ambushed Tunisia security forces in the west of the country, killing three policemen. Earlier that month police killed seven militants armed with suicide bomb vests and explosives in a raid just north of the capital.
Gen. Carter Ham, who headed the U.S. Army’s Africa Command, warned last year that al-Qaeda was trying to get a foothold in Tunisia.
But Tunisia’s response has been forceful. The Interior ministry created “crisis cells” to gather intelligence on terrorist activity and act on it.
Last year 1,343 defendants were prosecuted in connection to terrorism, according to Tunisia Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou. Weapons caches were also seized, including 250 rockets, more than 200 homemade bombs and over 350 guns.
In a recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry heralded Tunisia’s security operations as “well carried out, well planned and well executed.” He also announced that the U.S. would give the nation a mobile crime lab for police forensics investigations and a high-tech mobile command post vehicle for conducting terrorism investigations.
Militancy in the Arab world is often fueled by repressive political policies; many experts say Tunisia is wisely steering away from despotic edicts that have rocked Arab Spring movements in Egypt and Libya.
More than three years after its 2010 revolution, the country is moving toward elections based on a new constitution passed with broad support among competing parties.
“Tunisian politicians and the political system in general have just graduated from elementary school to middle school — where you always squabble and you’re not too mature … to now having a bit of a structure, more knowledge and a bit more experience,” said Firas BenAchour, president and founding member of Tunisian American Young Professionals, a Washington-based association.
“We’re moving from the self-serving politicians, or their political parties, to actually meeting the needs of the people or the country.”
Things looked bleak in July when massive protests were going on against the government because of the assassination of a popular political rival to the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party. The party, which won elections in 2010, blamed the murder on radical adherents of harsh Islamic law known as Salafists.
In response, Ennahda entered into negotiations with rival parties to make long-delayed reforms to the political system. The National Constituent Assembly approved a new constitution endorsed by 200 of 217 members of the body that wrote the draft.
And in January, Ennahda stepped down from power to allow an appointed government to preside over new elections in a peaceful relinquishing of power not seen elsewhere in the region from elected Islamist parties. Ennahda’s party leader, Rachid Ghannouhchi, said at the time that, “Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario. We will hold on.”
Noureddine Arbaoui, a member of Ennahda’s executive bureau, said the party chose to compromise to serve the country’s collective interests.
“Among the five countries of the Arab Spring — Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Egypt — Tunisia has reached the right political climate and a certain stability,” he said. “The passing of the constitution proves Tunisians left their clashes and differences behind and they now coexist and live together peacefully.”
Tunisia may have had an easier time transitioning to democracy because it has assets other countries don’t, analysts said.
The population is wealthier and more educated than other countries in the region and women are more emancipated, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And while the military backed the revolution, it made space for civilian rule and did not involve itself in politics — vastly different from Egypt where the military governed after Hosni Mubarak’s fall and then forced then-President Mohamed Morsi out of power last summer.
“Tunisia now has set the stage for greater political stability,” Dunne said.
Poor economies have also fed instability in the Middle East, and Tunisia is not immune to that danger.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi is seeking to strengthen economic ties with European countries. “We must ensure that Tunisia is a success story because if it doesn’t then no other Arab country will succeed,” Hamdi told Reuters last month while in Paris.
By far most here believe the greatest challenge now to a peaceful future is the defeat of militant ideology.
About 400 Tunisians have returned from fighting in Syria’s civil war while 8,000 were prevented from traveling to fight in the conflict, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou says. The broader region, sweeping horizontally across the Mediterranean coast, is plagued by jihadist violence that can easily transit borders.
“At the end of the day, democracy thrives in a stable, economically vibrant society and region as well,” BenAchour said. “What happens in Algeria will affect Tunisia. What happens in Egypt will somehow affect Tunisia.”
(Sarah Lynch writes for USA Today.)
YS END LYNCH