Ansar Al-Sharia: Violent Protests Rock Tunisia, Could an Islamic Insurgency Be Far Behind?

The Tunisian government, and especially the ruling Islamist party Ennahda, have long been criticized for being too soft on the homegrown Salafist movements. But tensions between the Tunisian government and Ansar Al-Sharia escalated as the movement was preparing its third annual congress in the city of Kairouan, about 100 miles south of Tunis. Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, declared that Ansar Al-Sharia did not obtain the authorization from the government to organize such rally. Indeed, Minister of the Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou (Independent) recently imposed that associations and political parties must first obtain an state authorization before holding any public event. Ignoring the government ban, Saifeddine Rais, the spokesperson of the Salafist movement, replied that "[Ansar Al-Sharia is] not asking for the government's permission to preach the Word of God," warning that there would be blood shed should the police try to prevent the holding of the congress. The Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh (Ennahda) declared that there would be no compromise as he sealed off the city of Kairouan and set up an impressive security system.

On the day of the congress, Saifeddine Rais made a public statement where he seemed to back off by asking the militants not to go to Kairouan. Instead of that, militants gathered in Ettadahmen, a city in the periphery of Tunis and considered the stronghold of the Salafists. Violent clashes between the police forces and militants of Ansar Al-Sharia ensued that Sunday and continued in the neighboring district of Intikala. Later in the afternoon, the police could finally contain the militants and regain control over the areas. It is reported that one person was killed and 15 were injured. The next day, Tunisia's prime minister declared that about 200 militants were arrested.

The constant showdown between the Tunisian authorities and Ansar Al-Sharia has, for the first time, led to violent clashes. Still, it is not clear how high the risk of insurgency is in Tunisia.

So far, the movement has officially rejected violence and limited its activities to organizing street protests and large public rallies. Yet, because of this escalation, Ansar Al-Sharia must be closely monitored. This is all the more important in the context of the Tunisian military operations that began in April in the Chaambi mountain (next to the Algerian border) against entrenched armed groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

Still, carrying out an insurgency in Tunisia might not be an easy task. Contrary to Libya where the whole state apparatus collapsed with the downfall of Gadhafi, the end of Ben Ali's regime left the country's structure of power (the police, the army and the intelligence services) intact. The country is already well-prepared to identify and contain insurgency threats.

Besides, Tunisia allowed Salafist movements to participate in the political arena. The Salafist party Jabhat Al-Islam (Reform Front Party) was licensed in 2012, which gives a political voice to their militants. Like the Egyptian Salafist Al-Nour Party, Jabhat Al-Islam plays an important role as an interface between the government and the jihadists.

This unfortunately does not mean that Tunisia is completely hedged against insurgencies. There have been several reports of weapons having been smuggled by Libyan rebels during the fight against Gadhafi through Tunisia. After the fall of the former regime in Tripoli, there has been an explosion of arms trafficking in the whole region. Although Tunisia might not face the same militant threats as in Benghazi, there is still the possibility that radical movements like Ansar Al-Sharia might indeed have ties with AQIM. But regardless of such ties, Ansar Al-Sharia has demonstrated that it can at the very least incite violent protests. This can constitute a strong leverage against the fragile Tunisian government.