“That’s how it started in Algeria …”. One comment we hear whenever bearded men invade the streets of Tunisia, when an assassination occurs or firecrackers explode at a wedding. More and more, fear controls the minds of people and some even avoid going to the major shopping malls. Who knows when and where the bomb goes off, they say. These zealots who come to Tunisia with their strange clothes want to impose a strict application of religion. They seem determined to destroy the State and the Nation. The dark years of Algeria seem to breed in Tunisia.
However, Tunisia is still cited as an example of Arab democracy that works, and European tourism is in full swing. So, is it really a country on the brink of civil war? Is there an uncontrolled “Algerianisation”? Not so sure…
Two different societies
We must first acknowledge a major difference between Algeria and Tunisia, consisting of the militarization of Algerian society, at least psychologically, during the last sixty years. The War of Independence ended with a bloody decade (1954 – 1962) which costed nearly a million deaths. It was followed by the imposition of a military regime and revolutionary pan-Arab discourse, mobilizing people for the battles of the present and future. Algeria then had its war against Morocco in 1963, the War of the Sands, and has hosted armed groups in its territory (the Polisario and the PLO, for example), not to mention its covert operations in Central and West Africa during the 1960s and 1970s. The weapons were therefore “available”. The image of the Algerian brother with a rifle was not foreign to the average citizen. The young rebel could follow this path, at least more easily than in Tunisia.
In Tunisia, on the contrary, the fellagas were a handful of men, the postcolonial historiography did disappear. The Independence movement of 1955-1963 was a political process, with limited use of weapons. The (mini) civil war between Bourguibistes and Yousséfistes was also overshadowed in the history books, and part of the Tunisian youth did not even know its existence until 2011, when parties like Ennahda or CPR started to use it for populist purposes.
The regime was civilian, not military. Bourguiba ‘s successor was forced to exchange his uniform for a suit, and Ben Ali continued to weaken the army. The rules of the police state were that weapons were totally prohibited on the Tunisian territory, and again a majority of Tunisians only heard the sound of gunfire in January 2011. Propaganda and censorship finished the job. For the Tunisian people, before the Arab Spring, arms did not exist. This is why there was a collective surprise when stories of Tunisians fighting with the jihadists in Afghanistan and Syria surfaced, although Tunisians have always been part of the “elite” of global jihad , and they were on all fronts since the 1980s. The Tunisian fighter will always be an outsider in his country.
Jihadists and Politisislamists
On their return from Afghanistan and former Yugoslavia, the Algerian jihadists managed to get along with politislamists (supporters of political Islam). In Tunisia, there is a lot of animosity between the two movements and their leaders have followed different paths, whatever their opponents say. It is no coincidence that the leaders of the Algerian Islaist party, the FIS chose confrontation, while those of Ennahdha preferred to flee; one has an army while the other has only slogans.
The violence that Ennahdha seemed to cause in the late 1980s, after the merger of part of its leadership with the jihadists, has led to divisions within the movement. Joint meetings between Nahdhaouis and Salafists (jihadists or not) are minimal today. The families of the leaders of Ennahdha, formerly exiled in the West, are socially closer to Nidaa Tounes than to the Ansar al-Sharia.
Algeria in the 1990s, the military – power – has ruled as a parallel empire for a quarter of a century. The arrival of the revolutionary Islamists threatened the social status and economic privileges of officers and their families. They felt threatened with the loss of their privilges and status in the Islamist election victory, but this victory saw the decline and elimination of the Islamists. The survival of both sides was on the table. What then followed was a war of attrition.
In Tunisia, it has not yet reached this point. The army remains detached fom politics and supports the Republic. Ben Ali’s Ministry of the Interior, the backbone of the old regime, was defeated by the people in the 2011 revoltion. Its prerogatives were seen as marred by an uncontrollable and technically invincible actor. Two years later, the police have regained their position and are no longer so scared for their future because they are being courted jointly by the two forces in the country, namely Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes. As for Ennahdha, it now has the examples of Algeria in the 1990s and Egypt in 2013: to choose violence and speed things up would be an unacceptably high risk. This to say, that the risk of large-scale confrontation is far, far away.
Islamization of society?
Islamists in Algeria were able to establish themselves in the population and create a real social base prior to 1992. Their demonstrations actually accounted for hundreds of thousands of people willing to die for their cause, which they did. When was the last “maliouniyyaof” Ennahdha, and since when does “maliouniyya” mean a few thousand?
As for the Salafists, remember the last annual meeting of Ansar al-Sharia (2013): When there was a political decision, the backbone of the radicals gave in. They tried to resist, but in vain. They lost the challenge, and few people have argued. Islamists therefore remain a minority in Tunisian society, and if they take up arms, there will be few homes willing to accept them.
The Geopolitics of Algeria is a safe haven for jihadists: in the East, Kabyle the land of the Algerian Berbers remains at odds with the central government in the dense mountains that are complement to Tunisia, and through the desert areas of the south and the semi-autonomous tribes which they marauded, in West, which originates from the effects of the conflict with Morocco, the state barely controls some parts of its territory. This is the modern history of Algeria, where the central government has not completely eliminated terrorism.
Tunisia is a small country on the contrary, much more centralized, with a homogeneous population. Networks that are activated within its borders are known to the security services, and they are surrounded and isolated (Châambi, few nests in Manouba or Bizerte, etc..). It is virtually impossible for a large armed militia to survive in Tunisia. When the government decides to tighten the noose, and the police and army are ready, the jihadist threat will be at risk itself.
This article was translated from French to English.
author: Youssef Cherif
the Huffingtonpost Maghreb
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