From victim to hangman? The Tunisian troika and the rise of Salafism

By Francesco Cavatorta, Stefano Maria Torelli,
Submitted to Session P3673 (Social Mobilization and Authoritarian Learning in the Post-Arab Uprisings Period, 2014 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Tunisia;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The prominent role Salafism – in all its guises – has played in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution and subsequent process of regime change has raised numerous and legitimate questions about the commitment of Salafist groups to democracy and to social pluralism. All Tunisian political actors have reacted negatively to Salafist activism because of the apparent obstacle to the process of transition. Even the Islamist party Nahda, despite being accused of encouraging and protecting Salafists, ultimately took a tough stance against Ansar a Sharia (AST), the most significant Salafi groups in the country, declaring the group a terrorist organisation.
It seems quite paradoxical that political parties and social movements that had gone through the harsh repressive measures of the Ben Ali regime resorted to rather a rather similar strategy to deal with the challenge of AST. What explains this repressive turn in light of the oft repeated mantra of former dissidents, and scholarly work (Hafez, 2003; Hamidi, 2011), that repression only breeds radicalization?
The answer to this question is particularly important in so far as the case of Tunisia is quite exceptional because it is not a case of authoritarian learning in the face of new types of social mobilisation. Despite the difficult and volatile process of regime change Tunisia has not reverted back to authoritarian rule, but significant sectors of its political and social elites have been able to deal with the challenge of Salafism largely through calls for repression. This has to do with both internal and external factors. On the one hand, the inability of political and social groups to deal with the reality of a Tunisia that they had ignored the existence of has led to calls for stamping down radical religious movements that organise through mosque-based networks in poorer areas, representing therefore both an ideological and a class threat. On the other, the international community, as if to test the moderation of the Islamist Nahda, has demanded a clamp down an Salafists as well to which Nahda, eager to please, has positively responded. Repression however has not eliminated the demands of AST’s Salafism nor has it significantly undermined some of the social prestige it enjoys. In short, the presentation investigates how past practices of Islamist mobilization and state repression frame the options for new forms of Islamist activism and state policing in a post-revolutionary Tunisian polity.