In Power, Tunisia’s Secularists Must Now Tackle Islamic Militancy

In Power, Tunisia’s Secularists Must Now Tackle Islamic Militancy
The Islamist Ennahda party holds a large rally in the Mediterranean port city of Sfax in southeast Tunisia, Oct. 2014 (Atlantic Council photo).

Tunisia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday confirm the erosion of trust over the past three years in the Islamist party Ennahda, which failed to live up to its electoral promises and implement an effective post-revolutionary political agenda after the ouster of longtime autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Nidaa Tounes, the secular party led by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year old anchor of the country’s old guard, won with 39 percent of votes, while Ennahda, which dominated the 2011 elections under the leadership of longtime dissident Rachid Ghannouchi and governed the country until ceding power to an interim government in January 2014, came in second with just under 32 percent of votes.

Two issues played a key role in shaping public perceptions of Ennahda’s performance while in power: the lack of overall economic growth and the party’s hesitancy in tackling growing security problems and Islamic militancy. Nidaa Tounes, an alliance of former Ben Ali-era officials, leftist politicians and secularists that formed in 2012 to oppose the Islamists, campaigned and won on just such a platform. But there are no easy fixes: In addition to the economy, the rising threat of Salafi jihadism in Tunisia will be on the top of the next government’s agenda.

The security effort will focus on Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), a Salafi jihadist group founded in April 2011 that has emerged as one of Tunisia’s most violent. Its leader, Seif-Allah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, is suspected of playing a key role in the September 2012 assault on the American embassy in Tunis, which left two people dead. AST is also believed to be responsible for the assassinations of two leftist secularist political leaders, Chokri Belaid, in February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi, in July 2013, which led the Tunisian government to designate AST a terrorist group.

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