Is the Ansar al-Shariah Crackdown a True About Face?

by Nathaniel Greenberg

The Libyan consulate bombing has drifted into the twilight world of murder mystery and conspiracy theory, a talking point for American political pundits, and major source of frustration for leaders in the region. In Cairo a militant from Libya suspected of having participated in the Consulate attack was killed when Egyptian authorities raided his hideout in Nasser City earlier this week. But it is doubtful that this action represents a true change of heart for the region’s Islamists.

Source: Ahram.org

The Libyan Karim Ahmed Essam al-Azizi, it turns out, was thought to be part of a terrorist cell planning assassinations against Egyptian political figures.

On Tuesday, October 23, The Daily Beast reported that a Tunisian man arrested in Istanbul, reportedly with a fake passport, was being held in Tunisia on suspicion of being involved in the Benghazi attack. His arrest underscored the recent attempt on the part of the Tunisian government to crack down on members of Ansar al-Shariah.

On Thursday, for example, they sentenced Selim Ghantri, or Abou Ayoub, a leader of the group, to one year in prison for his role in the demonstrations against the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. The Tunis police also tried to arrest the leader of the group Sayf Allah Ben Hassin (AKA Abou ‘Iyadh), but he fled to the Al-Fath mosque in downtown Tunis where his supporters vowed to defend him to the death. Citing the traffic congestion the standoff had caused, the police eventually abandoned their effort.

Abou ‘Iyadh

Abou ‘Iyadh has since fled to Algeria, but in his latest video posting through the group’s YouTube channel he attacked both Tunisia’s Islamist-led coalition government for being Western puppets and the prominent new opposition party, Nidaa Tounes. In his signature tone of playful condescension he asks: “what is ‘the Call (nida’a) of Tunis?’ It is the disease (daa’) of Tunis!” This flash of verlan rhetoric, a nod perhaps to his years of living and studying in Europe, has set him apart from all the other jihadists selling their message to the youth of Tunisia’s industrial centers. He also had the clever idea of deputizing members of the audience at a speech he gave last May, encouraging them to think of themselves as “political police.” Many of them took the message to heart, setting out last summer to terrorize Tunisia’s upscale neighborhoods, ransacking art galleries, liquor stores, and movie theaters.

Abou ‘Iyadh’s and Ansar al-Shari‘ah’s reign of terror hardly bothered the country’s elected Islamists, however. In fact, the day following the most egregious incident of the summer, a twenty-four hour rampage through the upscale neighborhoods of the capital following an art-exhibit that displayed “blasphemous” instillations, Al-Nahdha (Ennahda) introduced a ban on violations of the “sacred” into the Draft Constitution, effectively bolstering the work of the pillagers. The Sacred Values amendment, Article 3, enraged Tunisia’s advocates of free speech and alarmed human rights groups who saw it as a step— along with proposals to limit the rights of women and criminalize normalization with Israel— towards the creation of a new theocracy in North Africa.

What was once perceived as complacency on the part of the government, opponents now see as conspiratorial behavior. In a video posted on You Tube several months ago and leaked to the media on October 9, the Grover Norquist-esque Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s extra-official leader, was seen telling a Salafi activist to “be patient.” Sounding much like his radical counterpart Abou ‘Iyadh, he lambasted the Algerian government. “We don’t want to go down their path,” he said, referring to the overthrow of the Islamist government in 1991 and the brutal civil war that ensued. “Today we have more than a mosque,” he said, “we have a Ministry of Religious Affairs. We have more than a single store. We have a State.” He explained that Abou ‘Iyadh and his group, like Ennahda, are “sons” of the same movement.

The video confirmed the suspicion of many that his party had been functioning as a kind of moderate political cover for a more extremist agenda in the streets. This theory has historical points of reference too. According to Alison Pargeter, Ennahda, in its previous manifestation as Mouvement de Tendance Islamique (MTI), explicitly formulated a two-sided strategy. She quotes an internal document from 1986 in which a member of the group writes: “Revolution requires that the confrontation is not just between us and the regime but we have to bring the people in to it” (p. 80).

The 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt appeared to meet this criterion. The Muslim Brotherhood, who shares ideology and history with Ennahda, allowed the “people” to initiate the occupation of Tahrir Square on January 25 before taking things over on the 28th. The Brotherhood was well aware of the effectiveness of this strategy. During the 1952 revolution, Nasser told the Brotherhood, in secret, to “take the streets” while his group, the Free Officers, disarmed the palaces. This dynamic did not last long, however. Nasser famously cracked down on the Brotherhood following an attempt on his life in 1954.

History may shed some light on the consulate attack, but it will not reverse reality. Officials need to gauge the new arrests with a grain of salt. Arresting token members of Ansar al-Shari‘ah looked good, but letting Abou ‘Iyadh walk was no mistake. Just enough chaos in the streets or on the borders (the government announced the arrest on Friday of smugglers carrying large amounts of hydrocarbon chemicals along the Algerian border) reinforces the relative moderateness of the people in power.

Perhaps more subtle than the Mafioso protection rackets of old— but not entirely different— the present game of cat and mouse between political Islamists and Salafi jihadists is little more than a friendly game of badminton. The new-normal setting in across the region is epitomized by a group like the Leagues for Protection of the Revolution (Les ligues de protection de la revolution). Ghannouchi has called this group “the conscience of the country.” When Nidaa Tunis, the Popular Front and other secular groups took to the streets on October 23, 2012 to protest the absence of security, the ongoing political inertia, and the floundering economy, the Leagues went one step further: they besieged the Constituent Assembly. Their aim was to purify it of corrupt remnants, and per the name of their movement, to protect the revolution.