Tunisia wary of terrorist threat ahead of elections

Experts warn that a terrorist attack could disrupt the country’s path to democracy

Asma Ajroudi
Asma Ajroudi - Al Arabiya News
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With Tunisia’s parliamentary elections due on Oct. 26 and the presidential vote next month, both politicians and political observers fear violent extremists would seek to disrupt the country’s march to democracy.

Earlier this week the ministry of interior announced dismantling the media and the logistical wings of a terrorist group suspected of plotting to carry out attacks against “prominent media and political figures.”

The ministry announced on Thursday that it would deploy 50,000 security forces to secure the upcoming elections.

Political analyst al-Ajmi al-Qasimi said any potential terrorist attack could affect voter turnout and cast questions over the results of the elections, the second in the North African country since a January 2011 revolution that ousted former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“Let’s consider the scenario in which terrorists succeed in assassinating a political figure; that would easily disrupt the elections season,” al-Qasimi told Al Arabiya News.

Tunisia is flanked by Algeria and Libya, two countries with active Islamist extremist groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Besides, Tunisia has its own terrorist group, the Ansar al-Shariah. It was established in 2011 and suspected behind the simultaneous attacks on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and the American Cooperative School of Tunis in 2012, and the assassination of two opposition figures, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed al-Brahimi later in 2013.

“We can no longer say that terrorism is just one of Tunisia’s problems. It is now a primary issue especially today when we are finally approaching the parliamentary and presidential elections,” said Noureddine Mbarki, another political analyst.

“Most political parties have made the fight against terrorism at the top of their agenda,” said Mbarki, warning that failing to acknowledge terrorism as a “real threat” could help militant groups flourish.

Ansar al-Shariah is seen as the main threat. The government considers it as a terrorist group and has this week arrested 16 of its leaders.

“If we look at the most recent crackdown on terrorist cells, we can confirm that their objective is to disrupt Tunisia’s democratic experience,” said Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, a lawyer and a leading member at the Nidaa Tunis political party.

She said Tunisia is a prime target of militant groups who wish for the country to take a different path because “Tunisia is the only successful example” of Arab revolutions.

“We have a new constitution, we have a strong civil society and we have efficient political parties. This does not suit the interests of terrorists and whoever is behind them,” Bel Haj Hmida said.

“If the Tunisian experience succeeds it could become contagious and spill over some other countries, to whom democracy is not appealing,” she said.

The killing and mutilating of 14 Tunisian soldiers, by the so-called Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade in the Mount Chaambi region near the Tunisian-Algerian border in July this year sent shock waves across the country.

The Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, according to the Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and uses the same torture and mutilation tactics of those AQIM in Algeria.

“These people hide and work underground. We will never be able to eliminate terrorism completely,” said al-Qasimi.

He noted that the government should work on building trust with citizens, who can help provide leads to suspected terrorists.

“Unfortunately such confidence was shaken since political parties began to demonize government officials and local governors, for example, who always served as the state’s eyes and ears,” said al-Qasimi.

“This is why the massacre in Mount Chaambi was able to happen. There was a lack of information due in part to the lack of confidence between the citizen and the state,” he said.

Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party and one of the presidential candidates said terrorism is a “real threat” in Tunisia but it is “under control.”

“Terrorists are attempting to sabotage Tunisia’s democratic transition but since the formation of Mahdi Jomaa’s government last year, the security forces and the army were able to critically harm the logistical infrastructure of the terrorist network in Tunisia,” he said.

“Even if a terrorist attack takes place now, it will not drive the country to a political deadlock like it did before,” he said.

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