Clashes broke out on Sunday in a western suburb of Tunis and in the city of Kairouan at the Mosque of the Martyrs between Tunisian police and militants of the proscribed Ansar al-Sharia cell. Although the movement makes exaggerated claims for its adherents, I shouldn’t imagine they amount to more than a couple thousand core members, though the broader Salafi movement sometimes sympathizes with Ansar. It is especially strong in Ettadhamen and Intilaqa, western slums on the outskirts of the capital of Tunis.
The Arab revolutions of 2011 unleashed many energies, as with all revolutions, both positive and negative. In France, 1789 gave us both the declaration of the Rights of Man and the bloody Vendee peasant revolt in favor of the king, which left perhaps 40,000 dead.
In Tunisia and Libya, most social forces have favored a turn to parliamentary government and free and fair elections. The outcomes differed, though. In Tunisia, the religious Right party, al-Nahda, got 37% of the vote and was able to form a government in coalition with small secular parties. In Libya, the vote was conducted 90% on a non-party basis. Among the 30% of seats awarded by party, relatively few went to the Muslim Brotherhood, with nationalists taking the majority. Many of the independents have religious commitments, but don’t appear to be partisans of a hard line fundamentalist ideology.
But in addition to the vast majority of organizations and parties that support parliamentary rule, the revolutions freed small extremist parties, collectively known as Ansar al-Sharia, to act out and engage in terrorism in a way that the former authoritarian regimes would not have permitted.
The Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia announced it was holding an annual conference in the old central Islamic city of Kairouan in Tunisia on Sunday. Since members have been accused of involvement in attacks on the US embassies in Tunisia and Libya, the Tunisian government banned the meeting. The organization is led by the fugitive Abu Ayad (Saif Allah Ben Hussein), a former American ally who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and who has been in hiding since he was implicated in the Benghazi consulate attack. The radicals, defiant, insisted they would hold their conference.
The al-Nahda government has been reluctant to move against Muslim religious groups, even radical ones, for fear of alienating elements of their own base. But after the assassination in February of leftist leader Chokry Belaid, probably by an Ansar sympathizer, the new prime minister Ali Lareyedh, appears to feel it necessary to take a stand somewhere. Belaid’s killing resulted in a massive protest in Tunis in the hundreds of thousands, and shook the al-Nahda government, which will face polls sometime in the next 8 months. Former al-Nahda PM Hamadi Jebali had wanted to form a government of national unity after the assassination, but was forced out when his party refused to give up power. Lareyedh, the former Interior Minister on whose watch Belaid was killed, therefore faces the challenge of justifying continued al-Nahda rule, including provision of better security. (I heard Lareyedh speak at a conference in Tunis on March 31).
Tunisia benefits from the fact that its army was not dissolved in the course of its brief revolution, and ordinary police forces likewise survived the revolution. It did have to disband or reorganize its STASI-like secret police, but on the whole the country’s security capacity is not insignificant compared to that of Libya to its east, where the old Gaddafi cadres largely collapsed and the army is weak and demoralized.
A rash of bombings and attacks in Benghazi has been shaken by a series of attacks on police stations and small gelatino bombings that caused no deaths and little damage, but have rattled nerves in the city. On Friday, crowds gathered outside the city’s major five-star hotel, protesting the continued insecurity. After the September 11, 2012, attack on the US consulate in the city, large angry crowds forced militant fundamentalist militiamen out of the city. But the cells, collectively called ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ or Helpers of Religious Law, have safe houses 10 km. out from Benghazi and are able to come in and attack clinics and other soft targets.
USG Open Source Center quotes “Benghazi Al-Tadamun Online in Arabic on 15 May carries a 60-word report saying that commando forces, Libyan Army forces, police officers, and elements of the Supreme Security Commission were deployed to secure Benghazi city.”
The government security forces are still not very good, and contain large numbers of militiamen of questionable discipline and questionable loyalty to the elected government.
Maybe the US Congressmen on the Hill could devote some energy to actually helping the situation in contemporary Benghazi by offering the Libyan government more help with training up a new professional army and police force.
The USG Open Source center translates snippets from the Libyan Arabic press from these past few days of violence:
“Benghazi Al-Tadamun Online in Arabic on 15 May carries a 100-word report citing Ali al-Shaykhi, official spokesperson for the Libyan Army General Staff, as saying that “the security situation in Benghazi city became stable following the attack on the national security center in the Al-Hada’iq neighborhood on 14 May.”
Benghazi Al-Tadamun Online in Arabic on 15 May carries a 35-word report on a graduation ceremony held yesterday in Al-Zawiyah city for 600 individuals affiliated with the national security.
Benghazi Quryna al-Jadidah Online in Arabic — Website of privately owned weekly independent newspaper… http://www.qurynanew.com/ –on 15 May carries a 125-word report saying that the police station in the Al-Hada’iq neighborhood of Benghazi city was attacked by “an subversive group, resulting in structural damage to the building.” The report adds that “the commando forces thwarted the attack and exchanged fire with the assailants, killing one of them.”
Tripoli Al-Watan Online in Arabic on 16 May carries a 950-word commentary saying: “How can the Libyan intelligence chief be unaware of what is happening in Libya?” The commentary adds that “this incident has shown that the Libyan Government and the GNC do not deserve to govern Libya, given the fact that the country under their power is moving backward.” The commentary goes on to say: “The Libyan Government and members of the GNC should acknowledge their dereliction of duty.” The commentary concludes by saying that “the money of Libyan people must be spent on the establishment of a strong civilized army and police governed by a law that applies to everyone,” and the GNC should shoulder its responsibility in finishing drafting the new constitution.”
Tripoli Al-Watan Online in Arabic on 16 May carries a 1,600-word commentary by Muhammad Iqmiya. The commentary says that “the Arab Spring in Libya was under the auspices of Gulf countries, particularly Qatar, which deliberately shifted the political mobility in Libya to become tribally-oriented.” The commentary adds that “Qatar adopted the principle of tribal quotas since the formation of the first Libyan political entity; namely, the National Transitional Council, NTC, in addition to the political parties’ adoption of the tribal dimension in creating their popularity, as is in the Muslim Brotherhood’s case.” The commentary goes on to say that “armed militias, whether tribal or religious, undermine the authority and sovereignty of the nascent state in Libya.” The commentary adds: “When the emir of Qatar announced, in a news conference at the end of the war (that toppled Al-Qadhafi), that ‘revolutionaries are not going to hand over their weapons,’ he was not concerned about the revolutionaries or Libya.” The commentary concludes by saying that “a comprehensive national reconciliation and the issuance of a law for transitional justice is the solution to save Libya.”