Following a long suspense, the Ansar Charia rally planned for 19 May in Kairouan but banned by the interior ministry finally didn’t take place. But this did nothing to dent the commitment of Salafists to what they call their “Islamic revolution.” Beyond defying both the authorities and those Muslims who reject their “jihadist” approach to Islam, the supporters of Ansar Charia – notably those whom we met in Kairouan – see themselves as “bringers of justice, in the name of God, to establish the Caliphate and confront the ‘taghout’” in all its forms, especially that of the United States, and broadly condemn “democracy that allows the rape of women and the exploitation of land.” For these young people, among whom the unemployment rate for graduates is estimated at more than 37.9 percent, only sharia can construct a just new order from the ruins of a failed system and deepening corruption. [1]

Between authorization and announcement, the government plays the disinformation card.

On the evening of Saturday, 18 May, behind the Grand Mosque, images from the previous year’s rally haunted the square. This time it was surrounded by riot police dressed all in black. A few locals were hanging about, asking themselves the same question: “The rally hasn’t been granted authorization, but will it take place anyway, like last year?”

Everyone was talking about “authorization”- especially the interior ministry and the leaders of Ennahda. Yet according to Tunisian law, public gatherings don’t require authorization. Organizers need only announce the event beforehand with a simple statement to the interior ministry, as spelled out in Law 69-4 of 24 January 1969 on the regulation of public meetings, corteges, marches, and demonstrations.

Rejecting oversight by Ennahda and the state, Ansar Charia’s spokesman, Seif Eddine Raies, insisted that the movement had no need for “authorization” on the grounds that it “would work for God”. However, the incongruous use of the term “authorization” still implies acknowledgement that Ennahda sets the dominant political order in Tunisia.

Since the “Jebel Chaambi” incidents and the killing of a police officer, whose throat was cut by Salafists on 2 May at Jbal Jloud (Tunis), the government has sharpened its tone. The leaders of Ennahda have fired back at Salafists with provocative public statements. On 13 May, the party’s vice-president, Abdel Hamid Jlassi, described the members of Ansar Charia as “ghchacher” (“immature children”). Abdel Fattah Mourou called them “fous” (“crazy”). And Rached Ghannouchi labeled them “kharijites” during a press conference on 15 May.

Certainly, the Salafists have defied the state. But the question remains why the government didn’t simply push the letter of the law, without recourse to lexical slights-of-hand – “authorization” vs. “statement” – and fiery words from Ennahda politicians.

Very few media will mention the request submitted to the interior ministry on 14 May by the association of Mohamed Khalif, a son of the widely-respected Sheikh Abderrahman Khlif, which appears to be for authorization to hold the rally.

Autorisation Ansar Charia

Discovery of weapons and compromising documents at the home of a religious extremist in Haffouz, near Kairouan

The interior ministry banned the rally and said it considered statements by leaders of Ansar Charia “as an open defiance of the institutions of the state, an incitement against them, and a threat to public order.”

In addition, the ministry issued a statement informing the public that on 16 May, one day before the Ansar Charia rally was formally banned, a certain Walid C., described as a religious extremist, had been arrested by anti-terrorism agents in the district of Haffouz, in the Kairouan governorate. The agents found two gungs (type Marakov, Skaravov and Sable– 120 bullets, and instructions for dismantling weapon and making bombs. According to the interior ministry, Walid C. admitted that he had intended to target security forces and buildings of the police and army.

Without explaining in a 17 May statement any link between the ban on the rally and the discovery of weapons, the authorities imposed a state of alert on all roads leading to Kairouan to stop Salafists “exodus” either on foot or in louages. It wasn’t until the day of the cancelled rally, 19 May, that Prime Minister Ali Larayadh stated clearly while visiting Qatar that Ansar Charia was implicated in terrorist activity.
“Ansar Al-Charia is an illegal organization that defies and provokes the authority of the state […] It is linked to terrorism and involved in it,” he said.

Salafists appoint themselves bringers of justice against the “taghout”: media, security forces, government, and the United States

Forbidden from approaching the Grand Mosque, Salafists who had managed to enter Kairouan found refuge among mosques and organizations known to be dens of Salafism. On 19 May we went to meet some of them at the Abou Bakr Essediq mosque, near Avenue Haffouz, which leads toward the area where weapons had been discovered several days earlier. Once arrived near a street market [2], and accompanied by two journalists who had the misfortune of being Americans, we were swiftly received as personae non gratae – especially after one of our colleagues used his sound recorder without permission from “the leaders of the mosque.”

We were filmed like hostages by the Salafists at the scene, and jeered by the crowd that surrounded use and accused us of being spies. One young man snatched the recorder from my colleague’s hand and was about to dash it on the pavement before another stopped him. After that, we were led to the office nearby of the Association for Introducing Islam. There, after being welcomed with wafers, juice, and water, we had talked for over 45 minutes with several Salafists about the rally, sharia, and religion in general.

One of them [3] launched immediately into a lively critique of dishonest journalists and media who, he said, twisted facts. He cited as an example a certain “Edouard”, whom he said had made false claims that Salafists had cut off the hand of thief.

It’s America that is against the rally…The mausoleums that were burned, it’s we who are blamed, the stories of weapons get linked to us, and so has the Jebel Chaambi affair…Why don’t media talk more about it? It’s all fabrications, I tell you.

Another Salafist began to explain the meaning of the word “terrorism”: “The achievement of political goals through violence.” For him the United States is fighting not terrorism but Islam.

The model that these young men of Ansar Charia want to establish is that of the khilafa (Caliphate), led by a “Commander of the Faithful”, and in which anyone who “deviates from Islam” would be designated a “disbeliever,” one of the Salafists explained.

They also said that “response of sharia” is to “kill anyone who abandons Islam after having verified his mental state, and in the presence of witnesses.”

“However, we haven’t killed anyone and we haven’t given in to provocation,” they said.

From time to time, another Salafist came into the room to announce the support of their “brothers of Ansar Charia in Libya, in Syria, and in Algeria,” whom he said had staged demonstrations in support of Tunisian Salafists.

It’s the Islamic revolution!…Know that thanks to us there are aid caravans, and families that survive…As for that story of Jebel Chaambi, what proves that Salafists were involved?

The “taghout,” a term used to describe anyone or anything that represents profound injustice, and “that we can kill without judgment by sharia,” takes various forms in the Salafist worldview: first, the United States, “a colonizer in Iraq and Afghanistan,”…next, the Ennahda-led government that has refused to introduce a constitution consistent with sharia; finally, the media and security forces that “follow the instructions of their masters.”

Salafists deal in exclusion, says the imam of the Grand Mosque
In the Grand Mosque [5] of Kairouan, we also met the imam, Taieb Ghozzi, who has led the Friday prayers since Sheikh Abderrahmen Khlif died in 2006. In his view, the supporters of Ansar Charia want to appropriate Islam.

The problem is that they want to appropriate the word ‘salafism’, despite that every Muslim is a Salafist in the sense that he believes in the Qur’an and the Sunna.

According to the imam, the supporters of Ansar Charia are known for their “hardness and their takfir,” since they call anyone who doesn’t share their ideas a “kafir” (“disbeliever”).

They want to hold their rally in the square of the Grand Mosque, but they didn’t even ask. They do as they wish and simply refuse dialogue.

Mr. Ghozzi didn’t try to enter into dialogue with them, he said, but argued that, “Our doors are open …” As for the ban on the rally by the authorities, it serves “the good of the country.”
For Mr. Ghozzi, jihad today in Tunisia is mainly an economic affair. His last two sermons focused on workers’ rights and the importance of seeking perfection in one’s profession as the prophet Mohamed advised: “God loves that one any of you does a work, that he does it perfectly.

Those who are called Salafists exclude the other; they’ve been corrupted by extremist discourse.

The cause of this problem, which we’re experiencing today, is the “absence and halt of religious education, especially that which emanates from the Zeitouna University…” Mr. Ghozzi said.

Nevertheless, what the imam didn’t tell us, but which we learned thanks to the inhabitants of Kairouan, is that one of the leaders of the city’s Salafists is none other than Mohamed, one of three sons of Sheikh Khlif. In fact, it is he who preaches to the Salafists who stopped us at the Abou Bakr Essediq mosque and accused of being spies, and it was he who submitted the request to the authorities for authorization to hold the third Ansar Charia rally.

Mr. Khlif is a pediatrician but also “coordinator” between Salafists in Kairouan and Ansar Charia. After the death of his father, he wanted to take his place in the Grand Mosque. But the role went to Mr. Ghozzi instead. In contrast to his two brothers, he is known in the city both for his hardness and his frivolous spirit. According to one story told in Kairouan, he drank water before the evening prayer to announce the breaking of fast during the most recent Ramadan, which shocked Kairouanis. Presenting himself as a guide and imam, he is said to have accused the state of having stolen “three minutes” from Muslims. We hoped to meet him but were prevented from doing so by events… The lack of dialogue between Mr. Ghozzi and the Salafists whom he didn’t try to contact remains a divisive problem…

To each failing system, its own bringers of justice!

Faced with the problems of unemployment and poverty [6], thousands of Tunisians are demanding a new order of things – among them the supporters of Ansar Charia. For the socialist Samir Amghar, “belonging to the Islam of these movements, these young people intend to oppose the society of the ‘powerful’.” Facebook and the internet serve as means of communication with other groups who experience a similar situation of being “victims of social injustice” – notably in Arab-Muslim countries.

Moreover, the discourse of the Tunisian government as well as that of the elite and the opposition seems not to address this grievance. Some Tunisians even call for Salafists to be jailed and oppressed as they were under the Ben Ali regime. A pattern of political brinkmanship between the opposition and the government is emerging that avoids addressing fundamental problems of education and unemployment at the expense of a large part of the population – Tunisians in urgent need of political and economic solutions to fifty years of marginalization and social injustice.
[1] According to Transparency International’s 2012 report, Tunisia is ranked 75 out of 174 countries.
[2] On the main street, called tariq haffouz, or “Haffouz Avenue,” the informal sector is in plain view. In 2012, the black market was estimated to account for more than 42 percent of the national economy; 40 percent is the maximum level accepted globally.
[3] They refused to give their names.
[4] Disbelievers, called koufar in Arabic.
[5] In Kairouan, the Grand Mosque is named for Oqba Ibn Nafaa.
[6 ] In 2011, Mohamed Ennaceur, then minister of social affairs, said the poverty rate in Tunisia was 24.7 percent. This rate was calculated according to international standards that fix the poverty line at US$ 2.00 per day per person.