On February 6, 2013, Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated outside his home. A critic of Tunisia’s current Islamist-led government, Belaid was shot four times by one to two assailants.[1] In the wake of his death, opposition parties and some civil society activists accused the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda Party of organizing Belaid’s assassination.[2] Accusations against Ennahda continued even when four young Salafists—all between 26- and 34-years-old—were arrested shortly after the incident for their alleged involvement.[3] The suspected assassin, Kamel El Gathgathi, a 35-year-old violent Salafist, is still at large.[4]

Chokri Belaid was among those politicians who suspected Ennahda of supporting Tunisia’s controversial Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution.[5] Some young Islamist members of the Leagues have been accused of sabotaging meetings of left-wing politicians, committing violence against civil society activists, and being involved in the death of Lotfi Naguedh, a local coordinator of the opposition Nidaa Tounes Party.[6] In a country long hailed for its peculiarly moderate interpretation of Islam,[7] most observers have been surprised by the increase in religiously-motivated violence perpetrated by Tunisian youth.[8] Although the causes of radicalization in Tunisia are complex,[9] this article focuses on the under-researched Islamist youth movements to better understand the dynamics attracting some young Tunisians to violent jihad.

This article first provides a brief historical account of Tunisia’s Islamist youth and its links to violence. It then details the main post-revolutionary religious youth movements and outlines the factors that are encouraging some young Tunisians to join ultraconservative groups.

It finds that the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party risks losing its appeal among Islamist youth, who may move increasingly toward Salafist, and in some cases jihadist, groups.

Tunisia’s current Islamist youth movements can only be understood in the context of their predecessors. In the 1970s, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the current head of the Ennahda Party, was a popular teacher, preacher and youth leader, attracting students and young people to his weekly discussions and events. Initially concerned with sociocultural change, in the late-1970s al-Ghannouchi’s movement, then known as Jama`a Islamiyya (The Islamic Group), became more political in its goals.[10] The student wing of Jama`a Islamiyya—which was renamed the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) in 1981 and then Ennahda in 1989—was particularly revolutionary and confrontational toward the regime. The student wing openly supported the 1980 Gafsa attack[11]—during which Tunisian dissenters bombed several strategic government locations—while Jama`a Islamiyya released a statement condemning the incident.

In 1985, Islamist students officially created the General Tunisian Union of Students (UGTE), whose confrontational attitude led to several clashes with the regime.[12] Although a predominantly peaceful movement comprising mostly young Ennahda members, the UGTE was dissolved in 1991 when the Bab Souika affair[13] led the regime to a nationwide crackdown on Islamists.[14]

The repression of the Ennahda movement resulted in an “Islamic vacuum” that was partially filled by more religiously conservative movements that emerged in the mid-1990s and 2000s, including the violent Salafi-jihadi trend, which particularly attracted young Tunisians. The religiously conservative movements were composed of generally small informal groups without any central leadership, but they often entertained regional links to more religiously radical movements.[15] The 2001 Djerba attack, for example, was conducted by a young Tunisian with links to al-Qa`ida.[16] The so-called “Suleiman group,” established in 2006 to confront the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime by force, consisted mostly of Tunisians in their 20s and early 30s, many of whom were still university students.[17] The increasing allure of ultraconservatism for young Tunisians, including its jihadist dynamic, at that time represented a reaction to the fierce regime repression of Islamists. Yet it was also the result of a wider regional tendency toward Islamic conservatism, and reflected the lack of any religious leadership inside Tunisia capable of countering this trend, given that the more moderate Ennahda activists were either imprisoned or exiled. It is by the light of this Salafist trend, as well as the early Ennahda youth movements, that Tunisia’s Islamist youth must today be understood.

Mapping Tunisia’s Post-Revolution Islamist Youth
Tunisia’s current Islamist youth, a highly heterogeneous movement, is in many ways a hybrid of two distinct Islamist dynamics—the Ennahda and Salafist movements—that have shaped Tunisia over the recent decades. This hybrid can be seen in the membership of the current UGTE, the student union that was banned in 1991 but was legalized following the recent revolution. Before its dissolution in 1991 being a member of the UGTE was almost synonymous with being an Ennahda member,[18] but this is no longer the case post-revolution.

Today, the Islamist student union brings together members of Ennahda’s youth wing as well as young Salafists, alongside some independents, and can therefore be classified as much more religiously conservative than its predecessor during the 1980s and early-1990s. The visibility of Salafist youth on university campuses has particularly increased, as have their demands, such as wearing the niqab (a veil that covers the entire face, except for the eyes) during classes and examinations, as well as establishing special prayer rooms.[19] This has contributed to a strained atmosphere and sometimes violent conflict between the UGTE and its competitor, the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), a secular-leftist body.[20] The resulting polarization on university campuses, reflecting the wider political climate in Tunisia, is only likely to contribute to increased religious conservatism among some UGTE activists.

While united on campus, Tunisia’s Islamist youth take distinct forms outside the universities. Shortly after the revolution, the Ennahda Party launched its own youth wing, whose members meet regularly for various social and educational activities. The priority of the Ennahda youth movement lies in Islamic education, and weekly lessons are given in local party offices across the country.[21] Senior Ennahda members argue that many of their young members lack an in-depth understanding of Islam and blame the culture of authoritarianism under Ben Ali, which made it difficult to receive a quality Islamic education.[22]

On Ennahda’s right, Tunisia’s Salafist movements are increasingly recruiting young Tunisians.[23] Although minority movements, many divergent Salafist streams exist in Tunisia,[24] with Ansar al-Shari`a, led by Seifallah ben Hassine (also known as Abu Iyad), who is wanted by the police for his involvement in the U.S. Embassy attack in Tunis, probably the most prominent.[25] Most of Tunisia’s Salafist movements concentrate their activities entirely on preaching and in the sociocultural sphere, although with the creation of Jabhat al-Islah (Reform Front Party)[26] in mid-2012, they have also entered the political arena, even though their membership base is small.[27] The heterogeneous Salafist landscape and its various movements, most of which are informal, seem to play into the strength and visibility of the movement.

The Salafists Threaten Ennahda’s Support Base
With both Ennahda and the Salafists actively recruiting Tunisian youth, some former members of Ennahda’s youth branch have decided to join the ultraconservatives, citing three main reasons for their resolve.[28]

First, they were disappointed that Ennahda did not support including a reference to Shari`a in the new Tunisian constitution.[29] This decision led many conservative Muslims to reproach the Islamist party for betraying the very spirit of Islam.[30] Many Salafists subsequently labeled Ennahda as “un-Islamic” and an ally of the West.[31]

Second, many young conservative Muslims feel that Ennahda is not doing enough to “clean” the country of people who had worked for the autocratic and secular Ben Ali regime.[32] Some cite this as one of the main reasons behind the controversial behavior of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, stating that if the government does not do enough to protect the country and its revolutionary objectives, this task must be taken up by the people.

Third, some blame the government for continuing economic hardship,[33] and claim that the current regime has failed to launch substantial socioeconomic reforms.[34]

To the unease of Ennahda’s leadership, this threefold criticism is actually shared by many current members of its youth branch as well. Indeed, it seems that the split between moderates and more radical activists, predominant among Ennahda’s senior members, is even more pronounced within its youth, pitting those who grew up as sons and daughters of exiled activists in the liberal atmosphere of the West against those of political prisoners who had remained in Tunisia, often under harsh conditions. As a young Ennahda member explained, “when I grew up, my father, an Ennahda activist, was in prison. I was lucky because my mother worked and taught me a modern interpretation of Islam. But I am more of an exception. Many other young Islamists grew up in deep poverty and did not receive this kind of education but instead watched Saudi TV. This led some members of Ennahda’s youth branch to become actually very close to the current Salafi trend.”[35]

Therefore, when Ennahda decided against including a reference to Shari`a in the constitution, many young members were disappointed. They also reproached their leaders for not being consulted about the decision in advance.[36] Integrating its youth, many of whom appear to be ideologically detached from the leadership, seems to be a difficult task for Ennahda.

The challenge to Tunisia’s security clearly lies in the potential radicalization of the country’s youth. With many young Islamists still striving to find their identity, a competition for the religiously conservative youth has emerged in Tunisia between Ennahda and the Salafists, with both offering youth-targeted religious lectures, and cultural and social activities. Ennahda’s solid institutional structures and historical legitimacy—derived from its fierce opposition to Tunisia’s past autocratic regimes and subsequent persecution—will continue to attract some young people. Yet Ennahda’s important role in the political sphere, and the blame it must take for economic stagnation and political compromise, which some conservative Muslims perceive as contrary to the Islamic way of life, will continue to play into the hands of the Salafist movement. Also, the fact that some young Ennahda members do not feel sufficiently included in the decisions taken by their leaders does not play in favor of the ruling party.

In the midst of this religious turmoil, the trend toward ultraconservatism and the increasing polarization between secular and Islamist forces will continue to attract some young Tunisian Muslims to jihadism. Although Ennahda initially featured a “soft” approach to small-scale religiously-motivated violence, it has become increasingly uncompromising toward jihadism.[37] It is also attempting, mostly through education, to prevent many of its young members from defecting to ultraconservative religious movements. This may eventually signal to society, including those who were active in accusing Ennahda of being responsible for the death of Chokri Belaid, that the true division in Tunisia is not between Islamists and secularists, but between moderate and radical Islam.

Anne Wolf is a graduate of Cambridge University specializing in North African affairs. She works in Tunisia as a journalist, researcher and political risk analyst.

[1] Eileen Byrne, “Tunisian Opposition Leader Shot Dead,” Guardian, February 7, 2013.

[2] “Ennahdha et un pays du Golfe derrière l’assassinat de Chokri Belaïd?“ Webmanagercenter.com, April 2, 2013. For details, see “Tunisie: l’assassinat de Chokri Belaid provoque une vague de manifestations anti-Ennahda,” Jeune Afrique, February 6, 2013.

[3] Former Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Larayedh stated in February that the principal suspects belong to an “extremist Salafi movement.” For details, see “Meurtre de Chokri Belaid: la mouvance salafiste pointée du doigt par Tunis,” France24, February 26, 2013; Bouazza Ben Bouazza, “Chokri Belaid Murder: 4 Arrested For Involvement In Death of Tunisian Politician,” Huffington Post, February 26, 2013.

[4] “Assassinat de Chokri Belaid: Genèse d’un crime et velléités d’épilogue!” AfricanManager.com, March 1, 2013.

[5] The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution were initially established under Tunisia’s transitional government to safeguard the objectives of the revolution. Although originally comprising various political and ideological streams, the Leagues are said to be increasingly dominated by Islamists, some of whom are accused of having attacked political opponents, journalists and civil society organizations. For details, see Roua Seghaier, “What are the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution?” Tunisia Live, January 23, 2013.

[6] Angelique Chrisafis, “Tunisia Gripped by General Strike as Assassinated Chokri Belaid is Buried,” Guardian, February 8, 2013; “Tunisie: Maya Jribi réitère son appel à la dissolution des Ligues de protection de la révolution,” Kapitalis, March 31, 2013; “Tunisia Clash Leaves Opposition Official Dead,” al-Jazira, October 19, 2012.

[7] This perspective has long been fueled by past regimes’ policies of Westernization that opened Tunisia up, economically and politically, and brought secularism, education and women’s rights to the country. The apparent legacy of early-20th century modernist thinkers, such as Tahar Haddad, as well as accounts according to which polygamy was practically absent in Tunisia long before its official prohibition under Habib Bourguiba in 1956, seemed to confirm the argument that there is indeed something specifically modern about Muslims in Tunisia. See, for example, Dalenda Larguèche, Monogamie en Islam: l’Exception Kairouanaise (Manouba, Tunisia: Centre de Publication Universitaire, Laboratoire Régions et Ressources Patrimoniales de Tunisie, 2011).

[8] In addition to these incidents, an estimated 11 out of the 32 hostage takers at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria were of Tunisian nationality. Additionally, young Tunisians are actively participating in the Syrian war. See Thomas Joscelyn, “Tunisian Government Arrests al Qaeda Cell Tied to Ansar al Sharia,” The Long War Journal, December 22, 2012; “The Algerian-Tunisian Border: Tales of a Taxi Driver,” Economist, April 4, 2013; Mischa Benoit-Lavelle, “Tunisian Salafis on the Rise,” al-Monitor, January 30, 2013.

[9] Many reports cite socioeconomic background and education as primary factors of radicalization. The release of radical Salafists from prison and the return of exiled ultraconservatives to Tunisia following the revolution are also important factors explaining their increased visibility in society. For details, see, for example, “Tunisie: violences et défi salafiste,” International Crisis Group, February 13, 2013;  Anne Wolf, “Tunisia: Signs of Domestic Radicalization Post-Revolution,” CTC Sentinel 6:1 (2013).

[10] For details, see John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[11] Alaya Allani, “The Islamists in Tunisia between Confrontation and Participation: 1980-2008,“ The Journal of North African Studies 14:2 (2009): p. 261.

[12] For details, see Francois Burgat and William Dowell, The Islamic Movement in North Africa (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993).

[13] On February 17, 1991, three young members of the Ennahda movement attacked the office of the government Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party in Bab Souika. The incident led to the death of one security guard. See Wolf, “Tunisia: Signs of Domestic Radicalization Post-Revolution.”

[14] Michael Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Al¬geria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2012), p. 168.

[15] For details, see Alison Pargeter, “Radicalisation in Tunisia,” in George Joffe ed., Islamist Radicalisation in North Africa: Politics and Process (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[16] “France Tries Trio over Djerba Synagogue Bombing,” Agence France-Presse, January 4, 2009.

[17] Pargeter; Wolf, “Tunisia: Signs of Domestic Radicalization Post-Revolution.”

[18] The UGTE at that time also comprised some independent Islamist members, such as Souad Abderrahim. See personal interviews, former UGTE activists, Tunis, Tunisia, August 2012 and March 2013.

[19] For details, see, for example, “Tunisie. Six étudiantes en niqab en grève de la faim à Manouba,” Kapitalis, January 17, 2012; Bouazza Ben Bouazza, “Tunisia Manouba University Students Face Off Over Islamic Veil On Campus,” Huffington Post, April 1, 2012.

[20] For details, see, for example, “Tunisie – Violences au campus entre UGTE et UGET, Ennahda prend parti,” Business News [Tunis], April 6, 2012.

[21] Personal interviews, Ennahda youth activists, Tunis, Tunisia, March 2013.

[22] Ibid.

[23] For details, see John Thorne, “Islamist Militancy Quietly Makes Inroads in Post-Revolution Tunisia,” Christian Science Monitor, March 28, 2013.

[24] Broadly speaking, the Salafist movement can be classified into two streams: the “Scientific Salafists,” who reject the use of violence, and the Salafi-jihadis, who are prepared to use violence to reach their goal of implementing Shari`a in Tunisia. For details, see Wolf, “Tunisia: Signs of Domestic Radicalization Post-Revolution.”

[25] Founded by Abu Iyadh upon his release from prison shortly after the Tunisian revolution, Ansar al-Shari`a organized a mass rally in May 2012 in Kairouan that was attended by up to 5,000 Salafist activists. Ansar al-Shari`a has also organized Salafist lectures and campaigns against blasphemy. For details, see Aaron Zelin, “Maqdisi’s Disciples in Libya and Tunisia,” Foreign Policy, November 14, 2012; Louisa Loveluck, “Planting the Seeds of Tuni¬sia’s Ansar al Sharia,” Foreign Policy, September 27, 2012.

[26] For details, see Anne Wolf, “New Salafist Party: A Threat to Tunisia’s Democratic Transition?” Middle East Online, August 3, 2012.

[27] Personal interview, Mohammed Khouja, head of Reform Front Party, Tunis, Tunisia, August 2012.

[28] Personal interviews, Salafists, former and current members of Ennahda’s youth branch, Tunis, Tunisia, March 2013.

[29] For details, see “Tunisia’s Ennahda to Oppose Sharia in Constitution,” Reuters, March 26, 2012.

[30] When Ennahda dropped a reference to Shari`a in the constitution, even some senior Ennahda members protested in front of the Constituent Assembly. See Wafa Sdiri, “Tunisie: Habib Ellouz au Bardo assure qu’Ennahda va oeuvrer pour l’inclusion de la chariaa dans la Constitution,” Tunisie Numerique, March 16, 2012.

[31] “Tunisia Jails Salafist Leader in U.S. Embassy Attack for One Year,” Reuters, October 24, 2012.

[32] Personal interviews, Salafists, former and current members of Ennahda youth branch, Tunis, Tunisia, March 2013.

[33] In some regions, youth unemployment is more than 30%. See “Tunisia Raises Economic, Social Challenges Amid Historic Transformation,” International Monetary Fund, September 5, 2012.

[34] Personal interviews, Salafists, former and current members of Ennahda youth branch, Tunis, Tunisia, March 2013.

[35] Personal interview, member of Ennahda’s youth branch, Tunis, Tunisia, March 2013.

[36] Ibid.

[37] For example, following the U.S. Embassy attack in September 2011, Tunisian authorities arrested more than 100 Salafists. While in prison, several Salafists engaged in a hunger strike resulting in the deaths of two activists. See “Tunisia Govt Faces Dilemma over Islamist Hunger Strikes,” al-Arabiya, November 20, 2012.

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