Political Battles in Tunisia Shade Attacks on U.S. Embassy

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Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

Tunisian protesters attack the U.S. embassy in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012

As hundreds of people swarmed the U.S. embassy in Tunis last Friday afternoon, the phone rang in the office of the country’s President, Moncef Marzouki. It was Hillary Clinton, pleading with him to help secure the American compound, just up the hill from his sprawling seaside palace. So Marzouki played a risky political card: he dispatched his presidential guards to the embassy, effectively muscling in on the country’s military and police forces — a show of strength in an intense power struggle between secular Tunisians like himself and the Islamic party that dominates the government. “We were really scared about the possibility that something like what happened in Benghazi would happen in Tunis,” Marzouki’s spokesman Adnen Mansar told TIME on Saturday, referring to last Tuesday’s calamitous siege of the U.S. consulate in that Libyan city in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed. “We sent hundreds of our presidential guards with a lot of arms,” said Mansar, recalling Clinton’s two calls on Friday. “Half the arrests were made by our guards, whose job is only to protect the President and his staff.”

While U.S. officials are reeling from the assault on American embassies in cities as disparate as Tunis and Jakarta, one factor has proved beyond the control of Washington: other nations’ domestic political battles. The spark in many of last week’s riots might have been an obscure online film out of California, but in most cases, the fuel has been pooling up for months, ready to ignite. And the movie provided the perfect foil for those tensions, many of which erupted in the backwash of the old dictatorships.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

Take Tunisia. For Washington, the country’s Jasmine Revolution presented the storybook tale of the Arab Spring: peaceful demonstrators who stormed the streets and drove out dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 after 24 years in power. Last October, the country’s first democratic elections resulted in a power-sharing agreement between the Islamist Ennahda party, which controls the legislature, and its two secular rivals, one of which controls the presidency, and the other the Prime Minister’s office. In celebration, the U.S. helped sponsor the U.N.’s World Press Freedom Day in Tunis last May with a huge three-day gathering, to which several U.S. State Department officials traveled to meet with journalists and politicians, hailing their new democracy.

Yet the reality on the ground has been far muddier. On Friday, three protesters died in clashes with security forces and dozens of cars were torched as enraged militants breached the U.S. embassy’s outer walls and hung the black flag of militant Islam, then ransacked parts of the American school across the street. When Clinton called Marzouki that evening, he assured her the upheaval had been brought under control.

But for how long? In the aftermath, there are questions about why Friday’s clashes occurred at all. Mansar said the U.S. embassy had not been entirely cordoned off, despite days of attacks on U.S. facilities in the region, including the disastrous deaths in neighboring Libya. The U.S. embassy in Tunis, a modern fortress-like building, sits on the main road linking the capital to suburban Carthage. Yet since the government categorized the planned protest as an assemblée, or gathering, the organizers did not require an official permit to march on the embassy. With weak coordination between the various branches of Tunisia’s security forces, the stage seemed set for trouble.

(MORE: What We Can Learn from the Attacks on U.S. Embassies)

While the violence shook many Americans, to some Tunisians it was all too predictable. “This has been in the offing for a while,” said Mounir Khelifa, an English professor at the University of Tunis who also oversees a U.S. study-abroad program there. He added that he and others had been struck by the sight of the elite presidential guards in action on the streets — unprecedented in Tunis. “The Salafists have been dynamic and aggressive in the past six or seven months. Whenever they believe that the religion has been offended, they intervene,” Khelifa told TIME. “So far, the government has been very lenient on them.”

Indeed, the very day that U.S. officials flew to Tunis last May to celebrate press freedom, a court convicted Nabil Karoui, head of the popular entertainment network Nessma TV, for offending Islam by airing the French animated movie Persepolis, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad. When I visited Fathi Layouni, one of the lawyers who brought the case against Karoui, in his downtown office, he rejected U.S.-style freedom of speech. “Madame,” he said angrily, “the definition of liberty is very different in Islamic countries than in the West.” In May, Layouni told me: “It’s true that after the revolution we’re trying to install a new society. But that does not mean that anyone can say anything they like.”

Layouni is hardly alone in his thinking. In June, groups of Salafists, the purist Islamist believers, smashed their way into an art gallery in the upscale La Marsa neighborhood — a kind of Tunisian Malibu — and destroyed paintings they deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, brushed off the threat of Islamist violence, saying that “with time, such extremism will vanish.” And Tunisian Minister of Religious Affairs Nourredine Khadmi told reporters that he advocated criminalizing anti-Islamic expression.

(VIDEO: Why They Protest: Bahrain, Tunisia and Yemen)

That idea of criminalizing alleged blasphemy is one of the most heated battles in Tunisia these days. The committee writing the new constitution, which is due next month, is deadlocked over a proposal to outlaw expressions deemed offensive to Islam. It is an idea that many Tunisians support but that secular politicians like Marzouki abhor. In an interview in his palace in May, the President told me he believed that the conviction of Karoui was senseless and bad for the image of Tunisia, whose economy depends heavily on beach-loving Western tourists.

But in the ongoing battle for primacy, Ghannouchi and his conservative supporters have repeatedly sidelined the President. In late June, security forces squirreled Al-Mahmoudi Ali al-Baghdadi, Libya’s former Prime Minister, out of a Tunisian jail cell and onto a plane bound for Libya — all against the wishes of Marzouki, who was asleep in his palace at the time.

With signs the Jasmine Revolution might have tinges of a fresh autocracy, youths who braved police fire in late 2010, and inspired the entire Arab Spring, say they are prepared to revolt again if they have to. “We will never, ever let our revolution be lost,” one woman told me last May when the U.S. embassy invited me to address young Tunisians at the American Corner, an embassy-supported library and meeting place in Tunis. “We will go into the streets again. We always have the street,” she said, her friends nodding in agreement. Next time, though, they might confront not just the security forces but conservative Islamists too.

MORE: Tunisia’s Dictator Is Out, but What’s Left Behind?