The View from Algiers: The Islamist Threat in Next Door Tunisia

Algerians may complain about the lack of democracy but they aren’t advocating a revolt. They say they’ve seen enough of what extremists can do to a country

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FETHI BELAID / AFP / Getty Images

A man jumps during a protest outside the Interior ministry after Tunisian opposition leader and outspoken government critic Chokri Belaid was shot dead, in Tunis, Feb. 6, 2013.

Algerians have an ambivalent sense of relief when they contemplate the current state of their next door neighbor. Tunisia was celebrated as the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the revolutionary political climate change that somehow never came over Algeria. Today, the assassination of a prominent secular politician in the capital Tunis has sent opponents of the Islamist government, which they blame for allegedly emboldening extremist violence, into the streets to protest—and with it the threat of new turmoil.

Algerians say they have had their share of chaos—and are glad not to have any part of the tattered spring. In the 1990s, a civil war waged against hardline Islamist by the Algerian regime resulted in the death of nearly 200,000 people. The fear that Islamist militancy could spread to Algeria has largely stopped any Arab Spring-style revolution from erupting against the country’s autocratic president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has staked his rule on the ability to crush Islamic radicalism.

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In fact, in interviews here in Algiers–capital of an oil-rich nation of 36 million people–several people in the past two days have said that the rise of Islamic militants in Tunisia appears sadly familiar to them, and that it could portend years of violence in their neighbor. Several Algerians say they were struck by the fact that there were 11 Tunisians among those who laid siege to the In Amenas gas field last month in a terror attack that killed about 37 foreigners, including Americans, British and Norwegians. “It is possible that they will have the same as we have had in Algeria during the 1990s,” says Nazim Zouioueche, the former CEO of Algeria’s national oil and gas company, Sonatrach.

The thought of Tunisian style upheaval—even the heady ones of late 2010 and early 2011—leave most in Algeria cold. While young people here may complain bitterly about the lack of economic opportunities and democratic freedoms, they are almost aghast when asked whether they foresee a popular revolution. “No, no, no,” says Boudjemaa Rahma, 22, a management student at Algiers University, when asked the question on Wednesday. “We lived through terrorism before the Tunisians did,” she says, standing on a downtown street. “Whatever is happening now in Tunisia we have seen before, and will never go back to.”

The news out of Tunis was disturbing. One of the country’s leading secular politicians–a fiery critic of the country’s Islamist government–was shot at point-blank range outside his house in the capital on Wednesday morning. Chokri Belaid was shot in the head and neck, allegedly by two young men who drove by his house on a motorbike shortly after 8 a.m. The assassination sent thousands of Tunisians pouring into the streets of Tunis and Sidi Bouzid, the central city where Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution exploded in Dec. 2010, collapsing the 24-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and inspiring the entire Arab Spring. Having just celebrated the second anniversary of that democratic revolution, Tunisians were left reeling by the killing, shouting in demonstrations for the government to pursue the killers.

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During a meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, looking shaken, called the killing a “hateful assassination,” and cut short his visit to rush back to Tunis. “There are many enemies of our peaceful revolution,” Marzouki said. “And they are determined to ensure it fails.”

Indeed, the president–a secular liberal in coalition with the Islamist Ennahda Party, which runs the government–had been warning formonths of growing threats against non-religious politicians, saying that Tunisia needed to crack down hard against the growing Salafist movement in the country. After a large crowd of Islamic militants set fire to the U.S. Embassy and the American Community School in Tunis last September, in the wake of the anti-Islam video which aired on YouTube, the Tunisian president sent his own security guards to help stop the rioting. He told me in an interview days later that the government had seemed reluctant to intervene. “We have to stop this phenomenon,” the president said. “These people hate democracy, they do not want this democracy.” By contrast, Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi, rejected Marzouki’s words, saying in an interview that same day, “We don’t judge people based on what ideology they follow, but on their actions.”

But political assassination has seemed almost inevitable to many Tunisians during the past few months, as Islamic militant youth have disrupted the political meetings of their opponents and threatened secular radio and television stations. Belaid himself had appeared on Tunisian television on Tuesday evening, warning about rising political violence. “I watched it and it was a chilling premonition of his own assassination,” Mounir Khelifa, an English professor at Tunis’s Manouba University, said byphone on Wednesday. “Belaid was saying that this could increase into assassinations, just as we saw in Algeria.”

The Algerians are watching and, for now, grateful for their current calm.

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