Two years after the revolution that overthrew an authoritarian president and started the Arab Spring, Tunisia is struggling with high unemployment and rising violence in its politics.
After sounding the alarm for months over the rise of religious extremists, the opposition now warns that the new threat to this North African country’s democratic transition are vigilante bands allied to the elected government.
Tunisia has yet to witness the almost daily clashes characterizing nearby Egypt’s rowdy politics or the rampant assassinations and kidnappings of militia-plagued Libya to the east, but the rise in violence is a shock for this once calm, largely middle class North African nation of 10 million.
The country’s stability and prosperity came at the price of a brutal decades-long dictatorship that was finally overthrown in a popular uprising on Jan. 14, 2011. In its aftermath, a lot of pent-up tensions have spilled out.
Differences of political opinion or just demands for jobs and benefits are increasingly being expressed through violence, threatening Tunisia’s efforts to become a democracy after a half century of dictatorship. Just last week, residents of Ben Guerdane, a border town with Libya, battled police and set fire to cars for three days protesting the closure of the frontier on which their livelihood depends.
The violence is being exacerbated by the emergence of radical groups, often religious, that seek to “impose their political and ideological model on society through a variety of means,” said Slahhedine Jourchi, an analyst of Islamist movements in Tunisia.
Following the country’s first free elections in October 2011, an moderate Islamist party allied with two secular parties came to power and began the process of writing a new constitution, but the country is still plagued by economic woes and sporadic violence — often by religious extremists.
The latest groups in the spotlight are the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, which the opposition claims are allied to the government and used to attack its opponents.
Their rise comes just as the salafis, ultraconservative Muslims that often violently pushed for a more pious society, have gone underground following a government crackdown in the wake of their Sept. 14 attack on the U.S. Embassy over an amateur film made in the U.S. attacking the Prophet Muhammad.
Instead, the violence seems now be coming from these new leagues, which have about 300 chapters throughout the country and have been implicated in attacks on the main union headquarters as well as several meetings of a new opposition party that includes figures from the previous regime.
“They are a threat to the civil peace and the democratic transition in Tunisia,” said Samir Taieb, an opposition member in the legislative assembly, who said that many of the leagues’ members have been arrested committing acts of violence, only to be released because of their political connections.
Many opposition figures are calling for the leagues to be dissolved.
The groups were legalized five months ago and grew out of the neighborhood watch committees that sprung up in the chaotic days after the revolution to protect residential areas, explained Mohammed Maalej, the head of the leagues’ central body.
“We are the conscience of the people and a pressure force to achieve the goals of the revolution, discover corruption and denounce its perpetrators — something the current political leadership has yet to accomplish,” he told The Associated Press.
He maintained that the group has “never advocated violence” and if certain members were involved “we are the first to condemn them.”
In October, league members in the southern town of Tataouine clashed with a local union, resulting in the death of union head Lutfi Narguez. The autopsy said the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by being subject to violence.
Members of the league also allegedly attacked the home of Kamel Eltayef, a businessman with ties to the old regime that has since been working with the opposition.
One of the main targets of their ire, however, is a new political party called Nida Tunis (Tunisia’s Call) led by Caid Beiji Essebsi, a veteran politician that ran the interim government until elections.
Many figures associated with the previous regime have flocked to the party, prompting accusations that they seek to restore the old system.
A political meeting of the party on the resort island of Djerba was besieged by hundreds of alleged members of the leagues on Dec. 23, according to party members.
In the face of what it describes as a lack of government concern, Nida Tunis has threatened to file a suit against the leagues with the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The most serious incident involving the leagues, however, came in early December, when men described as being part of the leagues assaulted with clubs and stones a march at the main union headquarters in the capital Tunis.
The powerful union, which has emerged in recent months as a focus of opposition to the government, threatened to shut the country down with a general strike until a compromise deal was finally struck. Jourchi, the analyst, warned that the leagues are “becoming a factor for instability,” pointing out that their job of “protecting the revolution,” should be the business of the state.
The rise of violence and internal tensions in Tunisia couldn’t come at a worse time as the situation outside its borders deteriorates, with al-Qaida newly active in the Sahara, partly fueled by the weapons pouring out of Libya’s civil war. In December, police reported finding two militant training camps near the Algerian border, likely to prepare disaffected Tunisians to join the jihads south in Mali or neighboring Algeria.
“With the situation in Libya, the Algerian border and in northern Mali, the threat posed by armed groups is likely to increase,” Jourchi said.