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Tunisia Struggles with Small but Powerful Salafi Movement

Hailed as the great success for moderation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, the place where it all began, has been unsettled by a rise in violence due to a small but confident Salafi minority. The moderate Islamists running the country in a coalition with secular forces seem to be afraid to take them on. The FT reports:

While small in numbers, the Salafis are shocking Tunisia’s liberals. The threat they pose to those attached to secularism is magnified by the hesitance of the Islamist-led government to take a firm stance against them.

The problem of Salafis in Tunisia is that they could become a danger to the state if their ideology is allowed to spread and if they misunderstand government caution as an encouragement. Nahda’s ambiguous stance towards the Salafis has already left the impression that they are free to do as they please. Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has warned against going after Salafis because of their ideology, however misguided it might be.

Government officials have been quick to downplay the threat, citing the Salafis’ small numbers, the diversity of their ideology, and society’s disapproval of violence. But the threat is real. Several Sufi shrines and the U.S. embassy have been the latest targets.

One of the main forces that drives revolutionary societies to extremes is economic failure. Tunisia’s economy is in trouble. Though foreign investment rose this year by 24 percent, growth is slow, unemployment sits at 17 percent, and inflation rates have inadvertently driven up food and fuel prices. Tourism from Europe is down, and it won’t take much in the way of radical violence to cut it down further. Other forms of trade have already been hit by the depression in Mediterranean Europe and the economic troubles of nearby Egypt.

With Western countries turning inward and, if anything, considering cuts to their foreign aid budgets, there are limited prospects for aid to keep Tunisia going.

Unlike countries such as Pakistan, Tunisia probably has the political wherewithal to contain its extremists. Via Meadia hopes they choose to do so.

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