The Night’s Watch: Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s ‘Neighborhood Committees’
February 11, 2013 3 Comments
Following the untimely assassination of Chokri Belaïd (Shukri Bilayd), a Tunisian lawyer, opposition leader with the left-secular Democratic Patriots’ Movement and one of the leader’s of the Popular Front to which his party had adhered when the coalition was formed, there was a sense that security within Tunisia could break down. Although it appears, for now, that the situation has calmed down and many are returning to their normal everyday activities, on February 7th, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) for the first time activated its ‘Neighborhood Committees.’ The mobilization of these committees within a mere few hours illustrated the strength of AST’s organizing structures as well as its memberships obedience to orders coming from the top.
The ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ which were originally called ‘Security Committees,’ were announced and set up on October 6, 2012 as a preemptive precautionary measure in case there was a security vacuum within the country. In other words, aspirationally, the establishment of a de facto non-state controlled martial law force if need be (more on if they were successful in their first mobilization below). The original intent of these committees was to safeguard and protect individuals in case the country spiraled out of control on October 23, 2012, which was the one year anniversary of the Constituent Assembly Election. No security issue or vacuum developed and the date passed without the activation of AST’s committees.
This changed last week, though, in light of the assassination, as well as the tense environment on the streets of Tunisia. Some individuals attempted to take advantage of this and began to loot, but many have since been arrested for these crimes. As a consequence of the perceived lack of security, AST called on its followers to mobilize their ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ stating the goal was to protect individuals, their money and property, and ward off thieves and looters. AST also urged followers to remain vigilant and cautious in light of potential gangs and criminality. Within a few hours, AST was able to mobilize members in Sfax and Hammamet for the night of the 7th. The mobilization was even swifter on the 8th whereby committees in addition to the former two came to the streets in al-Zahra’, al-Wardiyyah, al-Qayrawan, Sousse, al-Qalibiyyah, Mahdia, Ariana, Sidi Bouzid, al-Tadhamin Neighborhood, Beni Khayr, Southern Suburbs (Tunis), al-Kef, Diwar Hishur, al-Dandan, al-Nur Neighborhood, Jendouba, the Western Suburbs (Tunis), Matar, the Braka Coast, al-Khadra’ Neighborhood, and Qarbah (excuse the literal transliterations from Arabic in some cases, I’m fully aware they are spelled differently in the French rendering). AST conducted some of their patrols with the League for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), believed to be a hardline faction associated with Ennahda.
In the pictures and videos AST has posted to its official Facebook page, it shows men either hanging around certain parts of streets or riding on scooters and motorcycles through the center or outskirts of cities. In all cases they are waving the flag made famous by al-Qaeda in Iraq that has the first half of the Muslim testament of faith on the top and under it Muhammad’s official seal. For added effect in the videos, AST adds anashid that provide an even more visceral emotion that is meant to bring out pride for their efforts in “protecting” the average citizen in the particular neighborhood, village, or city. The amount of AST members that helped on patrols varied by place, but has ranged anywhere from 10-50 (if not more). Their largest turnout was in al-Qayrawan, where they also rode through the center of the city during the day this past Saturday in a convoy of scooters and cars holding up Rayyat al-Tawhid (what jihadis call the black flag). AST framed all of this in terms of securing the residents and being the true bearers of stability in the country in comparison with the state and using the slogan ‘Your Sons Are at Your Service.’ As I have argued previously, AST has been in the process of building a state within a state going back to their founding in March 2011. The addition of security patrols to their social welfare provides them a strong selling point for many dissatisfied with the government or Islamists disillusioned with Ennahda.
While this is the perception that AST wants to foster, especially for those not necessarily in these locations, the truth is slightly different. Based on conversations with a few individuals in Tunisia (whom I will keep anonymous), indeed AST members were out in the streets, but their actions were on the whole no more than photo-ops. It is true that in some places they were standing “guard” all night, but truly securing a neighborhood, village, or city seems a bit exaggerated at this juncture, especially since, although many worried that more violence would erupt, on the whole, while things are tense, there has not been any type of descent into chaos. Sure there were a few scuffles and AST claimed they caught a thief with a knife going after a women in Sousse, but overall, one should not extrapolate too much from this episode. As AST’s strength grows, though, and it continues to try and co-opt more hardline elements within Ennahda that are perplexed by the concessions to the secularists in the writing of the constitution and the perceived to-be moderate stances of Prime Minister Jebali. AST is preparing the groundwork for the potential split within Ennahda. It is therefore possible that AST could one day truly impose some type of non-state martial law in some locations. Based on the evidence thus far, though, it would be too soon to ascribe these capabilities to AST.
That being said, the mobilization does illustrate that AST is a strong organization. It highlights its ability to call on its followers in a rapid manner in a variety of locations within Tunisia to respond to a request made by the leadership of the group. As AST continues to provide social welfare services, it is likely that they will be able to further project power in even more locations as well as being able to call on more individuals to back whatever plan AST might have going forward. It seems for now that the ‘Neighborhood Committees’ have been decommissioned until the next crisis (since they have not posted anything related to it in more than a day now and if they were still doing them you can bet they would promote it, though it is certainly possible the committees are still activated), but one thing is for certain, AST continues to gain prestige and credibility among a certain segment of the Tunisian population. Therefore, expect more cases where AST attempts to show it is out hustling the state and other Islamist rivals.