On Monday, February 27, Tunisian President Zine Abidine Ben Ali released over 1,600 prisoners by official pardon—some 70 of them considered to be Islamists from the outlawed al-Nahda (awakening) movement—many of whom had been jailed on terrorism-related charges (https://www.akhbar.tn, February 26).
Nearly 1,300 of the prisoners were released unconditionally, while 359 others were released on unspecified conditions. The government statement announcing the release also mentioned that 260 of the freed prisoners were released under special conditions that they report to the government and take other unspecified measures to ensure that they do not re-offend (Radio Tunis, February 26).
The Tunisian government did not provide the identities of all those released. Unnamed sources within the government confirmed that these 260 were mainly from al-Nahda (al-Hayat, February 25). Military and civilian courts had previously sentenced 100 leaders and senior members from the movement to lengthy sentences, many of them life-terms.
Al-Nahda was established and is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, a former leader of al-Jamaa’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), and then the Islamic Tendency Movement, which later became al-Nahda. Ghannouchi serves as the chairman of al-Nahda from London, where he has been living as a political refugee since 1991. He has been sentenced to life in absentia on multiple occasions by Tunisian courts. While using language favorable to supporters of democracy and liberalization, Ghannouchi firmly intends to establish an Islamic republic in Tunisia.
In addition, al-Nahda has received funding from al-Taqwa Bank—the financing group run by Idris Nasreddin that has been named as a financier of terrorism by the U.S. and UN.
A statement on the al-Nahda website (https://www.nahdha.net) said that 75 of their members were among the released prisoners. Another statement on their website provided telephone numbers of some of the released prisoners, “for those brothers who wish to send them [the freed prisoners] congratulations”—an indication of a grass-roots nature to their movement.
They also issued a separate release on the fate of another group, “the Internet Prisoners”—a group of youth from the southern city of Zarzis. The al-Nahda statement said that the group was released two days after the others, without any comment on the delay or quiet release. The youth were sentenced last year to sentences ranging from 10-30 years for visiting banned Islamist websites (al-Hayat, February 25).
It appears that al-Nahda intends to mobilize Tunisians following the pardon to gain support for political expression in Tunisia and to pressure the government for reforms. This may be a legitimate cause of concern for growing extremism in Tunisia, however, as many analysts have tied the group to radical Islamist groups in the Middle East.
President Ben Ali has repeatedly stated that he fears al-Qaeda and other like-minded extremist groups are trying to gain a foothold in Tunisia. Yet, the motives behind this move to release previously-considered extremists are not entirely clear.
One possibility is that Ben Ali believes al-Nahda and their sympathizers are weaker— and that he is ultimately better off—by his move to pardon the prisoners, many of whom were considered political prisoners both domestically and internationally. Of greater importance than this, however, is external pressure from the U.S.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Tunisia as part of a North African tour on February 11. He said Tunisia had been a constructive partner in the campaign against global terrorism and that he did not believe the country was at great risk for al-Qaeda to take up roots.
Yet, a senior official traveling with Rumsfeld told the Washington Post, “As with Egypt, we’re nudging Tunisia to be creative and reform-minded, and it’s delicate.”
The comments—along with the speech Rumsfeld delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in which he admitted to falling behind in the media war—seem to indicate a shift in U.S. policy toward allies in the war on terrorism (see “Internet Mujahideen React to Rumsfeld’s Recent CFR Speech,” by Stephen Ulph in Terrorism Focus, Volume 3, Issue 7). In the larger picture, it is quite possible that the Pentagon now believes that tyrannical political climates serve jihadi recruiters, and are ultimately counter-productive for combating terrorism.
Ben Ali’s pardon is the most significant step toward openness in Tunisia in the last ten years. In doing so, he is gambling that the potential instability generated from the release of these prisoners is outweighed by the effects of the pardon. For the decades under Ben Ali’s rule, human rights organizations have strongly criticized his clampdown on freedom of expression in Tunisia. Moreover, while Tunisia’s prosperity and stability in relation to other Middle Eastern countries has allowed the system to stay in place, Ben Ali’s move to release the prisoners may be in response to a growing discontentment with the status quo.
There has not been any significant violence in Tunisia since al-Qaeda members carried out a suicide bombing in 2002 at a synagogue on the resort island of Djerba that killed 14 people, most of them German tourists. It may be that the momentum Ben Ali gained from that incident has died out, or that he is acting in response to U.S. pressure to reform. Yet in either scenario, if greater numbers of Tunisians—youth in particular—are now able to access more information from the Internet, something must compete with jihadi-themed websites if Tunisia is to keep extremism at bay.