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Mideast Libya Militia Backlash

The violence and protests which recently took place across the Middle East have largely been attributed to rage over the anti-Islamic film The Innocence of Muslims, but their impact on the transition and ongoing political power struggle between moderates and extremists may hold broader implications for Western policy. The embassy attacks in Libya and Tunisia are causing the moderate Islamist elements of their coalition governments to walk a fine line between voicing anger at the insult to Islam and condemning protests that have led to violence. This delicate balancing reveals the power struggle taking place internally and challenges the governments to moderate extremist elements in order to move forward with a successful political transition.

The recent events can yield one of two possible outcomes: either extremist elements could harness the momentum generated by the anger over the anti-Islamic film to garner support for their ultraconservative objectives; or the governments will come out strongly and decidedly against extremists, empower moderate voices, and embrace greater cooperation with Western allies. The emergence of the first or second scenario is largely dependent on who wins the internal political power struggle.

The actions of the governments of Tunisia and Libya vis-à-vis extremist elements are not only being scrutinized by moderates within their respective societies but also by the United States and international community, who may ultimately adjust future policies based on these responses. The regional unrest and violence associated with the controversial film thus presents the fledgling governments an important opportunity to pursue moderation and push forward with the transition, or risk losing momentum to the extremists.

The Tunisian case

Tunisia is confronting several serious challenges as moderate and more extreme forces are battling for control, and recent reports indicate that the first scenario might be more likely to occur. The moderate faction of Tunisian society is feeling increasingly alienated from Tunisian politics. The power-sharing agreement between the moderate Islamist Ennahda government and its coalition partners is under strain, and Tunisians are concerned about the possibility of a government standstill. The Ennahda party is confronted by two immediate challenges: 1) it is becoming increasingly difficult for Ennahda to balance the demands of both the Salafis and the secularists; and 2) there is a fracture between the leadership and the base.

Ennahda’s first and most obvious struggle is its difficulty appeasing both the Salafis and secularists. The Salafis are dissatisfied with Ennahda’s decision not to designate sharia as the basis for Tunisia’s new constitution. On the other hand, the secularists are upset by Ennahda’s decision to grant extremist Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir a license to operate, as well as with language in a recent constitutional drafting declaring women “complementary to men” and that also includes a passage that would criminalize blasphemy.

Tunisian protesters burn the US flag during a demonstration outside the US embassy in Tunis September 12, 2012.

Ennahda’s second challenge is the fracture within the party; the base is far more extreme than the leadership. The recent protests have stirred up the Ennahda rank-and-file, placing Rachid Gannouchi and the party leadership in a precarious position. On the one hand, Ennahda is reluctant to come out strongly and decisively against the violent protests for fear of alienating some of their strongest supporters. This indecision is giving space to Salafis to dominate the Islamist discourse.

In recent months, Salafis in Tunisia have been violently expressing discontent with the government’s alleged exclusion of Islamic values, demonstrating their religious fervor by storming bars serving alcohol, clashing with police, halting the performance of several plays, burning art exhibits they deemed at variance with Islamic values, and most recently, attacked the American embassy. But in order to maintain relationships with their secular coalition partners and Western allies, Gannouchi and other government leaders have been compelled to make public condemnations of the attacks. Continued violence may cause a collapse among this coalition and delicate working partnership, resulting in a crisis of unknown proportions. Soon the Ennahda leadership will have to pick a side, and it is unclear if they will choose the side of moderation.

The Libyan case

Counterintuitively, the deadly attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the recent protests in the capital could move Libya into the second, more moderate scenario. These events were a wake-up call to the real threat posed by extremist and ultraconservative Salafi elements to the democratic transition in Libya. Libya’s reaction to the tragic attacks has been swift condemnation, and Prime Minister-elect Mustafa Abushagur has been especially vocal. The Libyan government blamed local al-Qaida sympathizers and foreign extremists for the attack. This condemnation served to reject extremists from entering the political sphere through violent means, and to signal Libya’s commitment to a strong democratic transition. There have been several pro-American demonstrations as a response to what many Libyans perceive as misdirected anger. Last month, Benghazi held a rally to “Save Benghazi,” demanding the government take action to disband militias and to establish law and order. Protesters are rejecting the presence of extremists and their militias, and stormed the headquarters of several militias, including the office of the militant group Ansar al Sharia.

These protests may give the Libyan government an opportunity to consolidate its control of the transition and the political sphere. Recently, key political and military figures reached an agreement with militia leaders to bring all brigades under control of the National Army or to disband them entirely. While this integration had been discussed previously, only in the wake of the tragic Benghazi events did a national consensus arise regarding the unsustainability of the militia groups. Abushagur’s challenge will be to mobilize the moderate elements of Libyan society and marginalize extremist elements that are persistent in their attempts to undermine the transition.

The power struggle in the transitioning societies is a battle between moderates and a minority of extremist elements attempting to capitalize on momentum from the violent outrage to gain a foothold in the new power structures. If this political showdown continues, it could derail the transitions. Instead of focusing on the consolidation and development of the democratic institutions, the power struggle risks alienating moderates from the political space, which would ultimately be a loss not only for Libya and Tunisia, but for its neighbors, the United States and the broader global community.

This post was originally published under a similar headline by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. It was co-authored by Hariri Center intern Sarah Wade.

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Karim Mezran

Karim Mezran is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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