Tunisia launches anti-terror operations

20 July 2014

Government cracks down on mosques linked to hardline Islamists in the run-up to crucial elections

Tunisia is cracking down on mosques and radio stations linked to hardline Islamists in the wake of an attack that killed 14 soldiers in the Chaambi Mountains near the country’s border with Algeria.

The operation was announced in a statement released by the Prime Minister’s office on 19 July, ratcheting up tensions in the country as it prepares for crucial elections later this year and struggles to revive its tourism sector.

“The prime minister has decided to close immediately all the mosques that are not under the control of the authorities, and those mosques where there were reported celebrations over the deaths of the soldiers,” the statement said.

The statement also said both radio stations and websites that published messages from militant groups would be closed.

The latest crackdown comes amid growing concerns that heavy handed anti-terror operations could exacerbate the threat of terror attacks by Islamist militants at a key stage in Tunisia’s transition.

“Quite often the state will arrest people on alleged links to terrorists – abuse the suspects in detention then release them without pressing charges,” says Amna Guellali, Tunisia director atHuman Rights Watch.

Richard Cochrane, analyst at UK military analyst firm IHS Jane’s and US-based economics consultancy Global Insight, says badly managed anti-terror operations could prompt a backlash from conservative communities.

“Police are moving into towns and villages and conducting mass arrests,” he says. “They’re not using intelligence-led operations, they’re just in going and sometimes arresting people just because they look like conservative Muslims.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are terrorist attacks ahead of the elections – but I would be surprised if there were mass civilian deaths. The main targets will be security forces and maybe soft targets, like tourism.”

In the wake of the attack in the Chaambi Mountains, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office issued a warning to British holidaymakers, saying there is a heightened threat of terrorism, including kidnappings.

Tourism is a key industry for the Tunisian economy and unrest connected to the 2010 uprising has dealt significant damage to the sector. Six million tourists visited Tunisia in 2012, 60 per cent less than in 2010.

The poor performance of Tunisia’s tourism sector has put significant pressure on the country, which has seen downgrades from all three major credit ratings companies since the revolution. Tunisia’s budget deficit climbed to 5.9 per cent of GDP in 2013 and public debt stood at 45.4 per cent of GDP.

Tunisia is widely expected to become the first country that saw Arab Uprisings to successfully complete a transition to a lasting constitutionally backed, democratically elected government when the country goes to the polls in October and November.

The elections were announced after a new constitution was voted through in January and the passage of an electoral law in May.

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