Tunisia’s streets filled Oct. 26 with voters keen to participate in the national elections for the 217-member National Assembly, but while the country’s political and ideological center rejoices, the shadow cast by its extremist border militias is not receding.
With parliamentary elections ending and preparations in place for the country’s first democratic presidential elections next month, Tunisia is enjoying international praise for having experienced a “peaceful revolution leading to promising stability.”
Meanwhile, senior Tunisian politicians, including Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, defeated in the elections, say Tunisia offers “a stark contrast to the extremes of terrorism and military intervention seen elsewhere in the region.”
But as the Independent High Authority for Elections was making its final arrangements on Oct. 23, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry announced that security forces had stormed a house west of Tunis that allegedly belonged to a “terror group,” using tear gas, stun grenades and live fire and killing six people, five of whom were women.
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said one of the women had fired on special forces with a Kalashnikov, and that the group was recruiting fighters for the war in Syria. (More fighters have joined the Islamic State (IS) from Tunisia than any other country.) However, Ben Jeddou also confirmed that two children had been present inside the house, and that one of them sustained a head injury.
The government claims that the operation was one of the many this year aimed at countering the influence of extremist militant groups such as the Tunisian wing of Ansar al-Sharia and Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafi, which operate across the country but are primarily based near the border with Algeria and in the foothills of Jebel Chaambi.
In July, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry began its latest push against the Chaambi militants after one of the armed groups attacked a military checkpoint and killed 15 soldiers. Just two weeks earlier, National Guardsmen in the town of Gafsa had arrested more than a dozen people accused of being part of the Ansar al-Sharia network.
More than 100 arrests were made in July in a program that is ongoing against “hard-line Islamists,” headed by National Security Service Director Waheed al-Tojani.
The crackdown on the Chaambi militants has had strong public support since the assassinations of leading secular opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi last year. The men are believed to have been murdered by alleged Ansar al-Sharia member Kamel Gadhgadhi, who was killed by security forces in February.