After the revolution, the liberties Tunisians snatched from Zein al-Abedeen bin Ali’s regime included the Salafi-Jihadists’ freedom to practice their activities.
It can be said that the Tunisian revolution dealt its Syrian counterpart a stab in the back. Freedom here helped abolish freedom there.
When the revolution broke out, Bashar al-Assad decided to release Syrian jihadists from prison, to help turn the revolution into a war, while Tunis sent jihadists for the same purpose!
During the rule of al-Nahda party, freedom was considered absolute, unhindered by laws or ethical boundaries. Liberty meant that jihadists were free to go to war in Syria. This has been the regional position Tunisia’s Brotherhood chose for itself, making it an integral part of a system that included Turkey and Syria, and in which Libya was a stopover on the way.
When we traveled to Tunisia in February 2012, to cover the “Friends of Syria” conference- during which then-President Munsif al-Marzouqi severed ties with the Syrian regime- there was a lot of commotion not far from the conference hall.
The jihadists had gained control over 400 mosques in Tunisia, expelling, in a revolutionary act, the imams appointed by the dictator’s regime. The salafi leaders released from prison prepared a whole generation of suburban communities to travel and join the jihad in Syria.
We saw for ourselves their ubiquitous presence. We heard Rashid Al-Ganoushi, leader of Al-Nahda, say that those salafists reminded him of his youth.
We also heard Abu-Ayad’s Friday sermon in a Tunis mosque. In the area surrounding that mosque, we met salafis who had returned from Europe after the revolution. We interviewed women whose husbands had traveled to Syria, and who were waiting for a chance to follow them. It was a time of absolute revolution, and we did not have enough sense to perceive the danger those jihadists posed.
We wrote about them but not enough to uncover the role they were about to play later on, for Isis had not been born yet.
We heard about the salafi police in the town of Sajnin, north of the capital, and about the Qairouan conference organized by Ansar Al-Sharia Movement and attended by over 20,000 jihadists, all within sight of the government and the police, but we thought they were marginal to the revolution, and that we were its core.
It is painful to hear a Tunisian secularist who revolted against Bin Ali’s regime, say that Bashar al-Assad is the solution to the Syrian crisis
Men like Rashid al-Ghanoushi, Rajab Tayyib Erdogan and Muhammad Mursi ruled in the name of the revolution, and we did not know what that meant.
Bashar al-Assad was happy with those conditions. Iran was preparing to meet Isis in Mosul, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar played continued to fund Islamic factions, according to former Qatari foreign minister Hamad bin-Jassim.
It was a complete regional system that had evolved behind our backs, us supporters of street revolutionaries. The Muslim Brotherhood constituted a threadline between regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Turkey.
Their brothers in Syria played the same role. They were “understanding” of the salafi-jihadists’ crisis, without endorsing them. We met jihadists at Carthage Airport, and took the same flight with them to Istanbul, where they melted like salt at the Ataturk airport, while we stood in long lines waiting to stamp our passports.
This happened more than once. We joked about them on the plane. “When will that man blow himself up?” said Roula Ayoubi (R.I.P) on our way back from Tunisia where she was working as a BBC correspondent, on a Turkish plane. Within our sight, and the sight of the Tunisian and Turkish security, the jihadists traveled, and corrupted the Syrian revolution.
They are the sons of the Tunisian revolution. They participated in its events, and invested in the freedoms that followed.
It is painful to hear a Tunisian secularist who revolted against Bin Ali’s regime, say that Bashar al-Assad is the solution to the Syrian crisis. No doubt, the Tunisian revolution shares the responsibility of the Syrian revolution’s defeat.
Al-Nahda movement is not the only one to blame. Tunisian secularists at that time wanted the salafis out of their country. They were not sensitive enough to protect Syrian revolution from their jihadists, just like many other countries and communities– like France, Britain, and Belgium and neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine– who saw in the jihadists’ flight to Syria a protection against their danger.
Yet Tunisia occupies a special position in this tragedy. The magnitude of the phenomenon was made worse by the fact that it is the country of the first revolution, and the only country where revolution actually succeeded.
Until today, Tunisia refuses to take back its jihadists. Tunisian Islamists refuse to take responsibility for their role, while a large portion of secularists and leftists decided to support the dictator in Damascus.