The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ... 

At first glance, Salafism and populism might easily look like antipodes. In its traditional, quietist form in particular, Salafism is characterized by a highly orthodox, scriptural understanding of Islam, a strict focus on Islamic piety linked to a rigid set of Islamic rituals, and the uncompromising adherence to the oneness of God (tawhid).[1] Populism, for its part, is generally associated with personalized politics, flamboyant leadership,[2] and the use of excessive, and sometimes vulgar, rhetoric. However, while, for a long time, Salafism was known almost exclusively in either its apolitical quietist or its violent jihadist form, recent research[3] points to the increasingly important role being played by political Salafists that operate within different types of existing political systems.[4]

While the origins of political Salafism can be traced to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s, the phenomenon gained noteworthy academic and political attention only after the rise of politically vocal Salafist movements in many Middle Eastern countries following the Arab Spring, a trend that was most prominently exemplified by the Salafist al-Nour party in Egypt that captured over 24% of the vote in the 2011/2012 Egyptian parliamentary elections.[5] As the nascent research on the topic suggests, in terms of its actions and strategies, political Salafism can often be much more pragmatic, flexible,[6] and malleable than both the quietist and the jihadist Salafist strand and can sometimes show a certain openness to other political actors and ideologies.

The case of the Tunisian al-Karama Coalition (Dignity Coalition) indicates that the new (tactical) openness of some politicized Salafists can also extend to populism. We locate the rise of al-Karama within the context of Tunisia’s successful but still incomplete and “bumpy democratic transition.”[7] Specifically, according to Boubekeur, this transition has so far largely constituted an elite-driven process in which competing secular and moderate Islamist elites have re-negotiated their existence within the political sphere at the expense of foregoing several important structural reforms and marginalizing many alternative social and political actors, thereby monopolizing the post-revolutionary process.[8] As will be elaborated below, it is in this context that al-Karama was able to attract a small but significant number of voters through right-wing religious populism,[9] presenting itself as a revolutionary force aiming to help the oppressed and marginalized. Thus, the rise of al-Karama also points to the more general risk of exclusive, elite-driven democratization processes being exploited — and possibly endangered — by different kinds of right-wing populist forces.

Populism and Political Salafism

Cas Mudde defines populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”[10] As such, Mudde stresses, the ideology of populism can be “combined with very different […] other ideologies.”[11] While Mudde primarily refers to both right- and left-wing ideologies — and, accordingly, to different types of right- and left-wing populist parties — in established liberal democracies in Europe and the US,[12] it is easy to imagine that the construction of a division between the “pure people”[13] and a “corrupt elite”[14] may fit quite neatly with certain expressions of Salafist political ideology as well. The second part of Mudde’s definition — which describes the demand for politics to be an “expression of the volonté générale”[15] as a core feature of populism — is more difficult to reconcile with political Salafism. This is because for political Salafists (like for many other staunch Islamists)[16] sovereignty is bound to rest predominantly with Allah rather than with the people. However, Mudde also emphasizes that instead of referring to real-existing populations, populists generally relate to an “‘imagined community.’”[17] In principle, this concept can also refer to an ideologically constructed community of Salafist believers. Moreover, as Mudde argues in reference to Zakaria, populism is an expression of “‘illiberal democracy,’”[18] a form of rule that is promoted by many Islamist parties as well.[19]

In a New York Times article about the mobilizing tactics employed by al-Nour during the 2011/2012 parliamentary elections in Egypt, David Kirkpartrick observed that rather than always and exclusively issuing “pious call[s] for strict religious rule — banning alcohol, restricting women’s dress, cutting off the hands of thieves,” Salafist sheikhs linked to the party sometimes delivered “a blistering populist attack on the condescension of the liberal Egyptian elite.”[20] Salafist parties using such populist rhetoric can be seen to practice what Shadi Hamid has called “politics of resentment”[21] in a context of increasing disparities between many citizens and established political elites,[22] an observation that is also highly relevant for Tunisia.

The Development of Political Salafism in Tunisia

Following the Arab Spring, which led to the downfall of the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali and the election of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in 2011, several experts expected political Salafism to develop into a significant political force in Tunisian politics.[23] In particular, this expectation was due to the fact that, just like Egypt, Tunisia formally legalized Salafist political engagement early on. At the beginning of 2012, three small Salafist parties — Jabhat-al Islah (JI), Hizb-al Asala, and Hizb-al Rahma all of which advocated a legal system based on sharia[24] — were able to register with the Ministry of the Interior.[25] Less than three years later, however, political Salafism in Tunisia already appeared to be a declining force.[26] The vote share of the three registered Salafist parties in the 2014 parliamentary elections remained negligible with none of them winning a single seat.[27] Moreover, even JI as the biggest and ideologically most sophisticated of the three parties failed to set up viable organization and party structures. Interestingly, however, a member of JI’s Executive Bureau, interviewed in 2016, explained that in some electoral districts JI had set up lists of independent candidates together with another political party under the name “The People Wants” (Ashaab Yourid),[28] a move that points to the readiness of some JI leaders to engage with the concept of popular sovereignty, or even populist notions related to the volonté générale.

While the registered Salafist parties remained non-violent, but politically meaningless, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), an Islamist social movement that enjoyed widespread support among the marginalized youth and initially combined jihadist rhetoric with missionary activities (da‘wa) and contentious politics,[29] quickly radicalized from 2012 onwards. An attack on the US embassy in late 2012 and the assassination the next year of the two leftist politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi — which were ascribed to AST — contributed to escalating tensions between the Ennahda government and the main secular opposition party Nidaa Tounes, threating to derail Tunisia’s democratization process. A negotiated compromise between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes finally ended the 2013 political crisis,[30] and the Ennahda-led government banned AST as a terrorist organization.

Salafism Meets Populism: The Rise of the Al-Karama Coalition

The 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections took place in a context of increasing political disillusionment and heightened economic frustration.[31] The 2011 ouster of Ben Ali through mass demonstrations had largely failed to significantly improve the socio-economic situation of the marginalized social strata,[32] while corruption remained widespread. Moreover, while the 2013 compromise had prevented the failure of the democratic transition at a critical juncture,[33] it had also allowed Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes (as well as the various secular parties that broke away from Nidaa Tounes between 2014 and 2019) to leave issues of transitional justice, social inequality, and corruption unaddressed.[34] Consequently, anti-elite and anti-establishment sentiments had risen in the run-up to the 2019 elections,[35] with many Tunisians feeling that both Ennahda and the secular political elite had “betrayed the principles of the revolution.”[36] This social and political context gave rise to different kinds of populism, including the right-wing religious populism of the al-Karama Coalition,[37] which won 21 seats (or 5.94% of the popular vote)[38] and came out as the fourth-strongest force in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Al-Karama’s candidate Seif Eddine Makhlouf, a notorious advocate of many suspected jihadist fighters and terrorists,[39] also received around 4.4% of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, which preceded the parliamentary polls.[40]

A loose coalition rather than a structured political party, al-Karama comprises a wide array of highly diverse political forces, including a fraction of the secular, though relatively conservative Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, former members of Ennahda, remnants of the dissolved Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR) — which were strongly influenced by Salafist forces towards the end of their existence — independent journalists and bloggers, as well as diverse Salafist actors, such as fractions of the Salafist party JI, members of the Salafist Justice and Development Party,[41] and individual Salafist sheikhs.[42] While al-Karama officially defines itself as non-ideological,[43] statements by leading al-Karama representatives reveal a “fragmented but coherent” discourse that merges populism with a conservative religious ideology that intersects with Salafism in various respects.[44]

First and foremost, al-Karama has sought to present itself as a revolutionary force seeking to fulfill the unaccomplished goals of the 2011 revolution.[45] It is noteworthy in this regard that many young Tunisians who joined AST defined the revolution in primarily religious terms.[46] Moreover, leading representatives of al-Karama have used anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist rhetoric to frame the completion of the revolution as being inextricably linked to ending French domination over Tunisia’s politics and economy. During the 2019 electoral campaign, Seif Eddine Makhlouf threatened to terminate all treaties with France, declaring, “I will eliminate the traces of the [French] colonialization and I will demand that France presents its excuses […]. They have to acknowledge that 70 years after the end of the colonialization, they continue to steal from us.” Similarly, Makhlouf argued, “[w]e are not independent, neither politically nor economically. You call this one half of independence, I call this occupation.”[47]

With regard to its anti-imperialist line of attack, al-Karama has also resorted to conspiracy theory.[48] For instance, during the 2019 electoral campaign, Makhlouf announced that he would reveal “the truth” about both the 2013 murders of Belaid and Brahimi and other terrorist attacks, attributing the phenomenon of terrorism in Tunisia to the “role played by foreign secret services in the destruction of the revolutionary process [in Tunisia].”[49] Similarly, a former al-Karama member, interviewed in early 2020, claimed that in 2013 the “deep state” had sought to provide more space for AST to discredit the revolution.[50] Leading representatives of al-Karama have also ascribed the March 2020 suicide terrorist attack in Tunis to both foreign agency and the secularist, Bourguibist Parti Destourien Libre (PDL).[51]

In addition, Al-Karama has used specifically religious rhetoric to attract conservative Muslim voters, including those with Salafist leanings.[52] For instance, Makhlouf has declared that al-Karama is against the “liberalism of everything goes” and opposes gay marriage as “not human but counter to nature.”[53] Moreover, he has defended death penalty as a “penalty that God has imposed.”[54] In a parliamentary session held in late February 2020, al-Karama deputy Mohamed Affes accused Tunisia’s new Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh from Ettakol of being an “extremist lacist”[55] and of representing “a prolongation of the francophone mafia that has dominated Tunisia for over 50 years.”[56] More specifically, Affes attacked Fakhfakh (who has both Tunisian and French nationality) by saying, “[y]ou are against the laws criminalizing homosexuality and the consumption of drugs. You announce publicly, and without shame, that you consume alcohol and you defy the sharia of God”, adding, “[y]ou are doing all this to please the French.”[57]

On the occasion of the Corona crisis, al-Karama has likewise sought to identify itself with the “pure,”[58] marginalized people that is ruled by an uncaring and “corrupt elite.”[59] During a parliamentary session on April 4, 2020, al-Karama deputy Abdellatif Aloui attacked the head of government, presenting himself as “a citizen who comes from the regions where the people line up in front of the bureaus of ‘your state’” to receive a support highly insufficient to satisfy their needs. In particular, Aloui rebuked the head of government of having refused to provide each family with a support of 200 Tunisian Dinars, which he described as an amount that “you [the rich people; authors’ addition] spend when going out once” and that some (rich) people spend “to feed their cat or their dog”.[60]


In sum, the case of the Tunisian al-Karama Coalition shows that political Salafism can be malleable enough to align itself with populism. While the coalition is not a Salafist political group in and of itself,[61] it comprises several Salafist political actors and relies on a right-wing populist discourse that intersects with Salafism on various aspects.[62] The results of the 2019 parliamentary elections, in which al-Karama won 21 seats, further illustrate that such a marriage of convenience between Salafism and populism can indeed be successful in bringing political outsiders into parliament. However, this success should not be overestimated. Most importantly, the fact that al-Karama was able to emerge as the fourth-largest parliamentary group in the Tunisian parliament is also, to a large extent, due to the current high level of fragmentation of the Tunisian party system. Thus, it should not lead observers to overlook the equally important fact that, with a vote share of just below 6%, overall popular support for al-Karama still seems to be relatively low.


[1] See, for example: Roel Meijer, “Introduction,” in Roel Meijer (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009): 1-32; Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29 (2006): 207-239.

[2] See, for example: Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, 4 (2004): 559-560; Anthony Peter Spanakos, “New Wine, Old Bottles, Flamboyant Sommelier: Chávez, Citizenship, and Populism,” New Political Science 30, 4 (2008): 521-544.

[3] See, for example: Francesco Cavatorta, “Salafism and the Arab Spring,” Critical Muslim 10 (2014): 63-74; Mohammed Masbah, “Moving towards Political Participation. The Moderation of Moroccan Salafis since the Beginning of the Arab Spring,” SWP Comments 1, January 2013, Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP); Roel Meijer, “Conclusion. Salafis and the Acceptance of the Political,” in Francesco Cavatorta and Fabio Merone (eds.) Salafism after the Arab Awakening: Contending with People’s Power (London: Hurst & Company, 2016): 219-239.

[4] On the differentiation between these three strands of Salafism see especially Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement.”

[5] Jasmin Lorch and Annette Ranko, “Salafisten im Maghreb: Politische Ambitionen nach dem Arabischen Frühling,” GIGA Focus Nahost 7 (Hamburg: GIGA, December 2016),

[6] See, for example: Francesco Cavatorta, “Salafism and the Arab Spring”; and Mohammed Masbah, “Moving towards Political Participation.”

[7] Mohamed Kerrou, “Tunisia’s Historic Step Toward Democracy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 22, 2014,

[8] Amel Boubekeur, “Islamists, Secularists and Old Regime Elites in Tunisia: Bargained Competition,” Mediterranean Politics 21,1 (2016): 107-127.

[9] Sharan Grewal, “Order from Chaos. Political outsiders sweep Tunisia’s presidential elections,” Brookings Institution, September 16, 2019,; Hamza Meddeb “Tunisia’s Geography of Anger: Regional Inequalities and the Rise of Populism,” Carnegie Middle East Center, February 19, 2019,

[10] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist, 543; italics in the original omitted by the authors.

[11] Ibid., 544.

[12] Ibid., e.g. 541, 544, 548-551; see also Cas Mudde, “How populism became the concept that defines our age,” Guardian, November 22, 2018,

[13] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” 543.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See, for example: Ali Riaz, “Islamist Parties, Elections and Democracy in Bangladesh” in Mechan Quinn and Julie, C. Hwang (eds.), Islamist Parties and Political Normalization in the Muslim World (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2014): 169.

[17] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” 546.

[18] Ibid., 561.

[19] On the relationship between Islamism and illiberal democracy, see e.g. Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power. Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[20] David D. Kirkpatrick, “In Egypt, a Conservative Appeal Transcends Religion,” New York Times, December 10, 2011,

[21] Cited in ibid.

[22] See note 16.

[23] See, for example: Aaron Zelin, “Who is Jabhat al-Islah?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 18, 2012,; Stefano M. Torelli, Fabio Merone and Fransesco Cavatorta; “Salafism in Tunisia: challenges and opportunities for democratization,” Middle East Policy 19, 4 (Winter 2012): e.g., 141.

[24] See also Stefano M. Torelli, Fabio Merone and Fransesco Cavatorta, “Salafism in Tunisia,” 146-147.

[25] Jasmin Lorch und Annette Ranko, “Salafisten im Maghreb,” 4.

[26] George Fahmi, “The future of political Salafism in Egypt and Tunisia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 15, 2015,

[27] Interview with a member of JI’s Executive Bureau, Tunis, October 6, 2016.

[28] Ibid.

[29] See, for example: Francesco Cavatorta, “Salafism, Liberalism and Democratic Learning in Tunisia,” Journal of North African Studies 20, 5 (2015), 770–83; Fabio Merone, “Between Social Contention and Takfirism: The Evolution of the Salafi-Jihadi Movement in Tunisia,” Mediterranean Politics 22, 1 (2017): 71–90.

[30] Mazen Hassan, Jasmin Lorch, and Annette Ranko, “Explaining divergent transformation paths in Tunisia and Egypt: The role of inter-elite trust,” Mediterranean Politics, May 24, 2019, online first, 10.1080/13629395.2019.1614819.

[31] Théo Blanc and Ester Sigillò, “Beyond the ‘Islamists vs. Secularists’ Cleavage: The Rise of New Challengers after the 2019 Tunisian Elections,” European University Institute (EUI) Policy Brief, Issue 27 (December  2019): 1-2; Sharan Grewal, “Order from Chaos: Political outsiders sweep Tunisia’s presidential elections,” Brookings Institution, September 16, 2019,; Hamza Meddeb “Tunisia’s Geography of Anger: Regional Inequalities and the Rise of Populism,” Carnegie Middle East Center, February 19, 2020,

[32] For example, Hamza Meddeb “Tunisia’s Geography of Anger.”

[33] Hassan, Lorch, and Ranko, “Explaining divergent transformation paths.”

[34] Amel Boubekeur, “Islamists, Secularists and Old Regime Elites in Tunisia: Bargained Competition,” Mediterranean Politics 21,1 (2016): 107-127.

[35] Hamza Meddeb “Tunisia’s Geography of Anger”; Sharan Grewal, “Order from Chaos.”

[36] Théo Blanc and Ester Sigillò, “Beyond the ‘Islamists vs. Secularists’ Cleavage,” 2.

[37] Hamza Meddeb “Tunisia’s Geography of Anger”; Sharan Grewal, “Order from Chaos“. On the classification of al-Karama as populist see also: telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the Institut Tunisien des Études Stratégiques (ITES), October 24, 2019.

[38] For example, Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Élections (ISIE), “Les Résultats définitifs des Élections Législatives 2019,”

[39] Camille Lafrance, “Tunisie: Seifeddine Makhlouf, l'’avocat des terroristes' devenu l’un des nouveaux acteurs du Parlement,” Jeune Afrique, December 12, 2019,

[40] “Présidentielle 2019: Kais Said et Nabil Karoui au deuxième tour de la présidentielle,” Agence Tunis Afrique Presse,

[41] On the characterization of the Justice and Development Party as Salafist ,see Karem Yehia, “Salafists under spotlight ahead of Tunisia poll,” Ahramonline, October 19, 2014,

[42] Théo Blanc and Ester Sigillò, “Beyond the ‘Islamists vs. Secularists’ Cleavage,” 3; telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019; interview with an expert on Salafism and former adviser to the presidency, Tunis, January 19, 2020.

[43] Seif Eddine Makhlouf cited after “Seifeddine Makhlouf, porte-parole d'Al Karama: "Nous allier à Ennahdha n'est pas un problème pour nous,” Huffington Post Maghreb, October 7, 2019,, accessed on November 12, 2019; online publication ended, article on file with the authors; interview with a former member of al-Karama, Tunis, March 3, 2020.

[44] Telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019.

[45] Donia Hafssa, “La surprise des élections législatives 2019: qui est la coalition Al-Karama,” Al-Maghreb, October 8, 2019,; Camille Lafrance, “Tunisie – Seifeddine Makhlouf : « Al Karama est plus révolutionnaire qu’Ennahdha,” Jeune Afrique, December 16, .2019,;  telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019.

[46] Interview with an expert on Salafism and former adviser to the presidency, Tunis, October 8,  2016.

[47] Seif Eddine Makhlouf, hereafter, “Élection présidentielle - Seifeddine Makhlouf veut mettre fin à "l'occupation française" en Tunisie,” Huffington Post Tunisie, September 11, 2019,, accessed on October 5, 2019; online publication ended, article on file with the authors; authors’ translation from French. The cited Huffington Post article mainly refers to an interview with Seif Eddine Makhlouf by radio Shems on September 9, 2019, which is available in Arabic on the official Youtube page of radio Shems under; see also Camille Lafrance, “Tunisi: Seifeddine Makhlouf, ”l’avocat des terroristes.’”

[48] Telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019; see also Camille Lafrance, “Tunisie: Seifeddine Makhlouf, ”l’avocat des terroristes.'”

[49] Seif Eddine Makhlouf, cited after, “Élection présidentielle”; authors’ translation from French; see also Camille Lafrance, “Tunisie: Seifeddine Makhlouf, ‘l’avocat des terroristes.’”

[50] Interview with a former member of al-Karama, Tunis, March 3, 2020.

[51] “Al-Karama justifie l’attaque terroriste au Lac 2 », Kapitalis, March 6, 2020,

[52] Telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019.

[53] Seif Eddine Makhlouf, “Tunisie: Seifeddine Makhlouf, ‘l’avocat des terroristes.’”

[54] Seif Eddine Makhlouf, cited after, “Élection présidentielle”; authors’ translation from French.

[55] “Affes (Al-Karama) à Fakhfah: vous êtes un extrémiste laic,” Kapitalis, February 27, 2020,; authors’ translation from French.

[56] Intervention of Mohamed Affes during the plenary session of the parliament on the vote of confidence over the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, February 26, 2020, official YouTube ARP,

[57] “Affes (Al-Karama) à Fakhfah”; authors’ translation from French.

[58] Cas Mudde, “The Poplulist Zeitgeist,” 543.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Intervention of the deputy Abdeltif Aloui during the parliament plenary session of April 4, 2020,

[61] E.g. Théo Blanc and Ester Sigillò, “Beyond the ‘Islamists vs. Secularists’ Cleavage”; interview with an expert on Salafism and former adviser to the presidency, Tunis, January 19, 2020; telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019.

[62] Esp. telephone interview with a radicalization expert of the ITES, October 24, 2019.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.