Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 March - 4 April 2012
Issue No. 1091
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Another face of the Nahda?

Lasaad Bin Ahmed reviews the rise of the Salafis in Tunisia

No Tunisian expected the Salafist current to take up any space in the public discourse, yet the Salafists have proved significant in recent times, especially since mid March, when one young man climbed to the top of the college of arts in Manouba, the western suburb of Tunis, to remove the flag of the country and replace it with a black banner bearing the shahadah: "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God." They prompted even more attention when some 30,000 demonstrators gathered outside the DCAF Foundation Council headquarters following last Friday's prayers to demand that Islamic Sharia should be the only source of legislation ê" which prompted a range of responses especially in the more elite sectors of Tunisian society, the most important of which was the huge demonstration commemorating independence on 20 March on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main thoroughfare in the capital, where demonstrators stressed modernity and called for a homeland open to all Tunisians, not just Islamists.

It is easy for those who have kept up with Tunisian affairs to see that the Salafist current has not been prominent whether during the revolution, in the course of electoral campaign or even after the elections. They only appeared in small numbers on certain occasions which prevented them from being in the limelight.

Still, the issue of Salafism has preoccupied Tunisian public opinion since December 2011, when the dean of the college of arts in Manouba expelled two female students who wore niqab, barring them from sitting the exam on the grounds that the face is a pedagogic prerequisite for identifying students whether as regards following studies or sitting exams. This resulted in a number of students staging a sit-in on campus in solidarity with the two students in question, which grew in number as Salafists from outside the college joined the sit-in, resulting in violence and obstructing studies and exams. The sit-in was eventually disbanded by the security forces after the failure of peaceful negotiations with the students, in which the very well-known Nahda MP Sadiq Churu was involved. Yet no sooner did the security forces withdraw than the students resumed their sit-in, insisting on their demands that students wearing niqab should be allowed to attend classes and sit exams without exposing their faces, and that the college should have a hall dedicated to prayers.

The issue involved much toing and froing between the dean and the protesting students as well as security, but in the end it was confined to university life and so it remained until the drafting of the constitution which raised the issue of Islamic identity. That is when the Salafists intensified their activities, going out to demonstrate very frequently especially after the Friday prayers ê" which drove observers to think of them as a more extremist constituent element of the Nahda movement, an assumption confirmed by the flexibility with which the Hemadai Jibali government dealt with them.

The Salfists have since managed to mobilise the media, which has allowed them to express themselves more widely and freely in recent times. Among the more popular notions that have spread is to define Salafism as a derivation from as salaf as salih or the virtuous forebears, pointing out that Salafists are not necessarily violent, that they are made up of several divergent groups including the jihadi Salafists whose approach is to declare others apostates and call for fighting "the enemies of God". The Nahda leaders have made it clear that their database includes no groups of this kind, explaining that while it is important to grant the extremist Tahrir Party a license to practise politics even though the Tahrir recognises neither elections or democracy but only the Quran as the Muslms' constitution. Some observers feel that the flexibility of the Nahda as the principal component of the three-way coalition ruling the country in dealing with the Salafists reflects a kind of harmony with them. Some analysts also feel that, the further the observer goes from the circles of political decision making, the less clear are the differences between the various Islmist currents ê" something that was apparent in last Friday's demonstration when the Nahda MP Sahbi Atig declared from within the Foundation Council, "Whoever has a problem with Sharia as a source of legislation should review their creed."

Many observers of the political situation in Tunisia that the power and influence of Islamists are rising every day, coupled by the failure of seculars and modernists to suggest alternatives that go beyond simple rejection of the Islamist solution. Many Tunisians have felt that their identity was under attack since dissidents desecrated the Quran in the Libyan frontier town of Ben Guerdane and the Fateh Mosque in the capital, Tunis, where one of them drew the David star near the entrance to the mosque. The two incidents have generated discontent on the Tunisian street, driving a number of official parties including the presidency and some parties to condemn such action and call for neutralising places of worship and protecting objects deemed sacred. It is now possible to compare the incident of removing the flag with a secular counterpart.

All this takes place while the country bumbles along, struggling with economic and social problems, the most important of which is the budget deficit and unemployment.

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