Saturday,25 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Saturday,25 May, 2019
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Salafi violence in Tunisia

Violence by ultraconservative Salafi groups may be undermining Tunisia’s democratic transition, writes Lassaad Ben Ahmad in Tunis

Al-Ahram Weekly

The anniversary of the election of Tunisia’s constituent assembly on 23 October passed with no remarkable occurrences. But the country’s battle against a new type of threat, that represented by violence by ultraconservative Salafis, is still underway.
As the assembly debated the finer points of the first draft of Tunisia’s new constitution, the Tunis suburb of Duwar Hicher saw clashes between the Salafis and the police. A week ago, a bearded man wielding a knife assaulted an officer of the country’s National Guard, wounding him seriously. The officer is still in critical condition.
 The attack is believed to have been an attempt by the Salafis to force the government to release some of their comrades now held in prison. The attacker was later caught on the Algerian border, and he had shaved off his beard in an attempt to escape detection.
As tensions rose in Duwar Hicher, a muezzen, or man whose job is to utter the Islamic call for prayer, inserted the ominous words “come to jihad” in the regular call and was later shot dead along with one of his companions.
The interior minister told reporters that the state would not condone acts of violence and that the full force of the law would be brought against anyone imperiling the country’s security.
In response, Salafi leader Nasreddin Aloui called on his followers to fight the government, which, he claimed, “has made America its god”.
His call was made live on Tunisian TV and it went viral on the Internet. The Justice Ministry has started legal action aiming to bring Aloui to trial.
Amer Al-Orayed, an official of the Islamist ruling Al-Nahda Movement, distanced his party from the Salafis by claiming that the ultraconservatives were former alcohol merchants, drug-dealers, or members of the defunct Constitutional Democratic Rally, the ruling party associated with former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali.
Meanwhile, another Salafi leader called Abu Ayad called on his supporters to exercise self-restraint “because conditions are not favourable”.
Opposition members have started to blame the government for failing to confront the Salafis when they first started flexing their muscles.
Samir Beltayeb, a member of the assembly representing the opposition Democratic Block, said that the government should have taken action when such problems started to surface in December of last year.
Instead, Al-Nahda had aided and abetted the Salafis, Beltayeb argued.
The first provocation by the Salafis took place at the Literature Faculty at Manouba University near Tunis, when a bearded man brought down the Tunisian flag from the top of the college building, replacing it with a black flag bearing Muslim insignia.
The man was arrested and later received a light sentence. After his release, he was arrested again, this time in connection with the illegal seizure of half-built buildings.
Observers say that the Al-Nahda Movement has failed to act promptly to counter the Salafi threat.
The position of the government has been that the Salafis need time to adjust to the workings of democracy, though the country’s security forces have taken a stiffer stand, claiming that they have caught Salafis smuggling weapons in Bir Ali bin Khalifa.
The Tunisian police killed several Salafis in confrontations related to arms-dealing last February.
Since then, things have got worse, and Salafi groups objected to an art show last June and then rioted and burned a court house. The attacks on the US embassy in Tunis last September have also been blamed on the Salafis.
However, the present wave of violence in Tunisia has not only been related to religion. The first signs that something was wrong came on Martyrs Day on 9 April, when knife-toting militia, thought to have connections with Al-Nahda Movement, paraded in the streets.
The country saw its first post-revolutionary political assassination, when a mob attacked and killed the secretary-general of the opposition Call of Tunisia Party in Tataouine in October.
Daily life remains normal, but the violence has wreaked havoc on the country’s economy, putting off investors. Many Tunisians are also beginning to think that perhaps their country may be following in the footsteps of neighbouring Algeria.
Analysts warn of the danger of Al-Qaeda gaining a foothold in the country. Others fear that the escalation of religious violence in Tunisia could tempt foreign intervention, or offer the enemies of the Arab Spring the chance to destabilise the country.
Nevertheless, most Tunisians hope that good sense, tolerance, education, and the need to get along together will keep the country safe.
All around the country, calls for calm and self-restraint are being issued. But are the Salafis listening?

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