Tunisia claims Iranian hand stirring up Islamic fundamentalism. But critics charge this is ploy to crack down on political dissent
Tunis — In addition to having broken off relations with Iran, the Tunisian government has launched a major crackdown against what it sees as Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalism at home. Allegations of Iranian meddling in Tunisia were made at a press conference in the Tunisian capital last week. They followed three weeks of security actions against Islamic fundamentalists throughout the country. Though the government has only issued vague figures, it announced the arrest of Rashid Ghanouchi, leader of the Islamic Tendency Movement. A mainstream Islamic political organization, the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) wants to create a government based on ``Islamic principles.'' Though it does not have a legal status, the MTI until now has been tolerated by the authorities.
The government spokesman accused Iran of supporting local extremists in order to overthrow President Habib Bourguiba's pro-Western government and establish a Khomeini-style regime. He displayed Arabic pamphlets advocating revolution in Tunisia, allegedly produced by the Iranian Embassy here. The evidence of cash and arms that Iran allegedly supplied to Islamic militants in mosques and universities was limited. It consisted of: sticks and bicycle chains; a single 500-riyal note and some change; microphones; and felt-tip markers.
Critics here charge that the government purposely drew links between the MTI and Iran to justify a continuing clampdown on political dissent in the country. Members of the MTI fear show trials and severe prison sentences for the Islamic militants recently arrested.
The government hinted that the rupture of ties with Iran was related to the arrest in Paris of six Tunisians who are allegedly part of a pro-Iranian terrorist ring. (See story, Page 10). However, it presented no evidence that linked the Paris group to the MTI leadership.
Tunisian sources told the Monitor that, besides Mr. Gannouchi, security forces detained at least 21 other MTI officials. Students at the University of Tunis said security forces arrested and searched the homes of at least 40, and perhaps as many as 100, students belonging to the pro-fundamentalist General Tunisian Union of Students. Many MTI officials and students have gone into hiding.
The government says plainclothes policemen will patrol the university grounds from now on. The government-controlled press is running a campaign against the fundamentalist movement and features prominently articles on violence and domestic unrest in Egypt which it portrays as the result of Islamic extremism.
``The government and the universities are engaged in a strategy to eradicate these endemic evils,'' Prime Minister Rashid Sfar said in an interview with the Monitor. He charged that MTI leaders had been preparing acts of violence when they were rounded up.
MTI leaders say they do not believe in overthrowing the Tunisian government by force. They say society must be prepared for a government based on Islamic principles through persuasion. They have asked repeatedly for permission to become a legal political party.
While the government has repeatedly denied this request, it allowed the movement to publish a newspaper. In 1985 then-Prime Minister Mohammed Mzali met with the movement's leaders. Even opposition parties critical of Islamic fundamentalists urged the government to conduct a dialogue with the MTI. They said that repression only made the MTI ``martyrs'' in the eyes of the public.
But Mr. Sfar takes a harder line. He said the MTI would not be granted legal recognition and referred to its desire to become a political party the ``visible part of the iceberg,'' intended to give the movement a moderate image at home and abroad. Sfar claimed that secret documents in the movement's archives showed that they believed in overthrowing the regime by violence.
``When we see the invisible part of the iceberg,'' he said, ``we realize it represents a danger to the republican and democratic institutions of Tunisia.''
``They think it's the moment to massacre our people and finish with us once and for all,'' Jebali Hamadi, the MTI's offical spokesman now in hiding, told the Monitor.
University disturbances were the immediate cause of the crackdown.
For six weeks, pro-Islamic students and pro-Marxist students disrupted classes by holding competing campus strikes. Members of the rival groups had several violent clashes. Some students wore masks to conceal their identity.
Grassroots MTI militants are increasingly bitter and speak of fighting back. ``It's not the moment to make a war,'' one says. ``but if the government continues, we'll hit them hard. We're capable of doing it.''