Tunisia shuts down medieval city to prevent Salafi demonstrations

Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party began by reaching out to Salafist groups, but after fringe groups became increasingly violent, it changed gears, taking a hardline stance to reining them in.

Radical Islamist movement Ansar al-Shariah supporters clash with Tunisian police officers after Tunisia's Interior Ministry on Friday banned their annual conference supposed to be held in Kairouan, in Ettadhamen, near Tunis, Sunday. Massive numbers of Tunisian police and army surrounded Tunisia's religious center of Kairouan to prevent a conference by a radical Islamist movement that has been implicated in attacks around the country.

When police flooded the Tunisian city of Kairouan yesterday to block a rally by hardline Salafi Muslims, a few hundred diehards shifted to a neighborhood mosque, where they locked themselves inside and marched about, crying “God is Great!" 

Even in their defeat, some saw victory.

“The government won’t let them have their meeting, so they’re having it here in the house of God,” said one of the demonstrators, who gave only a nom de guerre: “Abdallah” (Servant of God). Many of them had come from other towns and were staying at the mosque.  

The government effort to quash yesterday’s rally shows new zeal by Tunisia’s leaders to defy the country’s increasingly assertive Salafi movement. But smaller gatherings and rioting elsewhere suggest that in the long run, that movement won’t back down. As security forces clamped down on Kairouan, a medieval city south of Tunis, Salafi demonstrations erupted in the capital, spiraling into clashes between police and locals that left at least one young man dead. 

From allies to outsiders

Yesterday’s faceoff reflects the rising stakes in a battle between the government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, and the Salafi movement, which has burgeoned since Tunisia’s former dictator was toppled two years ago.

Salafis follow a literalist reading of Islam and want a strictly Islamic state. Most reject violence in favor of preaching to promote their views. But a minority stress the notion that Islam is under attack and say violence is sometimes justified.  

Ennahda initially sought to coax them into politics, prompting accusations of ignoring incidents of Salafi violence. But after a Salafi-led mob burned and ransacked the US embassy in September 2012, Ennahda changed tack.

Security forces have since cracked down on Salafi activists and gotten into shootouts with militants along the Algerian border. Ennahda is under pressure to keep order and hopes to boost flagging public support before elections expected late this year. 

That turned yesterday’s planned rally by Ansar al Sharia, Tunisia’s foremost Salafi group, into a public game of chicken. Although the group denies involvement in violence and does charity work, the interior ministry banned the rally. Ansar al Sharia vowed to hold it anyway.

A house divided

On Saturday, the night before the rally, police ringed Kairouan, stopping and searching cars. Night fell like a curtain on the medieval medina, where the rally was to take place, and the streets emptied as people quickly closed up their shops and scuttled indoors.

Ansar al Sharia had planned to gather in a square beside the Oqba Ibn Nafi mosque, named for the Arab commander who began the Islamic conquest of North Africa. Saturday night found the mosque’s imam, Tayeb al Ghozi, in a state of pique. 

“They didn’t even try to talk to me,” he said. Behind him, the voices of men singing prayers floated out from within the mosque. Admittedly, he hadn’t contacted Ansar al Sharia, either, “but the house of the Quran is always open, and they didn’t come.” 

Beneath the medina walls, a few young men were idling by a snack kiosk. Like everyone, they wondered if the morning would bring trouble.

“The problem with Ansar al Sharia is the link to violence,” said one of them, a university graduate named Ayman Mokni, citing recent skirmishing near the Algerian border. 

“There are different Salafi groups and they’re not all involved in that,” said Mohamed Akerni, a high school student.

“They’re all connected, though,” Mr. Mokni said.

Not defeated

By the next morning, police and national guardsmen had materialized in droves around the square beside the Oqba Ibn Nafi mosque. Two security agents paced along an overlooking wall, one clutching an automatic rifle and the other holding binoculars.

Ansar al Sharia said via its Facebook page that its spokesman had been arrested, and urged supporters to avoid Kairouan. Meanwhile, in the poor Kairouan district of Hay al Nusr, Salafis staged an impromptu rally at the Abou Bakr As-Sadiq mosque.

Abdallah and other demonstrators insist they are peaceful. Some are involved with the Association for the Introduction of Islam, whose office is near the mosque. But they’re cagey about discussing its work and convinced they are the target of plots by governments in Tunisia, France, and the US. 

Many leading Tunisian Salafis have said the country is off-limits for armed struggle, says a February report by the International Crisis Group. But “if Tunisia was considered a land of jihad, we would do jihad,” says the man who gave him name as Abdallah.

Violence can still erupt unintended. Yesterday Salafi demonstrations in Hay Tadhamen, a poor suburb of Tunis, devolved into brawls as police and locals traded tear gas, stones, and Molotov cocktails. At least one man was killed and 15 policemen injured, while 274 people were detained between Friday and yesterday, said Agence France Presse. There were also unconfirmed reports of a second death.

As news of the clashes in Hay Tadhamen filtered into Hay al Nusr, and the Salafis continued marching through the Abou Bakr As-Sadiq mosque, Abdallah and his companions reflected on whether anyone had prevailed.

“Praise be to God, there is a victor,” said one of them, who also refused to give his name. “The rally took place.”

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