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.
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 â€śGod is Great!"Â
Even in their defeat, some saw victory.
â€śThe government wonâ€™t let them have their meeting, so theyâ€™re having it here in the house of God,â€ť said one of the demonstrators, who gave only aÂ nom de guerre: â€śAbdallahâ€ť (Servant of God).Â Many of them had come from other towns and were staying at the mosque. Â
TheÂ governmentÂ effort to quash yesterdayâ€™s rally shows new zeal by Tunisiaâ€™sÂ leadersÂ to defy the countryâ€™s increasingly assertive Salafi movement. But smaller gatherings and rioting elsewhere suggest that in the long run, that movement wonâ€™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.Â
From allies to outsiders
Yesterdayâ€™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 Tunisiaâ€™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.Â Â
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.Â
That turned yesterdayâ€™s planned rally by Ansar al Sharia, Tunisiaâ€™s foremost Salafi group, into a public game of chicken. Although the group deniesÂ involvement inÂ violence and does charity work, the interior ministry bannedÂ 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.Â 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.Â SaturdayÂ night found the mosqueâ€™s imam, Tayeb al Ghozi, in a state of pique.Â
â€śThey didnâ€™t even try to talk to me,â€ť he said.Â Behind him, theÂ voices of men singing prayers floated out from within the mosque. Admittedly, he hadnâ€™t contacted Ansar al Sharia, either, â€śbut the house of the Quran is always open, and they didnâ€™t come.â€ťÂ
Beneath the medina walls, a few young men were idling by a snack kiosk. Like everyone, they wondered if the morning would bring trouble.
â€śThe problem with Ansar al Sharia is the link to violence,â€ť said one of them, a university graduate named Ayman Mokni, citing recent skirmishing near the Algerian border.Â
â€śThere are different Salafi groups and theyâ€™re not all involved in that,â€ť said Mohamed Akerni, a high school student.
â€śTheyâ€™re all connected, though,â€ť Mr. Mokni said.
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 impromptuÂ 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 theyâ€™re cagey about discussing its work and convinced they are the target of plots by governments in Tunisia, France, and the US.Â
Many leading Tunisian Salafis have said the country is off-limits for armed struggle,Â says a February report by the International Crisis Group. But â€śif Tunisia was considered a land ofÂ jihad, we would doÂ jihad,â€ť says the man who gave him name as Abdallah.
Violence can still erupt unintended. YesterdayÂ Salafi demonstrations in Hay Tadhamen, a poor suburb of Tunis,Â devolvedÂ into brawls as police and locals traded tear gas, stones, and Molotov cocktails. At least one man was killed andÂ 15Â policemen injured,Â whileÂ 274Â people wereÂ detained betweenÂ FridayÂ 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.
â€śPraise be to God, there is a victor,â€ť said one of them, who also refused to give his name. â€śThe rally took place.â€ť