Islamists, Leftists Clash At Tunisian Universities

Following Tunisia’s revolution, Islamists and Leftists have sought to assert their authority in universities across the country, resulting in rival student unions often facing off on campus. Al-Hayat reports on the increasingly violent altercations between warring student bodies.

al-monitor Salafist and secular students clash at the Humanities and Literature Faculty in Manouba University, near Tunis November 29, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

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universities, tunisian revolution, history of islamists, history, education

Oct 20, 2012

“The Tunisian university is at a tipping point.” That is how Yousra al-Jabali, a sociology student at the April 9 College of Arts and Humanities, summarized the situation at her academic institution after last week's violent clashes.

This incident thrust the Tunisian university into a position of ideological conflict between different political forces seeking to extend their reach into this space, and to use it for leverage in the upcoming elections.

With the beginning of the new academic year, clashes and political pressure surfaced once again, a reminder to the students of the nightmare they endured last year during the dispute at the University of Manouba and the disruption of classes for over two months in dispute over the niqab, a garment which veils the woman's face as well as hair.

As they returned to the classrooms this year, many of the students did not bother to conceal their fear that they will confront the same problems.

Their fears were soon confirmed

About two weeks after the beginning of the academic year, the students were surprised by acts of violence that shook April 9 University, one of the most prestigious colleges in the country.

These took place against a backdrop of a series of protests organized by the General Union of Tunisian Students, which is affiliated with the political left, calling for a number of students to be admitted to the Masters program. This resulted in skirmishes with representatives of the General Tunisian Union of Students, affiliated with mainstream Islamists.

The latter organization is still relatively small in numbers since it only registered its return to civil-society activism last year. Prior to that it had been dormant, following [former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s decision to disband it in 1991.

Its members rallied with elements from outside the college in order to impose their influence. These elements included youths both with beards and without, armed with clubs, knives and stones. They terrorized the student population.

The clashes raged on campus for about an hour, causing a great disruption and resulting in many being wounded on both sides, as well as significant material damage.

Not surprisingly, campus was closed for three days thereafter.

“An exceptional decision was taken by the General Council because violence had reached an unacceptable level and we truly feared for the safety of the students, faculty and staff. Additionally, we could not guarantee that the danger had passed or that foreign elements would not return to the university,” said Vice Dean Muhammad Ali Bin Zayna.

This was the second incident of its kind in 2012. This past April skirmishes occurred between representatives of the two unions on the campus of El Manar University and the scenario has repeated itself: representatives of the General Tunisian Union of Students came out to ask for help from outside the university, specifically from neighboring mosques.

Worshipers were mobilized against the representatives of the General Union of Tunisian Students and they then returned, bringing with them thugs armed with stones and batons.

Controlling the university

These and other events bring to mind the violent political free-for-alls that shook Tunisian universities in the 1980s and early 1990s and featured a bloody conflict between liberal and Islamist forces, driving many to question whether history is repeating itself.

Hussein Bujara, the secretary-general of the University of Higher Education and Scientific Research (a part of the General Tunisian Union of Students) put it this way:

“The university has never been isolated from political conflicts, but this must not become a means to divert attention from students' real problems and all the reforms that must be undertaken in order to improve conditions and the educational system.”

However, he does not conceal his skepticism that there are parties trying to introduce a new cycle of violence into the universities in order to weaken and control them. 

Followers of public affairs in Tunisia fear the persistent attempts of the Islamists in power to dominate the university and what it represents — the throngs of students (about 400,000) and their momentum, itself capable of tilting the balance of political forces, especially in the upcoming elections.

Supporters of the Ennahda Movement remember very well that they managed to make their presence felt in the political arena during the 1980s and early 1990s, primarily through their activities within the university.

Several of the current leaders in the party got their first taste of politics at university; therefore, today it seems absolutely necessary for them to reclaim this area.

In that regard, Tariq al-Saidi, a member of the Executive Office of the General Union of Tunisian Students, stated that “Islamists want to create a parallel structure as the overall authority and they want to impose themselves on society.”

He added: “Since returning to the university, the General Tunisian Union of Students has tried to piggyback on any event and impose itself by force if necessary, even though it does not have any legal legitimacy.”

In response to this accusation, supporters of the organization say that they derive their legitimacy from their popularity among students and from their many years of struggle.

Rashid Kahlani, the official spokesman for the Coordinating Bodies of Supporters of the General Tunisian Union of Students, expressed that although the organization has not yet received legal authorization, “it has a strong presence in universities, even though some wish to exclude them because they do not believe in democratic principles or a pluralistic civil society."  

The issue of the veil: Is it an artificial problem?

Not far from the political disputes on campus, the issue of the veil has risen once again, not through confrontations between veiled students and university administrations, but rather over the three bills the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research tried to pass and propose to the Constituent Assembly.

The first proposes a total ban of the veil within the confines of the university, the second proposes fully allowing it and the third proposes allowing it, but with certain conditions. After a wave of debate and give-and-take, the ministry abandoned these proposals following a meeting between the minister and the Council of University Presidents.

The minister of the Council of University Presidents refused to discuss it, considering the veil an internal university matter to be determined by the each institution's academic particular academic considerations, free of interference from the Constituent Assembly.

As Bujara said, “This position is a slap in the face to the minister, who sought to reopen an issue not currently on the agenda, with the goal of diluting the real problems.”

In the view of Mustafa Touati, the co-president of the university professors, “the minister tried to play a silly game hoping for the choice to compromise by allowing the veil with conditions; however, his trick did not fool the university presidents.”

The question of the veil remains fresh in minds of many, even if its intensity has abated somewhat this year as compared to last year, when the violence between Salafist students and the dean and professors put a stop to classes for two months at the College of Arts in Manouba.

The atmosphere at universities remains fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, says Islam Halawi, a student at April 9 University.

“Whenever I came to college, I became scared that incidents of violence could break out at any given time. There is no protection for us as students," she said, calling for the return of university security.

Campus security had been dissolved after the revolution because they were believed to be a tool of the government used to spy on students.

Though this position is not shared by everyone, Tariq al-Saidi believes that “there is no place for re-militarization of the university.”

Instead, it is necessary “for police protection to be provided outside of the university campus and competent staff to post guards within the universities who are under the authority of college presidents and deans.”

However, the ministry does not consider these to be urgent demands. Emphasizing this point, spokesman Murad al-Yacoubi said that “the universities are capable of protecting themselves; there is no benefit in sensationalism.” 

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