The clashes that took place on May 12 and 13 between Tunisian security forces and Salafist youths in the area of Sijoumi near Tunis portend increasing tension, which could be the beginning of the end of the cautious relationship between the ruling Ennahda party and Salafist Muslims.
Security forces fired tear gas to disperse about 300 Salafists who were trying to set up tents in which to preach, without prior authorization. They also prevented similar tents from being erected in the capital and several provinces, which sparked clashes in some areas.
On May 12, Tunisian police dispersed Salafist Muslims trying to set up tents for preaching and to distribute their pamphlets in the areas of Medenine and Tataouine in the southeast of the country.
According to press information, the police dispersed “without violence” Salafists trying to pitch tents in front of the headquarters of the state in Tataouine (500 km south of Tunis). The police have also prevented people from erecting tents in the same place as a prelude to a demonstration against unemployment.
While Salafists have been accusing the ruling Ennahda party of cracking down on them, security forces claim that Salafists are inciting people to go against the police and army, as they have described the latter as “the tyrant’s soldiers.” The Interior Ministry has warned against such actions and threatened to prosecute “those who are pitting against security forces, either by setting up tents for preaching, or by preaching via the Internet.”
According to security sources, Salafists have used Molotov cocktails during clashes in low-income neighborhoods, where tension has become prevalent.
These unprecedented banning measures came in the run-up to the annual meeting of the Ansar al-Sharia Salafist group in Kairouan group to be held next Sunday. The (independent) interior minister, Lotfi Ben Jeddo, declared the intention of his ministry to prevent the conference due to “the country’s current security conditions.” The Salafist group, on the other hand, stressed via its website its “right” to hold the annual conference.
Sami al-Sayd, a leader in Ansar al-Sharia, said in a news release that he predicts that the group’s third annual conference will be attended by more than 35,000 Salafist jihadists, which would exceed the number of last year's participants, which amounted to about 30,000.
Although Salafist leader Khamis al-Majiri advised Ansar al-Sharia to “be rational and not to be drawn into confrontation with the state,” he has not urged them to cancel the conference, which is fueling expectations of confrontation between security forces and Salafists.
The campaign against Salafists is seen in light of the affiliation of those involved in armed operations against the Tunisian security forces and army with Ansar al-Sharia. Those have also joined armed groups in Algeria and Libya. This leads to the pertinent question: Does the Islamist organization really believe that Tunisia is not the land of jihad, as declared many times by its leaders?
Clashes have also intensified following the radical shift in the rhetoric of Ennahda leaders and ministers regarding Salafists. This is especially true in light of the statements of Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who said, “There is no dialogue with those who threaten the state and society.” This is not to mention the statements made by Samir Dilom, the minister of human rights and a leader in Ennahda, who said that “Tunisia is not a land of jihad,” which has drawn the ire of Salafist leaders who launched a scathing attack against him.
It appears that the regional situation has encouraged Ennahda to become more decisive while dealing with Salafists, after it had previously defended them and given them political cover, which has angered public opinion in Tunisia.
Moreover, a number of political parties associated the success of the national dialogue sponsored by President Moncef Marzouki, with the extent of decisive measures regarding Salafists. This is not to mention the West’s discomfort about Salafists’ intensive activities in Tunisia, as Salafists have been a source of recruits for the war in Mali, Syria and Algeria.
Civil society organizations, workers in the tourism sector and businessmen have denounced the Salafists’ activities and “tents for preaching” in tourist areas, which would adversely affect tourism, knowing that tourism constitutes a large proportion of the country’s resources.
The national conference on boosting the country’s economy that was held on May 11 called on the government “to face Salafists’ activities, which would harm tourism.”
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