Tunis - Tunisia is taking a harder line on preaching by
ultraconservative Muslim groups, a crackdown that has sparked demonstrations by
rock-throwing protesters and ominous warnings of terrorist attacks to come.
As it struggles to hunt down al-Qaeda linked terrorists in
its frontiers, the government has also been trying to rein in salafis
emboldened by the fall of the country's repressive dictatorship two years ago.
The interior minister said last week that gatherings will require permission, a
measure rarely enforced in the past that is an attempt to stop tent meetings
springing up around the country to build support for the groups.
One of the most vocal of them threatened Monday that if the
government cancels its annual conference this weekend — an event attended by
40 000 last year that featured martial arts displays and sword-wielding
horsemen — its adherents who have experience in jihad could strike.
"You are making a foolish mistake because faith cannot
be defeated by any force in the world," said Seifallah Ben Hassine, the
leader of Ansar al-Shariah, in an online statement. "I remind you that our
youth that proved its heroism in the defense of Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya,
Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Syria will not hesitate to make sacrifices for the
Tunisia's government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda
Party, which won elections after the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's
secular dictatorship, had been criticized by the opposition for its permissive
attitude toward the conservative religious movements that arose with the fall
of the regime.
In the freedoms of the post-revolutionary period, these
groups moved aggressively to gain supporters, alarming the more secular middle
class in this country of 10 million. Ennahda Party members insisted they did
not want to follow the old repressive policies of the dictatorship, but their
tolerance for the salafis frayed as the groups became increasingly violent,
attacking art exhibits, police stations, cinemas and the US embassy.
Ben Hassine is in hiding for his alleged role in the September
14 attack on the embassy in Tunis, in which several salafi groups converged,
burning cars and destroying a nearby American school.
Wind of revolution
Tunisia has also been struggling to deal with the spillover
from fighting in Libya, extremist groups in Algeria and bands of fighters
fleeing the French intervention against al-Qaeda linked groups in northern
Mali. Last week, 16 Tunisian soldiers were wounded by roadside bombs as they
combed a mountain range near the Algerian border for a militant group believed
to have fled Mali, putting the country in a state of high alert and prompting
the crackdown on gatherings.
"We will confront with the law, or if necessary by
force, all people who attack the security forces or the institutions of the
state," said ministry spokesperson Mohammed Ali Aroui.
In defiance of the government over the weekend, salafis set
up tents around lower-income Tunis suburbs and in conservative southern towns.
When police attempted to dismantle the tents, they were met with stones and
firebombs, and responded with tear gas.
A video of one such rally in the town of Menzel-Bourguiba,
north of the capital showed several preachers calling for jihad into
"No one can resist when the wind of revolution
blows," said one speaker, accusing the government of being an American
lackey. "You get on your knees in front of America, but our youth will
bring America itself to its knees."
Ansar al-Shariah rocketed to prominence last year at its
gathering in Kairouan, one of Islam's most revered cities. The Interior
Ministry has yet to say if they will allow the conference to go head, but the
group's spokesperson said the government would bear responsibility for the
consequences if it bans it.
"We will not march backwards," said Seifeddine
Rais during an interview with Shems FM radio, in which he predicted at least 30
000 would attend.