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A New Turn in Tunisia?

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Lindsay Mackenzie/LUZphoto/Redux
Female student protesters from Manouba University at an apartment in Tunis, January 2012. The text on the banner behind them says, ‘Yes to niqab-wearing women to study and sit exams. A prayer room is the right of every male and female student.’

One morning in mid-May I drove to Manouba University, the largest in Tunisia, to meet Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Letters and one of the most prominent critics—and victims—of a campaign by Salafist radicals to Islamize the country. An avuncular man with a shock of white hair and a trim gray mustache, Kazdaghli is a secular scholar of ethnic minorities in Tunisia who has fought to keep religion out of university affairs. He received me in his office, which he had fortified with extra locks. “In the current atmosphere, I have to be careful,” he told me.

Kazdaghli’s troubles began during the first days of the academic year two years ago. A Salafist and former student at Manouba named Mohammed Bakhti—who had been released from prison in January 2011, after serving six years of a twelve-year sentence for jihadism—confronted Kazdaghli in his office. He demanded that women be permitted to wear the face covering known as the niqab in class. “I told him, ‘The niqab cannot be permitted, I need to see the students I’m dealing with,’” Kazdaghli said. That, however, seems only part of the explanation. Kazdaghli, a former member of Tunisia’s Communist Party, has made no secret of his antipathy toward the Islamists; he also believes that capitulating to the religious extremists on one issue would open the university up to other demands, and radically change its secular nature.

Days later, fifty Salafists invaded the campus and held a sit-in outside the dean’s office. “I had to climb over mattresses to get in and out,” Kazdaghli said. Besides the niqab, the extremists demanded an on-campus prayer room for students, segregated faculty rooms, and separate classes for men and women. Kazdaghli refused, saying that he opposed gender segregation and was unwilling to give up one of his already overcrowded classrooms for religious purposes. Salafist protesters then overran the university during exam period and occupied it for a month, causing thousands of students to miss their tests.

The confrontations grew uglier. In March 2012, two niqab-wearing women forced their way into Kazdaghli’s office, knocked the files off his desk, and threatened to burn the place down. “I called the police and they said, ‘We can’t get involved. The prosecutor has to give the order,’” he told me. Kazdaghli eventually persuaded the women to leave his office, but when one tried to come back inside, the dean pushed her out and slammed the door behind her. On March 6, two hundred Salafists surrounded the university, demanding the dean’s expulsion. One climbed up the flagpole, tore down the Tunisian flag, and raised a jihadist banner in its place. Kazdaghli, whose specialty is Tunisia’s near-vanished Jewish community, was accused on TV by Salafists of being “a Mossad agent,” then hauled before a court in Tunis to face charges of assault filed by one of the women students. He has made ten appearances before a magistrate in the last ten months.

Kazdaghli was bitter about his treatment by the government. The police and prosecutors had failed to come to his aid several times, he told me, and Ennahda—the self-described “moderate” Islamist movement banned by the Ben Ali dictatorship that now heads the ruling coalition—had remained silent throughout the Salafist siege. “Of all the political parties in Tunisia, Ennahda was the only one that said nothing,” he told me. Late last year, Mohammed Bakhti, the Salafist who made the initial set of demands, died in prison after an eight-week hunger strike following his arrest for participation in the September 2012 attack on the US embassy in Tunis. The Salafists have moved on to other causes, though they have vowed to press their demands on Kazdaghli and the university in the future. Meanwhile, university classes continue.

For most of the last two years, Tunisia seemed to have more workable politics than the other nations caught up in the Arab Spring. In a country noted for being among the most liberal in the Arab world—where liquor flows freely and the beaches are filled with scantily clad sunbathers—Ennahda, the Islamist party that won 41 percent of the vote in the October 2011 elections, immediately tried to reassure secular democrats by pursuing a policy of moderation. Ennahda formed a coalition with two centrist secular parties, and blocked attempts by hard-liners to write sharia law into a new constitution. “After one and one half years of Ennahda, what has changed?” Rachid Ghannouchi, the movement’s seventy-two-year-old spiritual leader, asked me when I met him at his headquarters in Tunis. “The mosques are open, the bars are open, the beaches are open. People are free to choose their way of life.”

But the tensions here are escalating. In the past several months, there have been regular confrontations between Salafists—the ultraconservative Islamists who have also been a strong force in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and other countries—and police and soldiers across the country. Tunisian Salafists have traveled to Syria to fight with the Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda- affiliated Islamic rebel group now battling the army of Bashar al-Assad and his Hezbollah allies. The Salafists returned to Tunisia committed to jihad. In early May a small band of Tunisian militants began attacking the Tunisian security forces at the Jebel ech Chambi, a five-thousand-foot mountain in a remote and rugged region near the Algerian border, a tactic ominously reminiscent of jihadist violence in the Algerian and Malian deserts.

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Mike King

The Ennahda-led government, which initially seemed to ignore the Salafists and may even have collaborated with them, seems more willing to address the threat they pose. “What we are seeing now is completely new for us,” I was told by Kamel Morjane, Tunisia’s foreign minister during the last of the Ben Ali years. “We don’t know where it’s going to lead.” Morjane resigned his post two weeks after Ben Ali’s fall and two months later he created a secular party, al-Moubadara, or the Initiative, which has embraced some of the liberal social policies of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, and called for clean government.

Despite his affiliation with the dictatorship, Morjane was never tainted by allegations of corruption and won respect after he swiftly condemned the military in December 2010 for opening fire on protesters. But his party’s poll ratings are low, and Morjane could find himself excluded from politics if the drafters of the new constitution approve an article, still being debated, eliminating all former members of the ancien régime.

The rise of the Salafists in Tunisia is connected with the excesses of the dictatorship. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia from 1987 until 2011, effectively declared war on conservative Islam. Ben Ali’s security police sometimes arrested women who wore hijabs in public, and closely monitored mosques and the schools of Islamic learning known as madrasas. They locked up 25,000 Islamists, and often tortured them. As in Egypt, many of them grew increasingly radicalized during their long years in prison. (Ghannouchi was among five thousand Ennahda members who fled the country just ahead of Ben Ali’s 1991 dragnet; he lived as an exile in London for twenty years.)

In the first chaotic days after Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, ten thousand people walked out of Tunisia’s prisons. These included common criminals who escaped, and political prisoners—among them three thousand Salafists—liberated by the Ministry of Justice. Emboldened by the rebellions in Libya and Egypt, the group took advantage of the collapse of security to take to the streets. They protested outside synagogues and stormed movie theaters. In September 2012 they attacked the US embassy and burned down an adjacent American school, destroying ten thousand library books and causing $5.5 million worth of damage.

Sufis, with their emphasis on mysticism and saint worship, are particular enemies of the Salafists, who have firebombed or defaced at least forty Sufi Islamic shrines during the last year, including the mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said, a thirteenth-century mystic buried in the much-visited hilltop suburb that bears his name. Salafists have also been accused of carrying out the worst act of political violence since the revolution, the assassination on February 6, 2013, of Chokri Belaïd, a human rights lawyer and leader of a leftist party, who was gunned down at point-blank range while sitting in his car in front of his house in Tunis. The killing set off the biggest street protests in Tunisia since the 2011 overthrow of Ben Ali.

Many secular democrats still distrust Ghannouchi, accusing him of tacitly encouraging the ultraconservatives. Last year Ghannouchi’s opponents released a secretly made video of the Ennahda leader addressing a meeting of Salafists. Ghannouchi spoke of them as his “sons and daughters” and encouraged them not to lose sight of their goal of Islamizing the country. “We should open Koranic schools and reopen the mosque of El-Zaytouna,” he said, referring to a network of now-shut-down madrasas established around one of the country’s oldest mosques, in the medina of Tunis. Ghannouchi told me his remarks had been taken out of context. “It made it sound like there was a secret pact between us,” he said. “I didn’t tell them to pick up weapons and build training camps.”

Morjane, the former foreign minister, made it clear that he blamed the jihadists’ guerrilla campaign on the slack response of Ennahda. “What is happening in Chambi today you could not think of happening during the time of Ben Ali,” he told me. Ghannouchi insisted that the government was taking a hard line. “In the attack against the US embassy, the security forces killed four or five of them, and they arrested over eighty of them, and when they tried to smuggle weapons from Libya, three of them were killed,” he said. “What do we need to do to convince people that we are against extremists? Do we need to adopt the Ben Ali policy of opening concentration camps and putting thousands of people inside?”

The al-Fatah mosque, a single-story structure of pink marble topped by a green tile roof, just off the Avenue de la Liberté in downtown Tunis, is a good place to consider the strength of the radicals. Constructed several decades ago with Saudi Arabian money, the mosque has become, in the last two years, a meeting place for adherents of Ansar al-Sharia, the most vocal and violent Salafist group in Tunisia.

The mosque served as the refuge for the fugitive leader of the Tunisian Salafists, Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, also known as Abu Iyadh, who is wanted by police for inciting the attack on the US embassy. He is now believed to be fighting against the army on the Jebel ech Chambi mountain.

In February 2011 several hundred Salafists gathered here and marched to the nearby Grand Synagogue, waving Islamist banners and chanting anti-Semitic slogans. “Wait, wait, Jews, the Army of Mohammed is returning,” they shouted, before police and local people broke up the protest. About 1,500 Jews still live in Tunisia, including five hundred in Tunis and a thousand on the island of Djerba, and they were left unmolested under the Ben Ali regime; the Grand Synagogue typically attracts between twenty-five and thirty people to Sabbath services. I was told by Jews that most of them still feel safe in Tunisia, despite anti-Semitic rhetoric from the Salafists and efforts by some hard-liners in government to criminalize all contact with Israel.

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