TUNIS // With sparkling eyes and religious proverbs, Adel Al Awany describes the night-time patrols that the local chapter of the hardline Islamist Ansar Al Sharia group has been conducting in a suburb south of the Tunisian capital.
Loaded into ten cars and several scooters, the men toured Al Zahra and several poorer neighbourhoods on Friday and Saturday night, watching for crime. They were easily recognisable to the locals, not just because of their thick beards but because they wore jackets, emblazoned with the Ansar Al Sharia logo.
"Ansar Al Sharia are providing patrols for free just because it's what Islam calls for," said Mr Al Awany.
During almost of a week of political upheaval and demonstrations since the assassination of a secular opponent of the Islamist-led government last week, local branches of Ansar Al Sharia and a loose national grouping known as the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution have started patrolling. While the move has been welcomed by some, others see it as a dangerous undermining of security institutions.
In the Wardieh suburb of the capital, Hisham Kenno, a leading member of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, said his group has been patrolling the area, carrying sticks, over the last week.
The Leagues, he said, began as neighbourhood protection squads after police fled during the uprisings two years ago when Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ejected after a public uprising. Now, they have evolved into a politically active organisation with about 160 loosely affiliated branches across the country. They are officially recognised by the government and Seyyed Ferjani, a senior member of Ennahda, the ruling party of moderate Islamists, recently described them as being akin to NGOs.
The Wardieh branch has coordinated with the local branch of Ansar Al Sharia for their patrols, he said, and had detained at least one person and handed them over to the police. Other branches of the Leagues have been operating in a similar way across the country, he said, and had arrested nearly 200 people in the coastal city of Sfax. Mr Kenno said that the patrols were necessary because looters and vandals have been operating in the recent unrest since the assassination of leftist leader Chokri Belaid.
Photographs and videos posted in jihadi forums online show Ansar Al Sharia members patrolling in other cities, including the touristy coastal city of Hammamet and the more conservative, religious area of Bizerte, north of the capital.
An accompanying statement says that the group is against criminal activities, and makes no mention of imposing its own highly conservative values of modest dress, prayer and abstinence from alcohol. But in Al Zahra, Anis Naqash, a jeweller, said he felt pressured by the presence of the Salafis, in his neighbourhood to behave differently.
"The Salafis are pressuring people," he said. "I'm a Muslim, and I drink alcohol. Some guys here bother me about that."
Tunisia is historically a peaceful place, where few own guns, but people have gradually become accustomed to clashes between various political and religious factions and now have been shocked by the previously unthinkable assassination of Belaid.
Both Ansar Al Sharia and the Leagues have been allotted a share of the blame by Tunisian media, politicians and the public for the gradual rise in violence.
On September 14, Ansar Al Sharia led a demonstration by several hundred Salafis who besieged the US Embassy, burnt cars and buildings and attempted to break into the embassy itself, where diplomats were hiding. The situation was only brought under control when presidential guards were dispatched. Hundreds of men were arrested after the attack, but the group's activities - many of which are social and charitable in nature - have not been curtailed.
The group's connection with other organisations of the same name in the region, who have been linked with terror attacks, is murky. But the group's leader, known as Abu Iyadh, is known to have spent time training and operating with militant Islamists groups in Afghanistan a decade ago.
The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, which call for the "cleaning" of all members of the Ben Ali regime from the civil service, media and security services, have also been implicated in violence. In October, a march in the southern city of Tataouine, in which the group participated, sparked violence that ended in the death of a prominent member of Ben Ali's RCD party. In December, members of the Leagues clashed with demonstrators from the national trade union on the Habib Bourguiba avenue in the centre of Tunis.
In Al Zahra, some people welcomed the presence of the extremist patrols. "They are showing good intentions," said Zahwa Ghouile, working in a patisserie. "I feel like I am protected." But others were less sure. In Wardieh, Karim Razouane, an engineering student, said that he had seen a gang of men from Ansar Al Sharia, with bushy beards and sticks and swords "as long as my arm", detain a man from his neighbourhood without good reason. A fight ensued between residents and the patrol, which was eventually broken up by police.
"When I saw this, I was pessimistic about the future of my country," he said. Now, a team of people from his neighbourhood has formed yet another patrol, guarding against their unwelcome self-appointed guardians.
Aaron Y Zelin, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Ansar Al Sharia's action is more likely to be a self-promotion exercise that a serious attempt to combat violence. They may be preparing for a split within Ennahda, he said in a report on Monday, and, "co-opting hardliners who are perplexed by the draft constitution's concessions to secularists and the perceived moderate stances of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali".
Neither Islamists' nor the Leagues' patrols seem likely to shore up faith in Tunisian state institutions.
Mr Kenno, from the local Leagues of the Protection of the Revolution branch, said that he coordinated with the police on their patrols, but this was denied by an officer in a nearby police station.
The officer, who would give only his first name of Fathi, said that it was impossible that the police would work with such groups. "We don't coordinate or cooperate with anyone, because we are the only security system in the country," he said. "They do not have the right to do it," he went on. "We are totally against what they are doing."