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Clashes in Tunis mark a new era of challenges

When an Al Qaeda affiliate asks a political group in Tunisia to tone down its rhetoric, something is amiss with the country's post-revolution transition

When an Al Qaeda affiliate asks a political group in Tunisia to tone down its rhetoric, as happened on Sunday, it's clear something is amiss in the country's post-revolution transition. After violent clashes between government forces and the ultraconservative Islamist group Ansar Al Sharia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb warned its brethren to stop attacks on the government coalition.

Ansar Al Sharia's anger was fuelled by the cancellation of its annual meeting, and by day's end hundreds of the group's representatives had been arrested. But it is what happened next that underscores how conflicted Tunisia's transition has become: Ali Larayedh, the prime minister and a leading member of Ennahda, said Ansar Al Sharia is "linked to and involved in terrorism". Ansar Al Sharia responded that the battle with Ennahda is approaching, which in turn drew the Al Qaeda caution "not to respond to the provocations" of the government.

Sunday's clashes and the respective responses show just how divided post-Ben Ali Tunisia has become. Tensions did not pit Islamists against secularists, the dividing line many feared when the former strongman, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled in January 2011. Rather, tensions today are felt most strongly between moderate Islamists and extremists.

As radical groups like Ansar Al Sharia push for more religion in the state, the ruling coalition is faced with a challenge: offer the extremists concessions which will further alienate the secular forces or be accused of not being Islamist enough.

The government's decision to ban the conference marks an escalation against a small but growing segment of Tunisian society that has been largely tolerated over the past two years. For months, the leader of Ennahda, Rashed Ghannouchi, had sought to moderate Ansar Al Sharia's views through dialogue and reasonable politics. But Salafists believe that the current government has betrayed their Islamic values. Violence will not solve these challenges, but it is a clear symptom of the grievances many feel.

The birthplace of the Arab Spring has seen a relatively smooth transition, but as Sunday's violence demonstrates, such gains can quickly unravel. The best way to challenge Ansar Al Sharia would be to prove their allegations of ineptitude wrong, focusing on the issues that will derail hardliner recruitment efforts - jobs and economic opportunity.

The way forward is to steer young people away from groups preaching hate. Lobbing rocks or hurling insults will not ease the tensions Tunisia is now grappling with.

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