Tunisia's Salafists, impatient for power and unskilled in the art of winning it democratically, are growing bolder in claiming it by force. A year after Tunisians chose a constituent assembly in elections that were acclaimed as exemplary, the country's political evolution is in serious doubt.
The trend was crystallised on Thursday when a Salafist imam, Nasreddine Aloui, declared on national television that he is "going to make war" on the moderate Islamists of Ennahda, the most influential political party in the country of 10.7 million people.
A fairly elected government, no matter how imperfect, must not tolerate armed revolt, or incitement to the same. And there are, unfortunately, chilling reasons to take this as more than the partisan rhetoric so familiar in democracies. Mr Aloui has just been chosen by the congregation as imam of a mosque whose previous imam was killed during an armed attack on a national guard station. And his threat follows a series of violent incidents sparked by Salafists, including at least one assassination, attacks on hotels selling alcohol and other such crimes. Manouba University has been paralysed for months by a strike and scuffles between academics and fundamentalists.
But Mr Aloui's rant may have overplayed the Islamist hand, bringing closer a crisis that may determine if Tunisia can complete the difficult journey towards democracy. It can be no coincidence that this weekend President Moncef Marzouki gave a speech praising the armed forces for defending the new democracy.
To be sure, Ennahda and the Salafists seem to differ more about the pace of change than about the direction. The government has supported prosecutions - of a cinema owner, sculptors and others - for alleged disrespect of Islam. And it has done little to protect journalists and others from extremists' thuggery. Indeed, Ennahda chief Rachid Ghannouchi was caught on tape last spring cordially advising young Salafist leaders to take their time to consolidate power.
But there is an important difference between what the government does and what militant Salafists do in the streets. True, the constituent assembly elected last year was supposed to have written a constitution and dissolved itself by now, giving way to a permanent parliament.
But despite all its troubles, only the government carries a measure of democratic legitimacy. As the real fruit of Tunisia's revolution, that must now be defended.