x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Salafi-linked violence used to influence Tunisia polls

n the charged atmosphere of Tunisia¿s election countdown, violence involving Salafi Muslims shows they could be a factor in the voting.

TUNIS // Their numbers are small and their opinions marginal. But in the charged atmosphere of Tunisia's election countdown, violence involving Salafi Muslims shows they could be a factor in the voting.

Salafis hit the headlines on Sunday following rallies against a television station that broadcast a film they called blasphemous.

Police intervened, firing tear gas as demonstrators threw stones.

While such incidents are unlikely to upset the elections on October 23, they have been fodder for political parties in what some have portrayed as a contest for Tunisia's soul.

The moderately Islamist Ennahda party, long persecuted by the toppled regime of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, is expected to lead the elections, followed by the secularist Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

Once allies against Mr Ben Ali's regime, the parties have since faced off in the march towards elections, which will create a national assembly to draft a new constitution.

Mr Ben Ali's removal in January prompted Salafi activists to call for a return to Islam as they say was practised by the prophet Mohammed.

Several demonstrations have ended in fighting with police.

Salafis shun democratic politics as un-Islamic. But Salafi-linked violence had put the Ennahda party "in an awkward position", said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a political analyst and North Africa expert with Control Risks, a British risk assessment firm.

"Some secular parties such as the PDP seized the opportunity to play up the Islamist fear and demanded strong condemnations from Ennahda in an attempt to undermine the party."

But secularist parties refrained from criticising Ennahda following last weekend's protest, which Ennahda condemned.

"This probably marks a change in strategy but also highlights the recent unity of purpose among key parties around the need for peaceful elections," Mr Gallopin said.

For Salafi activists, the immediate goals are more concrete.

"We want Nessma TV's licence pulled," said Mondher Abderrahman, a member of the administration committee at a mosque near Tunis's Al Manar University that serves as a focal point for Salafi activism.

On Friday, Tunisia's Nessma TV broadcast Persepolis, an animated film by French-Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrpani about the 1979 Iranian revolution. Among the film's cartoons is an image of God.

"This is a crime and for a crime there must be a punishment," said Mr Abderrahman. Yesterday, a petition circulated after the noon prayer at the Al Manar mosque as Mr Abderrahman and fellow activists collected signatures for a legal complaint they plan to lodge against Nessma TV.

According to the TV station, a different sort of complaint appeared last Friday online.

"There were messages posted on Facebook calling for Nessma to be torched and our journalists to be killed," said Nabil Karoui, Nessma's director, quoted by Agence-France Presse.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters converged on Nessma TV's headquarters in Tunis, which Mr Karoui described as an attempt to attack the building.

Police fired tear gas to drive the protesters back and arrested up to 100, said the interior ministry.

Meanwhile, police tried to bar demonstrators leaving the Al Manar mosque from crossing an adjacent motorway, said Habib Tlili, a worshipper at the mosque who took part in the protest.

"Because of that there were clashes with the police," he said and described running battles that spread into the nearby Jebel Al Ahmar neighbourhood. "They fired tear gas and demonstrators threw stones."

Mr Abderrahman described Sunday's demonstrations as coordinated attempts at peaceful protest but reports by Reuters and Tunisia's state new agency described some protesters in Jebel Al Ahmar wielding knives and burning tyres.

The violence followed clashes on Saturday in the city of Souss between police and protesters who condemned an education ministry decision to ban the niqab, or full face veil, from universities.

The interior ministry has urged protesters to avoid violence.

Yesterday, the religion minister, Laroussi Mizouri, called on media "to respect the beliefs and religiously sacred matter and to work to respect the principles of social peace".

jthorne@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters