Tunisia’s revolution ousted a dictator, but it also did away with a staunchly secular regime. Now the country’s Salafists are back on the streets trying to impose their ultra-conservative brand of Islam.
However, observers say Tunisia’s minority Salafists, who advocate a literalist interpretation of the Koran and are inspired by the lives of the first Muslims, are simply being opportunistic.
“They are not so much acting as reacting. This is why they’re popping out of the woodwork during a pre-electoral period,” said Alaya Allami, an expert on Islamism in the Maghreb.
On Oct. 23, Tunisia will hold its first elections since former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — who had ruled with an iron fist for 23 years — was ousted by a popular uprising, tipping the first domino of the so-called Arab Spring.
“They are taking advantage of the freedom brought about by the revolution to try and impose their ideas on society,” historian Faycal Cherif said.
Visible again on the streets of Tunis and other major cities, the Salafists’ new assertiveness has led to a number of violent clashes.
In the eastern city of Sousse earlier this month, about 200 Islamists stormed the university campus after a female student wearing a full face-veil was not allowed to sign up.
The latest incident came on Sunday in Tunis when a mob of Salafists tried to attack the offices of private Nessma TV station after it aired Persepolis, a French-Iranian animation film in which God is represented as an old bearded man.
Cherif said that the two incidents were of a different nature.
“In Sousse, they were flexing their muscles, it was typical of Salafi activism. However, the Nessma case affected every Muslim because representing God is prohibited in Islam,” he said.
Salafism emerged as an organized political movement in Tunisia in the late 1980s, Allami said.
“They were implicated in various violent events, including the attack against the synagogue in Djerba in 2002 and the Soliman shooting in 2007” in a Tunis suburb, which killed 21 and 14 people respectively, he said.
He argued that the Salafists remain a small and fractious minority.
“More than 1,500 of them have been arrested and sentenced since 2007. Today it is estimated that there are no more than 200 active Salafists with a following of 5,000 to 7,000,” Allami said.
He identified two main currents in the Salafist movement: one non-violent group represented by Hizb at-Tahrir (Liberation Party) and an even smaller fringe group advocating jihad.
In neighboring Algeria, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) emerged about 15 years ago and carried out deadly suicide attacks as well as kidnappings of foreigners.
It has since morphed into al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional franchise of al-Qaeda.
Hizb at-Tahrir is the only movement in Tunisia calling for the establishment of a caliphate and was denied official registration as a legal political party after the democratic revolution in January.
“The Hizb was not legalized because it does not play by democratic rules, unlike Ennahda,” Cherif said, referring to the Islamist party close to the Muslim Brotherhood which is tipped to win the Oct. 23 vote.
Tunisian observers predict that the surge in Salafi activism would ebb.
“The vast majority of Tunisians practice a form of moderate Sunni Islam,” Allami said.