In Tunis, Islamists are at the forefront of anti-government protests

Muslim followers praying on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in central Tunis, on Friday April1. Photo published on Facebook.
 
Anti-government protests have resumed in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, but this time with a new twist: the emergence of a strong Islamist movement. During the last protest on Friday, April 1, in an unprecedented move, they even organised a mass prayer in the street.
 
A sit-in has been going on in central Tunis since March 31 to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Béji Caid Essebsi, who is accused of being too slow in reforming the decades-old power apparatus set up by ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
 
As the power vacuum caused by the Tunisian revolution drags on, some Islamist groups have moved quickly to call for the creation of a religious state. The Islamist group Tahrir, which was founded in the 1980s and was violently repressed by Ben Ali’s government, is at the forefront of this movement. It is calling for a return to a caliph-run Islamic state, and considers democracy as a dangerous illusion kept up by the “global capitalist system.” The group’s members demand that their movement be legalised by the transitional government, as was the case on March 1 for Ennahdha, another, more moderate, Islamist group.
 
A protest on March 1 in central Tunis, on Habib Bourguiba avenue. One minute into the video, you hear protesters chant “God is Great” and “Only God is Sacred”. Video posted on YouTube.

"It’s our only way of existing and expressing ourselves"

Mohamed Amine Jelassi, 17, is a student in a vocational school. He participated in the mass outside protest in central Tunis on Friday.
 
At first people went out into the street to protest. We hadn’t planned to hold a mass prayer, but when prayer time came, some protesters went to ask the police officers present for permission to pray in the street. They said yes, so a group of us kneeled on the ground and began praying.
 
There were thousands of protesters and only 100 or so people praying. The Imam wasn’t a well-known figure, but I found his sermon interesting.
 
"We're calling for the veiled woman to be set free"
 
Today, many Tunisians have turned away from Islam, and I don’t think things have changed much since the fall of Ben Ali’s government. Women who wear the headscarf have less rights than those who don’t: headscarves are still banned in schools and universities, for example. We’re denouncing this kind of injustice and calling for the veiled woman to be set free.
 
Praying in the street is not a provocative gesture. It’s our only way of existing and expressing ourselves: we have no other platform.”

"In the current situation of confusion, Islamists have a lot of room to manoeuvre"

Badiaa Boulila, 24 ans, étudie à Tunis.
 
The religious slogans chanted by protesters on March 31 paved the way for the public prayer on April 1. Some people were saying that they were ready to “die as martyrs”, and claimed they were ready to face the police. Their positions are already quite extreme.
 
On Friday [April 1], there was a strong police presence in front of the Interior Ministry’s Habib Bourguiba avenue, where the protesters prayed, but I think it wanted to avoid any kind of direct confrontation with demonstrators. The atmosphere was very tense, and they knew that if they had tried to stop the prayer, things could have gotten out of hand.
 
Among the people who participated in the prayer, some were carrying the Tahrir party flag. Others, however, probably just wanted to signal their discontent with the current government.
 
"The government has no authority whatsoever"
 
I don’t think Islamists have that much influence in Tunisia but, in the current situation of confusion, they have a lot of room to manoeuvre. On the one hand, political parties aren’t organised enough to constitute a credible opposition. On the other, the government has no authority whatsoever. Just recently, it broadcast a radio message asking citizens to please pay their water and electricity bills. That goes to show how little control they have over people! The Islamists will take advantage of this situation.”
Post written with France 24 journalist Sarra Grira.
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