Gathering of Salafists in Kairouan on May 20.
Despite the local population’s resistance, Salafist Islamists have succeeded in forcefully shutting down nearly every business that sells alcohol in the southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, best known for being the location of the early protests that sparked the Arab Spring.
According to some of our Observers, armed Salafists – extremist Sunni Muslims who aim to impose Sharia law – stormed the city’s bars and cafés and forced them to shut down on May 18. In retaliation, some bar owners and patrons vandalized a local mosque.
Local authorities did not explicitly condemn the forced shutdown, and the regional governor has since proposed that the bars located in the city centre be moved to the industrial part of town. However, Tunisia’s justice minister, Nourredine B’hiri, said that the perpetrators of these acts of violence will be “severely punished.”
On May 20, just after the incidents in Sidi Bouzid, several thousand members of the radical Ansar al-Charia movement gathered from around the country in the famous mosque of Kairouan, one hundred kilometres away. The gathering was as much a show of strength (the men wore military garb) as a religious meeting.
Hundreds of Salafists gathered in the Kairouan mosque last Sunday.
A few days earlier, the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, had for the first time authorized the creation of a Salafist political party, the “Reform Front.” Tunisia is home to approximately 10 to 12 thousand Salafists, who are divided into several sub-groups of varying degrees of radicalism.

“The police and army were present, but they did not intervene”

Our Observer Farouk Smari, 29, is a blogger in Sidi Bouzid.
Last Friday evening, the owner of a bar in the city centre was about to open his establishment when Salafists arrived and ordered him not to. They argued that the sale of alcohol led to noise at night, which disturbed nearby residents. The bar owner was frightened and agreed to keep his bar shut. [Other eyewitness accounts say the Salafists were armed with swords and firearms].
Friday and Saturday after the evening prayer, owners of bars and cafés and their patrons headed to the Ar Rahma mosque, a main meeting spot for Salafists, to take revenge. They attacked Salafists with sticks; some also carried guns and shot live rounds into the air. I went to the mosque later to take photos of the damage. There are bullet holes on the minaret. The police and army were present but they did not interfere – they just closed down the street.
Photo by Farouk Smari.
Photo by Farouk Smari.
Photo by Farouk Smari.
“There have always been tensions concerning the sale of alcohol, but never such violence”
In retaliation, on Saturday morning, Salafists forcefully shut down every bar in town by threatening the owners. That day, Salafists went as far as setting fire to several trucks full of liquor, and a liquor warehouse on the outskirts of the city. To my knowledge, only four places legally sold alcohol in Sidi Bouzid: two bars, one café and one hotel. The bars and café are now closed, and the hotel remains open but has stopped selling alcohol.
This is the first time something like this has happened. There have always been tensions around this question of the sale of alcohol, but never such violence. I deeply regret the situation. All parties involved need to use dialogue, not force; there may need to be some kind of mediation. For now, the violence has died down, but I worry about this tendency in our country to want to take justice in our own hands.  

“Salafists are a scarecrow that the government is letting make trouble to instil fear in the population”

Slimane Rouissi is one of our Observers in Sidi Bouzid.
I’m very worried. In some ways, Salafists are taking the place of local authorities that have completely given up on protecting the population. So Salafists are stepping in, imposing their rules and instilling fear in the city. It raises the question: where are the public authorities? Neither the army nor the police intervened in this weekend’s events. Why? All we’re asking is for violent acts like these to be prevented, or at least punished.
I have the feeling that our country is gradually slipping into anarchy. I can’t help but wonder if all of this isn’t, in a way, orchestrated by the country’s authorities. Salafists are a scarecrow that the government is letting make trouble to instill fear in the population – the same techniques were used when [ousted president] Ben Ali was in power. To me, it’s a sign that the government wants to silence the people and foil the country’s democratic objectives.