Screen grab of a young man protesting for the right of female students to be able to wear full veils to university.
Escalating attacks carried out by Islamist groups in Tunisia led to violent clashes with security forces over the weekend. In response, the government made a number of arrests, which some in Tunisia criticised as arbitrary. Our Observers in Tunisia voice their concerns over the incidences and the impact they could have on the crucial elections in just two weeks.
The first incident occurred on Saturday, with Islamists attacking a university in the north-eastern city of Sousse. A group of Islamists confronted the university’s secretary general, who has been criticised for refusing to let women wearing full veils enrol in classes. The university’s president decided against calling in the police; students and faculty eventually managed to get the men to leave.
The incident at the university in Sousse.
The next day, Islamists attacked the headquarters of Nessma TV, a private television station in Tunis. They were angry that the station broadcast Persepolis, an Iranian animated film dubbed into Tunisian. In one scene, the movie’s protagonist speaks to God, represented as an old man with a white beard. Because representations of God are forbidden by Islam, the scene created quite a stir in Islamist circles. More than 300 protesters showed up at Nessma TV’s headquarters and tried to set it on fire. Also on Sunday, the controversy over the film sparked clashes between young protesters and policemen in the neighbourhood of Jbel Lahmar, in the suburbs of Tunis.
The incident in the neighbourhood of Jbel Lahmar.
Following these incidents, Tunisian authorities arrested several dozen people. Further demonstrations against Nessma TV followed, but peaceful ones this time, with protesters denouncing what they considered to be an offence to their religion. The protesters, who said they had no links to Islamists, also accused the police of making “abusive” arrests.
“Everybody must go vote on October 23 to stop Islamists from gaining power”
Ines Khemiri, 28, works in the French literature department of Sousse’s university.
Attacks by Islamists are becoming more and more dangerous, because they’re carefully planned in advance.
I’m very glad that the university’s president refused the help of the police. Letting the police onto campus would have represented a step backward, since this was common practice under [former Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali’s rule.
Students and faculty tried to talk to the attackers, but it was useless; it was like talking to a wall. They had only one goal in mind: to avenge the two female students who were not allowed to wear full veils to class.
“Even though Ennahdha [the Islamist party] officially condemns violence, its positions are vague enough that if they were to win, extremism could become a serious problem in Tunisia”
Since the attacks, soldiers have been patrolling just outside the university. Personally, as long as they stay outside, I think this is a sensible precaution; we need a little protection.
The only way out of this situation is through the ballot booth. Everybody must go vote on October 23 to stop Islamists from gaining power. Even though Ennahdha [the Islamist party] officially condemns violence, its positions are vague enough that if they were to win, I believe extremism could become a serious problem in Tunisia.”
“The police searched every man with a beard”
Alaa Talbi is a graduate student in history. He lives in central Tunis, near Nessma TV’s headquarters.
Tunisia’s police have not changed their ways since the revolution. Just like they used to do under Ben Ali, police officers in downtown Tunis last weekend got onto the tramway and made every man with a beard get off [in Tunisia, beards are characteristic of Islamists]. Some of the men were simply searched; others were taken to the police station. If you complain to the police, all they’ll say is ‘there will be an investigation later.’ In short, to the police, everyone is guilty until proven otherwise.
“Those who attacked Nessma TV didn’t all have beards”
I am against this completely arbitrary behaviour on the part of the police, which will not solve anything. On the contrary, I think it may enflame Islamists further. First of all, those that attacked Nessma TV didn’t all have beards. Secondly, if the police’s aim is to intimidate people, I think they’re failing. Videos of the arrests, which have shown up on Facebook, have only made people angrier. In one video, the police take a student out from the tramway and search him because he has a beard. Images like these make Islamists look like victims.
Police stop a student in Tunis' tramway.
Besides, they have been protesting every time there are political points to be scored. They’re clearly trying to destabilise the country. With elections just two weeks away, we must not fall into their trap.”
“Whatever happens, we must have elections”
Béchir Bouraoui is the president of the organisation Generation Free Tunisia, which is part of a collective called Lam Echaml. Last May, the collective organised a screening of another controversial film, 'Neither Allah, nor Master.' Islamists attacked the movie theatre where it was being shown.
What happened Sunday in front of Nessma TV’s headquarters proves that Islamists are just looking for excuses to get angry. Our organisation screened Persepolis in a northern suburb of Tunis last spring, without running into any problems. This time, they singled out a scene where the main character talks to God and built it up into a scandal. The film was screened Friday night, and they only started protesting on Sunday morning. They were just looking for an excuse to attack the station.
I’m not in favour of profiling, but I can understand why Sunday’s so-called ‘arbitrary’ arrests took place. After all, we’ve been living under a state of emergency since January. That means the army is tasked with ensuring public safety, and that they can do whatever they like. Even the laws regarding detention, which is usually limited to 48 hours, do not apply. As for the police, they’re only obeying the army’s orders. I think that any excesses on the part of the police have so far been isolated incidents, which we’ll just have to deal with until we get to the elections. Whatever happens, we must have elections.”