Tunisia’s vocal Salafist minority

Although Hizb ut-Tahrir was not approved for the upcoming elections, the Salafist party is making its voice heard.

ridha belhadj
Chihi Hatam says that police crackdowns on Salafist groups continue [Credit: Aude Osnowycz]

ARIANA, Tunisia – Tunisia’s Salafists are a small but vocal minority. They may not have any palatable choices at the ballot box, but they are making sure their voices are heard during the election campaign.

Two weeks from the day that Tunisians will go to the polls for the vote that many are hoping will usher in an era of democratic pluralism, one of the parties making headlines is not amongst those running for office.

Some 112 political parties have been granted authorisation to run in Tunisia’s election this month. Hizb ut-Tahrir is not one of them.

The Salafist, pan-Islamist party whose members suffered intense repression under ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government, is one of 162 parties that were refused official status.

But the lack of official recognition is not holding Hizb ut-Tahrir back.

Ridha Belhadj, president of Tunisia’s Hizb ut-Tahrir movement [Credit: Aude Osnowycz]

“We don’t need authorisation from the government, we have authorisation from the people,” Ridha Belhadj, the party’s president, told Al Jazeera in an interview on Sunday, as around 500 supporters gathered in a hall in the coastal town of Ariana.

Salafism is a school of theology based on a strict and literal interpretation of Islam.

Tunisian authorities argue that only parties that respect democracy can be legalised. Belhadj said that his party is not opposed to the electoral process and that, it if had been allowed, it would have taken part in the election.

“We didn’t refuse to participate in the election for ideological reasons, there are elections in Islam,” he said.

A spate of violent incidents attributed to Salafist activists in the months leading up to the election have nothing to do with his party, Belhadj said.

We were the first to reject violence in politics. The confusion is always created by foreign powers.

– Ridha Belhadj, president of Hizb ut-Tahrir

“Violence is not legitimate in politics. We were the first to reject violence in politics. The confusion is always created by foreign powers,” he said.

In his view, Tunisia’s uprising has paved the way for a Salafist state. And he believes his party has popular support.

Ideologies such as Capitalism and Communism have been discredited, he said.

“There is an awareness amongst the people that it’s possible to do things differently.”

Even as the meeting in Ariana was taking place that morning, clashes were breaking out across town outside the offices of Nessma TV.

As many as 200 protesters gathered outside Nessma TV to rally against the airing of Persepolis, an animated film about a young girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution. They said the film’s depiction of God in human form was an affront to Islam.

Local and foreign media quickly reported that Salafists were behind the protest, despite the fact that many of those present had no apparent links to any Salafist movement.

According to news reports, the group was moving to attack the satellite channel’s headquarters, but were prevented by police, who arrested around 100 people.

Tunisia Live, a news website, reportedthat it had been a peaceful protest against the decision to broadcast the film until police moved in.

Haythem El Mekki, who blogs under the name of ByLasKo and has a social media show on Nessma TV, said the alleged attacks and threats against his colleagues were nothing new.

“Nessma has been subjected to this several times,” he said. “I’m kind of used to it. For me, all this is ridiculous.”

El Mekki, who frequently pokes fun at Islamists on his show, said that he was not afraid of threats and that it was only a tiny minority of Tunisians involved. He said there was an online campaign by Salafists against the channel.

After the protests against Nessma TV, a police crackdown on the suburb of Ras Ettabia ensued [credit: Aude Osnowycz]

On Sunday afternoon, police went to the mosque near the University of Tunis El Manar, in the suburb of Ras Ettabia, looking to arrest three men allegedly responsible for organising the protests against Nessma TV, a source in the security forces told Al Jazeera.

Violence quickly erupted in the working class suburb, with youths throwing rocks at police, who responded with teargas. An Al Jazeera reporter witnessed several police officers also throwing rocks at the youths.

Questioned by Al Jazeera, youths facing off with the police were unaware of the protests against Nessma TV, and said they had heard that security forces had come to close the mosque.

Long viewed as a hotbed for the Salafist movement, the mosque had been forced to close in 2002, and only reopened after Ben Ali fled the country.

Chihi Hatam, one of the men throwing rocks at police, was open about his Salafist sympathies. He said he had served nine years in prison under Ben Ali for his religious beliefs, and said the crackdown on Sunday was proof that persecution of Salafists was continuing.

This is like it was when Ben Ali was in power, nothing has changed.

– Chihi Hatam, resident of Ras Ettabia

“This is like it was when Ben Ali was in power, nothing has changed,” Hatam, who is not involved in any political movement, said.

Many of the youths present told Al Jazeera that had no links to Salafism and were simply upset by the police’s intrusion into their district. 

On Monday, around 100 protesters carrying Hizb ut-Tahrir flags rallied outside the main courthouse in Tunis, the capital. They told Al Jazeera that they were there to protest the arrests that had taken place on Sunday. 

A separate group of protesters staged a sit-in outside Nessma TV. Unlike the protest outside the court, this one was not organized by Hizb ut-Tahrir and had a broader support base.

One of the organisers of the sit-in was a student named Bilal Defelah, who identifies himself as Salafist but is not aligned to Hizb ut-Tahrir or any other political movement, said the protesters wanted Nessma TV to be shut down for showing a film that was “against Islam”.

“We demand that our brothers who were arrested yesterday be released and that the Nessma employees who chose to diffuse the film be put on trial,” he said.

Protests against Nessma TV had spread to other towns on Monday including Gafsa, Sidi Bouzid, Sfax, Sousse and El Kef.

Several parties, including the Free Patriotic Union (UPL) and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) issued press releases condemning the protests as attacks on freedom of expression.

Others questioned Nessma’s decision to air Persepolis, which depicts God in human form, at time when tensions between secularists and advocates of political Islam are already high.

The film had been previously screened in French langauage in Tunisian cinemas, without any event. 
It was the first time the film was shown on television, however, and in Tunisian dialect.

“Everyone is free to do what they like,” Kalthoum Triki, a member of Karama, a woman’s association based in Sousse, said. “We have battled all our lives against censorship, and we will not today start asking for this or that to be censored.”

Al-Nahda, an Islamist party, issued a statement expressing astonishment at the timing of the film, and urged media to avoid “provocation and sensationalism”.

The party called on the public “to avoid falling into traps aimed at derailing the revolution and taking the country into the unknown,” arguing that the channel had broken electoral laws by “inciting hatred”.

The satellite station is based in Tunis and aires material across the Maghreb region.

A group of lawyers are planning to take the channel to court for moral corruption and for endangering national security, Tunisia Live reported.

Under a swell of criticism from across the spectrum, the channel’s president, Nebil Karoui, apologised for having shown the film, claiming to have been unaware of the sequence of the film in which God was portrayed. 

“I am sorry to all the people who were upset by this sequence, which also shocked me,” Karoui told Monastir Radio on Tuesday. “I believe that to have broadcast this sequence was a mistake. We never had the intention of attacking sacred values.”

One of Nessma TV‘s primary investors is Tarak Ben Ammar, a Tunisian businessman who has previously worked as an advisor to Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul. Ammar is also close to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose company Mediasat owns a 25 per cent share in Nessma.

The Tunisian millionaire drew condemnation early in the year, after he urged European leaders to back Ben Ali during the protests in order to avoid Iranian influence filing the void, the Tunisian blog Nawaat reported.

You can follow Yasmine on Twitter: @yasmineryan

Source: Al Jazeera