In Tunisia, the eyes of the world are focused on the trial of former president Ben Ali. But conflict between radical Islamists and the police is becoming commonplace.
The latest victim was a 22-year-old student. On Wednesday, he was fatally struck by a bullet when a police officer shot into the air to disperse demonstrators. One and a half years after the fall of the Tunisian government, hundreds of Salafists fought street battles with police in the capital Tunis. Fearing further unrest, the authorities then imposed nightly curfews.
Salafists interpret Islam very strictly. Some of them sympathize with the extremist Al Qaeda network. Besides the Salafists, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri attracted attention earlier this week when he called on Tunisians to revolt and introduce Islamic Sharia law.
The people are dissatisfied
At the same time the judgment of a Tunisian military court drew attention: In a second trial, the judges sentenced former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in absentia on Wednesday to life imprisonment. The ex-president, who fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011, had previously been given 20 years in prison in another verdict.
"The current turmoil has nothing to do with sentencing Ben Ali, but with the general dissatisfaction of the people," Günter Meyer, director of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz, said in an interview with DW. "The moderate Islamist party Ennahda joined a coalition with two secular parties. In the first few months, this worked well. But now the leading parliamentarians are more and more isolated. Radical external groups are detaching from the core, which is currently drawing up the new constitution."
Clashes over art
Things have not improved for the Tunisian population since the revolution, and for some, the situation is worse. That's why groups are already preparing for the election campaign that will start once the new constitution is adopted, Meyer said: "In doing so, they are distancing themselves from the present government, which is regarded as a failure, politically, economically and socially." The gap between the Islamists and secularists is growing, he said. The core issue in the struggle is the role Islam should play in government and society: "The government advocates a clear separation between state and religion on the basis of the old constitution, which was established in 1959. For example, Ennahda has promised not to prohibit alcohol consumption or to require women to wear the veil." But conservative Muslims want no part in this. They want to strengthen Islam in today's Tunisia, in particular to introduce Islamic Sharia law, he said.
The trigger for the riots this week was an art exhibition in a suburb of Tunis, which Islamists said offended Muslims: "The name of Allah is displayed on a screen in the form of insects in the exhibition at La Marsa," Meyer said. This is considered blasphemy: "Whoever protests against it, has the majority of the population in Tunisia on his side." In addition, there were a few pictures in which the Salafists were portrayed critically. That is what caused the trouble, Meyer said.
Religious fanatics, criminals and supporters of the old regime
Over the past two to three months, more and more individuals have responded with aggressive attacks, Meyer said. In the countryside, they destroyed shops where alcohol was sold. Liberal and Salafi students clashed and fought. Salafists also attacked women who were in their opinion not dressed conservatively enough. The level of violence now has a dimension that Tunisia has not seen since the days of the revolution, he said. What is clear, however: "Not only religious considerations are playing a role in the current turmoil, but also criminal groups and, not least, supporters of the old regime, who are stoking the riots so as to show that the new regime has failed." Labor unions have also contributed to the instability of the country through numerous strikes and protests. Discontent over the dire economic situation is growing and the prospects are rather bleak, Meyer said: "This poses a risk of more unrest and radicalization. Some even fear a counterrevolution."
The country faces a political and economic predicament. Without a strong government and a clear legal framework, private investors will hold back. But they are exactly what Tunisia needs because without investment and economic recovery, discontent will grow and provide a breeding ground for radicals, Meyer said. With all the difficulty the government faces in ensuring security, and despite the poor outlook, Tunisia has at least been spared one crisis point: While Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri has railed againt the moderate Ennahda party, Meyer said: " We must see clearly that Al Qaeda has no influence in Tunisia. The group is insignificant here."
Author: Günther Birkenstock / sgb
Editor: Gregg Benzow