The Tunisian government has decided to ban the congress of hardline Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia due to take place at the end of this week, the ruling Islamist party’s leader said on Wednesday.
“The government has decided to prohibit this congress whose organizers have not obtained prior permission from the authorities as required by law,” Ennahda party chief Rached Ghannouchi told a news conference.
He was speaking shortly after the Salafist group said tens of thousands of people were expected to attend its annual congress on Sunday in the historic city of Kairouan.
Ansar al-Sharia is considered the most radical of the hardline Islamist groups to emerge in Tunisia after the revolution in January to 2011 that overthrew secular dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Abu Iyadh, the group’s fugitive leader, is accused of orchestrating numerous acts of violence, including a deadly attack on the US embassy last September, and has made numerous inflammatory statements about the government.
Last weekend, he threatened to wage war against the government, saying that by targeting his followers it was attacking Islam.
“The authorities must apply the law without distinction. We support the firmness of the government in applying the law for all,” said Ghannouchi, who also condemned the use of violence in the name of Islam.
“Dialogue is not possible with those who use weapons and lay mines,” added the veteran Islamist leader, referring to two groups of armed jihadists that the army is hunting in a mountainous region along the border with Algeria.
Ansar al-Sharia said earlier on Wednesday it was expecting more than 40,000 people to attend its annual congress, and that it did not need permission from the authorities to hold the meeting.
“On Sunday, we will God willing hold our congress and there will be more than 40,000 of us in Kairouan,” Sami Essid told AFP.
The government has hardened its position towards Muslim extremists in recent months, after Ennahda was strongly criticized for failing to rein them in and prevent a wave of violence.
Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said last week that he would bring to justice “anyone inciting to murder or hatred... or who pitches tents for preaching in,” in a clear reference to the Salafists.