Tunisian secular, Islamist students clash on campus


Hundreds of demonstrators calling for women to be allowed to wear the Muslim veil in class clashed with students at a university outside Tunis on Tuesday for the second day running.

Protesters wearing the veil and bearded men wearing the Muslim tunic shouted “God Is Great”, facing other students responding “Islamists, Go Home.”

The demonstration at the University of Manouba, west of Tunis, came a day after a group of Salafists disrupted classes there, demanding a stop to mixed-sex classes and for female students to wear full-face veils.

“A group of Salafists, dressed like Afghans, have been camped in front of my office since early afternoon,” Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of faculty at the University of Manuba, told AFP on Monday.

Tutors and union representatives voted at a general assembly on Tuesday to go on strike Thursday in protest at the incidents.

Several students and teaching staff said demonstrators were not enrolled at the university, and many were allegedly “agitators” from working-class neighbourhoods near the Manouba campus.

“This is not what the revolution was about,” one student said.

Two officials of the Islamist Ennahda party which swept to power in October 23 elections were involved in attempts to resolve the crisis.

Pro-headscarf demonstrators denied they were Salafists, a fundamentalist branch of Islam, and said they had not asked for mixed-sex classes to be stopped.

“We want two things: a prayer room inside the faculty and the right for girls wearing the headscarf to sit exams and attend classes,” said Anis Rezgui, a first-year student.

The higher education ministry late Monday condemned the protest.

Questioned by AFP, the ministry said that under current provisions students must be identified before they enter the campus for security reasons, which ruled out wearing the headscarf.

As post-revolution Tunisia lacks any legislation allowing or banning the headscarf, faculty deans implement a 2005 decision that staff must be able to identify students.

“We would like to have politicians’ point of view on what’s going on,” fumed an indignant student.

And English teacher Abdennebi Benbeya said the whole protest was “ridiculous.

“No one knows these demonstrators, they take advantage of the political void in Tunisia” after the demise of the old regime in January.

Tunisia’s Salafists have become more assertive in recent months, following the revolution that ousted a staunchly secular regime along with president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali following mass protests.

Visible again on the streets of Tunis and other major cities, their new assertiveness has led to a number of more or less violent clashes.

In the eastern city of Sousse earlier this month, some 200 Islamists stormed the university campus after a female student wearing a full face veil was not allowed to enroll.

On October 9 in Tunis, a mob of Salafists tried to attack the offices of private Nessma TV station that aired “Persepolis”, a French-Iranian animated film in which God is represented as an old bearded man.

“What’s happening is that many good and bad things that had been repressed resurface since the revolution,” said Tahar Chikraoui, history professor and film critic.

“We have extremists, manipulators, people who are learning what democracy means. ... And then there is a power vacuum. All this is not really surprising.”