Tunisian police arrested 26 Islamists after they clashed with a group of lawyers, a witness and a government official said, as tensions rise over the country’s post-revolutionary future.
The Islamists had been demanding the release of seven fellow fundamentalists when they got into a confrontation outside the justice ministry with a group of lawyers, who generally favour a secular course for the nation after January’s revolution.
The violence, in which one lawyer was hospitalised, flared two days after dozens of Islamist fundamentalists known as Salafis attacked a cinema in central Tunis over of a Tunisian short film whose title they regarded as offensive, Reuters reports.
Police arrested seven men after that incident, an interior ministry official said, and this led to Tuesday’s incident.
“Around 100 men gathered in front of the ministry of justice to demand the release of the seven men,” a witness said on Tuesday. “There was a verbal exchange with five lawyers. Then they attacked the lawyers and one was taken to hospital.”
An interior ministry official said 26 men were later arrested and identified them as Salafi, a term for Sunni Muslim traditionalists who advocate returning to what they consider to be the practices of early Muslims.
Islamists have become a stronger force in Tunisia since the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled for over 23 years with an iron security grip, in the popular uprising.
An interim government is overseeing a transition to democracy via elections in October to a body charged with writing a new constitution, before parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
Ben Ali made the small North African, Arab country of 10 million a citadel of pro-Western secularism where Islamists were allowed no say in public life.
But Islamists are seen as a strong force in society, while al Qaeda has a north African wing that the government fears is trying to take advantage of the transition period and civil war in neighbouring Libya.
The interior ministry says suspected al Qaeda militants opened fire on security forces last month in north Tunisia, killing four people, while three of the nine assailants were shot dead.
The authorities have licensed the once-banned Ennahda party to operate in Tunisia, a moderate Islamist group close to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It is seen as the country’s strongest political group. However, the Salafi Tahrir party has been refused a licence to operate.
Tunisia’s state news agency reported earlier this week that men it called Salafis stormed into a cinema on Sunday using teargas to stop the showing of the film called “No God, No Master”.
“The people want to criminalise atheism,” they shouted, according to the report — a variation on the phrase “the people want to bring down the regime” used by protesters across the Arab world in uprisings this year.
“After Ben Ali’s fall, Tunisia is witnessing the rise of leftist, nationalist and Islamist forces who are wrestling among themselves over control of public space and win over the biggest number of voters,” the daily al-Sarih said on Tuesday.