Face-off in Tunisia; Salfist statements send shockwaves in Egypt
Thousands of Tunisian Islamists and secularists staged parallel protests outside the interim Parliament on Saturday in a dispute over how big a role Islam should play in society after the “Arab Spring” revolution.
Tensions have been running high between the two camps since the revolt in January scrapped a ban on Islamists and paved the way for a moderate Islamist party to come to power at the head of a coalition government.
The latest round of protests was sparked when a group of hardline Islamists occupied a university campus near the capital to demand segregation of sexes in class and the right for women students to wear a full-face veil.
About 3,000 Islamists gathered outside the Constitutional Assembly in Tunis on Saturday, separated by a police cordon from a counter-protest by about1,000 secularists. The Islamists say the secularist elite, which has run the country since independence from France is still restricting their freedom to express their faith. Their rivals say the Islamists are trying to impose an Islamic state in what has been one of the Arab world's most liberal countries.
An Islamist protester, Nourdine Machfer, said the people had expressed their will when they handed victory to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party in an election in October. Ennahda issued a statement saying that it did not support the Islamist protest outside parliament.
However, secularist opponents said they believed Ennahda's true agenda was to create an Islamic state by stealth.
Tunisia's struggle to reconcile the rival camps is being watched closely in Egypt, where an Islamist-affiliated party performed strongly in the first phase of a parliamentary election.
On Saturday, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood called on its rivals to accept the will of the people on Saturday after a first-round vote set its party on course to take the most seats in the first freely elected Parliament in six decades.
Preliminary results showed the Brotherhood's liberal rivals could be pushed into third place behind ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists, mirroring the trend in other Arab countries where political systems have opened up after popular uprisings. “We call upon everyone, and all those who associate themselves with democracy, to respect the will of the people and accept their choice,” it said in a statement after the first-round vote, which drew a turnout of 62 per cent.
The Brotherhood's political opponents say it seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on a country that also has a large Christian minority.
The movement insists it will pursue a moderate agenda if it wins power and do nothing to damage an economy reliant on millions of Western tourists.