Hardline Islamists hold annual meeting in Tunisia’s Kairouan
Thousands of hardline Islamists, some in Afghan military garb and waving swords, converged Sunday in central Tunisia to rally for one of the country’s most radical religious movements.
Under the stunned gaze of a few tourists, who quickly scurried away, busloads of supporters of the Ansar al-Sharia movement poured into Kairouan, Islam’s fourth-holiest city.
The assembly provided a vivid illustration of the rise of the hardline Islamist movement in Tunisia, a nation under secular rule until a recent revolution.
Waving black flags proclaiming their extreme doctrine known as Salafism, the male crowd from all parts of Tunisia unfurled a large banner on the minaret of the city’s mosque, the oldest in Africa.
Organisers of the assembly gave attendees, who had gathered outside the mosque and in the medina, strict instructions not to talk to reporters and to “stay calm”.
But many defied a request not to chant slogans.
“We are all the children of Osama (bin Laden)”, and “Jews, Jews, the army of Mohammed is back” were among the slogans that could be heard, though organisers tried to hush such chanting.
Some attendees shouted war cries or voiced religious chants, while others gave martial arts, sword fighting and horseback demonstrations.
The hardline movement was launched in April 2011 after a popular uprising led to the ouster of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a secular dictator who came to be loathed by his people.
The protests against his rule triggered what would become the Arab Spring uprisings that led to the toppling of other longstanding autocrats including Libya’s Momamer Kadhafi.
Since then, moderate Islamists have assumed positions of power while the opposition void they left has seen a surge in fundamentalist religious movements advocating for hardline sharia law.
This year’s meeting in Kairouan is Ansar al-Sharia’s second annual gathering.
“The second congress … reunites all brothers whose objective it is to apply sharia and God’s law in our country,” stated a magazine called “The Promise” that was distributed at the entrance.
Ridha Bel Haj, who leads the banned Hizb Ettahrir political party told the crowd that seeing so many attendees filled him with hope.
“The revolution was made so that sharia could be applied,” he said.
Another speaker, a sheikh called Mokhtar Jibali, said: “Every Muslim is a jihadist. Jihad is an obligation.”
Ansar al-Sharia’s leader Seif Allah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Yiadh, who is on a United Nations list from 2002 as having ties to al-Qaeda but was granted amnesty after the fall of Ben Ali, was also due to speak.
A few taken-aback tourists left as the gathering grew and several traders in the medina quietly moaned that their day’s business had been ruined.
In the courtyard of a house near the mosque, a group of women expressed themselves more candidly.
“Frankly, my first reaction in seeing them was fear,” said Ouided, a mother. “I don’t know if they bring luck or misfortune to Tunisia, but I’m afraid of a second, religious revolution.”
“They’re talking nonsense and the state is far too tolerant,” she added.
Researchers estimate Salafists count about 10,000 followers in Tunisia.