By Houda Trabelsi
housands of salafists converged on Kairouan Sunday (May 20th) outside the Uqba Ibn Nafi Mosque for the second annual congress of the Ansar al-Sharia movement.
As many as 5,000 people from across the country attended the event led by salafist Sheikh Abou Iyadh (aka Seif Allah Ben Hassine) and Sheikh Al-Khatib El-Idrissi.
Abou Iyadh once fought in Afghanistan and was jailed by the Ben Ali regime before being freed from prison after the revolution. His speech to attendees focused on the economy, simultaneously reassuring investors while advancing the salafist agenda.
“You who impede the wheels of the economy in our country, fear God in our people and let investors invest in Tunisia, and enough of the random protests which harm average citizens and the economy,” Abou Iyadh said.
He also called on followers to establish an Islamic syndicate to “give the employee his due”, calling on supporters to “break away from the secular unions”.
Regarding Tunisian tourism, which many citizens see as threatened by the spread of the salafism, Abou Iyadh sought to calm anxiety. “Travel agencies, Why the fear of us? We ask God for guidance for you so that tourism is correct with Sharia, and for my brothers, we will not change evil with the hand but will change it with the call,” he said.
Organisers of the Ansar al-Sharia congress asked attendees to boycott all media on allegations that the Tunisian press had slandered salafism.
At the opening of the congress, there was a display of combat sports with hands, sticks and swords as a symbolic act signifying jihad, amid cheering and celebration.
Ridha Bel Haj, head of the banned Hizb Ettahrir, was among those present and gave a speech in which he stressed “the existence of a blessed Islamic revival”.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party distanced itself from the salafist event. Amer Al-Arayedh, member of the Executive Office of Ennahda, told Magharebia that there was “no correlation between the salafist movement and the Ennahda movement. Each political party has its orientation and goals.”
“It is the right of the salafists in Tunisia to organise meetings and forums like any other movement, whether leftist or right-wing,” al-Arayedh said. “The important thing is maintaining public safety and not sparking riots and civil strife.”
On Monday, Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri warned salafists over their attempt to forcibly ban the sale of alcohol in the town of Sidi Bouzid.
Addressing the attacks on bars, al-Arayedh said Ennahda was “against any form of violence and against the imposition of any behaviour, because the state is the only one responsible for public order and for giving licenses to bars or closing them, and individuals or parties must not impose what they want by force”.
Mohamed Zied Abid, a young salafist, said the event was “the beginning of the end for the children of secularism and the advocates of division and tearing apart the Islamic ranks”.
“It seems clear that this event is a starting point to break the link between this current and the Ennahda movement,” Tunisian Mohsen Achouri told Magharebia, adding, “especially as salafism in Tunisia, as happened in Egypt, began organising ‘politically’ after licensing the salafi Reform Front party, and are awaiting licenses for other salafist parties, such as Hizb Ettahrir.”