By Houda Trabelsi
Amid heated debate over the role of religion on college campuses, Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement has created a youth-led university group.
The “Ennahda Youth at Universities” organisation was announced at the party’s headquarters on December 14th by Karim Harouni, the former secretary-general of the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), the student wing of the Islamist movement during the 1980s.
“The university at present, and in the absence of an Islamic trend or Ennahda Movement, needs the return of Ennahda Youth, who will save the university from being torn apart between rightists and leftists,” said Harouni.
Zied Boumekhla, who is responsible for student activities with Ennahda, noted that universities have structural problems and that the new group is part of a plurality of factions within the institutions.
Responding to a question alleging similarities between Ennahda Youth and the disbanded Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), Boumekhla said that the analogy was “a corrupt one, and has nothing to do with reality”.
“The state of the country requires the co-operation of all factions of students to reinforce the principles of democracy and freedom,” Ennahda youth leader said.
With regard to the recent events at Manouba University and clashes over the niqab ban, Boumekhla expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the issue was handled, adding that the incident was exaggerated.
Student Mostapha Bou Laaba said he was “pleased to see Ennahda students back in action within university, they will balance out the scales against left-wing extremists”.
But student Mariem Sellimi argued things were different for the party in power. “The return of the Islamic trend to Tunisian universities has a different flavour this time, especially since Ennahda is now the ruling party and dominates political life.”
“The power paraded by Islamist students in Sousse, then more forcefully in Manouba, over the issue of Niqab places great challenges before this new faction and its ability to control its rules no matter how radical or extreme,” student Marwen Bandari told Magharebia.
UGET member Waseem Hilali told Magharebia that skirmishes erupted on campus after the Ennahda announcement. “Tunisian law prohibits political parties from entering universities and engaging in politics under the name of any given party,” he said.
“We noticed that parties refrained from extending branches within university, except Ennahda,” he added.
The clashes at al-Manar University in the capital began when UGET students challenged the Ennahda-backed group known as the Tunisian Students General Union. “Students belonging to the Ennahda Student Arm deliberately staged a demonstration during which they tried to ‘falsify history,’ which provoked many of the students present,” Hilali said.
“Students expressed their rejection of a student faction that belongs to the ruling party, as was previously the case, so as not to involve the university in political conflicts and drag it into a vicious cycle of violence,” commented UGET spokesperson Nizar Boujlel.
“The UGET will not be allow an exploitation of power aimed at turning the university into an arena of political polarisation,” Boujlel added.
UGET member Ezeddine Zaatour told Magharebia that the new Ennahda group “will disrupt students’ unity”.
“It does not stand to reason that this organisation, which claims to defend students’ rights, belongs to a political party,” he said.