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Latest update : 2012-06-14

Several Tunisial Islamist including the Salafists called off on Thursday plans for demonstrations Friday. The government had banned protests in the wake of deadly violence over an art exhibition deemed by Salafists to be offensive to Islam.

AFP - Several Tunisian religious groups, including a hardline Islamist party, called off Thursday planned demonstrations that could have led to violent showdowns with security forces.

Islamist groups including fundamentalist Salafists had planned on rallying Friday but the government banned the gatherings, which would have come amid the worst unrest since the 2011 uprising that gave birth to the Arab Spring.

The Ansar al-Sharia movement, Tunisia's most radical Islamist movement, headed by former jihadist Abou Iyadh, was one group that had called for nationwide protests.

But it released a message on its Facebook page late Thursday saying it was calling these off.

"We call on all our brothers to understand this decision and not be carried away by their emotions," the message said.

It remained to be seen if other groups would still turn out in any great numbers.

The north African country has been rocked by three days of violence that left one dead and dozens wounded after ultra-conservative Salafists took issue with works at an art exhibition they deemed offensive to Islam.

Hardline Islamists have been growing more confident since an uprising toppled longtime president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. That movement was the first in what became known as the Arab Spring uprisings that saw several other autocratic leaders oustered.

Several wings of the Salafi movement, which advocates practising Islam as it was by the Prophet 14 centuries ago, had called for mass protests following Friday prayers but the interior ministry did not authorise the rally.

The art exhibition in a Tunis suburb featured a painting of naked woman with bearded men standing behind her and a work spelling the world "Allah" with a file of ants.

The works were condemned by some as blasphemous and were destroyed Sunday night in an act blamed on Salafists.

The incident sparked clashes across Tunisia earlier in the week that saw police stations and political party offices torched.

One person was killed and more than 100 injured, including 65 policemen.

Authorities arrested more than 160 people and placed a curfew on several regions, including the greater Tunis area, which was shortened on Wednesday by two hours to run from 10 pm to 4 am.

As artists protested their freedom of expression was being undermined, the government condemned the attack against the exhibition.

The moderate Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance), which dominates the government and the national assembly, had also called for "a peaceful march to defend the revolution and sacred values", but on Thursday canceled the protest as "a sign of appeasement."

"We hope our country stays peaceful and that Tunisians remain united on the essentials," party member Ajmi Lourimi said.

Islamist party Hizb Ettahrir also called off a rally, though said there would still be a gathering at the Kasbah in Tunis to "explain our positions."

After three days of violence, a joint statement by the leaders of Tunisia's government, constituent assembly and presidency condemned "extremist groups who threaten freedoms," in a thinly veiled reference to the Salafists.

The government is led by Ennahda, while the presidency and post of parliament speaker are held by the two parties that came closest to it in October's first post-revolution polls.

The ruling trio also pointed a finger at former members of the ousted Ben Ali regime, who have been accused of using Salafist groups to stoke tensions between Islamists and secularists and destabilise the country.

The joint statement cited "the ghosts of the fallen regime trying to sabotage the transition process" at a time when Tunisia is fashioning post-revolution institutions and drafting a new constitution.

"The situation is very unclear. I took a close look at the protests that took place in Carthage on Monday, there were as many fake Salafists as there were real ones," Alaya Allani, an expert on regional Islamist groups, told AFP.

He said the Salafists themselves were divided in two main camps, with one wing seeking to emulate its Egyptian colleagues and join the political fray and the other recruiting thugs to sew chaos.


Date created : 2012-06-14


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