TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police fired tear gas to disperse several thousand Islamists trying to force their way into the prime minister’s office on Friday, the biggest in a series of clashes that are overshadowing next week’s landmark election.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” uprisings against repressive autocrats, but its election on October 23 has unleashed a sometimes violent debate between Islamists and secularists about what role religion should have in society.
Friday’s protest started peacefully, with more than 10,000 people shouting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is greatest!” and demanding the imposition of Islamic law in Tunisia. It was the largest protest to date by Islamists in the capital.
When the crowd approached the Casbah, where caretaker Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi has his office, some groups tried to break through police lines, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.
Riot police unleashed tear gas and moved in with batons to try to scatter the crowd. The protesters responded by throwing stones at police before spreading out into neighboring streets.
Tensions over religion had already been building as the election approached, but they spilled over into violence when a television station broadcast a film which religious conservatives said was blasphemous.
One protester in the center of Tunis shouted: “Here in Tunisia you can insult Allah but you cannot insult Sebsi or the government ... and if you do, you pay dearly. That’s not right.”
Many of those involved in the clashes were Salafists, followers of a strict interpretation of Islam who can often be identified by their long beards and white robes.
Hichem Meddeb, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said later 15 police officers were injured in the violence and several young people were arrested. He said officers had seized petrol bombs from the rioters.
Islamists were angered after the Nessma television station showed award-winning animated film “Persepolis.” It includes a sequence depicting Allah, something that is forbidden in Islam.
Several hours after Friday’s protest in the center of Tunis, the owner of the station said a mob had attacked his home in the north of the city.
“Nearly a hundred people, Salafists, attacked my house with tear gas bombs,” said Nabil Karoui. “They tried to set fire to the house... They smashed everything up.”
He said the attackers had now left and that several dozen police had arrived to protect the property. “We are in a state of horror,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Nessma this week issued an apology for broadcasting the scene, but that failed to defuse the row.
Tunisia electrified the Arab world in January when mass protests overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Its revolution inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Yemen that have reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East.
The North African country will vote on October 23 for an assembly which will draft a new constitution. The vote is set to be Tunisia’s first genuinely democratic election.
But it has also fueled tension between Islamists who are free for the first time to express their faith and secularists who believe their modern, liberal values are under threat.
Reporting By Tarek Amara; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Jones