Ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis attacked an art gallery Sunday in a Tunis suburb for an exhibition they said insulted Islam. After security forces dispersed them with tear gas, Islamist gangs attacked police stations around the country over the next few days.
Clashes between secular groups and religious hardliners have been on the rise in recent months, but this week's violence is unprecedented and comes just two days after the terror group al-Qaida urged Tunisians to rise up against the governing moderate Islamist party Ennahda.
In the coastal town of Sousse, 22-year-old Fehmi Aouini, university student, died of his wounds Wednesday after being shot in the head during clashes between security forces and Salafists, the Farhat Hached hospital said.
The North African nation that held its first free election last year is bracing for renewed unrest on Friday, the Muslim holy day, when conservative religious groups have called for renewed demonstrations against insults to the faith.
A joint statement Wednesday by the president, prime minister and head of parliament condemned unidentified “extremist groups” for “threatening the freedoms of Tunisia” and noted that these riots were taking place just as the country was getting back on its feet and the economy improving.
Tunisia for half a century was ruled by a secular dictatorship that fiercely repressed any Islamist sentiment. Since the overthrow of the regime in January 2011, religious groups have sprouted up. Ennahda won an historic election last fall and allied itself with two secular parties, but hardline groups say the government is not doing enough to implement Islamic law.
Tunis, the capital, was calm on Wednesday after days of violence swept across the country.
On Tuesday in Sousse, a mob attacked the local palace of fine arts and attempted to set it on fire with firebombs. In some areas young men took up weapons to protect their neighborhoods from religious extremists, according to the state news agency.
Late Sunday, hundreds of extremists destroyed artworks at an exhibit in the Tunis suburb of La Marsa that included paintings that caricatured Mecca, portrayed a nude woman and showed the word “Allah” spelled with strings of ants.
The cities of Sousse and Monastir to the south, as well as Ben Guerdane on the Libyan border also witnessed similar violent protests.
The art gallery in Tunis has since been closed by the government. Minister of Culture Mehdi Mabrouk said while the government supports the freedom of expression, it is opposed to any insults to religion.
Interior Minister Ali Larayedh accused “extremists from the right and left” of being behind the violence. He also said remnants of the old regime and bands of criminals could also be involved and warned that “no one was above the law.”
The government, many of whose members were once imprisoned by the old regime, has taken a cautious approach to the Salafist protests but appears to be taking a firmer line after this week's riots.