Tunis — One year after extremist violence first emerged in Tunisia, many citizens are convinced that jihadi salafism poses a threat to the future of their country.
From the street to the highest levels of government, Tunisians say that the growing influence of jihadists puts the country's democratic transition in jeopardy.
"Stopping extremist moves, whatever the ideological foundations, means stopping the destructive violence to Tunisian lives and the tarnishing of Tunisia's image abroad," President Moncef Marzouki said Saturday (November 17th) at a Carthage conference.
A string of violent incidents has created an "unhealthy climate, which increased the fear of Tunisians", Marzouki said at the event organised by salafist Sheikh Bechir Ben Hassen.
"Tunisians see the phenomena as a threat to the way of life of the majority," he said, warning against those extremists who try to "impose their law by force in some mosques and neighbourhoods in the country".
Marzouki called on the media, preachers, salafist leaders, families, politicians and the government to work together to stem the spread of extremist ideology.
For his part, Sheikh Ben Hassen called for an end to behaviour that could "lead to a bloodbath and end the Tunisian revolution".
"We are all Tunisians," he said.
The violent salafist presence first surfaced about a year ago, with attacks on the private Nessma TV channel. In June, salafist riots over a Palais Abdellia art show led to copycat demonstrations in several Tunisian cities.
Last month, another riot at the US Embassy in Tunis led to the death of five people. A fortnight after the embassy attack, dozens of salafists, armed with swords and knives, stormed Douar Hicher police stations. Two Tunisians died in the clashes.
Abdelkarim Ben Boubaker, a political activist, says that such acts fall under the salafist jihadist plan to implement the ideas of al-Qaeda.
"This began by spreading takfirist ideology within moderate Tunisian society. The aim was to change the societal model by a coup against the gains of the modern state, leading to the establishment of an Islamic emirate," he tells Magharebia.
Interim Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has also noted "a scheme by the salafists to establish an Islamic emirate in Tunisia, similar to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan".
"Salafist groups are operating security patrols in some neighbourhoods, suggesting their wish to replace the state. This threatens the country with a possible confrontation between government forces and militant groups that could cost Tunisians major sacrifices," Jebali told Al-Arabiya television on November 8th.
Salafist jihadists do not hide the fact that they embrace the ideology and approach of al-Qaeda. Saif Allah bin Hussein (alias Abu Iyadh), the leader of radical salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, has publicly declared support for al-Qaeda.
The number of militants in Tunisia is estimated at 3,000, the government said last month. According to police reports, the tally includes elements directly associated with al-Qaeda terror network.
According to Sami Brahim, a researcher specialising in Islamic groups, Tunisia's jihadist salafist movement is home-grown. But while it emerged in the months following the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it answers to an external leadership.
And its adherents are everywhere, according to a recent research study by Allaya Allani. The salafists are present in all regions of Tunisia, particularly in the provinces of Tunis, Bizerte, Sidi Bouzid, Medenine and Kebili, where they represent nearly 40 per cent of the population.
Most telling in the recent report: the group's presence is biggest in neighbourhoods suffering from poverty and marginalisation.
Allani's study also showed that young people between 19 and 30 years represent about 80 per cent of the overall percentage of the salafist movement.
Jihadi salafists are determined to woo public support. One project by Ansar al-Sharia, for example, features charity caravans that travel to mountain villages and small towns to distribute goods to the needy.