Tunis — The phenomenon of Salafist security details patrolling cities and neighbourhoods has many citizens wondering whether Ansar al-Sharia is trying to take over law and order in Tunisia.
Bands of baton-wielding salafists have mounted security patrols in Tunisian cities in recent weeks, leaving many citizens to question what is behind the phenomenon.
Salafists say they are patrolling neighbourhoods in the name of safeguarding citizens and their property, amid increased instability in Tunisia that followed the February 6th slaying of opposition leader Chokri Belaid.
Since his assassination, Salafist security patrols became more prevalent in Tunis and other cities. The patrols, which each number dozens of members, move about on foot or on motorcycles, or in cars flying black flags.
An online call by Ansar al-Sharia mobilised salafists to fan out and patrol the streets as unofficial security details. The radical salafist group posted the call on Facebook for its supporters to protect citizens and property in the aftermath of Belaid's killing.
"They do not have any hidden agendas," young salafist Ali Zaghouani said.
"Their goal is not to replace the security apparatus but to support its efforts in maintaining security during these security lapses that are taking place from time to time," he added.
Yet Ansar al-Sharia does want to bring Sharia law to Tunisia, and has resorted to violent acts of extremism. The group is widely seen as responsible for a series of attacks in Tunisia in May 2012 and last September's protests at the US embassy in Tunis that left four dead and 49 others injured.
With the street patrols, however, many Tunisians say that the salafists are up to something sinister. To some, the radical Islamists are encroaching on the government's security apparatus and ability to maintain and law order.
This could weaken the state and undermine its civil character, Social Democratic Party spokesman Samir Bettaib told Magharebia.
"This is something we cannot accept and it really angers us," Bettaib said.
"If anything, it shows the weakness of the state, especially its security apparatus, in ensuring security for citizens and the protection of their properties."
The Salafist patrols are illegal and a clear encroachment on state institutions as well as the privacy of citizens, said Adel Soltani, a 34-year-old resident of Ettadamon, a suburb of Tunis.
He said he saw uniformed salafist patrolmen stopping passers-by, asking for their I.D. and sometimes even carrying out arrests.
"We do not want those who seek to impose a trusteeship on the security of citizens or interfere in private lives, because only state agencies are authorized to perform this job," Soltani said.
For college senior Firas Jouini, the salafist patrols have a nefarious goal.
"I think that there is a blueprint being prepared by these groups to strike the official security apparatus and compromise the country's security," he said.
Responding to the concerns raised by citizens, Interior Minister Ali Larayedh denied accusations that the salafists were running a security service parallel to the police and the National Guard.
"While we praise the initiative of some citizens, regardless of their political and ideological affiliations to protect their residential areas from violence, we caution that no one is entitled to replace the security apparatus," according to a statement issued by the ministry.
For its part, the Reform Party said "there is no parallel security system that could replace public security".
"Young people who came out during the events in their neighbourhoods did so to protect public and private establishments and properties along with citizens and shopkeepers," the Reform Party added. "They protected them in response to the call of duty and to consecrate their high sense of patriotism and social responsibility."