Tunis — In the first direct threat to Tunisia's Islamist-led government, the leader of the country's salafist jihadist movement threatened to topple the prime minister, Tunisienumerique.com reported on Wednesday (March 27th).
"Hold back your sick person from us or else we'll wage a war against him until we topple him and throw him into the dustbin of history," Ansar al-Sharia leader Saif Allah bin Hussein (alias Abou Iyadh) said in a message addressed to Ennahda published on Ansar al-Sharia's Facebook page.
"We won't talk much, you'll see and not just hear the response... if you don't hold him back," the message added.
The threat came just one day after Prime Minister Ali Larayedh blamed Abou Iyadh for the spread of arms in Tunisia and the recent rise of violence.
Abou Iyadh is wanted in connection with the deadly attack on the US embassy in Tunis last September.
In recent months, Tunisian security forces found several weapons caches, detained many salafist jihadist movement members and clashed with militants on the Algeria border.
While the Abou Iyadh Facebook post was the first direct threat to the government from the radical group, tensions between the two sides have been rising since last December, when embassy attack suspects Bechir Golli and Mohammed Bakhti died in Mornaguia prison after a 50-day hunger strike.
Salafist jihadists blamed the government for their deaths.
"Our relations with Ennahda has been severed in full because that party is not Islamist as they so claim," salafist jihadist leader and Ansar al-Sharia member and spokesperson Mohamed Anis Chaieb told arabstoday.net.
"This is because they embrace the civil state concept, and there is nothing in their programmes indicating that they are adopting the Islamic rule model," he added.
The battle between the two sides erupted when al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri attacked Ennahda for failing to use Islamic Sharia as a main source of legislation, international relations professor Mohamed Ben Zekri said.
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi responded strongly to al-Zawahri, describing him as a catastrophe for Islam and Muslims.
"There is an intellectual and doctrinal difference between the salafist jihadists and Ennahda," Ben Zekri told Magharebia. "That difference started to appear a while ago, and each side is trying to use this conflict to win the support of the biggest possible number of Tunisians."
Tunisian citizens, meanwhile, are voicing concerns that the conflict between the salafists and Ennahda threatens the country's political and social stability.
"Has Tunisia become a game for the Islamists and Salafists?" student Faten Marouani wondered. "Will the violence that they want be the factor that gets the country out of the bottleneck and realise the Tunisian people's hopes for security, stability and economic and political prosperity?"
"It seems that the government, especially Ennahda, has tolerated the salafist jihadist movement and will reap what it sowed," commercial representative Abdallah Baldi said.
"What we fear today - after the enmity between the two sides increased - is that it will have serious repercussions on the country," he said.