Religious versus secular student clashes resume

Violent clashes between rival Islamist and secular students on 3 October led to closure of the faculty of human and social sciences at the University of Tunis for three days, and caused considerable damage. The government is consulting on legislation regarding the niqab – the Islamic full-face veil – which has sparked controversy and conflict on campuses.

Last month the Ministry of Higher Education announced that three parliamentary bills would be presented to the Universities Council to determine whether women students should be allowed to wear the niqab, a move that a union leader has condemned as undemocratic.

Alakhbar English explained that the violence at Tunis was sparked by quarrels over a meeting about masters students called by the General Tunisian Union of Students (UGTE), which is linked to the governing Islamist Ennahda party.

Students belonging to the rival General Union of Tunisian Students intervened to prevent the meeting taking place, because they claimed the UGTE students were trying to supplant them on an issue they had been pursuing with the ministry before Ennahda came to power.

Security forces, which replaced the university police disbanded after the fall of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, did not intervene, reported Alakhbar.

La Presse of Tunis interviewed Noureddine Kridis, the faculty dean, who said the altercations between the two students groups had quickly degenerated.

About 30 outsiders had entered the campus in support of the Ennahda students, “armed with cudgels, knives and swords, chanting religious slogans and uttering lewd words”. They then set about committing acts of vandalism, smashing everything in their path, Kridis told the paper.

He confirmed that the security forces and army “arrived after some delay, no doubt estimating that the situation was not so urgent”.

Kridis told La Presse that a meeting of the university’s scientific committee had decided to close the faculty for 72 hours to “take the necessary time to make a complete and precise inventory of the damage caused by these acts of violence”. Staff would be informed about the events, and necessary measures taken to prevent similar incidents, he said.

“Dialogue and a search for a consensus are necessary to preserve the university against all kinds of threats,” he said. The faculty reopened as planned on 8 October, reported La Presse.

Asked about a student close to Ennahda who some witnesses said had enrolled for a masters course without fulfilling the required criteria, Kridis replied: “The student in question was declared admissible by a qualified scientific jury. The university is open to all students, no matter what side they are on.”

Long history of clashes

Alakhbar said the incident at the university’s oldest faculty “revived memories of a long history of clashes” that started there in the 1970s between leftists and Islamists and “which peaked in the spring of 1982 with what came to be known as the events of Manouba University of Arts”.

It also recalled confrontations that occurred in the faculty of law at the end of the last academic year. More incidents were expected “as the rival organisations vie for control of the country’s campuses”, said Alakhbar.

Other clashes between religious and secular student groups have occurred in Tunisian universities since Ben-Ali was deposed at the beginning of 2011.

In April human rights activist Maryam Namazie published on her blog a statement initiated by author Djemila Benhabib and journalist Caroline Fourest detailing "Islamist attacks on Tunisia’s universities" since the start of the 2011-12 academic year.

The face-veil controversy

Protests have often focused on whether women students have the right to wear the niqab in universities.

In September Sofiene Mansouri, head of the office of the higher education minister, announced that three parliamentary bills concerning this contentious issue were being presented to the Universities Council, then to the Constitutional National Assembly (ANC), to determine what policy to adopt, reported Tunis Afrique Presse.

It revealed that the three bills each proposed a different option: a categorical ban on wearing the niqab, conditional authorisation, and unconditional permission. Mansouri said the decision on which to choose would be taken by the ANC after consultation with university presidents, with a two-thirds majority.

Mansouri added: “The question of the wearing of the niqab does not only concern the universities but affects all establishments generally. It is part of individual freedom.”

While waiting for enactment of the new law, university councils would be able to choose which line to take, and students would be obliged to respect the rules, said Mansouri.

He also confirmed that university police would not be reinstated, saying that the higher education ministry had taken all necessary measures, in coordination with the ministries of the interior and of defence, to guarantee protection of universities in case of need.

Tunis Afrique Presse reported that Houcine Boujarra, general secretary of the General Federation of Higher Education and Scientific Research, stressed that women students and university teachers must have their faces uncovered during lectures as well as during exams.

He said the ministry had prepared the three bills unilaterally, without consulting lecturers or unions, and that its action was thus not democratic.

* This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original report.