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What Do University Clashes in Tunisia Portend for Arab Spring?

Most analysts agree the Arab Spring has been a mixed bag. In Egypt, the trajectory is poor: Islamists will shape the new constitution and the unholy alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian military seems intent on blackmailing the West. If Libyans can get militias under control, they may use their petrodollars to achieve true empowerment for their people. Yemen teeters on the verge of state failure, and Syria is in full-fledged civil war. Even as diplomats and the Arab Spring’s cheerleaders muzzle their enthusiasm, though, they all cite Tunisia as the country with the best chance for success. Islamists may have won in Tunisia—but they say the right things (at least to European and American audiences), and they appear to want to govern with a big tent, rather than drive secularists into the ground.

Alas, appearances may be deceiving. A clash between liberal administrators and Islamist students at the University of Manouba portends a cold front moving through Tunisia:

Clashes erupted today between Salafists and students affiliated with the the student union at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of Manouba, following an altercation that ensued yesterday between two female students wearing the niqab – a veil revealing only the eyes – and the dean. Demonstrators, mainly Salafists, gathered in front of the administration building in protest of yesterday’s incident, and demanded the right for female students to wear the niqab during classes and exams. As the situation on the campus escalated, one of the Salafist students replaced the Tunisian flag with a black flag bearing the shahada – the Islamic declaration of faith. The act provoked an eruption of violence between members of the student union and other students.

According to one Islamist student, the violence was justified. “Members of the student union were provoking us, mentioning God’s name in vain,” she said. “That was the main reason for the violence this morning.” The whole article is worth reading.


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