During the fallout from the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid last Wednesday, many businesses and offices closed and took extra precautions to protect against vandalism and looting. Yet in the Ibn Khaldoun suburb of Tunis, a group of citizens gathered Friday to protect the neighborhood’s Magasin Général.
The young men, mostly Salafist Muslims, set up a tent outside and guarded the shop throughout the night.
Mohamed Yassine Ghaba, a teenager from the area, said he was “astonished” to see the Salafists, whom he assumed were violent people, engaged in this effort. Even though he does not consider himself to be religious, Ghaba decided to join them, guarding the store until 1 a.m. and sharing water and cakes with the rest of the group.
The activation of such Salafist neighborhood patrols after Belaid’s assassination has sparked debate among Tunisians.
Due to a perceived lack of security, patrols sprang up in areas such as Tunis’ suburbs, Sousse, Hammamet, Sfax, and Bizerte. Some media reports have claimed these groups conducted their patrols in coordination with Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution.
“It is our responsibility to protect our brothers’ lives and properties,” said Orwa Abdelhalim, a young Salafist man who participated in patrols in Bizerte. “Protecting others is a good deed in order to get closer to god.”
He explained that the initiative he joined in Bizerte started spontaneously when three women called one of his friends asking for help. They were detained in the local Ennahdha bureau by unknown people throwing stones and blaming them for Belaid’s assassination.
Salafist groups also worked with security forces to put out a fire in a women’s dormitory in Ettadhamon town, another suburb in Tunis, reported Attounissia TV. According to the same TV show, a Salafist group in Sousse saved a girl from being robbed by a criminal with a machete.
Some police do not welcome the initiatives of these Salafists.
Salah Edhaoui, a deputy chief of police in the Omrane Supérieure suburb of Tunis, called such efforts “parallel security” and claimed that they tarnished the image of official security institutions in Tunisia.
“If such behavior is repeated, people will think that Salafist groups will take the place of policemen, which is harmful to the public image of security institutions as well as to the image of the state’s institutions,” said Edhaoui, adding that he hoped such patrols would not occur again in the future.
Iskander Boughanmi, an imam in Bizerte, challenged Edhaoui’s point of view, saying that neighborhood committees were activated spontaneously and were not organized to take the place of policemen.
Yamina Zoghlami, a National Constituent Assembly member affiliated with Ennahdha, said she welcomed Salafist patrols and perceived their deeds as acts of patriotism.
But a representative of opposition party Nidaa Tounes severely condemned what he called a parallel security system in Tunisia.
“Salafist patrols are backward and unlawful practices. It is the responsibility of public powers to enforce laws on these Salafist groups and arrest them,” said Ridha Belhaj, Nidaa Tounes’ spokesperson. “The activation of neighborhood committees is a crime that should be punished.”
Minister of Interior Ali Laarayedh denied the existence of a coordinated Salafist security system and said an investigation into the patrols would be opened, according to Tuesday’s interview with Wataniya TV channel.