Leftist-Islamist Struggle Fuels Tunisian University Violence
Published Friday, October 5, 2012
Tunis - The faculty of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Tunis closed on Thursday and suspended classes for three days after violent confrontations broke out between Islamist and leftist students, causing considerable damage to classrooms and facilities – and promising a difficult academic year to come.
Eyewitnesses said the clashes were sparked by quarrels over a meeting called by the General Tunisian Union of Students (UGTE), the student organization of the governing Islamist Ennahda party, to discuss issues concerning Masters’ degree students. Students loyal to the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) – the historic organization of the Tunisian student movement, which took part in the country’s independence struggle – intervened to prevent the meeting being held. The security forces sufficed with looking on from a distance (the university police having been disbanded after the overthrow of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali).
The argument arose because UGET representatives see the issue the meeting was convened to address as being part of their union’s remit, and a matter it had been pursuing with the higher education ministry before al-Nahda party rose to power. They charged that by seeking to assume control of it, the Islamist students were trying to supplant them and exploit students’ problems for their ends. UGET, which has been controlled by leftists since 1988, also accuses the higher education ministry of having become biased in favor of the rival student union as it is affiliated with the governing party.
Both sides accused each other of starting the clashes. UGTE maintained that its members came under attack and had their posters and documents torn up. UGET denied that, and said the al-Nahda students called in thugs from outside the university to assault its supporters.
The incident at the institution’s oldest faculty revived memories of a long history of clashes at the University of Tunis between leftists and Islamists – which peaked in the spring of 1982 with what came to be known as the events of Manouba University of Arts. This signalled the end of leftist dominance of the student scene and the rise of the Islamic Tendency Movement, which later, after Ben Ali’s 1987 coup, became al-Nahda.
In 1985 the Islamists were able, with support from ex-president Habib Bourguiba’s prime minister Mohammed Mzali, to convene a founding conference at which they launched their new student organization. The leftist students refused to recognize it, and saw it as an attempt by the regime to infiltrate the student movement.
The clashes were also reminiscent of the confrontations that occurred at the end of the last academic year at the faculty of law. Tunisian political observers expect such incidents to recur as the rival organizations vie for control of the country’s campuses. The historic struggle that broke out in the 1970s seems set to continue.
Student council elections held last year resulted in the majority of seats being won by the leftist list in alliance with independents previously associated with the former ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, whose student organization was dissolved after the revolution.
The struggle on the campuses reflects the broader struggle that divides the Tunisian street today between the Islamists and the Popular Front, which groups most of the country’s leftist factions, along with the center-left parties and liberals.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.