Salafis tear down Tunisia flag: Ennahda blames University dean
TUNIS- A Tunisian minister on Thursday condemned a university's ban on full-face veils that sparked a weeks-long sit-in by conservative Muslims, saying they had completely mishandled the issue.
The three-month conflict at Manouba University, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Tunis, should never have happened, Moncef Ben Salem, minister for higher education, told reporters at the presidential palace.
"The Manouba affair is a false problem," he said.
"We have 96 girls in all of Tunisia who wear the niqab (full-face veil) in the 193 university institutions, and there has been a problem nowhere except at Manouba," he added.
The dean of the faculty there "did not do what needed to be done to resolve the situation peacefully and he has ulterior political motives," the minister added.
Salem was speaking a day after competing demonstrations by hundreds of Islamists students, known as Salafis, and members of the national students’ union erupted into violence.
Salafis tore down the national flag flying at the university entrance and replaced it with the black flag of the ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims.
"It's an unacceptable gesture," said Salem.
"But if this is what it's come to it is because of an accumulation of mistakes," in how the dispute was handled, he added, accusing both sides of extremism.
Salem said he had no view either way concerning the wearing of the full-face veil during classes. But Manouba and the media had blown the issue up out of all proportion, he said.
"It's for the National Constituant Assembly to decide on," he added.
For his part, Kazdaghli said the accusations were baseless and he was the one attacked.
“One of them barged into my office and attacked me and my books and documents, I had to push her away and I still have bruises from it,” he said.
Kazdaghli, who has become a polarizing figure in the debate, condemned authorities for not intervening to stop the Salafi students.
Salafi students have been demonstrating at Manouba University against a policy banning female students from wearing the conservative face veil during classes or exams. They are also demanding a prayer space on campus.
“We demand a prayer room and access for all students wearing the niqab to classes and exams, as is allowed in the United States, Britain and Germany,” said Mohammed Bakhti, a spokesman for the Salafi students.
The university banned the niqab over security concerns if students were concealed from head to toe, and officials there have for some time expressed frustration at the government's failure to act over the protest.
On January 24, Tunisian police ended the protest sit-in at the university.
Student protesters, most of whom were not enrolled at the university, had been camped out there since November 28 in support of the right of women students to wear the full veil. They also wanted a place of prayer on campus.
During the protest, some Salafists had attacked the Arabic department, breaking down the door and insulting the teachers, according to witnesses.
Manouba University, which has some 13,000 students, is considered a leftist bastion in Tunisia.