Leader calls for unity as Tunisia celebrates independence

AFP , Tuesday 20 Mar 2012

Tunisians calls for civil state on country's independence day, highlighting risings tensions between secularists and Islamists

Tunisians celebrated their country's independence day Tuesday amid fears of a widening divide between secular and religious movements in the newly democratised nation.

"This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences," President Moncef Marzouki told a flag-raising ceremony at the presidential palace in Carthage.

"National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division."

Tunisia is grappling with its new identity after undergoing a revolution that led to the ouster in January 2011 of longtime authoritarian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring uprisings.

The country is now governed by moderate Islamist leaders, but they are under pressure from a radical Muslim fringe known as Salafists to increase the role of Islam in the country's politics.

A long-running dispute over a university's decision to ban women from wearing the full-face veil, or niqab, has proven especially significant.

Salafists have spent months demonstrating at Manouba University, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Tunis, and on March 7, a Salafist activist tried to replace the national flag flying over the roof of the arts and humanities faculty building, with the black flag of Islam.

Subsequent secular attacks saw eggs thrown at the walls of mosques at Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya. Inside the mosques, copies of the Koran were found torn up.

In Tunis, vandals drew the Star of David, a Jewish symbol, on the walls of the El Fath mosque.

"We've seen this month criminal attempts to attack our union and sow sedition and hatred among our citizens," Marzouki said.

"On behalf of the Tunisian state, I apologise to any Tunisian who has been subjected to injustice for his beliefs since independence," he added.

Tunisia is celebrating its 56th anniversary since winning independence from France.

Hundreds of people gathered in the capital Tunis to mark the event, waving the national flag and chanting slogans warning against the country becoming a religious state.

"The people want a civil state!" and "No to going backward!" the group chanted.

"I am a free woman and I struggle so Tunisia will always be a democracy, despite regressive groups that seek to undermine what we have achieved," demonstrator Oum Zyed said.

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