And so the hunt for one of Tunisia’s most-wanted men continued, raising questions about the will of the government to rein in ultra-conservative Muslims who vociferously — and sometimes violently — oppose plans to build democracy in this nation whose revolution sparked the Arab Spring.
Those questions have become a defining battle of the democratic transition in tiny Tunisia, and the embassy attack dramatically raised the stakes. Handling the fallout of the deadly demonstration, one of several connected to anger over an American-made YouTube video insulting Islam, is now posing a major test for a country that has been lauded for its smooth post-revolution shift.
Tunisia’s new government, led by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, has pledged to demonstrate that the country’s traditionally tolerant brand of Islam is compatible with Western-style democracy. But it has also struggled to balance the interests of pious Muslims relishing newfound religious freedoms, secular Tunisians who are spooked by Islamists and the United States, which provides crucial economic assistance.
Many here agree that the equation failed last Friday, when mobs set fire to the embassy and a nearby American school, prompting the United States to withdraw most diplomats and warn travelers away from tourism-dependent Tunisia.
As in Libya and Egypt, where demonstrations against the video at U.S. missions also turned violent, officials and participants said the protest here was hijacked by extremists and exploited by hooligans. But it was also viewed domestically as only the most violent in an escalating series of thuggish acts by ultraconservative Islamists, known here as Salafists, against uncovered women, art, bars and other things they deem un-Islamic.
The governing coalition, which includes two secular parties, has sought to avoid ideological confrontations during the transition to democracy. Analysts say that is particularly true of Ennahda, whose leaders have championed the return of Islamic values to Tunisia but are viewed by some secularists as closeted radicals and by Salafists as religious poseurs.
The embassy attack, which left four Tunisians dead, and the U.S. reaction have clearly rattled the government. Officials have condemned what they say were the actions of a tiny minority and vowed that the failure to protect the embassy and school — which some attributed to poor planning, others to divisions within security forces — will not happen again.
“There was an obsession with the right to demonstrate and the right to be within a republic that protects the rights of the citizen, whoever they are and whatever they believe,” said Hedi Ben Abbas, a Tunisian undersecretary of state for foreign affairs who blamed the violence on Salafists. The embassy attack, he said, “was, for us, the end of the game.”