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calm returns to tunis after riots but fears remain

Wednesday June 13, 2012    4:24 PM

TUNIS - - Shops reopened in working class districts of the Tunisian capital on Wednesday after an overnight curfew quelled rioting by Salafi Islamists angered over an art exhibition they say insults their religion.

The disturbances, in which one man was killed underlined the difficulties facing the moderate Islamist government as it tries to balance the competing demands of conservative Islamists and secularists following the toppling of its president last year.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, whose overthrow encouraged the Arab Spring revolts last year, was sentenced to 20 years in jail in absentia on Wednesday by a military court for inciting "murder and looting" during a police attempt to smuggle his nephew out of the country during last year's revolt.

Residents in the Ettadamen and Intilaqa districts cleared debris from the streets that had been blocked by youths who hurled petrol bombs at police stations, a court house, and the offices of secular parties in protest over the art works.

Shopkeepers said they were disgusted by the art, which included one spelling out the name of God using insects, but that criminals, unemployed youths and other troublemakers appeared to have taken advantage of the chaos to loot and riot.

"It is true that there are no problems today but people are still afraid. People are not out buying as usual," said a shopkeeper in Ettadamen who gave his name as Hadi.

"Last night, we were out guarding our shops and we had to clear up the streets this morning to try to go back to normal."

The riots spread to cities including Jendouba and Sousse, where a Salafi youth was shot dead.

There were no reports of serious violence on Wednesday. However, radical Islamists in Tunisia have called for protests after prayers on Friday, which could lead to renewed unrest.

The Ennahda government has struggled to win the trust of secular elites who accuse it of being soft on religious extremists jailed under Ben Ali but who have become more assertive in their demands for a greater role for religion in state and society.

Salafis, from a more puritanial branch of Islam, however, complain Ennahda has sold out, pushing an Islam-lite with its decision not to call for Islamic law to be enshrined in the new constitution that is currently being thrashed out.

Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, said he did not believe the violence was a pointer to possible developments in other states rocked by the Arab Spring.

"The Islamist party in power is in a very difficult position. They have to balance the Salafi push on the right and the secularist pressure on the left," he said.

"Nevertheless, the risks to the political transition are limited because the Salafis are a minority and they are not as big a movement as they are in Egypt."

Islamists of different stripes won two-thirds of the seats in Egypt's parliament after last year's uprising ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak and a Muslim Brotherhood candidate is vying in presidential run-offs on June 16 and 17.

But the exclusion of a popular Salafi candidate from the vote has caused anger among conservatives in a strategically-located country considered the cradle of radical jihadi thought.

While Islamists did not play a major role in the revolution, the struggle over the role of Islam in state and society has since emerged as Tunisia's most divisive issue.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Arguby, Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Jon Boyle)