Thousands of Islamist supporters descended on central Tunis Saturday to confront liberal demonstrators rallying against extremism as lawmakers draft a new constitution for Tunisia.
Separated by barriers and police, they shouted insults at each other outside the Bardo Palace where the constitution is being compiled after a vote that saw the moderate Islamist Ennahda party win most seats on the drafting body.
The Islamists waved Ennahda flags but also the black banners of the hardline Salafist Hizb Tahrir, which has not been legalized in the North African country.
Ennahda spokesman Noureddine Bhiri, whose party denied being behind the Islamist rally, went to try to calm the situation as police reinforcements and armored vehicles were brought in to block the entrance to the palace.
Hundreds of students, teachers, unemployed miners and other protesters began gathering Wednesday at the Bardo Palace with various demands.
The protest was partly a response to ongoing demonstrations at a university outside the capital, where Islamists disrupted courses demanding a stop to mixed-sex classes and for female students to wear the full-face veil, or niqab.
A spokeswoman for the liberal protesters, Ines Ben Othman, said Islamists physically attacked them overnight.
Ennahda dominates the 217-member assembly elected in the country’s first democratic polls on October 23.
Long-time Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his staunchly secular regime were ousted in a popular uprising in January and the country has no government yet, while the economic situation is worsening.
Central bank governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli was quoted by the TAP news agency Saturday as saying that growth this year will be zero while unemployment will be up to 18 percent.
The vital tourist sector has been hard hit by the revolution, with foreign visitors preferring to go elsewhere, while the phosphate industry has seen production plummet because of a series of strikes.
In addition some 100,000 Tunisians working in neighboring Libya fled back home during the upheaval that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi’s regime and are left without jobs.
In a statement issued Friday the central bank demanded that its independence be guaranteed in the new constitution, as a draft law threatened to place it under government control.
Ennahda, with 89 seats in the constituent assembly, is accused by some, including prospective coalition partners, of seeking to concentrate all powers in the hands of the new prime minister, the party’s number two Hamadi Jebali.
The assembly is due to vote in the next few days on a power-sharing deal which would make left-winger Moncef Marzouki the country's next president.
Some Tunisians were increasingly unnerved by the country institutional limbo, with talks for a new executive dragging on and the former interim administration led by Beji Caid Essebsi having already resigned.