TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian universities went on strike and nearly 3,000 people protested against Islamist influence Thursday after religious hardliners occupied a campus to demand segregation of male and female students.
Tunisia, birthplace of the "Arab Spring" urprisings, has seen mounting tension between Islamists and secularists since its revolution in January paved the way elections won by a moderate Islamist party.
The Islamist Ennahda party, now leading a coalition government, says it has nothing to do with hardline Islam, but secularists accuse the party of creating an atmosphere in which fundamentalism can thrive.
University staff across the country held a one-day strike to protest against Islamist students who for a fourth consecutive day were occupying a campus at Manouba, near Tunis.
Demonstrators outside Tunisia's interim parliament carried banners reading "All disasters come from Ennahda," "University is free" and "Niqab out," a reference to the Islamic full-face veil.
Among the hardline Islamists' demands is the abolition of a ban on female students wearing the niqab in classes. Ennahda has joined other parties in condemning the occupation of the university.
"I am here because I am afraid for the future of my sons and daughters," said Suhail Chamli, a university professor attending the protest.
"If we accept the imposition of the veil and the separation of male and female we are going to get an extremist society and we will lose everything ... We must address this trend," he said.
Tunisia's experience is being watching closely by other Arab states, including Egypt and Libya, whose revolutions have also allowed previously banned Islamists to gain influence and challenge the traditional power of secularist elites.
The Interior Ministry said it would only intervene to end the sit-in at Manouba university if requested to do so by the university administration.
Initially, the Islamist protesters had prevented the head of a faculty, and some of his staff and students, from leaving their offices. They were later released, but Tuesday the Islamists scuffled with secularist students.
One of those taking part in the sit-in, Anwar Al-Aoun, said the participants would not move until their demands were met.
"We want to be treated with dignity and to be allowed to have a mosque (within the faculty premises) and for everyone to have the right to study," he told Reuters.
He had the long beard typical of followers of Salafism, a purist interpretation of Islam that is more radical than the version followed by Ennahda.
"We are in a Muslim country and we are not in Europe," he said. "We will insist on getting our rights this time."
Editing by Christian Lowe