TUNIS — The ultraconservative Islamist student announced his arrival by kicking over a large metal ashtray in the lobby.
“You want to make life hard for me,” he shouted, as he climbed the stairs toward the university dean’s office. “Well, I can make it hard for you.”
Without any security guards to call and knowing that the police would not come soon, if at all, the white-haired dean, Habib Kazdaghli, could only sigh, retreat behind a flimsy locked door, and try to reassure his visitors that everything would be all right.
So began a recent confrontation at Manouba University on the outskirts of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, where tensions have been running high for nearly a year. Here a handful of ultraconservative Salafist students and their busloads of supporters, many from the poor interior of the country, are pitted against an urban faculty with a strong sense that this bare-bones campus with its overgrown paths is no place for prayer rooms or women who veil their faces.
The turmoil at Manouba has kept Dean Kazdaghli, who is elected by faculty representatives, at the top of the news and editorial pages, sometimes admired for his embrace of a secular campus, sometimes derided for letting things get out of control or for failing to acknowledge the needs of the Salafist students.
In many ways, his troubles offer a window into the forces at work in Tunisia today as the country tries to build a new order, balancing the freedoms of democracy and religion and the complex yearnings of people who, after living under repressive rulers for nearly 60 years, have little experience in accommodating their diversity.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and it remains the bright spot in the region, with a moderate Islamist party taking power, a constitutional assembly elected and working, a small educated society and a strong middle class. But just like Egypt, Libya and even states where the government did not fall, like Morocco, Tunisia is still struggling to come to terms with what role Islam will play in public life. It is a struggle that many Tunisians believe could prove to be the making — or the unmaking — of their fledgling state.
More moderate Tunisians have increasingly raised concerns about what they see as thuggish behavior by hard-line Islamists that goes unpunished. Late last month, the authorities arrested 15 people after Salafists went on a rampage, burning police stations and attacking bars selling alcohol in several towns in the northwest.
“The law will be applied,” said Said Mechichi, the secretary of state for the interior, according to Tunisia’s official TAP news agency.
But at Manouba, Mr. Kazdaghli has had a hard year, with little assistance from the authorities. Once, protesters kept him imprisoned in his office until 4 a.m. On other days, protesters did the reverse, holding sit-ins in his lobby and blocking him from getting to his desk.
For nearly a month, the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities that Mr. Kazdaghli heads was shut down completely by demonstrators, preventing thousands of students from taking exams.
Though he has asked for help from the government, not much has been forthcoming. The police removed protesters from the Manouba campus only once, he said, after a Salafist protester took down the Tunisian flag to fly a Muslim flag instead. Videos posted on YouTube show a young female student trying to put the Tunisian flag back up and being flung to the ground by a Salafist.
At the time, the minister of education, Moncef Ben Salem, told reporters that Mr. Kazdaghli had mishandled the situation at Manouba, failing “to do what needed to be done to resolve the situation peacefully.”
But the mild-mannered Mr. Kazdaghli shows little inclination to back down. He is not about to give up one of his much-needed classrooms so the students can have a prayer room, especially, he said, when such facilities exist nearby. Nor is he willing to allow female students to wear veils in class, as Salafists demand.
“How can you teach a student when you cannot see her face — or give an exam when you don’t know who it is?” he said.
The more cosmopolitan Tunisians who live along the richer coastal areas by and large side with the embattled Mr. Kazdaghli, who was once involved with the country’s Communist Party, a group that, like the Islamists, was repressed under the country’s former leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Such supporters see Mr. Kazdaghli’s predicament as a dangerous omen — a sign that the new government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, is unwilling to hold ultraconservative Islamists to the rule of law.
They worry about other recent events, too, most notably a verdict fining a television executive about $1,600 for showing a film, “Persepolis,” which some Muslims find offensive because it includes a scene depicting God. They are concerned about not only the conviction, but also the fact that no one has ever been prosecuted for the attacks on the television station or for throwing a gasoline bomb at the executive’s house.
But others say that the government is just being pragmatic, that it is conducting a careful balancing act, trying not to lose voters before new elections scheduled for next year. Abou Yaareb Marzouki, the deputy prime minister for education, brushed off concerns about the fine levied on the television executive. “You can’t even buy lunch for that sum,” he said.
For their part, Salafists remain deeply disappointed by the new order for not doing more to enforce a religious way of life. Rafik Ghaki, a Salafist lawyer and activist, said Salafists would continue to push for Shariah law, which he believes is misunderstood and could produce fair justice even for Tunisia’s non-Muslim citizens. Mr. Ghaki said that violence was unacceptable. But he said when it did occur, as when Salafist demonstrators head-butted a journalist leaving the “Persepolis” trial, it was usually provoked.
Still, there is much in Tunisia that seems hopeful. Inside its Parliament building, the National Constituent Assembly has been weighing the articles of a new constitution and sounding as lumbering, and stable, as any Western governing body.
On a recent day, the assembly was mulling budget measures. Members pointed out proudly that this year’s funds would be divvied up based on a formula that would take into account calculations of need.
“We are sending a message of the revolution,” said Lobna Jeribi, who is on the assembly finance committee. “It’s not just the whim of a government official that will decide where the money goes, as it was in the past.”
Across town on the same day, however, Mr. Kazdaghli was huddled in his office with two journalists from The New York Times trying to get the police to escort them out of the building. “This is what I live with,” he said.
The furious student outside the dean’s office, Mohamed Rafik Alegui, 28, railed about a disciplinary hearing that morning that recommended he be suspended for a month for threatening a teacher.
Mr. Alegui repeatedly shouted through the door that Mr. Kazdaghli, who is an expert on minorities in Tunisia, including its Jewish population, was a Zionist. He complained that the Salafists had been disciplined while the administration did nothing “about all the kissing on campus.”
Mr. Kazdaghli called the police several times, finally telling them that he had two journalists in his office and that the police would regret not coming. They arrived about 20 minutes after the call.