DAKAR - Senegal is asking some tough questions about the state of its democracy, reputedly one of the strongest in Africa, after opposition lawmakers physically attacked a woman MP in parliament.
Shocking images have gone viral of a brawl that erupted in the National Assembly last Thursday -- the legislature's second punch-up in less than three months.
During what should have been a run-of-the-mill debate about the justice ministry's budget for 2023, opposition MP Massata Samb slapped government lawmaker Amy Ndiaye.
She threw a chair in reprisal and then was kicked in the belly by another MP, Mamadou Niang.
Later, after order was restored, Ndiaye fainted and was taken to hospital -- her lawyer says she was pregnant, and there are fears she could lose her baby.
Commentators are poring over the incident, which with dreadful irony occurred during a nationwide campaign against violence towards women.
Some said the West African state, acclaimed for its stability and respectful discourse in a region notorious for coups and dictatorships, had lost its way.
"A slap to the Republic," the daily Walf Quotidien headlined.
MPs "are not respecting their positions", Cheikh Gueye, secretary of a moderate Islamic group called CUDIS which often mediates in Senegalese politics, told AFP.
"They have mashed up the National Assembly with some national (gladiatorial) arena, and the result is a place where blows, insults, invective and personal attacks can rain down."
Police are hunting for the two MPs who struck Ndiaye, a senior police official told AFP on Monday.
They went into hiding after prosecutors launched proceedings against them following a complaint by the parliamentary speaker, the source said.
The immediate spark for the violence was remarks Ndiaye made about Serigne Moustapha Sy, an influential Muslim leader who supports the opposition but is not a lawmaker.
On November 27, Ndiaye accused him of betraying his word and disrespecting President Macky Sall, and fiery protests from the opposition resulted.
- Tensions -
But the flare-up also occurred against a wider background of tensions, stoked by protests in March and the dramatic outcome of elections in July.
For the first time since Senegal gained independence from France in 1960, the president's party lost its overall majority in parliament.
The near-tie forced Sall's party to hunt around for a coalition in order to stay in power.
Two months later, chaos and violence broke out in the National Assembly when MPs came to elect the speaker.
The political mood has also been soured by questions over Sall himself.
He was elected to a seven-year term in 2012 and re-elected for a five-year tenure in 2019.
But he has not divulged his plans for the next presidential vote, due in 2024, which has fuelled uncertainty.
Opposition figures accuse him of using the judiciary to sideline potential rivals and stifle criticism, something that his aides deny.
Those mired in judicial problems include opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who has been accused of rape, and journalist Pape Ale Niang, who has been detained for "divulging information liable to harm national defence".
"Our parliament has hit rock-bottom," Alioune Tine, a long-time campaigner on human rights, said on Twitter.
He appealed for a fresh approach from religious and political figures to overcome the deadlock.
"When you reach this point, it's up to the caliphs, politicians, (other) MPs, imams, bishops and pastors" to speak to warring legislators, he said.
Religious leaders are highly regarded in Senegal and often play a role in mediating political disputes.
The country, which is famous for its religious tolerance, is 95-percent Muslim, dominated by Sufi brotherhoods whose spiritual heads are called caliphs.