Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia

Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia in August, after a lull following the riots and curfew last month. From the legalization of Salafist political parties to reported attacks on individuals, politicians, and cultural events, this seemingly growing minority group continues to grab the attention of Tunisians and outsiders alike. The major headlines:

Attacks on cultural events

After three consecutive nights of Salafist demonstrations against cultural events, Le Figaro says that Salafists are imposing their morals on Tunisia. Tunisia Live provides on the ground reporting of the cancellation of cultural events.

From Beja: “The organizing committee of the summer festival of Goubellat in Tunisia’s northern governorate of Beja decided to cancel the twelfth edition of the event, which was scheduled to kick off last Thursday, August 2. The decision was made due to pressure put on the organizing committee by a group of individuals allegedly affiliated with the Salafist stream of Islam.”

One week earlier, a similar event was cancelled after Salafist protests in Sejnane, also in Northwest Tunisia.

On August 16 France 24 reported, “Hardline Islamists have prevented an Iranian group from performing at a Sufi festival in Kairouan, south of Tunis, deeming their Shiite chanting violated sacred values, Tunisian media reported on Thursday.

Meanwhile popular Tunisian comedian Lotfi Abdelli had his one man show cancelled in Menzel Bourguiba due to Salafist protests. From Al-Arabiya: “The comedian told private radio station Mosaique FM that the imam of the town in northern Tunisia had called for the show to be disrupted and accused Abdelli of offending Islam. “Bearded Muslims appeared at my show… They came and laid their prayer mats down in the auditorium in the morning, saying they were going to pray all day long,” he said. “The security forces were there and they told us that they hadn’t received any orders to intervene,” Abdelli added. “I was afraid, I’m not superman. I was there to have a good evening and a laugh, not to get beaten up.” Protesters also tried to disrupt a subsequent show of Abdelli’s in Sfax later in the month.

Attacks on politicians and shiites also made news.

On August 6, Tunisia Live reported that Abedlfattah Mourou was attacked at a conference on tolerance in Islam. “Yesterday, Abdelfatah Mourou, a prominent Tunisian Islamist figure, was hospitalized after he was attacked by an attendee of a conference entitled, Tolerance in Islam, which he was heading in Kairouan. The assailant struck Mourou in the head with what appeared to be a water glass following a dispute. Mourou passed out and was taken to the hospital, where he was given five stitches in the forehead.” Western Culturel blog has a video of the incident.

Attacks on Tunisian shiites were reported in Gabes and Bizerte, and condemned by human rights groups.

U.S. neo-con Elliott Abrams describes the events in Bizerte: Kuntar was referred to as the “Dean of the Lebanese Prisoners.”…He spent nearly thirty years in an Israeli prison (because Israel does not have the death penalty, except for Nazi war criminals) and was liberated in an exchange with Hezbollah in 2008 for the bodies of the kidnaped Israeli soldiers….So that is the man who was the honoree and center of attention in Bizerte. Here the story moves from the despicable to the absurd. Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist through and through, defended the Assad regime in Syria, which has now killed over 20,000 Sunnis. Accordingly, Salafi gangs using sticks and knives attacked the closing ceremony of the anti-Israel rally, shouting slogans that in essence accused Kuntar and the organizers of being pro-Shia. Several people were wounded badly enough to be hospitalized.

Four suspects were eventually arrested and then released.

What’s behind the attacks on shiites? Ennahda hardliner Sadok Chorou provides insight, saying in an interview, “Before the revolution, Shiism had been kept low-key. However, with the flow of freedom that prevailed in the country, cultural and informative seminars have been held to promote Shiism. It is very likely that the Iranian Cultural Center in Tunisia is playing a major role in spreading Shiism, for there are no Shiite institutions in the country. The promotion of Shiism is the result of foreign activity. Even the tide of Salafism is the result of foreign intervention, as some external parties are trying to spread it in Tunisia, which has become a pit of exported ideas and doctrines coming from the Gulf and Iran in particular.

Tunisian jihadi Abou Ayadh called on the government to stop the shiite wave in Tunisia and to “combat these enemies of Islam” (article includes pictures).

On August 22 the Culture Ministry condemned the attacks perpetrated by Salafists at El Aqsa Festival in Bizerte. The Ministry also condemned the proliferation of attacks against cultural events across the country, describing them as “dangerous drift.” The Ministry believed that “what had happened was not only an attack against freedom of expression and creation but also augurs of a sectarian conflict strange to our Tunisian society, known for its balance, tolerance and moderation.”

Much of the English-speaking press debated whether or not Salafist parties were a threat to Tunisian democracy. Anne Wolf writing in Open Democracy on Aug 14 urges us to use caution before condemning legalization of Salafist parties

The new Salafist party is indeed unlikely to be able to ‘tame’ the most violent and radical Salafists – even in the long-term – but it might eventually mobilise some of Tunisia’s religiously ultraconservative populace, particularly its disenchanted youth. Such a possible scenario is feared by many Tunisian liberals, who are fiercely opposed to the increasing role of religion in the country’s new democracy….But before rejecting Jabhat al-Islah in its entirety, it is worth bearing in mind what the Salafist alternative looks like: more secretive and potentially more violent movements spreading throughout the country

Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta concur, writing in Jadalliya:

In many ways Ennahda tends to see the Salafists as potential traveling companions who need to be re-educated and reintegrated into political institutions. The secular parties see them as ideological rivals and as anti-democratic, and therefore, mobilize strongly against them. Paradoxically, this interplay might positively reinforce the construction of a democratic and more liberal Tunisia because finally, all sorts of issues can be discussed in public, and differences about the nature and direction of the country can be aired. Thus, contrary to expectations, university elections rewarded leftist lists rather than the Islamist ones. It is for this reason that we also see contradictory behavior among Salafists, who at times use street violence to demonstrate against perceived attacks on religion, and at other times seem quite happy to refrain from demonstrating more forcefully against the government or reject the calls to violence coming from al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, despite proclaiming quite openly their admiration for international Jihadism.

Robin Wright, in a New York Times op-ed, cautions those who might support salafists. “Salafis are only one slice of a rapidly evolving Islamist spectrum. The variety of Islamists in the early 21st century recalls socialism’s many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women’s rights.”

Meanwhile Tunisian Meriem Dhaoudi is more alarmed.

Tunisia‘s hardcore Salafists emerged only after the popular uprising that resulted in toppling the dictator Ben Ali. This culture of Salafism was nurtured in Tunisia by a great influx of Wahhabi preachers welcome to Tunisia with the blessings and welcome of the Tunisian government.  Early this month Abdel Fattah Mourou, a founding member of the ruling party Ennahda was attacked and injured in a conference on religion and tolerance. Apparently the Association of Religion and Tolerance offended the sensitivities of the ultra-conservative Muslims whose ears have recently become accustomed to an intolerant discourse imported from the Gulf and orchestrated in order to generate hatred and violence in Tunisia.

The time has come to rebel against religious fanaticism in Tunisia. Hardline Islamism has become more visible and threatening in recent weeks starting from targeting the two Tunisian Olympic medalists Habiba Ghribi and Oussama Mellouli on social media networks for inappropriate clothing and anti-Islam behaviour.

While “Anglos” debated political inclusion of Salafists, the French press was busy writing about an attack, blamed on Salafists, on a French elected official in Tunisia. The Nouvel Observateur reports:

The shameful attack a few days ago suffered by  an elected member of the French Republic in Tunisia…Walking very peacefully with his family on a street in Bizerte, Jamel Gharbi, an elected official from Sarthe, was attacked by a Salafist gang of thugs. Staying behind to allow his wife and daughter to flee, he was beaten with fists and with clubs. He managed to escape, narrowly escaping a lynching pure and simple.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called the incident very serious, provoking an official apology by Tunisian officials. Nouvel Obs sees the event as a growing sign of fascism in Tunisia. “Everything happens as if Ennahda and the Salafists had divided the work: the first constructed a facade of democracy in Tunisia, the second implement the fierce repression of freedom of expression, (leading to) a de facto Islamization of Tunisian society.”

French weekly Marianne reports that Tunisian salafists are taking on the role of the police. It looks first at the recent headlines: “The Salafists are the police in Sidi Bouzid,” “Salafists abuse an imam of the mosque in the city Errahma El Khadhra” “Ennahdha at the heart of violence Wednesday night at El Hancha” “clashes between Salafists and Shiites in the city of Gabes “,” a French elected attacked by Salafis in Bizerte” but also a satirical Television producer arrested, artists prevented from going on stage, festivals canceled under threat from Salafis. In recent days, the headlines Tunisian speak volumes about the climate of fear that Islamists are spreading in the country. According to the website Maghreb Intelligence, several areas in central and south-eastern Tunisia “are now hostage to Salafist activists who have money from the Gulf countries and rely on the support of generous donors from the Tunisian diaspora in Europe.”

French weekly Le Point piles on, seeing a double sided game from Ennahda: “For the sociologist Samir Amghar there is in fact a real collusion between the two Islamist parties.”The leaders of Ennahda, being in power, are forced to keep a moderate speech in public,” he says. “But internally, a good portion of them agree with the Salafist ideology.” In this strategy, the Salafists are responsible for carrying out the behind the scenes “dirty work.” “The Salafists are putting pressure on the sensitivity of the Muslim Tunisian public opinion to create a balance of power in favor of Islamisation of society,” said the specialist in the movement. This may explain why, on August 1, Ennahda filed in the National Constituent Assembly a bill … punishing infringement of the sacred.”

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Ramses Kefi argues that people should calm down, Tunisia has not yet become Afghanistan, and his wife still wears a mini-skirt.

Political party update 3: Nidaa Tunis welcomes Islamists, is denounced by CPR and Ennahda

Moderate Islamists would be welcomed in Beji Caid Essebsi’s party, according to a statement released by the state news agency. “Mohsen Marzouk (of Nidaa) says that discussions are underway between Nidaa Tunis and some moderate Tunisian Islamists. Marzouk said he did not see objection any to reconciliation (between the two fronts), especially as the new political party “is not based on ideological grounds and that” it is open to all national interests.” It is unclear whether any Islamists have joined the new party.

Meanwhile, two former CPR members in the Constituent Assembly officially announced their adhesion to Nidaa.

El Watan, an Algerian daily, sees progress in the secular camp. “A year and a half after the fall of the Ben Ali regime and eight months before the next elections, Tunisia is heading towards a reconfiguration of the unique political landscape that permeate everyday life. In politics, the Tunisian left is recovering after losing the elections of the Constituent Assembly on 23 October 2011. Aware of the stinging defeat suffered at the polls, the different formations that comprise the broad spectrum of the left seem to draw the right lessons and structure their ranks for the upcoming political battles.”

CPR secretary general Mohammed Abbou said in an interview on Tunisian radio that putting Nidaa Tunis in power would be a return to tyranny in Tunisia

Meanwhile, Rached Ghannouchi does not see the party as a true adversary of Ennahda because of the absence of a clear ideology. He went on to condemn the dictatorial practices of Tunisia’s first leader, Habib Bourguiba, still considered a hero to many.

The CPR’s spokesman, Hedi Ben Abbes, also questioned Nidaa’s ability to gain votes, saying that it has neither the strength nor the program to attract Tunisian voters.

Ennahda also blamed Nidaa for the violence in Sidi Bouzid. Leaders reports that “Ennahda sees the hand of “some familiar faces in the region in coordination with Nida Tounès as the arm of RCD, saboteurs, thieves, drug dealers and contraband alcoholic beverage sellers. The response of Beji Caid Essebsi party was swift: “These attacks against our party are free of charge (…) The brigands are closerto Nahdhaouis  than we are. We do not have militias, we do not insult anyone and we have no violence. It is inappropriate to describe this way the democrats, activists and human rights components of civil society who took to the streets to protest against repression and to defend their rights.”

Political party updates 1 and 2.

Political party update 2: Ghannouchi on the U.S, Qatar, and women, Ennahda’s structure, and Ennahda’s conflict with the media

Ennahda’s full structure was released, following its election by the party’s Shura council. TunisieNumerique reports: “It is Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the movement, Abdelhamid Jelassi, vice president of the party structure, Abdelfattah Mourou, vice president of public affairs, and Rached Ghannouchi, official representative , Laârayedh Ali, deputy Secretary-General.” The complete list is here.

Rafik Abdessalem, Minister of Foreign Affairs, made news this week saying that the current government will remain in power for several years at a meeting held Sunday, August 26, 2012 with members of the local office of Ennahda in Hammam Sousse. Slate reported in remarks to the official news agency, TAP, that he also stated that the Tunisian government was not trying to muzzle the media but to “clean up” and prevent them from becoming “platforms” of the opposition. The government “does not seek to control the media, however, it will not allow certain media to transform themselves into forums of opposition to government action,” he said.

In related comments, Lotfi Zitoun, an advisor to the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, reportedly told a meeting of Ennahda supporters in Mahdia: “that the government is faced with the obstacle of corrupt media who play the role of opposition, forgetting their principal mission to disseminate information.”

Rached Ghannouchi’s interview with Jeune Afrique offers interesting insight into how the leader of Tunisia’s largest party thinks. Some extracts:

The article on the Rights of the Child adopted by the commission on rights and freedoms of the Constituent Assembly gives full powers to the family to educate and care for children. Is this not a disengagement of the state (from this role)?

Nothing replaces the family. The role of government is to ensure that the structure is preserved. There is no question of sacrificing children to improve economic productivity. For children, the family must take responsibility and we must assume this responsibility until the end. The State must also assume its responsibilities by providing education and care for children and sometimes it must intervene. For example, you can not ask a woman who has six children to go to work, she must be given the means to raise them. We ask a lot of women.

Another article (in the constitution) considers woman the complement of man. Is this not  a decline in the rights won by women?

This is a good law. Who can deny that the man and woman complement each other? The woman alone can do nothing, man neither. The man and woman are independent but complementary as the two halves of a bean. There is no incompatibility between gender equality and complementarity. Everyone needs his half to flourish. But women are free and responsible, and they are equal to men. The prayer of a woman is not worth less than a man, they fast in the same way. They are equal under God and the law, the law of God and of men.

Obama’s America has had a sort of “pact” with Islamists in the Arab world, especially to neutralize jihadism?

Each seeks its own interests. The United States, having long been partners with dictatorships, have understood that it was encouraging extremism. They decided to support democratization to combat terrorism. The Islamists were not created by the United States, they are born of our land. America has recognized the need to include moderate Islamists in the democratic process, they came to us and have revised their crusader policy.

Qatar’s role in the Arab Spring and its real intentions are subject to numerous questions. Some have specifically criticized its interference in the Tunisian revolution. What relations does Ennahda have with Doha?

We are economically colonized by Europe, with which we carryout 83% of our trade. This is very far from being the case for Qatar, which has no army or colonial ambitions. However, Qatar has contributed to the revolution through its media support to Al-Jazeera. It is a ​​partner of the Arab Spring. We respect it (Qatar) for it and appreciate its economic support. It supports several large projects, including a refinery at Skhira, the development of a complex sugar, phosphate extraction and a tourist village in Tozeur. What have we to fear from it (Qatar)? But it is not only Qatar, our policy of openness also includes other Gulf countries. To overcome the crisis and save their economies, Europeans and Westerners received direct money from sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf. Are we not closer? Are we not in the same world? They are Muslims and Arabs like us?

What do you think of the refusal of Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali?

All Tunisians want to him see in the dock. We disagree with the position of Saudi Arabia and will not cease to demand Ben Ali via Interpol. He is a criminal.

How can you reconcile the exclusion of former members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD former ruling party) with transitional justice and national reconciliation?

Why did we have a revolution? We oppose the return of the former RCD and its leaders. Ben Ali was not alone. He had the support of an entire system, from coordinating committees to political office. We urge those responsible to come to account, but it is not a general or judicial sanction. Few of them are in prison. It is a sanctions policy under the responsibility of everyone. This is the principle of exclusion.

See political party updates 1 and 3.

A glitch in Egyptian protocol or a purposeful humiliation? Marzouki’s trip to Egypt

Proper protocol: Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba being greeted by U.S. President John F Kennedy in New York in 1961. Photo courtesy of JFK Library.

Tunisian social networks have been abuzz today over President Moncef Marzouki’s visit to Egypt and the apparent lack of protocol provided for the Tunisia head of state. While newly elected Egyptian president Morsi held a joint press conference with Marzouki today and met with him privately, many commenters have been outraged that Marzouki was greeted not by Morsi, or the Egyptian prime minister (as had been expected), but by the relatively low level minister of electricity.

More abuzz came this afternoon as photos came out of Marzouki’s meeting with Morsi, in which contrary to usual protocol, only the Egyptian flag was on display (see photo below).Embedded image permalink

Of course, none of these events are happening in a vacuum. Marzouki has had a difficult few weeks with his presidential powers coming into question over the government’s apparent non-consultation with him over the extradition of the former Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. Marzouki then proceeded to try to fire the Central Bank governor, a decision that backfired after the prime minister, Ennahda member Hamadi Jebali, reversed his position on the firing and refused to support Marzouki’s move.

Against these troubles for Marzouki, came the reports that Ennahda is pushing strongly in the Constituent Assembly for an unelected, figurehead presidency in the new constitution. This adds further fuel to the fire for those who think that the Islamist party is trying to diminish the role of the presidency for their own policy gains – this time through their counterparts in Egypt.

Thug violence vs. Salafist violence – do definitions really matter?

Tunisian soldiers stand guard outside the national assembly

With a return of calm on the streets of Tunis after the remarkable instability in Tunisia over the past week the question has now moved to who and what has caused the recent violence. While conspiracies abound, most press accounts have pointed the finger at religious extremists intent on destabilizing the regime. Some at the time of the riots disputed whether “salafists” were actually involved, with many blaming former regime officials. With events a few days in the past, some have pointed to a quick-to-judge press that is willing to blame the bogeyman of “salafists” for any violence in the country.

First of all, critics are right to point out that the press liberally uses the term Salafism to describe a heterogenous movement. Salafi movements can be found throughout the Muslim world and take on many forms. For various reasons, including a general misunderstanding of Islamist movements in both the West and Tunisia, Salafist has become a catch all term for religiously-oriented groups whose goal is to create a more conservative society for Tunisia, oftentimes through coercion, violent and non-violent. This is important because it is obvious that much of the violence in Tunisia since the revolution, while blamed on Salafists, is actually caused by thugs and opportunists who are taking advantage of a much weakened security apparatus.

For example, the riots in La Marsa on Monday (to which I was an eyewitness for 3 hours of violent clashes) included large numbers of young delinquents who were more than happy to take the opportunity to throw rocks at cops for a couple hours. As I reported to France 24 the following day: “I can’t say that there were tons of Salafis, but among the protesters, I saw quite a few bearded men screaming “Allahu Akbar” [“God is great”] and throwing stones at the police. [Salafist men generally wear their beards long]. There were also very young guys, teenagers who looked like they should be at home playing video games.”

Some have used the fact that there were obviously non-religious elements among the rioters to say that this is yet another example of the hysteria among elite Tunisians and the foreign press for anything conservative and Islamist.

The reality is that in a riot one doesn’t have the opportunity to interview arsonists on whether their goal is a return to a 7th century caliphate or simply to try and injure policemen and “burn shit”. It is clear that at times there is an intersection between these two motivations, with the former giving intellectual space for the latter. The government, well versed in Islamic scholarship, has oftentimes taken the position that it is absurd to link the thuggish actions of petty criminals to an intellectual movement that calls for the return to traditional Islamic, and presumably peaceful, values. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi has even called himself a Salafist to prove the point that the word is being misused.

But while the government has been outspoken in its condemnation of violence, it has often supported the intellectual underpinnings of the violence committed. This is a pattern in the “Salafist” attacks around the country – a small group of religious conservatives will use delinquents, criminals or opportunists to manipulate a situation. (This account of how a political party office was destroyed by extremists by Sameh B sums up how so many of the stories of extremist violence have played out, starting with verbal harassment by self-described Salafists followed by physical violence by young men who the Salafists have encouraged to do their work for them.)

The government’s position, which has supported many of the positions of extremists while condemning their actions, is a potentially dangerous misdirection at a time when ultra-conservatives have come to play an ever more important role in public discourse in Tunisia. Time after time in the past week the government condemned the violent actions of rioters along with the artists. The Interior Minister, who wisely called off protests announced by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi last Friday, was brought before the Constituent Assembly to talk mostly about the supposedly-offensive artwork rather than the steps necessary to stabilize an obviously reeling country.

The government has said that it will take steps to control violent movements on many occasions, but oftentimes this has felt like lip-service. While a planned secular protest against violence was called off by the interior ministry, a jihadist one was allowed. The government ordered the art gallery in La Marsa to be closed after last week’s events but  had allowed an illegal sit-in by conservatives to go on for almost three months at the state television station. A conflict at the Manouba university over niqabs has been left to fester for an entire academic year because the government has decided not to intervene – leaving the university to solve the problem.

This past week has finally seen clear and concrete actions by the government on the security level (this is important and highly needed) and calls to be tougher on extremist preachers. When a preacher at Zitouna mosque, an important mosque and center of Islamic theology called on the assasination of the artists responsible for the offending artwork, the Ministry of Religious Affairs called for his sacking. Yet just today reports have said that the preacher will not in fact be sacked. The government has yet to release a clear statement on the matter.

But what sometimes looks like irrational fear or Islamophobia, among both many Tunisians and the press, is also based on the almost daily first-hand accounts one hears when living and traveling in Tunisia. Verbal (and sometimes physical) attacks on mixed groups of men and women have been widely reported among the country’s expatriate community since the uprising last year. Just last month separate groups of students and diplomats were physically attacked by a Salafi mob in Sejnane. While physical violence has been rare, and the country remains comparatively safe, an environment of threats of violence has been left to fester while the intimidation has been met with little challenge from the state, and sometimes denial of well-documented events.

Are the men who sexually taunt women over their supposedly immodest dress Salafists or thugs? Does it matter? The fact is that an intellectual space has been opened in Tunisia for those hoping to instill their conservative values on society. This space allows sexist thugs to harass women, violent gangs to team up with religious extremists, and preachers to foster hatred among their followers – no matter whether their theological beliefs correspond to one of the many Salafist worldviews. What has been created is a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which extremists justify the actions of thugs and thugs do the (implicit) bidding of extremists. This is how militia’s are formed and which is why it is dangerous to underplay the interactions between intellectually motivated groups versus those motivated only by violence.

I appreciate the efforts of those who have called out the press for their wanton use of the term Salafist. The use of specific theological terminology for a heterogeneous group does little to clarify the situation. Nevertheless, in order to be intellectually honest, one must also admit that extremist violence is not always committed by extremists. Where hateful ideas are allowed to fester (and sometimes encouraged), hateful actions will follow – regardless of the actors’ beliefs.

Photograph: Zoubier Souissi/Reuters

After extremists riot, political brinkmanship creates major risks for Tunisian revolution

A shocking display of political brinkmanship is underway in Tunis this week. While commentators, including myself, have called attention to the culture wars (see here and here), the real power play is a political one, pitting the three major political forces, Islamist, secular, and former regime, against each other.

The sight of riots consuming entire neighborhoods around the Tunisian capital, and the systemic violence against civil institutions has created shock waves throughout Tunisia. The violence and rioting caused the government to impose a curfew last night.

But the interesting part of the government’s response has been its continual and forceful condemnation of what they refer to as secular extremists. Artists, organizers, and their political supporters are, according to Ennahdha, the force behind the political discord that caused religious extremists to riot and they should be criminally prosecuted. The rioting was further provoked by elements of the former regime who have been trying to destabilize the Islamist government from the beginning in an attempt to bring back the bad-old days of Ben Ali.

Ennahdha is, according to this reasoning, the only political force that can both preserve Tunisia’s sacred symbols and traditions, while also bringing law and order to the country. Beginning on Sunday, Ennahdha ministers, parliamentarians, and its leader have repeatedly pointed out that their role is to protect the country from all forces that would endanger the values or security of the state. Action on the security element took place last night as a curfew was imposed on the capital and other regions. Action on the sacred was announced this morning by Ennahdha leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who called for a massive protest after Friday prayers to defend the country’s sacred values.

Friday’s protest will serve two purposes, both fitting with the underlying political logic. Firstly, the protest will allow Ennahdha to coopt the Salafi movements who have also called for protests and who risked showing a much more extreme face of Tunisia than the government wants to project. Secondly, the protest falls on the eve of a major event planned by former regime elements, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, who is planning on announcing a political movement the following day. Ennahdha’s call to protest, which will likely draw tens of thousands of supporters, will help neutralize Essebsi’s announcement the following day.

Former regime elements, meanwhile, will take advantage of the dramatic violence and unrest by calling for a return to law and order. Beji Caid Essebsi has long voiced his intentions to form a political movement – the centrist, secular party has scheduled its coming out party for this Saturday for over a month. Following on the heals of a major event in Monastir last March, Essebsi’s goals are to create a viable alternative to Ennahdha that capitalizes on the people’s desire for more security and, to many, a return to the politics of Habib Bourguiba, modern Tunisia’s founder and and authoritarian dictator in his own right. Those who think, such as the government, that former regime officials are behind the recent violence, see this coming weekend’s event as a little too coincidental – as most likely the main message from this Saturday will be that the Islamist-led government is in no position to govern and cannot control the extremists who want to take over the country.

Liberal secular politicians are caught between these two elements, one they see as a secular dictatorship, the other a religious one. And yet, they are in a difficult position because their defense of freedom of expression and universal rights is one that does not appear to be shared by the majority of the population. Ennahdha’s attacks on provocative artwork are widely supported in this conservative country, just as its position on the Persepolis trial, while highly mediatized in the West, cost them no political points. The secular left is stuck defending an unpopular position, and one that seems both elitist and anti-Islamic. While some politicians have come out forcefully against the attacks on art, there is mostly a sense of shock or resignation that they do not have popular backing for their position. Nevertheless, secular parties remain viable for their unabashed antipathy for religious extremists. While Bourguibist parties call for law and order, they are compromised by their authoritarian pasts which rounded up and jailed not just Islamists, but any opponent to the regime. Liberal secularists have no such baggage and will hammer the point that it was only a laxist government that could have allowed the kind of religious extremism that is new (and unpopular) in Tunisia.

Finally, there is the interesting positions of the CPR and Ettakatol parties. Leaders in the government along with Ennahdha, Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Moncef Marzouki backed the position of Ennahdha that the art work in question was provocative and inciteful. These parties have always towed a fine line between appearing supportive of the Islamist-majority government and adhering to their roots as secular, liberal parties. Their political calculus appears to be that their futures reside in unifying their positions in the government, even if it risks internal turmoil within the party and a loss of liberal bona fides.

Under a curfew, with riots and unrest in their fourth day, political forces appear to be playing a high-stakes game for the future of political leadership of the country. One gets the impression that the fuse has been lit. With reports of protester deaths coming in this morning, there is a risk that events could spiral beyond the control of the much-weakened police apparatus. One also gets the impression that pushing things to the brink is exactly what many politicians here are eager to do.

Ennahda statement on La Marsa artwork calls for criminal prosecution of artists

This afternoon Ennahda’s parliamentary group in the constituent assembly released a statement concerning the events of the last 48 hours, which began with a protest and the eventual destruction of numerous works of art deemed offensive to Islam. See my reports here and here. The statement, released by the TAP press agency (government’s official agency) states the following, emphasis mine:

“The Ennahdha Movement (parliamentary) group in the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) said Tuesday that it will propose a law criminalizing the violation of the sacred and will work to include in the Constitution a principle against interference with the sacred.

“Religious symbols are above any mockery, irony or violation,” the group said in a statement Ennahdha, whereas freedom of expression and creation, “although recognized by the Movement”, are not “absolute “and” those who perform them should respect the beliefs and customs of the people.”

Acts of destruction, vandalism and arson are, according to the press release, either “a false answer to secular extremism” or “part of a destructive process targeting the state and its legitimacy through attacks on its courts public administration.”

The Ennahdha group called on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”.

It also called on Tunisians to not respond to calls for arson and destruction and to express their opinions within the law.”

Readers will note that Tunisia actually already has laws of this nature in its penal code (115), which has been condemned by groups including Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders. This has allowed recent prosecutions of those who have posted offensive pictures on Facebook and the translators of films featuring images that have been deemed offensive.

The statement was elaborated upon on the party’s Facebook page.