Political Party update 1: Marzouki shows independence, the CPR chooses its new leadership

I’m back from a little vacation and will be providing a series of updates to Kefteji over the course of the week. We start today with a continuation of my series on Tunisian political parties. Despite August holidays, Ramadan, and Aid el-Fitr, political wrangling continued in Tunisia in the month of August.

Today’s updates focus on the parties most in the news, the CPR, which held its congress this month, Ennahdha, and Nidaa Tunis. It’s interesting to note the discourse between these three elements as they position themselves ahead of the coming constitutional battles and next year’s elections. Smaller parties made few headlines, although rumors swirled over potential coalitions that have not yet seen the light of day. Given my lag in posting, I’ve separated out the main headlines into three parts. Click here for installments 2 and 3.

The CPR held its party congress this week. Highlights:

Marzouki angered his coalition partner, Ennahdha, with the following remarks, as reported in Jeune Afrique on Aug 25. “What complicates the situation is the growing sense that our brothers in Ennahda are working to control the administrative and political state,” the president wrote in the statement read by one of his advisers at the opening of Congress. “These are practices that remind us of the bygone era” of the deposed president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he said, denouncing “the appointments of Ennahda supporters in key positions whether they are competent or not.” In protest, several members of the government belonging to the Islamist party left the room, including the Minister of Human Rights, Samir Dilou, and the Interior, Ali Larayedh, according to an AFP journalist.

Some members of the CPR distanced themselves from Marzouki, while Ennahda criticized the president. “The discourse of Moncef Marzouki to the opening of the Congress of CPR is catastrophic,” said Taher Hmila on the sidelines of the congress from which he was excluded. He added that it was a contradictory discourse, sometimes calling the cohesion between the members of Troika and sometimes criticizing the coalition. Samir Dilou, Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice (and sometimes Ennahda spokesman, withdrew from the Congress, saying that there was an unjustified attack against the party Ennahdha.

Leaders argues that Marzouki’s strategy is a way to assure his reelection, distancing himself from Ennahda.

The highlight of the Congress for the Republic (CPR) congress held over the weekend has been the virulent attack by Moncef Marzouki against his Ennhadha allies he has accused of seeking to monopolize power…marking the tone for a political season that looks to be very eventful.

Marzouki had already launched his reelection campaign, in the spring, with a priority of trying to find the best way to keep the direct elections of the presidency, without having to seek the support of Ennahdha. The polls certainly give show his popularity, generated by its strong media presence…, and his frequent trips abroad… Without confusing notoriety, popularity, populism and, ultimately, the final vote, analysts know that the nature of the political system has not yet been set (presidential, parliamentary, mixed…) and the time that separates us from elections is likely to be extended until next summer, meaning that all calculations may lead to false speculation.

TAP, the Tunisian news agency, reports that “the CPR has announced its official position that it continues to support the maintenance of a presidential regime, although it noted that it will respect the position of its coalition partners.

The congress also named the new party secretary, giving insight into CPR’s internal politics. Liberation reports: “Maintaining Mohamed Abbou, 46 years as Secretary General of CPR seems to confirm this line (of criticism of Ennahda), the latter having resigned in late June the post of Minister of Administrative Reform, saying the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali not let him exercise his prerogatives in the fight against corruption.”

Leaders has the full list of party leaders.

Meanwhile, Abderraouf Ayadi, former Secretary General of CPR said he is creating a new independent movement of the CPR to further strengthen the mechanisms of democracy.

See also political update 2 and 3.

Tunisia assembly defines woman as man’s associate, reactions from Tunisia

Perhaps we can blame it on the summertime; which is usual in its heat, but lately with an unseasonable mugginess. But the latest news from Tunisia’s constituent assembly has caused outrage for many here. At issue is constitutional article 27, passed yesterday in the committee on rights and freedoms, one of the six committees drafting the new constitution. As Tunisia Live states:

The article….states that women’s rights should be protected “under the principal of complementarity at the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the country,” …It was approved by a vote of 12 to 8 by the Commission of Rights and Liberties, with 9 of those voting for the clause coming from Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahdha.

After the committee passed the law, Tunisian lawmaker Selma Mabrouk went to Facebook to protest what she saw as a backward step for women’s rights, in this the country with some of the most liberal rights for women in the Arab world. Mag 14 writes:

Ms. Mabrouk has posted a text simply titled “Bad day at the commission rights and freedoms.” She stresses that “the problem is that this meeting served as a pretext to members of Ennahdha to return to the principle of equality between men and women, that principle was unanimously endorsed in the article 22.” Article 22 in states that “citizens have equal rights and freedoms before the law without discrimination of any kind.”

Mabrouk is arguing that even though another article in the constitution (#22) has endorsed the principle of equality, article 27 is a backdoor way to go back on what had been a campaign promise of Tunisia’s dominant party, Ennahda.

Tunisia analyst and blogger Thierry Bressillon looks at the text proposed by Mabrouk, which was not passed: “The state guarantees the rights of women and her achievements in every field. It is forbidden to enact laws that may impair (her rights or achievements) in any manner whatsoever. The state must fight against all forms of discrimination or physical or psychological violence against women.” comparing it to the text that was passed by the majority: “The state protects the rights of women and its achievements under the principle of complementarity with the man within the family and as a partner to man in the development of the country. The State guarantees equal opportunities for women in all responsibilities. The State guarantees the fight against violence against women.”

He adds: “The notion of complementarity raises strong emotions. It challenges the principle of equality which was until now the official doctrine in Tunisia and internalized by many Tunisians.”

Tunisian-American activist Wafa Ben Hassine confirms this sentiment in an article in Nawaat: “Of all aspects of the constitution that Tunisians were worried about, women’s rights was the last on many people’s minds – the gains that women have acquired in Tunisia are admittedly unmatched in the Arab world, and Tunisians are proud of that.”

Bresillon goes on to argue that the article conforms to many Islamist notions of feminism, which value the role of women, but reject the notion of equality as a Western import. I can’t speak to the Islamist notions of equality, but this is certainly the perception of Ennahda that many of Tunisia’s opposition members hold. This especially after the fact that Ennahda lawmakers this week also proposed a blasphemy law that would criminalize any blasphemous speech or actions, including the recent art exhibit which caused riots in Tunisia in June by Salafists. directed against the three main monotheistic religions. The new law was also widely criticized by human rights groups including Human Rights Watch:

 

While the blasphemy law is likely to have more widespread support in Tunisian society, which remains religious and conservative, it is unclear if the law on women’s rights will have the same support. Support for women’s rights has deep roots in Tunisia, not just because of the famous personal status code, put into place by Habib Bourguiba, but also from a deep intellectual tradition from Tunisian intellectuals such as Tahar Hadad, both of whom remain national heroes.

Recent polling by the Pew Forum has shown that many women in Tunisia are concerned over whether the ruling party would protect women’s rights, with over 36% of young women worried that their rights would be reduced. I’ll close with quote from Wafa Ben Hassine, who writes:

Putting aside the crude, incondite language the clause uses – an awful injustice is done to a whole society when the constitution of a country deems it apt to define a woman and her rights as complementary to man’s existence. The real debate should not be centered on women’s rights. Instead, it should focus on humancitizen rights. Relegating the woman’s role to complementary to that of a man’s could have serious effects on generations to come. The clause insinuates that women cannot stand alone as complete – that they are dependent on men.

 

[Finally, a note to readers, I’ll be on summer holidays for the next couple weeks, more from Tunisia upon my return]

Republic day in Tunisia, waiting for a pardon

Tunisia’s Mornaguia jail

Today, July 25, Tunisia celebrates its birth as a republic. On this day in 1957, Tunisia, having already announced its independence 15 months earlier, officially became a republican regime. While most Tunisians spend today as one would any holiday, relaxing with friends and family, some Tunisian families are waiting for word from the president on pardons for their imprisoned family members.

While both inside and outside of Tunisia the emphasis has usually been on political prisoners from the Ben Ali era, conditions of Tunisian prisons have not improved since the revolution, except for those who were pardoned in one of the general amnesties since January 14, 2011.

Nevertheless, Tunisia’s jails remain notoriously harsh. Conditions are spartan, with many prisoners sleeping 50 to a room. The lucky ones may get a “private” room, containing only 7 other men. And with draconian sentencing, Tunisians, convicted of what might be considered petty crimes in other countries, may languish for years in prison in Tunisia. Recall that only recently, two young men in Mahdia were sentenced to seven years in jail for blasphemy. While the “affaire Mahdia” has become somewhat of a cause celebre, many Tunisians guilty of possession of small amounts of drugs or petty vandalism can spend years in Tunisia’s jails.

On this, the 55th Republic Day in Tunisia, it is the families of these prisoners that are praying for a miracle. Praying that their sons or brothers, or fathers will receive a presidential pardon and a new lease on life. Today can act as a subtle reminder for those who thankfully do not have to experience the tragedy of having a family member in jail, that even those who have erred deserve respect and human dignity.

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.

Can Essebsi’s ‘Call for Tunisia’ movement unite the opposition?

My new article in Foreign Policy is out. An excerpt below, the full article can be found here.

On June 16, Beji Caid Essebsi announced the formation of the Call for Tunisia — a provocative new initiative which aims to unite Tunisia’s non-Islamist parties in a national unity movement to counteract the ruling Islamist-led government. The Call is raising profound questions about the extent to which post-Ben Ali Tunisia should accept the inclusion of former regime officials in future administrations. At a time when many of Egypt’s former regime officials loom in the shadows, and Yemen has struggled with the legacy of its provision of amnesty to the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia may once again take the lead in confronting a major political dilemma in semi-revolutionary change.

The Call for Tunisia features a broad spectrum of former regime officials together with secular liberals. The former regime officials, or RCDists (from the Constitutional Democratic Rally), were excluded from running in the last elections and see in the new initiative a chance to revive their political prospects. (There was no such cleansing of the actual government administrations — only positions in the Constituent Assembly). These officials and their supporters oftentimes criticize the current government as incompetent and unable to manage the complexity of government. They try to deflect criticisms of the rampant corruption and stasi-like police state of the past, by pointing to the (very real) progress achieved under Bourguiba and Ben Ali. They cite statistics on women’s rights, improvements in education, and infrastructure development, and they compare Tunisia with its neighbors in the Maghreb and throughout Africa. Their motives are clear — keep the good and throw out the bad of the former regime.

Read the whole article here.

The strange constitutional crisis in Tunisia – Marzouki’s role in question

I’m on assignment this week, without time to post extensively, but I did want to draw attention to what appears to be a nascent constitutional crisis in Tunisia. The issue stems from the extradition last week of former Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. While other news sources offer greater coverage of the crisis itself, one interesting aspect is the role of Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian president. Since Marzouki took office he has been beset by chatter among the political classes that he is not up to being the president, and that he sacrificed his party for his own political gain.

The fact that he was excluded from the decision to extradite Mahmoudi only confirmed some of these prejudices against the president. Even to his supporters, the row has shown that he does not exercise the power of a chief executive who is supposed to be in charge of foreign policy. Marzouki has decided to fight this battle in the court of public opinion and he appears to have the support of a number of opposition politicians – who are nominally in opposition to his own party. Over 70 members of the constituent assembly voted in favor of no-confidence for the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, who made the decision to extradite Mahmoudi. It is unclear what a vote of this nature would entail, as there is no functional constitution in place that would govern new elections. It is more likely that the opposition vote is simply a show of strength against the government for what they consider to be an illegal and unilateral decision.

One final note, Tunisia Live reports that Marzouki has even threatened to resign over the issue. While this is unlikely, the threat shows the very open fissures that have been created within the ruling coalition.

Political party update: Tunisian felloul step out, Communists rise, and Ennahdha stumbles

Last weekend, in the midst of instability caused by rioting across the country, Beji Caid Essebsi launched a political initiative aimed at being a unifying, secular force in Tunisian politics. Eighty-six year old Essebsi played an important role in Tunisia’s transition last year, balancing the interests of revolutionaries, Islamists, and former regime folks for just long enough to hold free elections. While many respected his role in the transition, his political ambitions have caused uproar among those who think that he represents a return to the past.

Leaders.com reports on the initiative:

“The least we can say is that “the initiative” has left no one indifferent. 48 hours after the announcement of the party, “The Call for Tunisia,” the controversy is not likely to subside in the political microcosm. While its supporters see it as the hope for salvation that will save the country from Ennahdha’s grip, his opponents denounce the return of former regime officials (fouloul)….Of the three-party coalition government, Ettakatol is the one most threatened by the initiative of Caid Essebsi.”

During the meeting Essebsi called for Tunisians to unify behind the new movement and to accept the gains of the past 50 years, including the rights of women. Many also saw this as a call for former regime officials to come into the fold. Lilia Weslaty, critical of the project, writes in Nawaat:

Thus, a war of identity seems increasingly visible between the two major political camps in Tunisia. Between Ennahdha and RCD, some Tunisians are faced with choosing between the plague and cholera.

Tunisian blogger Sarah Ben Hamadi calls for action against the two fronts:

This…is the result of the absence of an opposition worthy of the name. That’s the real problem, the opposition is not organized and is not ready to be (a true opposition). Why do we gather behind Caid Essebsi when we could come together without him and without remnants of the old regime? A third way is possible and it must exist. I dreamed of a new Tunisia, opposite to that shown to us by Ennahdha, different from that spoken by Béji Caid Essebsi. It is not yet born, we must act!

———-

With a clear platform, no associations with Islamists or the former regime, and a decidedly non-elitist approach, the Tunisian Communist Party (POCT) appears to continue to gain ground in Tunisia. A recent poll has shown that POCT leader Hamma Hammami’s popularity continues to increase, now surpassing Ahmed Chebbi of the PDP. While polls are notoriously difficult to read in Tunisia, the numbers do correspond to what appears to be a solid grassroots backing for the long-time resistance leader. There is likely a limit to communist popularity in Tunisia due to the association many have with the party as atheistic, but it nevertheless seems to be showing a way forward for liberal, secular groups who have yet to galvanize grassroots supporters.

—————-

It was arguably a bad week for Ennahdha as party leader Rached Ghannouchi’s call on his supporters to march last Friday was rejected by the Interior Ministry. Following riots across the country, Ghannouchi had called on supporters to support sacred values (as a counter to the supposedly offensive artwork shown in La Marsa).

But with tensions high and violence widespread, the government finally decided that a march would only risk inflaming tensions. The Interior Ministry, led by Ennahdha member Ali Lariyedh, however, showed its ability to mobilize when necessary and take control of the situation. Speculation over Lariyedh’s role in the party will only increase in the run up to the Ennahdha party congress next month – rumors of his rivalry with Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali have been reported.

Finally, after the most difficult week yet for the government since their elections, rumors have been spreading about a possible split in the party between its more moderate and more conservative sides. While the rumors remain just that, many have speculated about the party’s ability to hold these two sides together. The discourse last week by many Ennahdha officials, which put blame on both artists and rioters, was condemned by many as too deferential to the party’s conservative branch.

In other Ennahdha news, Ennahdha party cofounder Salah Karker, who had been in exile for 20 years returned to Tunisia from France.

——-

Ettakatol, led by Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar, announced a merger with the Tunisian Worker’s Party. Further evidence of political consolidation in Tunisia.

More on Tunisian political parties hereherehere, and here.

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.