Standing up for a Salafist – Defending offensive speech in Tunisia

In flagrante delicto – courtesy of Leaders

Today a Tunisian court condemned Yacine El Bdioui to six month suspended sentence for defaming the Tunisian flag. Unless he is caught again, he will serve no jail time. The case was brought against El Bdioui, a Salafi activist, after he was caught on video in February at a protest at Manouba University taking down the Tunisian national flag and replacing it with a black “salafi” flag – embedded with the Muslim profession of faith.

The act of removing the flag was offensive to almost all who saw it – it represented for many a group of extremists trying to impose their will, and their morals, on the country. When a young women, Khaoula Rachidi, stood up to the Mr. El Bdioui, and replaced the “salafi” flag with the Tunisian flag she became a national symbol.

President Moncef Marzouki openly praised the young woman and invited her to the presidential palace in Carthage. Opposition parties in the Constituent Assembly used the event for political gain as well – accusing the government of inaction. They attacked the government for laxity after the accused was left to his own devices for several weeks before he turned himself in – even though his identity was widely known.

The verdict, like so many recent verdicts in the Tunisian justice system, and despite its softness, leaves a bitter taste. Firstly it shows the inadequacy of Tunisia’s criminal code. In spite of the fact that the crime was offensive, El Bdioui’s act was one of a vandal. His extremism was not directed at any person. In this way, it once again shows the timidity of the Tunisian justice system to stand up for basic civil rights. Similar to the sentences handed down last week against the translators, producers, and distributors of Persepolis on Tunisian television, the judges avoided the kind of sentences that would cause utter outrage – but do nothing to show that certain kinds of speech are and will be protected.

Unlike the cases against Nessma TV or Attounsiya, there are no heroes here. El Bdioui was not charged with a spurious claim of being offensive or blasphemous, he was caught in flagrante delicto. But just like the two businessmen, he was caught in the web of Tunisia’s criminal code which gives too much power to the government to define what is offensive, and too little power to individuals who want to express their views.

The verdict will no doubt draw comparisons as well to the recent harsh sentences given to two Tunisian atheists for posting offensive comments and photos on their Facebook pages (see my article on the Mahdia Affair). Critics of today’s sentence will argue that the disparity in sentences is cause for alarm (the two atheists were given 7 years of hard time, rather than a 6 month suspended sentence). It is difficult to argue that the disparity poses deeply troubling questions. But defenders of civil liberties should remain resolute – both sentences go against the principles of freedom of expression and show the arbitrariness of regulating speech.

I was offended by Mr. El Bdioui’s act, just as I was offended when another group of extremists burned the American flag in front of the embassy one week earlier (no charges were brought).

However, I do defend the right of people to protest peacefully and to express their views publicly. A defender of civil liberties cannot act one way toward people he supports and another for people he disapproves of.

Tunisia: Transitional failure or an impossible situation?

Marina Ottaway, eminent democracy scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, writes this week in the National Interest about the risks in transitional governance in Tunisia and Egypt. She highlights the illegitimacy of the regimes and how the lengthy transition between the uprisings last winter and the elections, almost one year later, have threatened the countries with chaos.

The delay is putting new pressure on the transitional governments. Governance cannot be in abeyance forever. Decisions need to be made, measures enacted. People are tired of waiting; they want to see change; they want officials of the old regime to be brought to justice; they demand economic improvement. And they are sending a clear message by taking to the streets again. This is initiating a vicious circle. Governments have less legitimacy than ever, yet they are expected to act. And they are feeling directly under attack, which is beginning to prompt an authoritarian response….

…The lesson of Tunisia and Egypt for countries likely to enter transition soon is that it is impossible—as well as unadvisable—to organize elections in a few months. Too much needs to happen first—constitutional amendments, new laws, new parties and some consensus on principles. But a slower process requires a clear roadmap and timetable, with benchmarks and deadlines, not a vague process left to the whims of governments with scant legitimacy and of impatient crowds. Such a process should ideally be agreed upon early on.

Tunisia and Egypt did not do so and are paying the price now in the form of increasingly chaotic situations.

Ottaway’s contention that the slowness of the process is a threat unto itself is valid. However, in the context of Tunisia, this would have been extremely difficult to overcome. As we have seen the challenges in the voter registration process, it has become clear that the initial decision to hold early elections was indeed too ambitious.

The government and the High Commission have continually had to balance competing views on the elections (notably from the differeing views between small and large parties, and secular parties and Ennahdha). While they could have avoided street protests by sticking to a tight timetable and limiting debate about the elections, this would have bypassed critical political stakeholders. These stakeholders have, despite a contentious and alienating public debate, generally respected the timetable and played by the rules of the game.

It is easy to second guess the decisions of the transitional governments – and indeed there are many things for which to be critical. But it is far more difficult to come up with viable alternatives that do not themselves carry substantial political risks.

One aspect Ottoway does not bring up has been the near absence of civil society pressure on the government. While a few well established CSOs, most notably women’s and human rights groups, have been active. Youth groups have either not had the organization, the exposure, or the funding to make a noticeable impact on the public debate. This should not be ignored as political scientists analyze the success or failure of transitions toward democracy in the region.