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.

Update on Salafi attacks in upscale Tunis suburb of La Marsa

[Update: The ruling party has released a statement on these events, condemning and calling for the prosecution of both the artists and the vandals, my English translation of the statement can be found here.]

It was only moments after I posted this article that the Tweets started rolling in. Something big was happening in La Marsa related to the art exhibit that had been attacked yesterday. I left the house at around 11:30 p.m. to see what was going on in. By the time I arrived at Tunisie Telecom, in the heart of La Marsa, just steps away from the French Ambassador’s residence, the evidence was already there – broken bottles, tear gas canisters and rock piles. And then all of a sudden I found myself surrounded by military and police vehicles telling me to get the heck away as they moved in to arrest a handful of young rioters.

The rioting continued for the next several hours (it’s still going on as I write). Curious and concerned onlookers would give each other reports from friends and family, mostly about the expected arrival of reinforcements from nearby cities, especially La Goulette and le Kram, to coastal towns known for Salafi activity.

Much like during the revolution, the riots ebbed and flowed, with protesters surging against the police only to be driven away by speeding paddy wagons and lobs of tear gas. It was unclear how many of the rioters were truly “salafists” – the catch all word for religious extremists in Tunisia. In fact, from what I say, there were a fair number of run of the mill young hoodlums having a lot of fun throwing rocks at the police, with thoughts of the apostates far from their minds. Nevertheless, the religious overtones were there, with each surge came chants of God is great.

Tonight’s protests were based as much on the images displayed in the art exhibit as they were on contempt for the country’s elite, who live largely in La Marsa. The elite are perceived as out of touch and disrespectful of religion. And the reality is that when it comes to puritanical forms of Islam, the protesters are largely correct. The story will play big in tomorrow’s papers and risks spreading rapidly through a society that is more polarized than ever before.

The pity of tonight’s protests, on top of spreading intolerance and polarization, is that it is exactly what the country does not need at this point. Tourism is only just recovering and foreign investors have held on tenuously to their ventures in the country, waiting for a return to stability. Rioting in the hometown of most of Tunisia’s business community as well as a symbol of its summer beach culture will do no favors to either industry.

Culture wars: Salafi attacks in La Marsa target heart of Tunisian secularism

Divine creatures from the La Marsa art exhibition

[Update 2: The ruling party has released a statement condemning both the artists and the vandals, calling for both of their prosecutions. See the press statement in English here]

[Update: Only moments after I posted this article more riots broke out in La Marsa. See my take on the most recent events here.]

It only happened yesterday, but already a lot of ink has and will be spilled on the confrontations at a local art fair yesterday in La Marsa, a coastal suburb of Tunis. The situation took place, according to several eyewitness accounts, at the Abdallia Palace, a former Ottoman palace turned gallery in the center of the town. The art fair, on its final day, was the scene of first verbal confrontations, and in the end, the destruction of numerous works of art by what appear to be religious groups who objected to what they deemed to be offensive works. Here are some quick thoughts on the incident and how its been reported in what will surely remain, along with Persepolis, a key event in the Tunisian culture wars.

A number of journals have already provided descriptions of the incident. In English, have a look at Tunisia Live’s accounts here and here. French accounts can be found here and here.

Firstly, what remains unclear is exactly what was found offensive by the protesters. The La Marsa art fair was held over 10 days throughout the northern Tunis suburbs of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. Reports on social networks have been inconclusive. Many have reacted against a work which appears to show a pair of women’s panties, although other sources claim that these photos were taken elsewhere in Tunis and were not part of the exhibitition. The La Marsa bookstore Mille Feuilles reported on its Facebook page that one of the offending pictures was entitled Divine Creatures, in what appears to be an abstract image of different animals. Another image on Tunisia Live’s website shows a punching bag with a woman wearing a veil with a caption reading “I am a Christian woman.” Reports have not mentioned what exactly was deemed offensive by these images or if other images were exhibited that were more outwardly provocative.

Which leads to point number 2, provocation is once again the key word for those who have defended the protesters, including Tunisia’s Islamist-led government. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs released a statement condemning “all attacks against that which is holy, which is the case for some of the works on exhibition.” This follows repeated calls on social networks against violence, but also against the art fair for provoking religious discord in the country. Many of these accounts cited the precarious position Tunisia is in at the present moment as cause for self-censorship of these kinds of works. My readers will recall that the same logic has been used frequently in Tunisia under similar circumstances, such as the release of the film Neither God nor Master last year or the broadcast of Persepolis by Nessma TV last October. In the case of the latter, as in the current case, the call of provocation was also made by the ruling party itself.

Thirdly, the reports are entirely unclear whether protesters and destroyers of art are the same people. Articles have stated that there were at least three different incidences last night. According to Tunisia Live and Nawaat blogger Lilia Weslaty, first a group of people at the exhibit protested directly to the curator of the exhibit. They then said they would return with other protesters and lawyers. When this happened a confrontation took place with exhibit-goers and protesters which was resolved peacefully with police involvement. Finally, later in the evening a group of people returned to the gallery, vandalized works of art, spray painted the buildings, and left. It is unclear whether these were the same groups. This is important because it was only the vandals who clearly crossed red lines.

One other observation is that almost all of the accounts I have seen talk about the behavior of the art fair organizers. It appears that after the initial confrontation, the organizers made it difficult for pious critics of the exhibit to properly view the exhibit. Weslaty reports that these critics were followed closely to “protect the artwork.” Tunisia Live reports that these people felt that those who were following them were trying to “provoke” them. Whatever the reality, the news reports point to what was clearly a class divide between the organizers and the religious activists. It is hardly uncommon to hear among Tunisia’s educated elite how ignorant they think Salafis to be. Likewise, among Salafis, a common refrain is that the elite are completely out of touch with ordinary Tunisians because of their French educations and haughty ways of acting. The reports on these incidents seem to confirm this class of cultures.

So what can we take away from this ugly incident?

Ultimately, what’s important is that this attack was a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular, and French speaking community. La Marsa, a town built by the French 100 years ago, is one of the few towns in Tunisia where you’ll hear as much French as Tunisian – not only do many foreigners live in La Marsa, but the Tunisian residents have often been educated in one of the French schools in the city. To give an idea, the town of La Marsa has its own polling place for French residents. While previous incidents of this nature have taken place in downtown Tunis or in towns in Tunisia’s interior, Sunday’s incident struck at a pocket of Tunisian progressivism at an event that celebrated free expression. It is unlikely that this event will soon be forgotten and many in La Marsa will no doubt be expecting yet more confrontations of this kind.

For more on Tunisia’s culture wars see here, here, here, here and here.