Originally published at SISMEC
Yasmine Hamdan and Badiaa Bouhrizi’s opening songs will herald the beginning of the Carthage Alternative Music Festival today in the ritzy suburb atop Byrsa Hill in Tunis. But this showcase of Tunisia’s kaleidoscopic nationality and secular-Western cultural ties, rolls on warily, under a shadow of furious anti-secular riots sparked by a man long dead.
Last week, seemingly from the grave, Ayman al-Zawahiri set off these protests with a recorded message criticizing the ruling Islamic party Ennahda. “They are inventing an Islam that pleases the U.S. State Department, the E.U., and the sheikhdoms of the Gulf. It is an Islam upon request, that permits gambling clubs, nudist beaches, usury and secular laws,” al-Zawahiri said. While Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi denied the former top Al-Qaeda leader’s influence in Tunisia, was what followed simply coincidence?
Hours after al-Zawahiri’s message was posted posthumously online, reportedly Salafi, or hard-line religious fundamentalist, men demanded a gallery close for showing art offensive to sacred values– punching bags with faces of women, Superman with an Abraham Lincoln- or Salafi-style beard, a caricature of Mecca, and, perhaps most offensively, ants spelling God in Arabic. The owners refused to take down the Printemps des Arts exhibit – and the so-called Salafis came back at night, broke in and slashed up paintings. Other groups across the country attacked police posts, union headquarters, and other art galleries.
Clashes continued as the government put in place a curfew Monday night in hopes of quashing more “terrorist” acts; Salafis publicly denied involvement, Tunisia’s mufti called for new blasphemy laws to protect “the sacred symbols of Islam,” and some secular intellectuals received death threats. Protesters and government forces clashed throughout the country the following day as the Interior Ministry said live ammunition would be used against civilians if police felt threatened. At night, a police station in the wealthy Le Kef suburb in Tunis was broken into with Molotov cocktails and vandalized. The next morning, police shot and killed a protester in Sousse.
On Thursday, June 15, the government announced a ban on the weekly Friday protests to avoid escalation, and mainstream Tunisian “Islamists” parties Ennahda, Hizb ut-Tahrir and Ansar al-Shariah publicly suspended their protests. “We called for this protest even before violence broke out last Monday night. Now we have decided to cancel the demonstration because we think that some groups will try to jeopardize the stability of the country,” said a spokeswoman for Hizb ut-Tahrir. Live video feeds and coverage, so far, of the protest in the nation’s capital seems peaceful.
While not as gratuitous as Syria, or as monumental as Egypt’s soft-coup, the events in Tunisia over the past week speak to the fundamental issues within the Arab Uprisings and the delicate balancing act now facing the first country to cast off the yoke of dictatorship. From al-Hiffa to La Marsa, Cairo to Manama, the revolutions are far from over.
Hoping to keep a moderate coalition of secularists and Islamists together, Tunisian President Mouncef Marzouki still fears for his country. “Sometimes I have a kind of nightmare, thinking that we can have another revolution within the revolution, coming from the same areas and that we could have dead or wounded in demonstrations,” he said.