x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tunisian artist fears for her artistic freedom, her country and her life

As Tunisia's government falters, radical Islamists have led violent demonstrations against a controversial arts fair and are accused of being behind death threats against artists.

Tunisian militants of the Islamist Ennahdha party protest on Saturday as former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi calls on Tunisians to preserve the gains of the revolution.
Tunisian militants of the Islamist Ennahdha party protest on Saturday as former interim prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi calls on Tunisians to preserve the gains of the revolution.

TUNIS // After an uprising in Tunisia swept Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power last year, Sana Tamzini, an abstract artist, was delighted to go from being an opponent of the old government to a senior employee of the culture ministry in the new one.

But 18 months later, as competing factions struggle for power in the fragile country, Sana fears for her artistic freedom, the future of the country and even, she explained furiously, her own life.

Tunisia has been held up as a model for its turbulent neighbours. It was the first Arab country to remove its leader in the wave of uprisings that began last year, and the first to elect a government, which is led by moderate Islamists.

But in the past two weeks, the government has faltered, with the dominant Ennahdha party caught between an invigorated liberal movement and restive radical Islamists, who led violent demonstrations against a controversial arts fair and are accused of being behind death threats against artists. A week ago, shortly after a confrontation between artists and religious protesters at a gallery in Tunis sparked the nationwide protests, Sana was at a beach with her children when she received a call on her mobile.

"You are a whore," said a man's voice. "You are not a Muslim, we must kill you."

So began dozens of threatening phone calls and text messages that started, she said, when her number and address were published on Facebook on June 12, along with exhortations by extremists to kill anyone associated with the annual Printemps des Arts festival.

She was not the only one threatened and, at a meeting of artists and writers in the elegantly shabby Cinema Mondiale in Tunis last week, many said they have had similar experiences.

They were outraged by the extremists, but the focus of their ire was the government, who responded to protests and threats by suggesting that the artists had provoked unrest with paintings that included a rendering of the name of God in a line of ants, and a depiction of a naked woman with a bowl of couscous.

Ennahdha issued a statement on their Facebook page proposing the criminalisation of anything that insulted religion.

"Before, under Ben Ali, it was forbidden to speak about politics and we were repressed," declared the playwright Jalila Baccar at the Cinema Mondiale. "Now, we are repressed about religion."

Seyyed Ferjani, of Ennahdha, argued that liberals, including artists such as Sana, are a minority. "These people are very elitist, and they have lost," he said. "The last elections reflected that they have loud voices but they do not represent the people."

While his party would rather not enact the proposed law criminalising blasphemy, Mr Ferjani said everybody in Tunis respects their faith and artists should refrain from "threatening national security" by making controversial pieces. Besides, he added, his party is under considerable pressure to adhere more closely to Islam.

"We are caught between two extremes," he said. "We have the extremist Salafists and the extremist secularists, they are hostile to each other but they nurture one another: each gives the other a raison d'être."

The middle ground that Mr Ferjani claims to occupy is an increasingly difficult territory to identify in a society that is becoming more polarised. Another man who claims to offer a middle path is Beiji Caid Essebsi, 85, who led a transitional government last year and served prominently in the regimes of Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourghiba.

At a June 16 rally to launch Mr Essebsi's new political party, Call for Tunisia, thousands gathered in downtown Tunis, waving flags and lustily singing the national anthem as the statesman said that the nation was in crisis.

Mr Essebsi called for secularism, adherence to the women's rights embraced by Bourghiba and support for artists, drawing an ecstatic reaction from people who said they had come seeking an alternative to Islamism.

"We need a centre party to improve things, a moderate party," said Moncef Khemiri, a professor at Manouba University. Although Mr Essebsi's weakness is his connection to the former regime, Mr Khemiri said that his attention to a secular, Tunisian cultural identity was crucial.

"The Islamists are very new," he said. "Before, if you were a Muslim, if you were a heretic, it was the same. Now, if you are not a Muslim, it's a problem."

However, Mr Essebsi's vision of Tunisian identity contrasted sharply with people even a little way beyond the capital. In the middle-class town of Ariana, in the suburban sprawl outside Tunis, bright yellow graffiti calls for the implementation of Islamic law.

Ali Ibrahimi, 47, who sells chickens and eggs in a row of shops there, said he thought that both the extremists who led the protests, and the controversial artists, should be punished by law.

"It's insulting to Islam," he said. "It's a red line that should not be crossed. Touching God, or a sacred thing, especially in a Muslim country, is something that should not be allowed."

Ahmed Meshrgi, 24, an observant Muslim hurrying to afternoon prayers, said: "The government is really in a corner between the leftist people and what is to be done regarding the Islamic beliefs."

Although he understood the dilemma, he yearned for a more Islamic Tunisia. "I blame Ennahdha for not embracing all the politics of Islam," he said. "It's impossible to please all people, trying to satisfy them all is a mistake."

As a constitutional assembly works on a document outlining the rules and ethos of a new Tunisia, the debate is likely to continue, resonating also in countries such as Egypt and Libya as they struggle to reconcile Islam, democracy and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, the unrest has deterred tourists, a mainstay of the faltering Tunisian economy, and hotel owners and travel agents marched through Tunis on June 16, calling for stability and saying that two million Tunisians' livelihoods were affected by the recent violence.

In her home and office in suburban Tunis, strewn with photographs and drawings, Sana said that she suspected the debate on Islam was a political game designed to distract people's attention from the stubborn problem of unemployment that was at the heart of last year's uprising.

Although the threat to her life is real, Sana said she would continue to work and teach. But the events have made her realise that the protests she supported last year have given a democratic voice to Tunisians who have changed her and liberals' view of the country.

"We are stupid because we were shocked when Ennahdha won and we were shocked when this happened," she said. "We believed Tunisia was a cultivated society, but we are a minority."