On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a call for legal reform in Tunisia, emphasizing freedom of speech, as topless Femen activists jumped on visiting Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh’s car to protest recent, high profile trials of activists, journalists, and performers.
Namely the May 19 arrest of Amina Sboui, a Femen activist facing charges for public indecency. One month later, three European Femen activists who had protested topless — to demand Sboui’s release — were sentenced to four months in jail. One day later, Ala Yaacoubi, a.k.a. Weld el 15, was sentenced to two years in prison for releasing an antagonistic song, “Boulicia Kleb” (Cops are Dogs): his appeal was heard by a Tunis court on Tuesday. Two musicians and one journalist who protested the rapper’s first trial have since been charged for “attacks on public morals.” (The crackdown coincides, incidentally, with the public dismantlement of the web surveillance apparatus perfected by deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.)
The government’s tough stance is not new: in early 2012, two young atheists were sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for posting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. (One subsequently received political asylum from France.) Nor has it escaped notice on the international stage. Groups like Human Rights Watch have called the sentences for Weld el 15 and the Femen activists “disproportionate,” particularly when compared to the lenient sentences given during the (brief) May 28 trial of 20 Salafist hardliners behind the 2012 U.S. Embassy bombing. (Indeed, the United States was quick to note that it was “deeply troubled” by the lenient sentences.) European concerns about infringements on freedom of speech — sparked notably by the arrest and sentencing of the European Femen activists — prompted Tuesday’s call for Ennahda, the Islamist moderate party at the helm of Tunisia’s ruling coalition, to reform the country’s penal code, which dates from Ben Ali’s regime.
Given the outside pressure — particularly from Europe, Tunisia’s largest and most important trading partner — Ennahda may make a symbolic overture. (Enter Sboui’s upcoming trial: in an earlier and equally politicized trial, the activist received a rap on the wrist for carrying illegal pepper spray.) However, don’t expect a radical policy reversal just yet. Not with national elections approaching this fall. Instead, Ennahda is likely to maintain the ambivalence that has characterized the Islamist party since it won Tunisia’s first democratic elections post-Ben Ali in 2011. The once-radical party, which softened ideologically during its years in exile, is torn between the need to conserve its staunchly Islamic base and a desire to prove that an Islamist, democratic state can exist — and more than that, flourish. (Ennahda’s socio-political experiment echoes that occurring in Egypt today, and to a lesser extent, Turkey.)
Initially, the latter objective prevailed, leading to political squabbling between Islamists and secularists. What’s more, Tunisia’s national insecurity was exacerbated by Ennahda’s tolerant, or at worst approbatory, attitude towards violent Salafist extremists. And though the government underwent a slight shift with the arrival of current Prime Minister Larayedh — who oversaw a security crackdown on militant groups massing on Tunisia’s border — the country’s civil society appears, if not under assault, at least threatened. Case in point: in addition to convicted rapper Weld el 15, the cameraman who filmed his music video, an actress who appeared in it, and four rappers to whom he dedicated the song were sentenced to prison terms ranging between six months and two years.
A key reason may be the relative success of extreme Islamist groups that have played off Ennahda’s domestic policy failings, some of which are expected to participate in upcoming elections. Faced with a growing challenge from the right, little wonder that Ennahda is making overtures to its conservative base — i.e., tough sentences for rappers, atheists, and topless activists. At the same time, however, the emergence of a popular coalition of liberal parties, Union for Tunisia, threatens to erode Ennahda’s more moderate constituency. (Early polls show broad support for the coalition.) Hence the government’s restraint, perhaps, when it comes to Sboui. But given the dual trends, look for Ennahda’s seesawing to continue. At least until the elections are over.