Protests against a controversial animated film spilled into the streets of Tunis again today after the Friday prayer, and police fired tear gas in the government’s Kasbah Square.
Last Friday, Nessma TV aired the award-winning French-Iranian animated film, “Persepolis,” which violates Islamic practices by depicting god with a human form. Protests against the film and Nessma TV turned violent Sunday, and the manager of Nessma TV issued a public apology through the state news agency on Tuesday.
The continuation of protests suggests that the “Persepolis” issue has become a focal point for a conservative shift in Tunisian society, just nine days before the country holds its first election since the January 14th revolution.
Protesters emerging from the Friday prayer across the country demonstrated against the private television channel. Tunisia Live confirmed reports of demonstrations in Bizerte, Sidi Bouzid, several suburbs of Tunis, and in the Kasbah Square of downtown Tunis, where police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Besides the Kasbah, reports indicate that the demonstrations were large but peaceful.
Before the noon prayer at the Fath Mosque on Avenue de la Liberté in Tunis, Tunisia Live reporters saw a gathering of twenty to thirty men waving flags with religious slogans, including the Shahada declaration of belief. Most of them wore beards, suggesting a conservative or Salafist religious orientation. Rumors among onlookers said the group belonged to the Al-Tahrir political party, known for its explicit endorsement of Sharia law, but Tunisia Live did not confirm this information.
At least one hundred other citizens were gathered to pray but appeared not to take part in the demonstration.
The sermon offered by the imam was unusually militant, though it did not specifically incite violence. Protesters emerged energized, chanting, “The people want to apply Sharia law.”
A bearded man from the group of protesters told Tunisia Live, “This demonstration aims to make people aware of the systematic process of religious estrangement. …The population’s identity is jeopardized.”
Asked whether or not the group accepted the apology of Nessma TV manager Nabil Karoui, he responded with a quotation from the Koran, “Do not apologize after you committed blasphemy.”
The police, who outnumbered the core group of protesters, were well-organized and repeatedly surrounded the demonstration to contain it. Still, protesters managed to gather in the Kasbah Square, where they called for the shutdown of Nessma TV. Police responded with tear gas, but the confrontation did not end until 5:00 pm.
Tarak Farjeni, a shopkeeper on Avenue de la Liberté, criticized both Nessma TV and the protesters themselves. “What they are protesting for is legitimate but I am against chaos.”
Mohamed Kouka, a recognized actor who was writing about the protest for Le Quotidien, defended Nessma TV. “Freedom of expression is one of the most basic human rights, and if Nessma TV paved the path for intelligent and subjective space for Tunisians to speak their mind then I support Nessma.”
An employee of a restaurant near the mosque, who declined to give her name, said she understood the film was broadcast at a sensitive time, but she expressed frustration that the issue has dominated public conversation. “We have other problems to focus on,” she said, citing inflation and rising food prices.
Tunisia’s main moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, is poised to receive the largest share of seats in Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly at an election scheduled for October 23rd, though coalitions of more secular parties will probably outnumber them. It will be the first such election in an Arab nation since a wave of popular protests swept the region this year.
Reporting by Houssem Sta Ali and Salma Zouari