Tunisian politicians and civil society have reacted mostly with resounding nationalist solidarity to the recent incident of flag desecration by religious activists at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Manouba University.
One young woman – Kahaoula Rashidi, a student at Manouba University – has attained a degree of celebrity after a video of her attempt to stop the Tunisian flag from being taken down was circulated widely on a number of social media outlets. Moreover, a photo of the confrontation was featured on the front page of the Maghreb newspaper.
Many Tunisians have reacted strongly to the video in which a young man wearing a traditional robe and long beard takes down the Tunisian flag, replaces it with a black flag bearing the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) – a symbol associated with Islamic conservatism – and pushes Rashidi off a wall as she tries to intervene.
The Tunisian state press agency (TAP) reported that the clashes surrounding the incident resulted in five injuries, three of which needed urgent medical intervention. While many have called the protesters responsible for the flag incident ‘Salafists,’ TAP reported that Mohamed Bakhti, the spokesperson of Salafist students in Manouba, denied his movement’s responsibility for the desecration of the flag, saying that it was an isolated act.
Tunisian politicians have spoken out in great numbers against what they perceive as a desecration of the flag of the republic. The Office of the Presidency and several parties released statements condemning the act.
Maya Jribi, the general secretary of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), praised Kahaoula Rashidi’s courage. “I salute the bravery of this young lady, who did not hesitate for a second to defend her nation’s flag,” she said. She went on to state that the Salafists’ violent behavior was becoming a dangerous phenomenon, and asked the government to take vigorous action against rising religious extremism.
Issam Chebbi, a PDP-affiliated member of the National Constituent Assembly, recalled the haste of the Tunisian authorities to arrest a Tunisian journalist for publishing the picture of half-naked woman. A journalist was arrested and spent the night in jail whereas the person who dishonored the Tunisian flag is free, he shouted during the Constituent Assembly session that was held on Thursday.
During the session, members of the assembly put small Tunisian flags on their desks to express their discontent with the mistreatment of the flag.
However, Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party did not place blame on the Salafist activists, reproaching instead Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the University of Manouba, for having mishandled the conflict and contributed to the polarization of the situation.
Laarayedh announced that there will be an investigation into the events surrounding the incident at Manouba. Some Tunisians, however, remain unconvinced, expressing their doubt over social media concerning the willingness of the government to deal with the situation.
Manouba University has periodically been the arena of protests since last January, with religious activists demanding the repeal of the university's internal law that bans female students from wearing the Niqab – a veil that covers the face – during classes and exams.
The old Tunisian penal code outlaws any attack on the Tunisian flag. With a new constitution currently being drafted, the applicability of that code may be in question. However, Samir Dilou, spokesperson of the interim government and minister of human rights and transitional justice, asserted that the individual responsible for mishandling the flag will be prosecuted even in the absence of a law criminalizing this action.
The Tunisian flag, officially adopted in 1959, is colored in white and red, standing for peace and the blood of Tunisian martyrs respectively. The crescent and the five pointed star make reference to Tunisia’s Arab-Muslim identity, as they respectively symbolize Arab unity and the five pillars of Islam.