When Turkish President Abdallah Gül paid a passing complement to the Tunisian flag during his address to the Constituent Assembly yesterday, the reaction it provoked – thunderous applause from the chamber – left him a little bemused. Gül, who has been in Tunisia on a state visit for the past three days, had inadvertently brought up one of the most sensitive domestic issues in Tunisia at the moment – the desecration of the national flag by a Salafist protester and its role as a symbol of national identity.
“When the President told the Constituent Assembly that he loved the Tunisian flag and it was similar to the Turkish flag he was not aware of the recent controversy.” said Mehmet Kasap, press attaché of the Turkish president. ”He did not expect the huge applause he received.” Kasap added that it was not the President’s intention to involve himself in Tunisia’s internal affairs.
The event in question occurred last Wednesday when a Salafist student from Manouba University removed the Tunisian flag and replaced it with the black flag bearing the shahada - the Islamic decalartion of faith in white lettering. This generated controversy across Tunisia with many people, particularly progressive Tunisians, strongly denouncing the act. Members of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly reacted to the incident yesterday by almost completely covering the Chamber with large and small Tunisian flags.
The Tunisian flag was a national symbol of unity during the Tunisian Revolution. In many locations across the country after former President Zine El-Abddine Ben Ali departed Tunisia for Saudi Arabia, pictures of Ben Ali were replaced with national flags.
Gül was the first foreign head of state to address the Constituent Assembly. During his speech he focussed on his government’s support of the Tunisian revolution as a model for other Arab countries undergoing revolutionary changes. He also announced that Turkey would be providing loans to a total of US$500 million for Tunisian businesses.