Protesters assembled at a courthouse in central Tunis on the morning of May 28, waving placards as preliminary hearings got underway in a highly charged and unusual criminal case of blasphemy.
On May 6, the Tunis prosecutor for the Court of First Instance charged blogger and student Emna Chargui, 27, with “offending authorized religions” and “inciting hatred between religions” after a Ramadan Facebook post ignited furor across Tunisian social media. The case has roiled Tunisia’s largely conservative society, igniting impassioned protests among human rights activists and exposing deep cultural divides in a nation that has been widely regarded as a bastion of free speech in the Arab world.
Chargui uploaded a satirical image earlier in the month to her Facebook profile titled “The Sura of Corona,” a post that seemed to imitate a Quranic verse in diction, flow and visual appearance. Lyrically invoking events of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world in recent months, the verse described a virus from China that will eliminate the differences “between kings and slaves,” slipping in a final line about washing your hands with good soap. The piece was reportedly penned by a friend living in neighboring Algeria.
Online reaction to the post was swift and overwhelming, as enraged messages lit up social media during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, even drawing condemnation from Issam Chebbi, secretary-general of the Al-Jomhouri party. In a Facebook post, Chebbi urged the judiciary to prosecute Chargui, claiming that “the state is charged with protecting the sacred and prohibiting any infringement.”
According to her lawyer Ines Trabelsi, death threats also swamped Chargui's inbox.
Amid the furor, public prosecutors quickly took notice. On May 4, two days after the post appeared online, judicial police summoned Chargui for the first in a series of questioning, which culminated in formal charges later that week. She now faces up to three years in prison, and a fine of 2,000 Tunisian dinars ($700).
The case has rippled through the country’s press and civil society, reviving dormant fears of censorship that many young Tunisians associate with a bygone era of authoritarian rule that ended with the Arab Spring of 2011.
”We are really afraid,” said Adel Azouni, a graduate student among the protesters outside the courthouse. “The case of Emna is symbolic, and it’s so important for freedom of expression, and our general social freedom. I had really thought we had advanced beyond this.”
A growing movement has been organizing a public campaign in defense of Chargui, and in support of Tunisians’ right to free speech. A declaration signed by over three dozen Tunisian civil society organizations is urging the state to drop the charges, and condemning the tactics of police and prosecutors against the blogger.
Amnesty International has also taken up Chargui’s case, issuing a statement hours before the May 28 trial was set to begin.
The trial of Chargui echoes a similar case from 2012, when Tunisian bloggers Ghazi Beji and Jabeur Mejri were charged with “transgressing morality” after they posted naked caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad online. Mejri was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison, while Beji escaped to claim political asylum in Europe and was convicted in absentia.
Some fear that blasphemy allegations can also be used to silence dissenting voices in the political arena. Fearing prosecution and violence, LGTBQI rights activist and openly gay former presidential candidate Mounir Baatour fled to France late last year, claiming an organized defamation campaign had spread rumors that he insulted the prophet online.
“Freedom of expression is still not totally protected in Tunisia, and there are existing gaps and contractions between good intentions and reality,” Amna Guellali, the deputy director for North Africa at Amnesty International, told Al-Monitor. “This case has a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Tunisia and says that people who even ironically touch on religion, or do so in a way that isn’t linked by the majority, can be liable to prosecution.”
Tunisia has always walked a fine line between values of secularism and the conservative, Islamic sensibilities of large segments of society. The post-Arab Spring constitution of 2014, enshrining freedom of expression, conscience and press, was heralded as a major victory for civil society and activists. However, the constitution also names the state as the guardian of religion, without specifying what role that implies.
Messaoud Romdhani, a member of the Executive Bureau at Euromed Rights, said the lack of clarity is intentional and was crafted to allow for a constitution that all major parties could ultimately support at the time.
“The constitution was a compromise between the Islamists of Ennahda and all these secular groups that were with them in the national assembly,” he told Al-Monitor. “As a result, freedom of expression is there to a certain extent online and in the media, but it’s less accepted when dealing with religion.”
The ambiguous role of the state in regulating religion also harkens back to another, more restrictive political era. Prosecutors have charged Chargui under Article 52 and Article 53 of the Tunisian Press Code, which predate the 2014 constitution and date back 30 years from the days of censorship under deposed autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
In the Arab Spring’s only widely lauded success story, a nationwide civil protest movement ousted Ben Ali in a peaceful uprising, ushering in a new era of political reform that signaled a radical departure from the censorship that had defined Tunisian public life under dictatorship.
While Romdhani said that Tunisian society has grown more culturally conservative in recent decades, he believes the space opened up for free speech has grown dramatically after the Arab Spring, along with a vibrant activist community that is committed to protecting those hard won rights.
“We are lucky to have a civil society that is very vigilant, and who have rallied to support [Chargui],” he added.
The assistant to the public prosecutor of the Tunis court, Mohsen Dali, told the media May 28 that the trial would be adjourned until July 2, leaving the explosive case, and the divides it has exposed in Tunisia’s pluralistic society, to simmer for another month.
Chargui will remain free until the trial reconvenes.