Tunisian Parties Rush to Benefit From Art Exhibit Riots

Various political forces are using the recent riots over the Abdellia Palace art exhibition to manipulate public opinion, writes Monia Ben Hamadi. Remnants of the old regime are accused of inciting youthful Salafist affiliates to create chaos while Ennadha seeks to use this issue to reproduce the effects of an earlier controversy.

al-monitor The interior of the attorney general's office after it was attacked by a group of Salafi protesters June 12, 2012. Thousands of Salafi Islamists, angered by an art exhibition they say insults Muslims, rampaged through parts of Tunis. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Topics covered

salafists, printemps des arts, persepolis, lotfi zitoun, hamma hammami, ennahda, constitutional democratic rally, art exhibition conflict, art, ali mohamed bouaziz, abdellia palace

Jun 18, 2012

On June 10, Mohamed-Ali Bouaziz, bailiff and former member of the dissolved Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), accompanied a Salafist group to Abdellia Palace to report on the artwork that was on exhibition at the Spring Arts Festival. According to him, the artwork was unmoral and sacrilegious.

In a statement issued a few days later, on June 13, Bouaziz confirmed these facts and said: "As a Tunisian citizen willing to defend my religion, I not only took actions in the framework of my profession, but I also decided to organize a demonstration in front of the Palace. I went to mosques to show my fellow citizens the photos that I took."

Bouaziz, who was a RCD partisan before converting to the radical Ennahda, sparked a surge in violence. This is similar to his quasi-namesake, Mohamed Bouaziz, who was the first spark that eventually led to the fall of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. However, this second, far more complex spark from Mohamed-Ali Bouaziz risks creating the conditions for a new dictatorship.

The Abdellia Palace exhibition was used for political purposes by various opposing and even conflicting movements.

Even if Salafists carried out acts of vandalism, violence or intimidation after being partly informed of the exhibition’s pieces, they were not the only movement responsible for committing these acts.

For a change, the leader of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, and leader of the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party, Hamma Hammami, agreed on one point. In their view, "remnants" of the old regime are manipulating people who are allied to the Salafist movement and young offenders in order to create chaos. Thus, amid this political, artistic and religious cacophony, the artwork presented at the Abdellia Palace exhibition were damaged. People vandalized the walls, and the Court of First Instance in the Tunis neighborhood of Sijoumi 2 was set ablaze. Several police stations and political party offices were also ransacked.

As Tunisia was waking up after its first curfew, and while [President Moncef] Marzouki was celebrating his six months in Carthage Palace, Neo Destour’s leader Ahmed Mansour decided that it was the perfect time to discreetly call for a military coup. He asked Rachid Ammar to take the reins of the country and appoint the people that Mansour considered capable of saving Tunisians from "Somalia-ization."

Tunisian officials have organized a press conference after the events on June 11 and 12, in the northern suburbs of Tunis and in the popular areas of the cities of Intilaka, Ettadhamen, El-Omran, Sousse and Jendouba.

In addition to the RCD conspiracy — which is relatively easy to sell to a politically apathetic audience — Ennahda will emphasize religious issues. It will deal with these disrespectful religious acts properly.

The Minister of Religious Affairs, the Minister of Culture, the Minister of the Interior, the Kasbah and even the foreign minister all condemned the disrespectful acts against the religious works in the Printemps des Arts.
If [Ennahda member and advisor to Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali] Lotfi Zitoun only emphasizes the “outrageous” paintings (such as those that involve underwear or naked women), then the Minister of Culture will lose his head and he won’t be able to distinguish between the misleading campaign from social networks and mosques from the actual that was being exhibited in Abdellia Palace. His ignorance of the situation will not stop him from filing a complaint against the organizers of the art gallery and consequently shutting it down.

Amid a counter-revolutionary plot aiming to weaken the “legitimate” state, Tunisians are immersed again in the perpetually sensational topics of identity and religious concerns. With this surge in violence, MPs of Ennahda, presided by Sahbi Atig, decided to submit a bill that criminalizes any offenses against religion. To better implement the manipulation strategy used by the remnants of the former regime, Rached Ghannouchi echoed the Salafist leaders’ call for a protest on Friday to “defend the revolution” and “religious values”.

Lotfi Zitoun, the unofficial spokesperson of Ennahda on TV talk shows, was intent on rekindling Tunisia’s sensibilities to good morals and religious values in preference over security concerns. Meanwhile, he is also masquerading as an art critique.

With a grimace of disgust, Lotfi Zitoun raised, on several occasions, the subject of the art pieces that he deemed morally outrageous. He also mentioned Jalel Brick’s defamatory statements that he ascribed to the opposition, thus causing further disagreements between La Marsa inhabitants and other segments of society in order to create rivalry between the various classes. He then said that the La Marsa residents would rejoice in the misery of the subordinated classes.

“This Fitna [disagreement] is fabricated from beginning to end, and Ennahda is keen to add fuel to the fire,” confirmed Ahmed Chebbi during the same talk show. On his part, Samir Bettaieb lashed, “As you have failed to find solutions for the country’s security and economic problems, you are raising identity issues in public.” The fact is, La Marsa inhabitants and other elites that Lofti Zitoun denigrated do not vote in favor of the Islamist party. For their part, Ennahda hopes to take advantage of the golden opportunity that is presented by the art exhibition issue by recreating the “Persepolis” effect.

“You mock people!” attacked Samir Bettaieb. “Violence did not begin on Sunday. Violent acts didn’t occur because of such art works or the art gallery. Violence is not a reaction against Mr. Chebbi’s participation in Ghannouchi’s government! You have passed a finance law that will not help overcome the economic difficulties of less favored regions. So aren’t you telling lies?”

The presence of the Salafists, RCD partisans, secular movements, Islamists, military personnel, police officers and artists (whose artwork is accused by Ridha Bel Haj of facilitating the return of dictatorship), in addition to the foreign influences of al-Qaeda, Qatar and other “friendly” countries constitutes a situation where each party is plotting against the other. The resulting “intentionally” shattered Tunisia will then have three choices: an autocratic theocracy, a military dictatorship or a police state!

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