Islamist Intimidation: The Battle for the Future of Tunisia
Almost two years after the Arab Spring got its start in Tunisia, Salafists are intimidating women, artists and intellectuals. Many fear that the government is tacitly supporting the radical Islamists in their efforts to turn the young democracy into a theocracy.
It was a Friday in February 2011 when the Jasmine Revolution reached the prostitutes on Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech, a dead-end street tucked away in the dingiest corner of the medina in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. The women leaning against the walls there are registered with the government and pay taxes. The red-light district on this small street is only a stone’s throw from a large mosque in the heart of an Islamic country.
On this day, shortly after the fall of the old regime in Tunisia, several hundred outraged citizens had gathered near the prostitutes’ street. Some were bearded and others were wearing jeans, but they were all loudly demanding moral cleanliness. Before long, they began making their way toward the women, sticks and torches in hand.
That this could happen was no surprise. Imams preaching on satellite stations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia routinely rage against this hotbed of vice. Arabs from the Persian Gulf don’t need the women from Abdallah Guech when they come to Tunisia in the summer since they usually bring along their own escorts. The Guech and hundreds of other so-called maisons closes in Tunisia are for ordinary people, have always been tolerated and were legalized in 1942. Men come and go, leaving behind a handful of dinars.
On that Friday, the military stepped in and police fired warning shots into the air to fend of the Muslim moralists’ attack on the women. A militia of pimps, porters and day laborers barricaded the entrance to the lane. After the incident, the sign “Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech” was removed for security reasons. A gate was installed, and the women posted a sign above it saying “Closed on Fridays and during Ramadan” in an effort to accommodate the Islamists.
Maisons closes in other Tunisian cities were not so lucky. In places such as Sousse, Médenine, Sfax and Kairouan, brothels were set on fire, and women were hunted down and beaten.
The attacks of February 2011 marked the beginning of a development that has grown to become a cultural revolution and a model for the post-revolutionary countries of North Africa: the government-tolerated offensive of Salafist fundamentalists against aspects of modern secular society, even if they amount to nothing more than the bleak activities of prostitutes and their customers on a small street in Tunis.