If you want to understand what underlies the riots and attacks against US embassies across North Africa, have a look at one usually under-reported country where three people died in disturbances at the weekend. In Tunisia, the struggles of a newly-liberated Arab society over religion, society and law are being played out in and around the media.
Never seen as a cradle of revolution before 2011, Tunisian protestors triggered the Arab Spring. Overthrowing the dictator now looks like the easy bit. Working out new rules for a society which has thrown away the old ones turns out to be the hard part. The media, once run or intimidated by the state machine, has turned into one of the flashpoints. The first free elections saw a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, come to power at the head of a coalition which faces more radical Islamists and Salafists one one side and the secular opposition parties (“leftist lobbies” in goverment language) on the other, some tainted by association with the old regime.
The pivot of the competition for power under new constitutive rules is not between “western” (i.e. Euro-American) ideas of liberalism and something vaguely labelled “Islamic” but between rival interpretations of Islam. There are many different versions of how Islam co-exists with civil society – and indeed whether Islam tolerates something we call civil society. Few regret the passing of corrupt Arab dictators such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, but those dictators were aggressively secular.
The new coalition government inherited a raft of schemes and draft laws which would have given Tunisia a media regulation framework of a classic, liberal, Euro-American kind. These had been written in the euphoric aftermath of the revolution when external advisers held sway. Most of the 228 new print publications which sprang to life after the uprising no longer exist. In the past few months the government has stalled on passing most of these drafts into law while cracking down on anything deemed harmful or insulting to Islam. The riots and attacks on American embassies of this week are not likely to make Tunisia’s new rulers any more sympathetic to laws which might risk mockery of the Prophet. It is genuinely difficult to see which way this tussle will go, which is why this post – for once – does not contain a judgement. I’ve rounded up some of the recent material: you be the judge. If I’ve missed something important, let me know.
- The most comprehensive recent look is a report by the Carnegie Endowment by Fatima el-Issawi which records that media are without question freer than they were but undermined by lack of professional standards and culture.
- A dispirited blogpost by an American observer in Tunis who thinks that it’s all going wrong.
- A despatch by Alice Fordham, also based in Tunis, who writes for The National of Abu Dhabi, also not encouraged by developments.
- A more optimistic post for the Journalism Foundation by Mourad Teyeb, deputy editor of the online paper Assabah News and correspondent for international outlets, who thinks that many commentators are confusing short term political and personal rivalries left over from the old regime with underlying progress.
- The very latest row, which saw a journalist taken to hospital after a an altercation with his boss.