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Contemporary Art, Ben Ali and religion collide in Tunisia


As Tunisia is (slowly but surely) getting back on its feet, two events happened last week. They may not seem to have any connection but they do. It first started with the exhibition ‘Printemps des Arts‘ at the Abdelya Palace in Tunis curated by Tunisian artist Meriem Bouderbala (I mentioned her in my post -in French- about an exhibition last February at Institut du monde arabe in Paris).

This annual event has been running for a decade and this year Tunisian galleries and contemporary art artists were invited to participate. The event was a success until riots erupted on the last day of the exhibition against what protesters, lead by conservative Muslims, considered as ‘blasphemous’ works.

Al Jazeera: ‘More than 100 people have been arrested after Salafi Muslims and others clashed with police in Tunis over an art exhibition many say insults Islam. Protesters blocked streets and set tyres alight on Monday night in the working class Ettadamen and Sidi Hussein districts of the capital, hurling petrol bombs at police in some of the worst confrontations the city has seen since last year’s revolt [..] In a statement released before the protests, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that now leads the government, condemned what it described as provocations and insults against religion but urged its own supporters to respond peacefully.’

While things appear to have cooled (even though the events have exposed the deepening cultural battles in Tunisia and the struggle of the government to take a clear position in the debate), last week was also marked by another important issue for Tunisia: former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali got 20 years for inciting violence and murder. Ben Ali, exiled in Saudi Arabia, was officially found guilty of ‘inciting disorder, murder and looting‘.

The Guardian: ‘A military court has sentenced former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to life in prison in connection with the killing of 23 demonstrators by police during the revolt that sparked the Arab spring. The victims, now commemorated as “martyrs of the revolution”, were among 132 protesters killed nationwide in the weeks leading up to Ben Ali’s overthrow on 14 January 2011.

Writer Eileen Byrne adds the acquittals sparked anger in the courtroom, where the families of the victims who have waited almost 18 months for justice erupted. Women were heard wailing and relatives of the victims vowed to avenge their deaths.

Last week has been eventful, many say the violence that erupted was the worst since Ben Ali’s departure. Democratic transition in Tunisia has a long way to go but the strong civic engagement is the best asset for the transition to succeed, despite the many obstacles in the road of lasting peace and democracy.






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