Video of Friday's Islamist Protests in Tunisia

It appears that Tunisia's religiously-sensitive weren't content with the public apology of Nessma TV head Nebil Karoui, and they demonstrated their anger on Friday in numbers greater than the previous weekend's. After an opening prayer in and outside of the mosque Al-Fatah, near the city center, a group of about 500 people broke out in loud chants and started heading west through central Tunis, quickly accruing people as they went. At the Place Bab Souika, an open air market and square, I could see a dense crowd filling the area and extending all the way back to where the avenue turns out of sight, something which would take at least a good 1000-2000 people.

At this point, the gathering was peaceful, if vociferous, shouting anti-Nessma slogans and carrying signs with the station's logo circled and slashed, or caricatured in various ways. There was a visible presence of women and children. As the street along which the march progressed approached the Place de la Kasbah, a large government center where the ministry of finance, the national defense, and the gigantic, retro-futurist city hall are all located, confrontations with police began and things got more serious.

The police fired teargas grenades, and the protestors responded with fragments of cinderblock which they broke from the sidewalk. The advance of the crowd slowed and a few groups split off to seek out alternate routes to the Kasbah. The group of journalists I was with pushed forward past the police and got there before the protesters. They arrived soon enough, from multiple directions. At first the police tried to escort them through, but eventually confrontation escalated and tear gas grenades began to rain down chaotically, some down the alleys from which the protesters were coming, some right next to us (and the police) in the center of the square. By nightfall and in a cloud of acrid smoke, the Kasbah was cleared. The police moved swiftly and forcefully, probably trying to prevent a repetition of the major protests that occurred earlier this year at the Kasbah, and which turned deadly.

Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha who are on pace to top the elections this Sunday, was quick to deny any link between his party and the protestors -- but he did so in a rather ambiguous manner. He told Tunis-Afrique Presse (the state run news agency): "The Tunisians who took to the street by the tens of thousands today to protest against the provocations launched by certain media, remain the sole defenders of Islam, and have no need of teachers." From these statements, Ghannouchi seems almost jealous of the protestors.

From the Western perspective, these demonstrations have been viewed solely through the lens of secularism versus Islam, free speech versus blasphemy; but in fact, the situation is more complex than that, and more political. The protests are ostensibly about the literal images of God in the animated film Persepolis shown a week and a half ago on Nessma TV. But talk to any more moderate critic of Nessma's airing of the film (which, from my conversations, would describe the majority of the country), and you'll hear a very different objection: timing. By showing a film that depicts a popular revolution being appropriated by Islamist theocrats a week before an election where all polls show the Islamist party set to draw the most votes, Nessma was making a clear implicit statement about their opinion of that party.

Not only is favoring or disfavoring political parties forbidden by the regulations of the ISIE (the body charged with organizing the elections), the station may have ulterior motives for doing so. On the collective blog today, Ali Gargouri wrote about Nessma's ties to the old regime (both Ben Ali and the previous leader, Habib Bourguiba). This opinion was echoed by others I've talked with: representatives of Ennahdha themselves (of course), but also a representative of the center-left Parti Democrate Progressiste (who position themselves as the anti-Ennahdha) and a co-founder of a leftist Internet radio station. All of them described Nessma's actions as 'provocative,' not for its blasphemy but for the political game they saw in the subtext of its programming choice.

On Sunday in Tunis, there was a counter-protest in support of free speech, and against the threatened violence of the anti-Nessma protestors. These counter-protests have now spread to Sousse, another coastal city to the south of Tunis. Sousse was the site of other Islamist protests two weeks ago when a university there refused to allow a woman wearing the niqab, or full facial veil, register for classes.