06/18/2012 01:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Teargas and Mirrors: Strange Days in Tunisia


One of the offending paintings: the text reads "The greatness of God," and is written in ants

It is an odd calm that has returned to Tunisia after a week of rioting, rumor and uncertainty. The foreign media have packed up their equipment and gone home, puzzling over how to make a story out of an event that failed to happen.

It all started a week ago, when an art exhibition containing images of veiled women and Allah's name written in painted insects provoked violent protests and vandalism, which soon spread across the country. When a curfew was announced, the country seemed poised to explode.

However, there was no "invasion" by radical Islamists, as the radical cleric Abu Ayoub had announced, nor was there an attack on the ruling Islamist party Ennahdha, who al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri had declared heretical. The dozen or so foreign correspondents who showed up on Friday could be seen loitering about the city, fanning themselves in the heat, looks of disappointment, boredom and confusion written on their faces.

Tunisians, too, don't quite know what to think of what happened. After what could've been a disaster for Ennahdha, with party head Rached Ghannouchi calling for a protest that would pit party members against their own government, it almost seems that they've come out stronger than ever. At the brink of chaos, it was clear that Ennahdha was able to keep radical groups on a tight leash, calling off protests and getting more conservative organizations to follow suit.

But a week of instability at the beginning of the tourist season, with multiple embassies issuing travel advisories, can hardly be seen as a victory for the image of Tunisia abroad. Hotels in Hammamet and other resort towns were nearly empty -- a troubling sign in an economy largely dependent on tourism. And in spite of the peace that reigned on Friday, the fact that an art exhibit -- blasphemous or not -- could cause such furor across the country has added further tarnish to Tunisia's image as a tolerant and cosmopolitan outpost in a tradition-bound region.

Troubling signs, too, for freedom of expression in Tunisia. While the past two days have seen a small-scale shakedown of radical imams, the public discourse of Ennahdha has yet to place blame on purveyors of religious ideology, reserving their critique almost entirely for the small group of young artists who exhibited their works at the Palais Abdelila in a posh coastal suburb of the capital. The organizers of the show will have their space shut down and face legal action for inciting public disorder, and could face the same fate as the atheists in the town of Mahdia, who were sentenced to several years in jail for publishing books thought to be similarly "provocative." Some may take comfort in the fact that Ghannouchi was able to talk down firebrands like Abou Iyadh, the former Jihadi in Afghanistan who is the leader of the thousands-strong Salafist group Ansar Ashariaa, but others wonder at what cost comes that fragile entente. Is Ennahdha's proposal of a strengthened anti-blasphemy law to protect the sacred symbols of Islam mere verbiage, or is does it set a dangerous precedent of making concessions to the radical right?

What we've learned from this past week is how little we know about Tunisia. Tunisians continue to distrust, with good reason, local media outlets, and turn instead to social media, particularly blogs and Facebook. And last week showed how unreliable these media are as well: well-known blogs reported hundreds injured when the number was in fact in the dozens, and unrelated images of destruction, like buildings ablaze, were incorrectly attributed to the week's riots. News media wantonly referred to rioters collectively as "Salafists," or followers of a branch of ultraconservative Islamism, in spite of repeated reports from locals that many of the people stirring up trouble in the streets were nothing more than young hooligans letting off steam. The man killed by a police bullet in Sousse, attributed to a ricochet by the Minister of the Interior, soon became a "Salafist martyr," though his religious beliefs were anyone's guess. The foreign media were no better informed, following the digestible narrative of radicalism on the rise. It was no surprise that one of the only slogans heard chanted on Friday was "you media, you liars."

Not that everything that happened last week was attributable to rumor and exaggeration. We know that police fired live ammunition on protesters on at least one occasion. Eyewitness report seeing police hit protesters with their cars and set fire to vendors' stalls, and hospitals have confirmed dozens injured by rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. On the rioters side, we know that political party and union headquarters were burned down and police stations ransacked. And while the danger of Islamic radicalism is perhaps overblown, the phenomenon is unquestionably alive and well in Tunisia: we know that the imam of one Tunisia's most venerable mosques judged a group of artists worthy of death for their blasphemy. But so much remains unknown: what portion of the population do these Salafists represent? How much violence was merely the product of frustrated youth expressing anger at decades of police harassment?

And perhaps most importantly: who benefits from this noxious blend of instability and disinformation? If you don't look too closely, you'd have the impression that the Islamist-led government is patting itself on the back for having managed to both defend Tunisia's Arab-Mulsim honor and at the same time stop an avalanche fueled by religious indignation. However, take a step back and look at history: in times of uncertainty, people turn towards the past, and to known authorities. That is why Beji Caid Essebsi, the former foreign minister under Habib Bourguiba and a member of Ben Ali's rubber stamp parliament, could not have chosen a better time to launch his new political initiative, which debuted to a crowd of over 1,400 this Saturday. As Essebsi gave a self-congratulatory speech to various members of Tunisia's secular political class, the police and the military locked down the avenue outside the meeting hall, and kept perfect control over the small group of protesters that showed up. In front of a huge Tunisian flag, Essebsi inspired the crowd to repeated renditions of the national anthem. Everything about the spectacle exuded national unity, stability, and authority. In short, the antithesis of what was seen since last Monday night. It may prove a seductive mix for Tunisians fearful for the future of their country.

With the world's attention on bombs in Syria and a potential coup d'état in Egypt, it's quite possible that the truth about what's going on in this little country on the Mediterranean may soon be lost in teargas and mirrors.