Meriem Zeghidi is an art student in Tunis and a human rights activist. She belongs to the Lam Echaml Association, which organised the event.
We are having difficulties identifying the attackers. However, attacks against those who advocate freedom of expression are becoming more frequent. We are certain they were Salafist religious fundamentalists.
Recently, a collective of artists wanted to visit the Libyan refugee camps situated in the south of Tunisia. They had organised the projection of various films. But when they arrived, a group of extremists blocked them, saying that “no sound and no images” would be allowed in the camp [Salifist beliefs forbid music and visual arts, among other things]. The extremists were in the camp to raise money and organise charity work. That is how they improve their image.
These days, music groups are regularly stopped from getting on stage to perform. A festival was even cancelled in the south of the country.
The saddest thing is that the authorities do nothing.
The saddest thing about the attack on the cinema is that the police did so little. The cinema is 30 metres away from the Ministry of the Interior. There were about 400 police officers in the vicinity. We asked them to do something, but in vain. We knew that things were going to turn nasty, but they waited until it became violent before reacting.
Since February 14 [when Ben Ali’s regime collapsed], there has been a new feeling of freedom in the country. People are expressing their points of view, but of course there are different visions for a new society. We advocate for freedom of speech and an egalitarian society, whereas they want to establish Sharia law and an Islamist regime. Before January 14, these extremists went unnoticed. They were silent, just like everyone else under the dictatorship.
But since the revolution they are more visible, particularly in the poorer neighbourhoods. Recently, the Tahrir Salafist Movement
attempted to register as a political party. Fortunately, they were refused. The government’s dithering is worrying though. Although they were banned as a party, they still managed to obtain permission to hold a conference. The authorities have to take a clear stance consider that there is a threat to our collective freedom.
When the extremists left, we watched the films and we sang and danced.
The Ennahda Party [an authorised Islamist politic party] said that it would write a press release on the incident [saying they condemned the violence]. But its leaders did not focus on those perpetrated the violence, but instead on how they found the intellectual’s behaviour to be provocative.
Some of the people in the street supported us. But some felt that the films we were going to show mocked the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, and should be banned in a Muslim country. But we held firm. After the extremists left, the event took carried on – we projected the films, then sang and danced”.