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Tunisia: Police raid satirical show critical of President Saied

Tunisians express alarm over freedom of expression after security forces attempt to stop a play mentioning the country's political crisis
A billboard depicting Tunisia's President Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, 26 July 2022 (AFP)
A billboard depicting Tunisia's President Kais Saied hangs on the side of a building in the east-central city of Kairouan, on 26 July 2022 (AFP)

Tunisian police intervened to stop a satirical play critical of President Kais Saied and the security forces from being performed at the Sfax International Festival on Sunday, sparking debate on social media over the country's limits of freedom of expression.

A performance by the comedian Lotfi al-Abdali, attended by about 10,000 people, was repeatedly interrupted by security authorities, citing "unlawful expressions" that offended the president and the security establishment.

Police walked onto the stage while Abdali was performing in an attempt to stop the show, before security forces withdrew after the crowd grew angry.

Translation: Regardless of your opinion on Lotfi al-Abdali, nothing justifies the intervention of security forces in evaluating the performance of the play… it is strictly forbidden for them to stop a theatrical show and try to force the viewers to leave the theatre and endanger them...

Videos shared on Abdali's Facebook page showed the comedian addressing Saied after his run-in with the police, asking him to "wake up to the state of the country", while also stressing the importance of freedom of expression in Tunisia and that "security has no right to interfere in the content of artworks". 

Translation: Never before have the police intervened in a theatrical play and reacted in the way they did this night… thank God a catastrophe did not happen. 

Bassam al-Tarifi, vice president of the Tunisian Human Rights League, said that Sunday's events were a dangerous indicator of the country's loss of freedoms, stating that "when a group of security forces carrying weapons decide what can be offered and what is unacceptable and prevented, know, my friend, that you are still in the police state". 

However, many online commented on the irony of Abdali's comments, considering that the comedian had previously voiced his support for the new constitution and republic on his social media platforms.

Translation: Just to remind you all, Lotfi al-Abdali showed his support for the new constitution and Kais Saied, although security forces attacked the Syndicate of Journalists and demonstrators. 

Translations: During the hardest days of this coup, Lotfi was ridiculing those who went against Saied, even going to ridicule Dr Marzouki. But now after he voted "yes" to this new constitution, will he find his rights within it? 

The National Syndicate of Internal Security responded with a statement, claiming that the show was a “disdain, targeting and defaming the security establishment… that affects the dignity of every Tunisian”, adding that it respected creative artists in the “event that the content does not offend anyone”. 

The company producing Abdali's show, At the age of 50, I say it as I mean it, cancelled the rest of his scheduled performances until further notice, out of "fear for the artist's life and in the interest of the physical safety of the accompanying time".

Reports later emerged of the show's producer, Mohamed Bouzina, having been attacked by security forces and Abdali's announcement of his decision to depart the country forever

'Return of political propaganda'

The incident follows the circulation of images showing huge portraits of Saied hanging from the highest minaret of a mosque in Sidi Bouzid. 

One writer said that the scene felt "reminiscent" of the years of “official political propaganda before the 2011 revolution”. Local authorities removed the image of Saied on Friday, following the "president's authorisation", according to the governate of Sidi Bouzid, citing his "categorical rejection of the personalisation of power".

The Sidi Ali Ben Aoun International Festival distanced itself from the image in response to claims it was involved, saying in a statement that “this mosque does not fall within the festival's activities, performances or administrative responsibilities”. 

Shortly after, however, local media reported that the commissioner of the Sidi Ali Ben Aoun region, Haider al-Timoumi, had been dismissed in relation to the hanging of the portrait. 

Activists protested against the hanging of Saied's image, citing the "return of political propaganda strategies of previous regimes" and the formation of a "cult of personality" for Saied as someone with a "special purpose for Islam". 

Translation: Is this really the same Tunisia we used to call democratic? How have the people not spoken out against Kais Saied? 

Others said that the picture defied the idea of neutralising institutions and public places from the authority's political propaganda, as well as the contentious issue of neutralising mosques from political and partisan propaganda. 

Translation: Did Tunisians not agree to neutralise mosques from political propaganda? Even during the reigns of Bourguiba and Ben Ali this miserable and bad transgression of the sanctity of the houses of God did not occur. Is this a malicious step to implant new norms that have neither political nor religious history in Tunisia?

Since his 25 July 2021 power grab, Saied has ruled by decree, with critics describing his actions as undermining the democratic gains made by Tunisia after the 2011 Arab uprising that drove longtime ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power.

In the last year, the president has imposed numerous controversial measures, including suspending parliament, shutting down the country's independent anti-corruption body and sidelining the national election authority.

In July, Tunisia approved a new constitution, despite low turnout and accusations of fraud. The new constitution effectively ended the hybrid parliamentary-presidential system agreed upon following the revolution, and introduced a fully presidential system. 

The president has the power to appoint the prime minister and other cabinet ministers and also to unilaterally dissolve parliament.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.