The night before the holy month of Ramadan began this year, a collective of Tunisian human rights organizations published an open letter calling on authorities to “protect freedom of belief and conscience in the country.” This letter rekindled a long-simmering debate on the role of religion and state in what has long been considered one of the Arab world’s most secular societies.

The open letter, which was addressed to President Béji Caïd Essebsi, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and the Tunisian Parliament, was signed by the Tunisian Human Rights League, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, and other human rights associations. In addition to demanding the freedom to choose whether or not to fast during Ramadan, they also highlighted the increase in threats to “freedom of conscience, religion, opinion, and expression” in the period leading up to Ramadan. The signatories affirmed that they were prepared to take the matter to court in order to ensure that the freedoms guaranteed by the 2014 constitution were respected.

In response to the letter, Minister of the Interior Lotfi Brahem gave mixed messages, on the one hand claiming that it is up to the “non-practicing minority” to “respect the beliefs of the majority,” and on the other, reassuring the Tunisian populace that restaurants that operated “discreetly” would not be targeted by authorities. Normally, restaurants are allowed to sell food to tourists visiting the country during the holy month.

In Tunisia, unlike the majority of its fellow Muslim nations, there is no law explicitly forbidding eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. All the same, many cafés and restaurants close during daylight hours in observance of the holy month, and Tunisian citizens are regularly arrested for not keeping the fast. Given the lack of any legal framework, these arrests are usually made in the name of “public indecency.”

The widespread closure of restaurants and cafés has often been justified by a 1981 government circular. The Mzali circular of July 1981 recommended that all cafés and restaurants remain closed and that the sale of alcohol be strictly forbidden throughout the month of Ramadan. However, it would seem that then-President Habib Bourguiba retracted the Mzali circular just two days after it was published, although this has been difficult to prove definitively. Nadia Chaabane, a member of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly, has spoken out against the enforcement of the Mzali circular. In a post published on her Facebook page on May 17, she argued that the legal framework mandating the closure of restaurants and cafés during Ramadan is, at best, “unclear.” Noting that Tunisia might “be enforcing a retracted circular,” Chaabane added that “the constitution prohibits the publication of any circular that threatens the freedom of belief and conscience.”

And yet, raids are regularly carried out on restaurants and cafés that remain open during the holy month, and several Tunisian citizens are arrested and imprisoned every year for breaking the fast in public. During the first days of Ramadan last year, five Tunisians were arrested in Bizerte – Africa’s northernmost city – after being caught smoking or drinking. All five were charged with “provocative” behavior and sentenced to one month in prison.

These arrests were widely publicized, and Amnesty International quickly took up the cause of the accused. Heba Morayef, the MENA regional director of Amnesty International, condemned the arrests, arguing, “Putting someone in prison for having smoked a cigarette or for having eaten in public is an absurd violation of civil liberties. Not conforming with social and religious customs is not a crime.” According to Morayef, Tunisian authorities “should not allow vaguely formulated charges to be used to hand down severe sentences based on simple fallacies. Everyone should have the right to follow his or her own beliefs as far as religion and morality are concerned.”

Of course, there is great social pressure to keep the fast – at least in theory. Many Tunisians break the fast privately, but to say so publicly is another story. Interestingly, this has not always been the case.

Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president, famously drank a glass of orange juice on national television during Ramadan in 1964, exhorting his fellow citizens to give up Ramadan, which he saw as an obstacle to the nation’s much-needed economic development. Considered by many as the founding father of modern Tunisia, Bourguiba sought to establish a secular social orientation for his country over the course of  his regime, which lasted from 1957 until he was deposed in a bloodless palace coup in 1987.

However, Bourguiba’s own vacillation between advancing the cause of secularism and placating religious authorities led him to justify his rejection of Ramadan in religious terms. Deeply critical of what he characterized as Ramadan’s deleterious effects on workforce and labor productivity, Bourguiba argued that fasting hobbled the struggle, or jihad, against poverty. A speech he gave in 1974 claimed that “during the march to Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed came down against the Ramadan fast, explaining to his followers that this was ‘so we can be strong in face of the enemy.’” Mohammed, Bourguiba explained, quenched his thirst “in the name of the interests of the state rather than the practice of the religion.”

Bourguiba’s rejection of Ramadan was controversial, and opposition to his secularizing policies grew with the rise of several Islamist political groups. These groups eventually integrated forming a single party, the Ennahda party, which won a plurality of 37 percent in the 2011 Tunisian Constituent Assembly election and 28.6 percent in the 2018 municipal elections. In fact, it was this party which headed the government that ratified Tunisia’s post-revolution constitution. The 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of belief, but imposes on the state the vaguely-worded role of “guardian of religion.”

Against this backdrop, a movement that calls itself Mouch Bessif (which translates to “not by force”) has begun loudly demanding that the law cease treating Tunisians and foreigners differently in regard to observing (or abstaining from) the Ramadan fast. Using the hashtag #fater (“not fasting”), members of the movement are posting information about open restaurants. A sit-in was organized by the Association of Free Thinkers (ALP) at the Ministry of Tourism and Handicrafts in Tunis on May 27 – more than a hundred people turned out. As the demonstrators gathered and marched together toward the ministry, some drank from water bottles or puffed on cigarettes, but others – who had come in a show of solidarity – were fasting.