Tunis — Most Tunisians are maintaining their usual Ramadan habits, in defiance of religious extremists.
Salafist cleric Adel Almi on July 8th vowed that his "Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform" group would "photograph and stigmatise" anyone who failed to fast.
Almi has been accused of being too close to Ennahda. He also allegedly took part in the June 2012 salafist attack on a La Marsa art show that sparked days of deadly violence across the country.
Despite the radical cleric's threat, Tunisians did not change their behaviours. Many cafés were open for those not fasting, though covered by dark curtains. Employees, workers and others sipped their morning coffees as usual.
"In Tunisia we are used to some people fasting and others not. We respect those who fast by being discreet, but everyone is free," said Noureddine Hamid, a bank executive in his forties.
Noura Shalaby, a 35-year-old cafe waitress, said that terrorising those who did not fast was useless.
"First there are the chronically ill and those unable to fast. Besides, closing all cafes means drying up the income of hundreds of families," she added. "Owners of cafes can then close their shops, and lay off half of their staff. Who will benefit in the end?"
Others, such as Murad Hattab, said they agreed with Almi that those who did not fast should stay at home.
The threat from Almi was seen as a challenge by bloggers and users of social networking sites. Some posted a map of cafes and restaurants open in Tunisia during Ramadan while others chose to take pictures of themselves eating during fasting hours.
One Facebook page specifically addressed to Almi has more than 11,000 fans, with Tunisians posting photos of their own non-observance, including images of eating, drinking and relaxing on the beach.
Tunisian presidential advisor Aziz Krichen also wrote an article on his Facebook page about the issue of public observance of Ramadan and the individual's right to choose.
"The call of the Minister of Religious Affairs Noureddine Khademi for Tunisians to close restaurants and cafes during the month of Ramadan is controversial," the advisor wrote.
"This is not a surprise if it stems from his position that Tunisia is a Muslim country, but Khademi should be aware that observant Muslims have the right to practice their faith during the month of Ramadan, yet there are a large number of non-observant Muslims and non-Muslims who reside in Tunisia," Krichen added.
Non-Muslim Tunisians and non-observant Muslims "have the right to go to restaurants unhindered", he said.
For his part, Religious Affairs Minister Khademi called on Tunisians to respect the sanctity of the month by fasting or being discreet when they are not observing Ramadan. He said on July 6th that "cafes and restaurants cannot be open during the month of Ramadan."