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For Some in Tunisia, Ramadan Is a Test of Personal Freedom

TUNIS — Ramadan ends this week, and that comes none too soon for some in Tunisia — not least the hundred or so protesters who began the Muslim holy month demonstrating against the closing of most cafes and restaurants by drinking water and eating sandwiches in central Tunis in the middle of the day.

The protest did not produce any change in the rules. But it did succeed in highlighting a still-taboo debate in Tunisia: How to govern life during Ramadan in a country where the Constitution, which was put in place after the overthrow of the country’s dictatorship in 2011, enshrines individual liberties.

Social pressures to observe Ramadan, which requires most people to fast until sunset every day of the holy month, are powerful across the region. In Morocco, a couple was beaten by a group of men who accused them of having sex during the day. In Algeria, a woman set off a wave of anger by going jogging an hour before the end of the fast. Later, 300 people ran in the streets to show their support for her.

Tunisia has less strict rules than other countries in North Africa, but for those who do not fast, the authorities still do not make it easy.

The protest in Tunis was called “Mouch Bessif,” or “Not by Force,” referring to the view that no one should be forced to fast during Ramadan. It was started by an association called the Freethinkers Movement, which was created in 2016 and has 400 members, according to Sofiene Kosksi, a spokesman.

Most of the members are atheists who have come together through online communities and have sought recognition of their individual freedoms in Tunisia through several previous protests, especially during Ramadan.

“Last year, we were only 20 in the street; this year we were a hundred,” Mr. Kosksi said. “People are scared to come and protest with us because it is difficult to own up to the act of non-fasting in Tunisia.”

In Tunisia, the rules for cafes and restaurants about opening during Ramadan have been debated for years.

There is no specific law in Tunisia forbidding the businesses to open, only an administrative memorandum, known as the Mzali, which gained its name from the prime minister who enacted it in 1981. It states that only cafes in “touristic areas” can be given authorization open, without defining where or how many.

According to several nongovernmental groups, only about 600 cafes open


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