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 in Tunisia during Ramadan. At the beginning of the holy month, the interior minister declared that no further cafes would be authorized to open this year.
“Ninety-nine percent of Tunisians are Muslims, so the minority of the non-fasting must respect the majority,” said the minister, Lotfi Brahem, who has since been dismissed for other reasons.
His declaration caused the Freethinkers Movement to take to the streets, and it also stirred controversy on social media, which has been used by the non-fasting community to raise awareness about their cause.
A similar movement, called Fater, which means non-fasting, started in 2013, when a blogger, Abdelkarim Ben Abdallah, created a Twitter hashtag, #Fater, to help non-fasting people find a place to drink coffee or have lunch.
Five years later, he set up an internet community with a map of open cafes, and a Facebook page, which now has more than 8,000 followers, to share addresses.
“The page has 99 percent activity, which means that people are sharing, reacting and commenting everyday,” Mr. Ben Abdallah said.
Adam Chebbi, the chief executive of the Tunisian restaurant-finding app Vynd, said that his company had created a special version for Ramadan that gave users a “Fater” option to locate cafes open during the day and an “Iftar” option, referring to when it is time to break the fast, to allow people who are following Ramadan to find places to eat after sundown.
During the first week after the release of the new version of the app, the option that got most clicks was the “Fater” one, Mr. Chebbi said.
“We also, out of Ramadan time, indicate restaurants that serve alcohol and we put the prices of beer as well,” Mr. Chebbi said. “It has been a choice of ours since the beginning, because we are inclusive.”
Civil society associations have also used the internet to raise awareness about the rights of non-fasters. The Collective for Individual Liberties, a group of several like-minded associations, published humorous videos on Facebook about people who overreact when someone is not observing Ramadan.
“Our goal is to rally a lot of support so we can really advocate for a change in the law and also to push authorities to apply our constitutional rights,” Jabeur Ouajah, a coordinator for the collective, said.
There is also nothing in Tunisian law to stop people drinking or eating in public during Ramadan, but most avoid doing so.
“I took the train to go to Tunis for a job offer, it is a long trip for me because I live on the coast,” Rania Said, a Ph.D. student, said. “I was so hot and I wanted to drink a bottle of water, but I did not dare to because you always fear the bad looks people can give you or even insults.”
The cafes and restaurants that are open often do so discreetly, with windows blocked by curtains or newspapers, even if cigarette smoke and chatter still seep out to the street.
It has not always been like this, however. After Tunisia gained independence in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba embarked on a relaxation of the conservative rules in the country, and most cafes in the ’60s would open during Ramadan.
“I urge you, in the interest of Islam, to work harder to increase national production,” Mr. Bourguiba said in a speech in the coastal city of Sfax, in eastern Tunisia, in 1964. “Should you renounce the practice of fasting, you will not stop being Muslim.”
He also prompted shock by drinking a glass of water on national television during Ramadan.
Ezzeddine Ben Mbarek Hazgui, a left-wing opponent of Mr. Bourguiba who was jailed in 1973 for his political activities, recalled the atmosphere back then.
“I used to sit in a terrace of a cafe in Sfax, one of the most conservative cities in Tunisia, during the day, during Ramadan, and drink my coffee with no one staring or caring,” he said.
But Mr. Bourguiba’s encouragement not to fast during Ramadan set off a religious reaction. By the time Mr. Ben Mbarek was freed from jail, in 1979, things were very different.
As Mr. Bourguiba’s power crumbled in the late 1970s under pressure from a resurgent Islamist movement, the president began to make an appeal to religious values. The Mzali circular restricting cafe openings was enacted as he tried to gain favor with the Islamists.
“Religion in Tunisia has always been used either as a threat or as a support for political goals,” said Hmida Ennaifer, a religious scholar who taught at the Zitouna University a religious college. “There has never been a rational public debate about how we want to live our religion and how the government should regulate all this.”
Some cafe owners do not ask for authorization to open during Ramada — they just go ahead and do it. But bypassing the rules can cause problems.
“I had my cafe closed as soon as I opened it and the police said it was because I had no authorization,” Naoufel Sanhaji, a cafe owner in Ariana, a northern district of Tunis, said. “I went to every administration — there is no authorization. It is completely up to the police to decide to close your cafe or not.”