Geopolitics

Inside Tunisia's Battle Over Inter-Religious Marriages

Since 2017, Tunisian women have had the right to marry non-Muslims. But reality is playing out in different ways down on the local level amid an Islamist resurgence.

A wedding in Tunis, Tunisia
A wedding in Tunis, Tunisia
Frédéric Bobin

KRAM — It's marriage season in Tunisia, and the town hall of this municipality north of Tunis, is staying open late into the evening. They have to accommodate everyone. Howls resonate inside the expansive hall, where a blissful couple — the groom in a striped tie and pink shirt and the bride draped in immaculate muslin — moves timidly forward along the tile floor.

In his second-floor Kram office, Fathi Laayouni, wearing a fuchsia shirt, spreads out sheets of notes in front of him. Some passages are noticeably underlined in red. Laayouni, a lawyer by trade, prepares to speak. Before starting, he holds out a saucer with a baklava — a diamond shaped cake stuffed with pistachio and dried fruit — covered with a patina of honey. This is the heart of what is known, unofficially, as the Islamic Emirate of Kram. The moniker was conceived by a columnist from Buisinessnews.com, an online Tunisian news outlet, who apparently does not hold Laayouni close to her heart.

Laayouni is the newly elected mayor of Kram. He is an extremely controversial character, even among his own Islamic faction. He savors this inflammatory reputation, even if he uses an ultra-conservative interpretation of Tunisian law to justify his deeply orthodox mindset. Laayouni launched himself into the national limelight when, in the heart of the summer, he proclaimed that he would never authorize a marriage in his jurisdiction between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim.

The Islamist base has come back to life.

In Tunisia, men have long had the right to marry non-Muslims, but women could not. Tunisian women were formally banned from unions with non-Muslims in a 1973 Justice Ministry memorandum, inspired by the country's Muslim traditions. This memorandum was repealed last fall by the president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who is eager to modernize the status of women in the country. Laayouni's proclamation was an open challenge to the president.

Laayouni has taken up the resistance and ordered his registrar department to refuse mixed marriages. He has referenced the Constitution, ratified in 2014, and a peculiar reading of Article 5 of the Personal Status Law that goes back to 1956. The Constitution states that the nation has the responsibility to "protect the sacred," which is enough for Laayouni to affirm that he is just enforcing the law. Those who should be ashamed, according to Laayouni, are the "minority of extremists' who want to "eliminate religion" with their interpretation of the Constitution and use it to "destroy family and morality."​

Aerial view of Kram — Photo: Citizen59

Laayouni is a part of the revival of orthodox Islamist ideology in Tunisia, which had held a low profile since 2013, when the rise of violent Salafism caused a backlash against political Islam. In this context, the Ennahda party, which was cast from the Islamic die but entered into a tactical alliance with its former modernist rivals in 2015, had enjoined its followers to take more moderate stances. That lasted about three years.

Since the victory of Ennahda in the municipal elections on May 6, the Islamist base has come back to life. This new boldness has caused concern among one segment of the party that is concerned about its image in the West. But Laayouni is clever and appeals to Bourguiba's Constitution.

But there are other town councilors who are at odds with Laayouni's vision. The battle over inter-religious marriage is, in fact, raging across the country. In Marsa, another village in northern Tunisia, the mayor, Slim Meherzi, a modernist with no party affiliation, has just celebrated a mixed marriage: a Tunisian woman with a Portuguese Catholic. He's very proud of it and is preparing to do it again in one month, this time with a French groom.

"One must be uncompromising in the application of constitutional principles," Meherzi declares.

His reading of the Constitution points to the stipulation that the state "guarantees freedom of conscience," that Tunisia is "a civil state founded on civic rights," and that "the citizens — men and women — must be equal in rights and in duties."

This new boldness has caused concern.

"Every Tunisian woman has the right to marry whom she wants: an atheist, a Buddhist, or whatever," says Meherzi.

Others like the mayor of Ariana, a village close to Tunis, are also welcoming to mixed couples. Fadhel Moussa, a professor of law and member of the Constituent Assembly from 2011 to 2014, has extended his own invitation. "All couples are welcome in my city hall," he says. "For me, faith comes from deep down inside." Although he hasn't had a mixed marriage in his municipality yet, he says he's ready to perform one at the first opportunity.

From Kram and Marsa to Ariana and on to other municipalities large and small, Tunisia is a nation of both contradictions and social change. The battle over mixed marriages is its new ideological front line.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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