Mustafa Akyol writes: It is no secret that in the midst of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, Tunisia has emerged as the brightest spot. It is also no secret that Tunisia’s success has been made possible in part by the moderate stance of its main Islamist party, Ennahda, which on May 21 at its party congress announced that it was officially abandoning political Islam. The longtime leader of the party, Rachid Ghannouchi, who was re-elected at the event, vowed to “keep religion far from political struggles” and announced that Ennahda would abandon all its religious activities, including preaching in mosques.
Naturally, this news reminded some of the founding of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) 15 years ago. At that time, the AKP, which came from an “Islamist” political tradition, had also declared a major change in perspective. Similar to Ennahda’s new self-identification as “Muslim democrats,” the AKP’s founders called themselves “conservative democrats.” The term “conservative” in Turkey is often another way of saying “practicing Muslim.” Moreover, Ghannouchi had in the past spoken about the “Turkish experience” and pointed to it as a positive frame of reference.
It is also no secret, however, that the so-called Turkish experience has not been going well lately. The AKP of today, heavily criticized for authoritarianism, is a far cry from the AKP of the early 2000s that was widely praised for its reforms. The common perception of the party, especially its iron-willed leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is that it was “moderate” when weak but turned autocratic after consolidating power. One could therefore argue that if Ennahda is really following in the footsteps of the AKP, it is not a reassuring step. [Continue reading…]
Middle East Eye reports: Tunisia’s Ennahda party will separate its religious activities from political ones, its chief said in statements published on Thursday ahead of a weekend congress to formalise the change.
Rached Ghannouchi told French daily Le Monde there was no room left in post-Arab Spring Tunisia for “political Islam”.
“Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism and extreme religion,” he was quoted as saying.
“We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity.
“This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics,” said Ghannouchi. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The families arrived at the cemetery in the night carrying the bullet-riddled corpses of their sons and brothers, residents recalled. One by one, the bodies were placed in unmarked graves, outcasts even in death.
The dead men had been fighters for the Islamic State. All Tunisians, they had crossed into Libya to join the terrorist group’s affiliate there. In March, they returned with other radicalized Tunisians in an attempt to seize Ben Guerdane, a smuggling hub 20 miles from the border. Dozens of the militants were killed in fierce clashes with security forces, including at least 10 who were raised here in the southeastern corner of the country.
Only eight were buried in the cemetery.
“Some families refused to take the bodies,” said Samir Naqi, a senior police official.
That Ben Guerdane, long known as an incubator for jihadists, was not captured was a victory for Tunisia. But the attack and its aftermath revealed the North African nation’s fragility as it struggles to contain the toxic fallout from the Arab Spring uprisings five years ago, and represented an escalation in the Islamic State’s ambitions.
Tunisians form the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. But with U.S. and Russian airstrikes hammering them there, and travel bans and stricter border controls in place, more Tunisians are joining the Islamic State in Libya. Increasingly, Libya’s conflict is spilling into Tunisia, the only country to emerge as a functioning democracy after the revolutions. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Leading foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East are to meet in Vienna on Monday under the joint chairmanship of the US and Italy to discuss how to bolster support for the UN-backed Libyan government in the face of deepening splits in the country over political legitimacy, oil resources and Islamic State.
Elaborate plans to send thousands of Italian-led troops to the area are either on hold, or have been abandoned. But the west is still desperate to find ways to strengthen the political authority of the Tripoli-based government since it will help create a single military Libyan force able both to defeat Isis and tighten the control of refugees leaving the lawless coastland for Italy.
Special forces from the US, UK, France and Italy are operating in various parts of Libya, sometimes backing different military forces and hindering efforts to reunite Libyan politics behind the UN government of Fayez al-Sarraj. [Continue reading…]
An editorial in The Economist says: Arab states are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. In a way, they have never got over the fall of the Ottoman empire. The prominent ideologies — Arabism, Islamism and now jihadism — have all sought some greater statehood beyond the frontiers left by the colonisers. Now that states are collapsing, Arabs are reverting to ethnic and religious identities. To some the bloodletting resembles the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Others find parallels with the religious strife of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th century. Whatever the comparison, the crisis of the Arab world is deep and complex. Facile solutions are dangerous. Four ideas, in particular, need to be repudiated.
First, many blame the mayhem on Western powers — from Sykes-Picot to the creation of Israel, the Franco-British takeover of the Suez Canal in 1956 and repeated American interventions. Foreigners have often made things worse; America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 released its sectarian demons. But the idea that America should turn away from the region — which Barack Obama seems to embrace — can be as destabilising as intervention, as the catastrophe in Syria shows.
Lots of countries have blossomed despite traumatic histories: South Korea and Poland — not to mention Israel. As our special report (see article) sets out, the Arab world has suffered from many failures of its own making. Many leaders were despots who masked their autocracy with the rhetoric of Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine (and realised neither). Oil money and other rents allowed rulers to buy loyalty, pay for oppressive security agencies and preserve failing state-led economic models long abandoned by the rest of the world.
A second wrong-headed notion is that redrawing the borders of Arab countries will create more stable states that match the ethnic and religious contours of the population. Not so: there are no neat lines in a region where ethnic groups and sects can change from one village or one street to the next. A new Sykes-Picot risks creating as many injustices as it resolves, and may provoke more bloodshed as all try to grab land and expel rivals. Perhaps the Kurds in Iraq and Syria will go their own way: denied statehood by the colonisers and oppressed by later regimes, they have proved doughty fighters against IS. For the most part, though, decentralisation and federalism offer better answers, and might convince the Kurds to remain within the Arab system. Reducing the powers of the central government should not be seen as further dividing a land that has been unjustly divided. It should instead be seen as the means to reunite states that have already been splintered; the alternative to a looser structure is permanent break-up.
A third ill-advised idea is that Arab autocracy is the way to hold back extremism and chaos. In Egypt Mr Sisi’s rule is proving as oppressive as it is arbitrary and economically incompetent. Popular discontent is growing. In Syria Bashar al-Assad and his allies would like to portray his regime as the only force that can control disorder. The contrary is true: Mr Assad’s violence is the primary cause of the turmoil. Arab authoritarianism is no basis for stability. That much, at least, should have become clear from the uprisings of 2011.
The fourth bad argument is that the disarray is the fault of Islam. Naming the problem as Islam, as Donald Trump and some American conservatives seek to do, is akin to naming Christianity as the cause of Europe’s wars and murderous anti-Semitism: partly true, but of little practical help. Which Islam would that be? The head-chopping sort espoused by IS, the revolutionary-state variety that is decaying in Iran or the political version advocated by the besuited leaders of Ennahda in Tunisia, who now call themselves “Muslim democrats”? To demonise Islam is to strengthen the Manichean vision of IS. The world should instead recognise the variety of thought within Islam, support moderate trends and challenge extremists. Without Islam, no solution is likely to endure. [Continue reading…]
Marc Lynch writes: Conventional wisdom holds that the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia in December 2010 failed. It’s hard to argue with such a harsh verdict. Most Arab regimes managed to survive their popular challenges through some combination of cooptation, coercion and modest reform. Egypt’s transition ended in an even harsher military regime. Yemen and Libya collapsed into state failure and regionalized wars, while Syria degenerated into a horrific war.
But simply dismissing the uprisings as a failure does not capture how fully they have transformed every dimension of the region’s politics. Today’s authoritarians are more repressive because they are less stable, more frightened and ever more incapable of sustaining their domination. With oil prices collapsing and popular discontent again spiking, it is obvious that the generational challenge of the Arab uprising is continuing to unfold. “Success or failure” is not a helpful way to understand these ongoing societal and political processes.
Instead of binary outcomes, political scientists have begun to more closely examine the new political forms and patterns, which the uprisings generated. A few months ago, the Project on Middle East Political Science convened a virtual symposium with 30 political scientists examining how the turmoil of the past five years have affected Arab politics. Those essays, many of them originally published on the Monkey Cage, are now available for open access download as an issue of POMEPS Studies. Those essays offer an ambivalent, nuanced perspective on what has and has not changed in the region since 2011 – and point to the many challenges to come.
The new politics shaped by the Arab uprising can be tracked along multiple levels of analysis, including regional international relations, regimes, states, and ideas. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Fear engulfed Tunisia on Monday that Islamic State mayhem was spilling over from neighboring Libya, as dozens of militants stormed a Tunisian town near the border, assaulting police and military posts in what the president called an unprecedented attack.
At least 54 people were killed in the fighting in the town, Ben Gardane, which erupted at dawn and lasted for hours until the security forces chased out what remained of the assailants. An enormous stash of weapons was later found.
The authorities said at least 36 militants were among the dead. The others were a mix of security forces and civilians, including a 12-year-old girl.
It was unclear where the assailants had come from, although some witnesses reported that they had local accents and had pronounced themselves as liberators. But President Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia, increasingly alarmed about the Islamic State’s expansion in Libya, blamed the militant group. In a televised address, he suggested that the motive was to create a new Islamic State territory on Tunisian soil, similar to the 150-mile stretch it controls in Libya. [Continue reading…]
The Associated Press reports: At least 45 people were killed Monday near Tunisia’s border with Libya in one of the deadliest clashes seen so far between Tunisian forces and extremist attackers, the government said.
The fighting in the border town of Ben Guerdane in eastern Tunisia comes amid increasing concern that violent extremism in Libya could destabilize the region.
The government closed its two border crossings with Libya because of the attack that left 28 “terrorists,” seven civilians and 10 members of Tunisia’s security forces dead, the Tunisian interior and defense ministries said in a statement. [Continue reading…]
Jean-Pierre Filiu discusses his book, Les Arabes, leur destin et le nôtre, which aims to shed light on struggles in the Arab World today by exploring the entwined histories of the Arab World and the West, starting with Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, through military expeditions and brutal colonial regimes, broken promises and diplomatic maneuvers, support for dictatorial regimes, and the discovery of oil riches. He also discusses the “Arab Enlightenment” of the 19th Century and the history of democratic struggles and social revolts in the Arab world, often repressed.
Filiu is also the author of From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, “an invaluable contribution to understanding the murky world of the Arab security regimes.”
Tunisians are marking five years since the culmination of their “Jasmine Revolution”. Since its longtime authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office in January 2011, Tunisia has been embarking on a long transition to constitutional democracy – a transation that, although very bumpy at times, has nevertheless led to two successful multi-party elections and a new constitution.
The award of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisia National Dialogue Quartet, representing Tunisian civil society, was but one of many recognitions by the international community for the progress the country has made on its path to a stable and democratic new order.
During my many visits to Tunisia over the last four years, I witnessed the transition process through its highs and lows. My most recent visit was in August 2015, just after the terrorist attack in the coastal city of Sousse that left 38 people dead, mostly British tourists.
In spite of the tragic loss of life and the damage done to the national economy, Tunisians have developed a remarkable resilience and are able to pick themselves up and move on. That capacity is inspired in no small part by the country’s leaders, especially the two “sheikhs”, as some have now began to call them: president Beji Caid Essebsi and Rashid Al-Ghannoushi, respective leaders of the two largest political parties, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdah.
The New York Times reports: Tunisia’s main Islamist party, Ennahda, re-emerged as the dominant faction in Parliament on Monday as mass resignations from President Béji Caïd Essebsi’s secular party continued, largely to protest his son’s position as party chief.
The upheaval in the governing party, Nidaa Tounes, just over a year after it defeated Ennahda in parliamentary elections and swept Mr. Essebsi to power in a presidential vote, had been brewing for months. The splintering is not expected to bring down the coalition government that Nidaa Tounes leads — indeed, a cabinet reshuffle was confirmed Monday evening despite the resignations — but the shift in power is likely to complicate politics going forward. The lawmakers kept their seats in Parliament but are unaffiliated with a political party for now.
Tunisia has been praised for its democratic progress in the five years since a popular uprising overthrew the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, inciting the Arab Spring. But it has had five governments in five years, and many political parties have struggled to find a firm footing. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera reports: Five years ago today, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself on fire outside a local municipal office in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid to protest against police corruption – a solitary act that would set off a stunning chain of events throughout the Arab world.
In the years since Bouazizi’s death, Tunisia has gone through tremendous change. After street protests forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali into exile after two decades of his rule, Tunisia adopted a new constitution and held national elections in 2014.
Earlier this month, the country’s National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for assisting Tunisia’s transition to democracy.
But despite the changes that have taken place around them, residents of Sidi Bouzid say their lives are no better than they were before the uprising.
“Before the toppling of the regime of Ben Ali, we had hopes,” Ramzi Abdouli, 29, a graduate from Sidi Bouzid, told Al Jazeera. “We thought that maybe when Ben Ali left our reality would change. Unfortunately, it was not the case.”
Like many of Tunisia’s youth, Abdouli participated in the 2010-2011 protests, hoisting banners against the regime. Even after Ben Ali was deposed, Abdouli marched more than 250km from Sidi Bouzid to Tunis in April 2012 to reiterate demands for social justice and employment.
Today, via social media, he remains a relentless critic of the current government and its political affairs – and is pessimistic about the years ahead. [Continue reading…]
Middle East Eye reports: The United Arab Emirates has threatened to destabilise Tunisia over concerns the country’s leadership is not serving the interests of Abu Dhabi, a senior Tunisian source told Middle East Eye.
Algerian officials warned their Tunisian counterparts in early November about an Emirati plan to interfere in their country, the source, who is a senior political figure in Tunisia, said on the condition of anonymity.
“The Algerian state has given an unambiguous warning that the UAE seeks to interfere with Tunisian security,” the source said. “They [the Algerians] were very unambiguous and said that they [the UAE] may try to destabilise Tunisia as it is at the moment.”
The Tunisian source said the message was communicated to them by a “source close to the palace” in Algeria. [Continue reading…]
Hussein Ibish writes: A growing trope in mainstream Western analysis, which is also present in some parts of Arab and Muslim discourse, casts the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the political and moral equivalent of the terrorist group ISIL (also known as ISIS, the “Islamic State,” and Daesh). This conflation is wrong regarding most aspects of conduct and policy, especially relations to the international and regional order. But it does evoke some troubling echoes and influences that must be of concern even to those who see the problems with this equation. The comparison does not arise within a total void. Although the analogy is unjustified, it does raise serious concerns that need to be addressed by mainstream Saudi society and its government.
The American “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, has been at the forefront of publicizing the notion that “ISIL equals Saudi Arabia” in recent weeks. A September 2 article by Times columnist Thomas Friedman promoted this metaphor. In “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia,” Friedman opines that “several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations” because “all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”
This explicit cause-and-effect theory about the relationship between the mainstream civic, political, and religious culture in a society and the attraction to such terrorist groups in its population doesn’t scan well. Among the largest number, up to 3,000, of ISIL recruits have been from Tunisia. The Tunisian ISIL recruit rate is generally thought to be the highest of all, more than the Saudi estimate that tops off at about 2,000 – 2,500.
Yet, Tunisia is the most secular and least fundamentalist of all Arab societies, with the possible exception of Lebanon. This undermines Friedman’s claim that cultural and religious extremism in a given society, in this case the Saudi one, especially as promoted by culturally hegemonic national institutions, provides a strong correlation to participation in radical movements. The problem might be correctly seen, as he also suggests, in a global Islamic context, with Saudi and other promotion of intolerance and extremism as an important historical factor in creating the current wave of violent radicalism. But if ISIL recruitment draws most heavily on Tunisia, closely followed by Saudi Arabia — two countries in most ways on the opposite ends of the Arab cultural and political spectrum — that strongly suggests that there are broader explanations than a specific national cultural and religious atmosphere for the appeal of terrorism. [Continue reading…]
The Atlantic reports: Last month, the Norwegian Nobel Committee bestowed the world’s most prestigious prize upon The Quartet, a body consisting of four Tunisian groups, whose work helped ensure a peaceful democratic transition in Tunisia in 2013.
In its statement, the Nobel Committee paid homage to Tunisia’s successes in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution, but also acknowledged that the country still “faces significant political, economic, and security challenges.”
As Tunisia tries to endure as the birthplace of the Arab Spring and its golden child, violence keeps interrupting. Back in March, 23 people died in a terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum in the capital city of Tunis and, in July, 38 tourists were killed when a gunman opened fire at a beach in Sousse. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State.
On Tuesday, not far from the Bardo Museum, an explosion killed a dozen Tunisian presidential guards and wounded several others on a bus in the central part of the capital. No group has claimed responsibility yet, but following the attack, President Beji Caid Essebsi reinstated the country’s state of emergency, which had been lifted in October, and set a curfew. The violence comes just one week after Tunisia’s interior ministry boasted that security forces had foiled a major plot against a number of targets when it broke up a heavily armed terrorist cell in the country. [Continue reading…]
Rami G Khouri writes: On Oct. 9, Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for shepherding the only successful transition to democracy in the Arab world since uprisings began in the region in 2010. The quartet’s importance goes far beyond its pivotal role in brokering a democratic transition in 2013 and 2014: It can provide important lessons for other Arab countries as well as foreign powers that remain perplexed about how to respond to continuing Arab struggles for freedom, dignity and democracy.
The quartet’s composition was the crucial starting point of its successes. It consisted of the country’s largest labor union (UGTT), its employers’ federation (UTICA), its lawyers’ association and the Tunisian Human Rights Association. The first two represented Tunisian workers and business owners, critical poles of the economy; the lawyers and human rights activists represented the rule of law, constitutionalism and citizen rights in the pluralistic democracy that would replace the old dictatorship.
These four organizations had the moral authority and political credibility required to achieve constitutional democracy, but they also took three practical steps to enable their success. They made regular compromises among those in authority, including rotating power and voluntarily relinquishing the premiership; ensured that major decisions reflected inclusive consultations among all political actors and the public; and patiently phased in all major steps toward their democracy. [Continue reading…]