Saudi Arabia and ISIS: A false equation but troubling echoes

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…]


Darkness in the Arab Spring’s brightest spot, Tunisia

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…]


A peace prize for Tunisia and lessons for everyone else

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…]


Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East

Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.

That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.

It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”

“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]


How peace found a foothold in Tunisia

As Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Noah Feldman writes: All dictatorships aren’t created equal. The Tunisian regimes from 1957 to 2011 drastically limited basic rights, and jailed and tortured opponents. High-level corruption was endemic. Yet unlike the dictators in Egypt or Syria or Iraq, these regimes worked out a complex relationship with civil society institutions, allowing them to organize in exchange for their willingness to live with the regime. Protests by the labor union took place under Ben Ali, and supporters of the union will sometimes say they laid the groundwork for the Arab Spring protests.

At the same time, civil society alone can’t account for the Tunisian exception. Some credit also goes to a culture of political consensus. During my multiple visits Tunisia to observe the constitutional process, I was constantly told by the delegates that they felt a powerful impulse from the expectations of their constituents that they reach a result the overwhelming majority of Tunisians could live with.

The origins of political culture are always hard to pin down, and Tunisia’s need for consensus is no exception. But it’s probably fair to say that the revolutionary period against France helped create a sense of national unity. Tunisia is very small, which can contribute to a sense of collective identity. (But doesn’t always: see Lebanon.)

Tunisia also has the legacy of the first constitution in any Arabic speaking country, dating back to 1861. Although I was frequently struck by how little the delegates referred to that history, nonetheless it shows that at least the idea of elite cohesion in a fundamental agreement has deep roots.

But the most decisive feature of the Tunisian exception, arguably slighted by the Nobel committee, is that the potential for conflict between secularists and Islamists was reined in repeatedly by acts of compromise and realistic negotiation on both sides. Key to this process was Rashid Ghannouchi, an Islamic democrat who went from being an important theorist of how Islam can be compatible with democracy to the leader of the movement and party known as Ennahda, the Renaissance.

At several crucial moments, Ennahda under Ghannouchi chose to pursue concession rather than going for a maximal role for Islam in the constitution. After protests in 2012, Ennahda decided to remove Shariah from its constitutional draft or ideology. And after the killing of prominent leftists led to further protests and crisis, Ennahda, which had been democratically elected as the plurality party in the assembly, agreed to resign from the government.

As for the secularists, they deserve credit for treating Ennahda as a genuine, legitimate, democratically elected political force. [Continue reading…]


As frustrations build in Libya, so do calls for help

The New York Times reports: For more than a year, Libyans have been watching their politicians shuttle between foreign capitals on rounds of peace talks, workshops and conferences in search of a solution to the worsening chaos at home. At one recent event in the Tunisian capital, frustrations at the slow progress were evident in the heartfelt questions and statements from the Libyan refugees in the audience.

“We are a small country, and we need help,” Ahmed Werfalli, a businessman and activist, told the American ambassador during one panel discussion. “We were united against dictatorship, and now we are killing each other.”

Libyans are struggling with a problem that typically emerges after a bloody regime change: how to reassemble a functioning country after its brittle, autocratic and repressive government has been fractured and replaced with warring factions.

Many Libyans have taken refuge in neighboring Tunisia, forced out by the violence and doubting that the main protagonists will end their power struggle, even if a United Nations-sponsored peace agreement is signed soon. They are calling for greater international involvement to help end the conflict. [Continue reading…]


Torture in Tunisia


The Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry

Thanassis Cambanis writes: Early in the Tahrir Square revolution, a group of retired Egyptian generals sat poolside at Cairo’s Gezira Club and worried about whether the country’s ruling elite could survive a popular uprising. It was February 2011, a week before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Millions of freshly politicized Egyptians had already taken to the streets. And yet, some of these career security men were unfazed.

“The only thing we really need to worry about is a revolution of the hungry,” said one, a retired Air Force general. “That would be the end of us.”

As it turned out, it took less than four years for Egypt’s dictatorship to reconstitute itself, crushing the hope for real change among the people. In no small part, the regime’s resilience was due to its firm grasp of bread politics. The ruler who controls the main staples of life — bread and fuel — often controls everything else, too.

Nonetheless, the specter of a “revolution of the hungry” still worries authoritarian rulers today, in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Roughly put, the idea is shorthand for an uprising that brings together not only the traditional cast of political and religious dissidents but also pits a far greater number of poor, uneducated, and apolitical citizens against the state.

Look across the region, and regimes have good reason to be afraid. Even in countries where obesity is widespread, people suffer from low-quality medical care and malnutrition due to a lack of healthy food.

The basic equation is stark: The Arab world cannot feed itself. Rulers obsessed with security have created a twisted web of importers and bakeries whose aim is not to feed the population efficiently or nutritiously but simply to maintain the regime and stave off that much feared revolution of the hungry. Vast subsidies eat up the lion’s share of national budgets. [Continue reading…]


Change in militant tactics puts Tunisians on edge

The New York Times reports: A dozen police officers, one with an assault rifle across his knees, guard the presidential mausoleum in this seaside resort, easily outnumbering the foreign visitors on a recent morning.

It was here, the hometown of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, that a teenager once tried to blow himself up amid a group of tourists. The attack failed — his bomb did not explode and a tour guide tripped up the would-be bomber as he tried to escape — but it was only by luck that disaster was averted.

That was two years ago. More recently, despite ample warnings, Tunisia has had less luck in the face of a growing terrorist threat. Gunmen trained in Libya and linked to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda killed 22 people at a national museum in the heart of Tunis, the capital, in March and 38 tourists along a beach in the nearby town of Sousse in June.

Those attacks have provoked a widening security crackdown, and left Tunisians wondering if their country can withstand the onslaught of terrorism without giving up the tentative freedoms they — alone in the region — earned with their revolution that set off the Arab Spring more than four years ago. [Continue reading…]


State of emergency is declared in Tunisia

The New York Times reports: Speaking on national television, President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency in Tunisia on Saturday, eight days after a terrorist attack killed more than 30 foreign tourists.

“Tunisia, which is dear to all of us, is going through difficult circumstances, exceptional circumstances, that necessitate exceptional measures to face them and prevent a worse situation,” Mr. Essebsi said.

“Our security forces are in a full alert status, but we do have weaknesses as our prime minister admitted,” he said. “We are not blaming anyone, but we are calling for everyone to feel and act responsibly. If such incidents happen again, the state will collapse. It is the duty of the president to take a stance.” [Continue reading…]


Terrorist attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait kill dozens

The New York Times reports: Terrorists attacked sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on Friday, leaving a bloody toll on three continents and prompting new concerns about the spreading influence of jihadists.

In France, attackers stormed an American-owned industrial chemical plant near Lyon, decapitated one person and tried unsuccessfully to blow up the factory.

In Tunisia, gunmen opened fire at a beach resort, killing at least 27 people, officials said. At least one of the attackers was killed by security forces.

And the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in one of the largest Shiite mosques in Kuwait City during Friday prayers. The bomb filled the hall with smoke and left dead and wounded scattered on the carpet, according to witnesses and videos posted online. Local news reports said at least 24 people had been killed and wounded in the assault, which was extraordinary for Kuwait and appeared to be a deliberate attempt to incite strife between Shiites and Sunnis.

In a message circulating on social media, the Islamic State called the suicide bomber “one of the knights of the Sunni people.”

There was no immediate indication that the attacks had been coordinated. But the three strikes came at roughly the same time, and just days after the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL, called for such operations during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. [Continue reading…]


‘If Tunisia fails, you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century’

In the wake of last week’s attack at the national museum in the heart of Tunis, Nicholas Noe writes: Tunisia is, quite simply, a country unable to protect the real progress it has made over the last four years. Its people are not familiar with violent conflict, its army isn’t ready, and its body politic is deeply and often personally divided, despite the statements over the last 24 hours about national unity.

Most crucially, however, the security services in general — especially when it comes to the preponderant Interior Ministry — are ill equipped and ill trained for the kind of conflict that they are now likely to face. Perhaps the commanders directing today’s attack were betting on this. A heavy-handed response on the domestic scene (which is likely, largely as a result of the neglect of security sector reform over the past four years) will probably entail a violent counter-reaction within Tunisia, even though the real enemy lies in its strategic depth, waiting for the right moment, just beyond the country’s borders.

In one particularly prescient speech, the recently defeated president of Tunisia warned Europe and the United States about neglecting Tunisia and specifically about the core need for rebooting and building-out the security sector. “The military didn’t have any training or any arms for 30 years,” former President Moncef Marzouki told a conference last summer. “We need about 12 helicopters, Blackhawks, and we need them now. We also need devices for night vision and communications” to allow Tunisia to get through the upcoming elections. “If Tunisia fails,” he concluded, “you can say goodbye to democracy in the Arab world for a century.” [Continue reading…]


Tunisian jihadis were always going to bring the fight back home

The Observer reports: When two gunmen who had trained in Libya opened fire on tourists and staff at one of Tunisia’s top museums last week, it shocked the country but perhaps not the Tunisian security forces, who had been working for years to try to stave off this kind of attack.

They had long feared that returnees from the region’s spiralling conflicts in Iraq, Syria and, more recently, neighbouring Libya would bring the fight home and choose a soft target to do it.

Nearly 3,000 young Tunisians are known to have travelled abroad to fight, the largest number from any Arab country, and thousands more were stopped from making the journey. Around 500 have returned, and although some are in jail for fighting abroad, others were released by judges, who decided they were not a danger.

The number of returnees, and the cost and manpower involved in following someone 24 hours a day, makes it almost impossible for the government to follow even those they know have spent time with extremist groups overseas. There may be other jihadis who manage to stay off their radar, slipping over the border to Libya in a flow of traders who are often young men of fighting age. [Continue reading…]


Arrests made in attack on Tunisian museum

The New York Times reports: The Tunisian authorities have arrested more than 20 people in the investigation into Wednesday’s attack at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, including 10 the authorities say were directly tied to the deadly assault, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior said Saturday.

Some of those detained are relatives of the two gunmen who opened fire in the museum, killing 20 foreign tourists and three Tunisians before being shot dead by security forces.

The government and security forces have acted rapidly to investigate the attack and to present a determined and united front against terrorism, calling on all Tunisians and other countries to show solidarity. “There is a large-scale campaign against the extremists,” the ministry’s spokesman, Mohamed Ali Aroui, told news agencies.

Yet legislators and members of the public are already raising questions about security failures that allowed the gunmen to gain access to the museum so easily. [Continue reading…]


Bardo Museum attack in Tunis

The New York Times reports: The massacre of tourists on Wednesday, scholars said, was in some ways a throwback to the tactics that older militant groups had relied on in the 1980s and ’90s. But the attack also comes at a time when some Islamist militants elsewhere, most notably in Egypt, are gravitating to the idea that economic interests may be a vulnerable point they can exploit to destabilize governments.

A statement about the attack posted by the Afriqiyah Media, a jihadi forum often used by Uqba bin Nafa, a Tunisian group linked to Al Qaeda, even included graphs and price charts to show the economic pain the museum assault had already inflicted.

Celebrating “the sharp collapse of the Tunisian markets after a simple operation involving only two individuals,” the statement asked: “What do you think would happen if an organized attack happened, and simultaneously on several military, vital, and tourist targets?”

Some analysts said they saw an ominous trend. “The shooting spree tactic is really catching on, and that is going to be a huge headache for security services around the world,” said Will McCants, a scholar of Islamist militancy at the Brookings Institution, noting the similarities with recent attacks on the Canadian Parliament and Charlie Hebdo.

Brian Fishman, a researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington, said he, too, foresaw more low-tech assaults, “because these attacks are easy.”

Tunisian officials said Thursday that they had not yet found evidence tying either of the two gunmen to any known terrorist group. Both men were killed by security forces in a gunfight at the museum, and the authorities identified them as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, both Tunisian. [Continue reading…]