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…]


These terrorists in Tunisia were targeting democracy

Lina Ben Mhenni writes: Two days before Tunisia was due to celebrate its independence day, a horrible terrorist attack has shaken the country. The barbaric, bloody assault on the Bardo museum near the parliament, that claimed the lives of 19 people, seems to open a new chapter for terrorist operations in my country. It also looks set to be the worst for foreigners in Tunisia since the attack on Djerba’s synagogue in 2002.

The symbolism of such an attack occurring in Tunisia – the birthplace of the so-called Arab spring – is significant. It was here that the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2010 spawned a series of street demonstrations that culminated in the ousting of longtime president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia’s reputation as the Arab spring’s “model pupil” may be questionable given that the country contributes the highest number of jihadis to countries such as Syria.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that while chaos is reigning in other countries in the Middle East, Tunisia has succeeded in ensuring a relative stability despite two political assassinations and some terrorist attacks targeting members of the security and military forces in remote areas such as Mount Chaambi. This attack occurred a few months after successful democratic and transparent elections in the country. Furthermore it happened while MPs were discussing an anti-terrorist law not far away from the museum where everything occurred. The two buildings lie within the same fence. [Continue reading…]


ISIS claims responsibility for Tunisia museum attack

The Associated Press reports: The Islamic State group issued a statement Thursday claiming responsibility for the deadly attack on Tunisia’s national museum that killed 23 people, mostly tourists.

The statement described Wednesday’s attack in Tunisia as a “blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia,” and appeared on a forum that carries messages from the group.

The statement said there were two attackers and they weren’t killed until they ran out of ammunition and it promised further attacks.

“Wait for the glad tidings of what will harm you, impure ones, for what you have seen today is the first drop of the rain,” the statement, which was also announced by U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group.

IS, which is based in Syria and Iraq, has affiliates in neighboring Libya, where many Tunisians have gone to fight and train with extremist groups.

Earlier this week, a prominent Tunisian field commander for IS was killed in fighting inside Libya.

Tunisia’s government, meanwhile, announced the arrest of nine people — four of whom were connected directly to the attack and five others who supported them elsewhere in the country, authorities said. [Continue reading…]


Give democratic Tunisia the U.S. support it needs and deserves

Vance Serchuk writes: Tunisia is rightly hailed as the lone success story of the Arab Spring: the only country that has threaded a path from the uprisings of 2011 to genuine multiparty democracy today. Yet the future of freedom in Tunisia is far from assured. With the election of a new parliament and president in recent weeks, the most important experiment in Arab democracy is entering a difficult and potentially perilous new phase — one in which greater U.S. support and attention are urgently needed.

Tunisians are quick to cite a litany of challenges that could still derail their transition, including an unreformed economy that generates too few jobs and a persistent threat from terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia. There’s also the failed state next door in Libya, a volcano of Syria-like potential that threatens to kick up a cloud of instability over its neighbors.

Yet easily the most significant question facing Tunisia concerns its new elected leadership and its commitment to democratic principles, human rights and inclusive, tolerant governance. [Continue reading…]


Tunisia’s new president pledges reconciliation


Tunisia is still a ray of hope for the Middle East

Berny Sèbe writes: Let’s face it: once a term laden with hope for the Middle East, the idea of an “Arab Spring” has become merely depressing.

Assorted humanitarian disasters have followed in its wake – think of the unspeakable violence by the so-called Islamic State, or the disintegration of Libya’s social and political fabric. In Egypt, the die-hard habit of letting the army choose the country’s rulers has returned. Elsewhere, as in Bahrain, revolts nipped in the bud – or repressed with the help of muscular police forces – have been silenced for good.

And yet, the cradle of the Arab Spring is once again leading the way. With the peaceful election of Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia, the first Arab country where popular protests proved to be enough to get rid of an autocrat, has just shown the world that an orderly management of a revolution was always an option on the table.

In four short years, Tunisia has gone through the entire cycle of ousting an apparently lifelong president, electing a constituent assembly, producing a new constitution, and organising a round of fully democratic legislative and presidential elections.

It has successfully navigated the murky waters of post-revolutionary instability, when the future of a country becomes so open that the temptation to use political violence can be much stronger than the discipline needed to bow to the verdict of ballot boxes. [Continue reading…]


Tunisia: Cheers and doubts

Robin Wright writes: The celebratory honking and shouting on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the elegant boulevard that runs through Tunisia’s capital, began within seconds of the announcement that Sunday’s election had produced the country’s first democratically elected President—the culmination of an uneasy transition that began, in 2011, with the Jasmine Revolution. In a tight runoff, Beji Caid Essebsi, who recently turned eighty-eight, was declared the winner. He is Tunisia’s most experienced politician; he has served as defense minister, foreign minister, and interior minister. But these positions were held under Tunisia’s two most autocratic leaders, and Essebsi personifies the old guard—known by critics as the Remnants.

Tunisia has emerged as a model for Arab nations. Its three elections since October, held in unheated schools around the country, have been serious and well run—especially compared to the flagrant vote-buying and vote-rigging elsewhere in the Middle East. Tunisians “raised the bar of what is possible,” Ken Dryden, the former Canadian M.P. (and hockey star), who served as an international monitor for the election, said. “They have done their part.” Yet the country, with a population of eleven million, has also provided roughly three thousand fighters—more than any other nation—to the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front as they sweep through Syria and Iraq. (Tunisia’s government says it has prevented almost nine thousand more from joining.) “Any time these people decide to go to their deaths, it’s because they don’t accept conditions of life. They believe they are rejected by society,” Karim Helali, of Afek, or Horizons, a progressive party favored by Tunisia’s young people, told me.

Essebsi defeated a human-rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who was appointed to serve as interim President in 2011, while the country wrote a new constitution. The process took three years. During that time, Tunisia grappled with the assassination of two leading politicians, the rise of an extremist underground, attacks on the U.S. Embassy and an American school in Tunis, and thousands of labor strikes. [Continue reading…]


Will Tunisia pass the transition test?


The success of Tunisian secularists might not be advancing democracy

Monica Marks writes: A self-styled, secular, modernist party called Nidaa Tounes won against the Islamist Ennahda party in the Tunisian election this week. For many, the subsequent headline – “Secularist party wins Tunisia elections” – will seem more impressive than the fact Tunisia just completed its second genuinely competitive, peaceful elections since 2011.

Indeed, in a region wracked by extremism and civil war, the secularists’ victory will strike many as further proof that Tunisia is moving forward and is the sole bright spot in a gloomy region. Some may prematurely celebrate, yet again, the death of political Islam, arguing that Tunisians achieved through the ballot box what Egyptians achieved through a popular coup, rejecting the Brotherhood and its cousin-like movements once and for all. We should exercise caution, however, in labelling Nidaa Tounes’s victory part of a seamless sweep of democratic achievements, or seeing Sunday’s vote as a clear referendum against all varieties of political Islam.

Despite feeling kinship with the party because of its secular label, westerners understand surprisingly little about Nidaa Tounes, mainly because they’ve tended to hold the magnifying glass of critical inquiry up to Islamists but not secularists over the past three years. Counter-intuitively, Nidaa Tounes’s internal structure is noticeably more authoritarian than Ennahda, which boasts representative decision-making structures from its grassroots to national leadership. [Continue reading…]