Showing posts with label Tunisia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tunisia. Show all posts

February 24, 2012

The End of Religious Idealism: Islamists bring religion down to earth

    Friday, February 24, 2012   No comments

For decades, Tunisian Islamists, like their brethren in the rest of the Arab world, have preached an economic, social, and educational policy rooted in religious ethics. They taught that adhering to the ideals of Islam would ensure economic and social prosperity. For them, giving up on religious values for economic gains is the foremost cause of Muslims’ backwardness. They reasoned that embracing political expediency over religious righteousness is a betrayal of Muslims’ faith in God’s providence.

As a banned political party, Ennahda (and its predecessor Islamic Trend) ideologues had argued for the existence of an indigenous Islamic worldview that people must follow in order to succeed today and in the hereafter. In their mind, the two worlds were linked. They opposed the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali based on these principles. They promised that an Islamist government would not sacrifice religious ideals for economic gains, but it would accomplish progress through and because of Islamic ideals. In other words, Islamists looked to the heavens to solve problems of earth. Some leaders of this Islamist movement and many of its supporters were imprisoned, tortured, and exiled for their views. The movement was in disarray until the historical revolution offered it a second life—a revolution that they did not plan and certainly did not start.

January 15, 2012

What is on the mind of Arab media

    Sunday, January 15, 2012   No comments

Tunisia’ new leaders wanted to celebrate the revolution that deposed the old regime and ushered in representative governance. So they invited other Arab heads of state, but only several showed up. Of course, this is not a normal gathering. It is one that reminded the Arab rulers that they will all go unless they reform. Reportedly, the new Tunisian leaders sent invitations but only the leaders of Algeria, Libya, Qatar, and Mauritanian showed up. The rest of the countries sent low level representatives just to be polite. Tunisian media noticed this awkward party moment.

Although Tunisia and Egypt have more or less moved to representative governance with bloodless revolutions that removed the strong regimes of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the Libyan uprising was bloody and cruel. Nearly 50,000 people are said to have lost their lives and there are daily reports of gun battles between competing rebel factions. The instability in Libya did not go unnoticed in other Arab countries. Consequently, enthusiasm for revolutions is brought under check especially in places like Yemen and Syria. Arab media took notice of the change in attitude. 

Here are some of the other themes discussed in several influential Arab news outlets recently.

Russia moves to limit its losses, editorialized the pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi:
"If you want to know the odds of a war taking place in the Middle East, just keep track of the statements out of Moscow and Washington and the movements of their respective vessels and aircraft carriers - especially now that Russia is waking up from a period of hibernation and is coming back strongly in the region to protect its interests."
The newspaper argued that Russia will not lose another Arab ally to the West. "Having taken stock of such a major loss, Russia is now determined to counter forcefully any US attempts to topple the Syrian and Iranian regimes," the newspaper concluded.

The newspaper pointed to the Russian ship loaded with weapons reportedly sent to Syria as evidence of this shift in policy adding that the "Russian aircraft carrier and other warships arrived in Syria's Tartous port" are a show of force aimed at reassuring Asad that military intervention will be met with military resistance:
"By dispatching an aircraft carrier and shiploads of weapons and other hazardous materials, Russia wants to send out a strong and unequivocal message to Arab governments and the United States, that it will not let down its Syrian and Iranian allies, after it has already lost Qaddafi's Libya and Saddam's Iraq."
To make matters very clear, Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian envoy to Nato since 2008, who was appointed in December as his country's vice premier for defense industries, said last week that "any military intervention having to do with Iran's nuclear program will be considered a threat to Russia's national security."

U.S. image in the Arab world: “soldiers abusing Muslims is a pattern” 

Another issue that was picked by the Arab media is the US soldiers' scandal. Sharjah-based newspaper al-Khaleej editorialized that U.S. soldiers violating their own laws, like urinating on dead bodies, are not isolated cases; they are patterns of behavior. The paper referred to the humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison several years ago and said that that “showed how US soldiers were having fun dehumanizing prisoners in unimaginable ways.” The paper contended that other cases, such as “al-Nisour Square incident in Baghdad in 2007, when US soldiers killed more than a dozen Iraqi civilians for no reason.”  Guantanamo Bay, the newspaper argued "is yet another flagrant example of the violation of basic human rights." The latest incident in Afghanistan is not "isolated or individual", the newspaper said. "It is a function of the usual method adopted by the US forces in Afghanistan and previously in Iraq."

January 2, 2012

Policy and politics of the first democratic government in Tunisia

    Monday, January 02, 2012   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Exactly two months after Tunisia’s October 23 elections, a peaceful transfer of power took place—a rarity in the Arab world. The outgoing prime minister, Beji Caid el Sebsi, handed the reins to Hamadi Jebali, one of the founding leaders of al-Nahda movement and a former political prisoner. The latter introduced his cabinet to the constituency assembly, which voted largely along political party lines to approve it. Forming a coalition government was understandably a struggle for a group of novices, many of whom had spent more time in prison than in government. But in the end, the parties put forth a respectable coalition of 30 ministers and 11 secretaries of state. Three political parties (Nahda, Mu’tamar, and Takattul) and some independents are represented in this coalition government. Several appointments in particular stand out.

The most controversial appointment concerns the foreign ministry, which was entrusted to Rafiq Abdessalam, a former politics and international relations student at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, London. The 43-year-old academic has no practical experience that would allow him to navigate the complex world of diplomacy, except his personal connections to some of the rulers of the Gulf States. It is believed that his appointment was meant to reward the historical leader of al-Nahda: Rachid Ghannouchi, his father-in-law. But this very fact did not please many Tunisians who had suffered from the actions of Ben Ali’s in-laws. Appointing the son-in-law of the leader of the winning party to a powerful position despite his lack of experience is a painful reminder of the corruption, cronyism, and abuse of power under the old regime. Nahda might suffer politically in next year’s elections because of this insensitive and probably foolish move.

Nahda leaders may have a saving grace in the new chief of the interior ministry. For most Tunisians, the interior ministry is a euphemism for police brutality. Under Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the ministry was used to eliminate political opponents, torture political prisoners, intimidate citizens, and spread fear—it was the tyrants’ favorite tool for subjugating peoples. One of the victims of this institution was Ali Laaridh, who was imprisoned for 15 years—13 years of them in solitary confinement—during Ben Ali’s rule. He was sentenced to death under Bourguiba’s regime. It is highly unlikely that a victim of torture and abuse would subject others to the same brutality. Consequently, Laaridh might well be the right person to rehabilitate the security forces and reform the institution.

Another reassuring face in the new government is that of Noureddine Bhiri. The 53-year-old lawyer is a moderate who spent years defending political prisoners. He, too, was imprisoned for his political activities. Many Tunisians, and other human rights activists, hope that his struggles for civil and political rights will serve him well as he leads the critically important ministry of justice.

Governing a country that has suffered years of mismanagement, corruption, and abuses of power is never easy. Forming a coalition government was the right choice. The three political parties seem to trust one another, and they all stand to lose a great deal if the coalition fails. They have months, not years, to deliver on three critical issues: unemployment, political reform, and economic growth. Even more importantly, they have the responsibility of setting new standards for the rest of the Arab world. The new standards must reflect transparency, compassion, and just use of power that demonstrates respect for human dignity
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

December 21, 2011

Holding on to the past and the status quo, Gulf States seek political unity

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011   No comments
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

The Arab world is fundamentally changing, and many Arab leaders are racing to adapt. Showing increased signs of nervousness, the leaders of the Gulf States have adopted the Saudi King’s recommendation to move the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) towards “unity.” The meeting of the rulers of the GCC member states that concluded on Tuesday December 20, 2011 also issued an unusually portentous declaration. The rulers expressed their fears of “attempts by foreign entities trying to export their internal crises through the effects of discord and division, and inciting sectarianism.” Therefore, they outlined a strategy “to fortify the home front” to counter these attempts through their “determination to achieve the highest degree of economic integration and development of defense cooperation and security.” Let’s attempt to decipher these seemingly cryptic sentences.

December 1, 2011

A Middle East run by Islamists: Should Western Powers Freak Out?

    Thursday, December 01, 2011   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

In 39 days, three Arab countries held critical elections, Tunisia (October 23), Morocco (November 25), and Egypt (November 28-9). Although the elections in these countries have different contexts and implications, the three events have several things in common. First, the elections were made possible directly or indirectly by the Arab Awakening of early 2011. Second, before the Awakening, Western powers had labeled these three countries as “moderate,” a euphemism for undemocratic regimes run by a westernized elite. Last, these elections brought to power Islamist parties and groups that the west has labeled “extremists.” So should western governments now freak out?
In the short run, maybe. In the long run, not at all. Here is why.

November 23, 2011

What can the Egyptians learn from the Tunisian experience?

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

The recent wave of violence in Egypt is new evidence that the Arab peoples want real changes, not cosmetic ones. The military leaders in Tunisia acted professionally and within the mandate of any professional military. They acted to protect the people, not a regime or a constitution that was written by an illegitimate regime. The Tunisian military stood on the side of the people and did not involve itself in politics. That institution now stands admired and respected by all Tunisians. The Tunisian people then elected a new body to lead the transition from authoritarian rule to a pluralistic representative one.

In contrast, during the Egyptian uprising, the Egyptian military stood in the middle. It did not shoot at demonstrators but it also treated Mubarak and his regime with deference. Consequently, the ouster of Mubarak did not delegitimize the institutions of the regime. Moreover, the military leaders acted in manner that preserved their privileged status. It was unwilling to transfer power to civilian authorities unless pressured to do so. The pattern of preserving privilege and power has been undeniable. So no one should be surprised today, when the people came back to the streets to demand the one thing they should have asked for the first time they rose up: the election of constituency assembly that will write a new constitution and establish an interim government.

But the post-Mubarak era is being founded on the institutions of an illegitimate regime. That is the fatal contradiction that is preventing Egypt from moving beyond its past. In a sense, the Egyptian revolution was aborted the minute the military assumed power. There is mounting evidence that the military leaders were not truly interested in keeping the peace while politicians tried to chart a new path to representative government. Instead, the military leaders created committees and commissions to amend the corrupt constitution and issue new ordinances and legal instruments that would limit the power and authority of future elected bodies and individuals.

The military leaders need to realize that credibility of their institution depends on their willingness to operate within the limits of the military proper mandate. Civilian rule, not military rule, is the only way forward. A military government cannot gain legitimacy merely by the consent of political parties, whatever their popularity.

In a reaction to the recent wave of protests, the leader of the High Military Council announced that the military could speed up the transfer of power to civilians if the people demand it in a referendum that the military states it is willing to facilitate. This very statement shows that the military leaders are disingenuous. If they have the time and resources to organize a referendum on staying in power, why not organize an election to elect a body that will govern and decide on the transition to representative governance instead? Moreover, if the military thinks that it is possible to hold one round of elections on November 28, why delay other rounds of elections to weeks later? The military leaders do not seem to understand that they lack legitimacy since they inherited power from a deposed ruler. Many Egyptians are now realizing this and they are not willing to allow the status quo to stand.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Politics of Appearances. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

November 13, 2011

The limits of objectivity: Qatari rulers reassert control over Aljazeera

    Sunday, November 13, 2011   No comments
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

The leader of al-Nahda movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, made his first visit to a foreign country after the first post-revolution Tunisian elections. His choice was the State of Qatar. Analysts see many messages in this gesture but some Tunisians are troubled by the invitation he had extended to the Emir of Qatar. Although many do not want any foreign leader present during the opening session of the constituency assembly, some Tunisians are singling out the ruler of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, as a persona non grata. They see him as a bully who is using Aljazeera and his huge wealth to push an agenda that is not necessarily in the interest of their country. From the initiatives in which they have been involved, it is not hard to identify echoes of personal ambitions to amass power and influence. The Qatari officials seem to have found the winning trifecta for success. A quick analysis of their projects shows that they have built a project on three foundations: Arab neo-nationalism, Islamism, and private capital. The single most crucial tool that effectively connects these three elements is information and communication. Aljazeera, then, became the central piece. Through their petro-wealth, the rulers of Qatar bankrolled Aljazeera and through Aljazeera they initiated reciprocal relationships with Islamist and nationalist movements. In this essay, we will examine the conception and function of Aljazeera in the context of the Arab Spring and regional politics and the way the rulers of Qatar have leveraged it for their advantage.

Aljazeera satellite channel has been a reliable source of news for the Arab masses since it was launched in 1996. It has built a reputation of fierce independence, professionalism, and focus on the issues that mattered most to the Arab street. The Arab peoples had lost confidence in their national media, which are seen as the mouthpiece of repressive governments. The absence of independent media and the governmental control over information amplified people’s cynicism and distrust. The majority of Arab and Muslim countries have had a cabinet position managing information. Such governmental agencies are generally in charge of exerting state control over the press and all media outlets. In the eyes of the Arab masses, then, “Ministry of Information” became a euphemism for censorship and propaganda.

In 2000, Aljazeera’s general manager, Mohammed Jasim al-Ali, reiterated the Qatari rulers’ business philosophy and their vision for Aljazeera as follows:When the Qatari rulers decided to enter the business of satellite television, they wanted their venture to stand out by capitalizing on this public sentiment. In fact, immediately before launching the channel, the Qatari rulers dissolved the Ministry of Information. Many of the employees who worked for the ministry were eventually hired by Aljazeera and its various subsidiaries.
“I came to recognize something about the TV business in the Arab world: we concentrate mostly upon entertainment, quiz shows, drama, movies. But I think there is an important field that has been missing, talk shows and news. No one has developed the news, because the reputation of the media in the Middle East is that the news is censored and controlled by the government. All media business in the Middle East is controlled by the government. The leaders of Qatar wanted to change that; they want to have a satellite channel with the aim of no longer hiding any information.”
Although Aljazeera was funded by the government of Qatar and investors from the ruling family, initially, its management and journalists enjoyed unprecedented autonomy. For instance, the successor of al-Ali, Wadah Khanfar, was not even a Qatari citizen. During his tenure, Khanfar developed a healthy relationship with the rulers of Qatar and the religious icon Yousef al-Qardawi. He rarely allowed negative coverage of his host country but his coverage of the rest of the Arab world did not make him any friends. In fact, on many occasions, a number of governments including the Tunisian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian ones shut down Aljazeera offices in reaction to what they deemed “libelous,” “slanderous,” and “poisonous” news stories. The Arab regimes’ hostility towards Aljazeera only increased its popularity among the Arab masses.

Furthermore, the Arab audiences’ loyalty to Aljazeera skyrocketed during its coverage of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recognizing the Arab peoples’ disapproval of the war, Aljazeera multiplied its “un-embedded” reporters in the battle fields and beamed countless images of dead civilians to millions of Arabs prompting then-Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to call the channel, “the mouth piece of al-Qaedah.” When the U.S. killed one of Aljazeera’s reporters in an air raid, the place of Aljazeera as a reliable source of news for the Arab masses was cemented. The arrest and imprisonment of additional reporters, including the Afghanistan reporter whom the United States held in Guantanamo for years, also added to its popularity in Arab countries and around the world.

With this reputation and huge amount of goodwill capital, Aljazeera has consistently been able to influence public opinion. Many Arab rulers had accused it of inciting protest and dissent. Undoubtedly, the role Aljazeera played in the Arab Spring was unprecedented, especially during the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Many Tunisians credited the channel with speeding the overthrow of Ben Ali’s regime. In general, Aljazeera was loved by the Arab peoples and loathed by the Arab authoritarians--until the Qatari rulers decided to cash in on their unusual investment. The recent revelations about the foreign and national governmental interference in Aljazeera’s editorial decisions created a new context for the takeover.

It all began when Wikileaks revealed that the U.S. government used “soft pressure” to influence the channel’s editorial policy and daily coverage of events. In parallel, many people began to question the neutrality and independence of Aljazeera when the Arab Spring protests hit the Gulf States and Syria. Many observed that Aljazeera’s coverage of the uprising in Bahrain was timid or nonexistent. The same was said of its stories dealing with the protests in eastern Saudi Arabia and Oman. All the while, Aljazeera continued its hardnosed coverage of the Syrian uprising providing ample space to opposition figures and replaying unconfirmed clips about military personnel defections, kidnappings, and murder (some of which turned out to be fabricated).

In retrospect, the Arab Spring was a double-edged sword for Aljazeera in that it increased the network’s popularity but exposed the political and financial strings tying to the Qatari rulers. The fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and the coverage of those two revolutions helped increase the popularity of the channel. The role of Aljazeera in inspiring the Libyan and Yemeni protesters is also undeniable. But when protest movements reached the Gulf States (Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia), Aljazeera’s coverage became inexplicably tame. It did not take long before viewers (and readers of the online resources) saw the double standard. Amid these critical moments, Khanfar was forced to resign (although he insisted that it was his choice), and a member of the Qatari ruling clan took over as the new general manager.

Immediately after this change in leadership, Aljazeera’s coverage became noticeably different, and even the comments on the channel’s website showed the change in viewers’ attitudes. During the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, Aljazeera’s online assets were hacked and in some cases crashed due to high volume of visitors. Since the uprising in Bahrain and Syria, however, online visitors’ tracking data show that fewer viewers and online users are relying on Aljazeera for news and information. The fast decline shows that viewers’ loyalty takes decades to build, but only days to lose.

Aljazeera’s role as a political tool became evident during its coverage of the Libyan conflict as well. Some Libyan leaders complained that Aljazeera routinely covered select groups and individuals who had links to al-Qardawi, one of the leaders of the global Muslim Brethren movement. He is also the head of self-styled International Union of Muslim Scholars, with which Ali Sallabi, a Libyan Islamist, is also affiliated.

The political role of Aljazeera came to light again when the Arab League, uncharacteristically, attempted to troubleshoot the Syrian crisis in early November 2011. It was reported that when the leaders of the organization submitted the proposal to the Syrian regime, its foreign minister insisted that the deal should include a stipulation requiring “certain television channels” stop their “poisonous” reporting.

At this time, there is no doubt that Aljazeera has become a powerful force and many governments wanted to either limit its influence or arrogate it for political purposes. The Qatari regime is very aware of this asset and they have been using it to raise their profile on the international stage. A tiny state with limited military power, Qatar relied on Aljazeera to become a major player in the region and around the world. Aljazeera’s popularity and influence among the Arab people meant that Arab governments were invested in controlling, to whatever extent possible, Aljazeera’s coverage of their regimes. The Qatari government was able to leverage this desire for control over media coverage into political advantage – favorable or unfavorable coverage of the regime became a bargaining chip in regional negotiations.

The rulers of Qatar, who have run their own country like a private business, have involved themselves in the affairs of many countries and organizations from around the world. Just to name a few diplomatic achievements and ambitions, they involved themselves in the Lebanese crisis that allowed Hariri to form a short-lived unity government, they played a pivotal role in ending the military conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, they attempted to unite the Palestinian factions, and they tried to mediate the Somali conflict. The Emir and his prime minister, a distant cousin, reportedly visited Israel and secretly met with Tzipi Livni to boast of their pragmatism and ambitious aspirations.

The involvement of the Qatari rulers in too many initiatives, on too many sides makes it seem like they are engaged in ad hoc diplomacy. Their wide networks of military, political, and diplomatic relations make their strategy seem conflicted and unprincipled. But considering self-interest and personal greed as the driving forces, the logic in this multi-dimensional Qatari blitz becomes clear. Ultimately, these diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives would not have been possible without leveraging the influence of Aljazeera.

In this age of the promise and fragility of virtual realities, new technologies, when backed by bottomless financial pockets, can build ski resorts in desert lands, isolated artificial islands, roof-top golf courses, and endless shopping malls. From tiny offices in Doha, Aljazeera, as a pet project of the rulers of Qatar, projected itself around the world in style and grandeur, causing fear and paranoia in the hearts and minds of many Arab dictators. The sudden rise of Aljazeera was matched only by its swift loss of credibility when the Emirs decided to reclaim their prized creation.

Ultimately, however, the Qatari rulers, too, will realize that they are grasping the wind. The end of an independent Aljazeera will be a traumatizing blow to the Arab street. The Arab masses may revert to their default position for finding reliable sources of information. They will, once again, follow the official media to learn about events but read between the lines for the truth. Alternatively, they may work harder to find and support independent, but financially struggling, voices of bloggers and YouTubers for critical information.

As for the satellite television stations, we must recognize the unfortunate trend of disappearing independent journalism. Wealthy authoritarian regimes are reasserting their control over the means of communication and consolidating the tools of power and influence. This can only negatively impact peoples’ access to information, the corner stone for the founding of civil society and responsible citizenry.


* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Politics of Appearances. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

November 7, 2011

The women of al-Nahda: faces of the new Tunisian republic

    Monday, November 07, 2011   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Before January 14, 2011, al-Nahda was the main opposition group in Tunisia. No one, even its most severe critics, could question the fact that it was the most persecuted group in terms of the number of political prisoners, exiles, and disappearances. Its politics aside, al-Nahda did not shy away from challenging both the regime of Ben Ali and that of Bourguiba. For these reasons, some people with whom I talked in Tunisia contended that the win should be seen as a token of recognition on the part of the Tunisian voters for al-Nahda’s struggles and sacrifices, not as a validation of its ideology. Be that as it may, that theory will be put to the test a year from now when the party competes again in parliamentarian and presidential elections. In order to understand al-Nahda’s background, we ought to examine the background and views of key figures who won seats in the constituency assembly.

Many commentators did not pay attention to Tunisia’s Nahda movement before the recent elections. So it is not surprising that when western journalists and political commentators began to notice it, their commentaries lacked context and depth. For example, some of those who noticed that 42 of the 49 women elected to the constituency assembly are members of the Islamist party have theorized that the inclusion of women is a ploy to allay fear that the movement would scale back women’s rights. That may be partly true. Those familiar with the history of the movement, however, know that women have always played a leading role. The presence of Souad Abderrahim on top al-Nahda’s list in Tunis 2 is a good reminder of the movement’s past and a telling indicator of its future.

Women like Abderrahim have played crucial role in the leadership of al-Nahda since its formative years when it was called the Islamic Trend Movement. Then, and in campuses around the country, many young women, sometimes unveiled and wearing leather jackets and jeans, would debate other students – especially those from the communist party – defending the views of the movement with enthusiasm and zeal. The movement’s embrace of women as leaders earned it many critics among conservative religious movements such as the Tahrir Party and the Salafi movements who reject all participation in democratic processes.

As a college student, Souad Abderrahim was more of a sympathizer than an activist. She graduated from the fac de pharmacie in Tunis in 1992 and was fairly active in the Union Générale Tunisienne des Etudiants (UGTE), which was controlled by Islamists. When she was officially invited to join al-Nahda party, she accepted without hesitation. She brought energy and flare to her new role as non-veiled woman leading a party suspected of espousing anti-women agenda. She contended that her presence is both reassurance and evidence.

During the last days of the campaign and addressing the doubts about her party’s commitment to social justice and women’s rights, Abderrahim declared that “Nahda has no problem with assigning women to powerful positions, and that women, [in the eyes of the movement], are the mothers, the sisters, the wives, and the daughters who stood by the party members and supported them while they were being tortured and imprisoned.”

She emphasized that “Nahda is very open, and by nominating an independent woman, the party is trying to reassure Tunisians that they are committed to preserving women’s rights and freedoms.” She added that women should not be afraid of al-Nahda. “The proof is that they nominated me as a head of a list,” she argued.

During the last days of the campaign for the constituency assembly, she appeared outside the party headquarters in the Montplaisir district and answered questions from the national and international press. She did so while embracing her public role as the face of a political movement that is committed to civil society. Wearing a blue suit, sunglasses and a smile for the cameras, one would not have guessed that she was a Tunisian politician running on a religious party’s list. She seemed at ease, talking to people, making media appearances and engaging the crowds at the last rally held at the Ben Arus stadium. Abderrahim confidently answered questions that ended up addressing the same issue: what role will women play if al-Nahda wins the elections? Her answers were invariably the same, “Our aim is the freedom of all women. The veil is a religious and a personal choice.”

“al-Nahda is a modern political party,” Abderrahim contended, “inspired by Islam’s best values that are then applied to everyday life. People should not fear us, because our party is ready to work for all Tunisians.” She recognized that she would likely have a major role to play in the future government, but played down expectations saying that it was too soon to be sure of any electoral victories. What is certain, she says, is that, “If the party considers me worthy, I will accept the position offered to me. If the coalition government asks me, and if political results allow it, then why not? Should this not happen, the results achieved in these days remain a historic moment for our country.”

Addressing skeptics, Souad Abderrahim provided context and reassurances, “Tunisia is emerging from a dictatorship, but now the people need to understand that our party wishes to represent everyone… We do not question the status of women and the role they played in the revolution. Tunisian women are well-educated, brilliant, well-read. I myself am committed, as a person and not just as a politician, to achieving the objectives of women, increasing their involvement in institutions, in political and economic life, and in public life in general.”

Now that her party secured a comfortable majority in the constituency assembly, she may be called upon once more to lead, perhaps as the president of this elected body in which her party hold a majority or as a diplomat representing the country abroad. Either way, Tunisia, because of the new political faces like Abderrahim’s, is on a new course, unparalleled and unprecedented in the Arab world. Her party is unable to govern on its own. Her party’s leaders must find reliable partners among the other lists that won significant number of seats and by doing so, a new era or pluralism and peaceful transfer of power might be ushered in. Importantly, the leaders of al-Nahda ought to remember the fact that more than 58% of the voters did not endorse it. Therefore, they ought to understand that they must govern by consensus and they must respect the dignity of all Tunisians, not just their supporters.


* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

October 31, 2011

Historic elections in Tunisia set the tone for the Arab world

    Monday, October 31, 2011   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

The country that started the Arab Spring made its first step towards pluralistic, representative governance. On October 23, 2011 and before the eyes of hundreds of national and international monitors, observers, and reporters, Tunisians lined up to elect their representatives for the Constituency Council (Assembly). Nearly ten months after the overthrow of the authoritarian ruler, Ben Ali, more than seven million Tunisians voted. I had the honor to observe the process before, during, and immediately after the elections and I was astounded by the level of professionalism, transparency, and integrity of the process. I will write about the meaning and implications in the near future; but I wanted to share some of the statistics of these elections for that tells just as important of a story as the outcome itself.

To meet the aspirations of the revolution, an independent commission was tasked with organizing the elections (Independent High Commission for the Elections). Out of the total of 1624 lists that sought approval to compete in the elections, 1519 were approved and the rest (about 7%) were denied participation for not meeting the established standards. These lists were a mixture of independents (655), political parties (830), and coalitions (34) competing in some or all of the 27 districts. Each list has a leader; 93% of these leaders were males and 50% of the persons on the lists were under the age of 47 years.

Al-Nahda won 41.47 per cent of the vote (90 of the 217 seats). The Congress for the Republic Party won 30 seats, while al-Takattul came third with 21 seats closely followed by the Popular Petition with 19 seats. The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the opposition party since the days of Bourguiba and Ben Ali won only 17 seats. The remaining 40 seats were carried by other lists and parties. The Popular Petition had nine of its seats won in six constituencies eliminated reportedly for breaking the election laws on financing campaigns. One seat in France was invalidated following allegations that the head of the list had an active role within the RCD—the party of the former dictator.

Overall, women took 24% of the assembly after they won 49 seats, and 42 of those seats belonged to al-Nahda. According to the final results, 28 lists are represented at the constituency council, but while 19 party lists hold 203 seats, eight independent lists and one coalition list have nine and five seats, respectively. The elected body will now write a new constitution, choose an interim president and a caretaker prime minister and prepare for the next elections that will take place in one year

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

October 3, 2011

Will Tunisia Become Less Secular?

    Monday, October 03, 2011   No comments

Outside Tunis one afternoon last week I visited the Tunisian American Association for Management Studies, which offers vocational training and literacy courses to working-class women. A sewing class had just ended, and the participants—a dozen girls and women between the ages of fifteen and fifty, most of them wearing headscarves—agreed to talk about the country’s first democratic election, scheduled to take place on October 23.
In recent weeks, polls have showed that Ennahda (Renaissance), an Islamist party banned by the dictatorship of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is poised to win about one third of the vote. Ennahda’s leaders insist that if they win they will respect equal rights for men and women and maintain a division between Islam and the state. Still, they are widely distrusted, and the prospect of an Islamist plurality in the constituent assembly—which would give the party major influence in shaping a new constitution—has heightened anxiety among many Tunisians
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June 1, 2011

Realignment of the Arab world in the light of the Arab revolutions

    Wednesday, June 01, 2011   No comments

In another sign of nervousness resulting from the mounting pressure put by the Arab revolts on authoritarian rulers, members of the GCC (Cooperative Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) unexpectedly opened the door for considering the admission of Jordan and Morocco to this intergovernmental organization. In doing so, what used to be a geographical cooperative is worriedly attempting to transform itself into a political paradigm.

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