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Murder Mystery in Tunisia

10 February 2013

Murder Mystery in Tunisia

By Gwynne Dyer

When somebody is murdered and his killer is unknown, the detective’s first step is to ask: who had a motive? In classic murder-mystery novels and films, the usual answer was: almost everybody. That’s the only way to keep the plot going for 250 pages/90 minutes. But in real life, the suspects are generally few, and pretty obvious. So who killed Chokri Belaid?

The Tunisian human rights lawyer and political leader was assassinated outside his home as he left for work on 6 February, and the country immediately erupted in violent anti-government demonstrations. His wife Basma said she would file murder charges against the ruling Ennahda Party and its leader, and the mobs in the street chanted the mantra of the Arab revolutions, “the people want the fall of the regime.”

But the regime in question is the democratically elected government of a country that has already had its revolution. Tunisia was the birthplace of the “Arab spring”. It held its first free election on October 2011, to elect an assembly to write the new constitution. The winner, as in a number of other Arab countries, was a moderate Islamic party.

The Ennahda-led transitional government has made some mistakes, as you would expect of inexperienced politicians, but it has shown no desire to subvert democracy. Indeed, the Islamic party formed a coalition with two secular centre-left parties after the election, and in the weeks before Belaid’s murder it was deep in talks to broaden the coalition and bring other secular parties in.

Those other parties have now walked out of the talks, demanding the cancellation of the results of the 2011 election. That certainly does not serve Ennahda’s interests, and the violent protests in the streets are even more of a problem, since they might trigger a military intervention to “restore order”. (The Tunisian army is strongly pro-secularist.) In terms of motive, Ennahda has none. So who would actually benefit from killing Chokri Belaid?

One suspect is the Salafists, religious extremists who despise the Ennahda Party but absolutely hate militant secularists like Belaid. Many in the secular camp criticise Ennahda’s founder and leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, for failing to “crack down” when Salafist fanatics attack peaceful political gatherings, and he must bear some blame here. But that’s still a long way from plotting a murder.

Ghannouchi, like the leaders of other moderate Islamic parties across the Arab world, is reluctant to treat the Salafists as enemies (even though they are), because they both compete for the votes of pious Muslims. But he also argues, quite reasonably, that mass arrests and torture of Salafists in the style of the old regime is immoral and counter-productive. Just track down the ones who have committed specific crimes.

Did the Salafists commit this particular crime? Possibly. Killing a militant secularist would be emotionally satisfying to them. But they are not actually the leading suspect in Shokri Belaid’s murder.

The prime suspect is the old ruling elite, people who served the former dictator and have been deprived of power and opportunities for graft since the revolution. They can only regain their privileges if democracy fails, so violence in the streets, extreme political polarisation, the discrediting of an elected government, and a military take-over are precisely what they need.

The Constitutional Democratic Rally, the party whose members loyally served the dictator and were lavishly rewarded by him, was banned after the revolution, and some of its senior members are in jail or in exile. But there are still plenty of others around, and it would be astonishing if they were not plotting a comeback. The only viable route to that goal is to stimulate a civil war between the secular democrats and the Islamic democrats.

If this is where the logic takes us, why are some of the secular parties taking to the streets? In some cases, no doubt, grief and rage have led them astray. In other cases, however, there is probably the cynical calculation that this is the most effective way to hurt the Islamic party, even if it had nothing to do with the murder.

Ennahda’s response has been less than coherent. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, shocked by the news of the murder, offered to replace the government with a cabinet of technocrats and call early elections, but the party’s founder and leader, Rachid Ghannoushi, said that the government should stay in place and track down the murderers.

Jebali is sticking to his guns, and the outcome is far from clear. The whole thing is a mess, and Tunisians are justifiably concerned that their revolution has lost its way. But there is quite a good chance that they will be able to get the process of building a law-abiding democracy back on track without a major disaster, and it’s certainly far too soon to say that their revolution was a mistake.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“Ghannouchi…crimes”; and “If this…murder”)

 

The “Arab Spring”: Good News

11 July 2012

The “Arab Spring”: Good News

By Gwynne Dyer

The good news about last weekend’s election in Libya, as relayed by the Western media, was that the “Islamists” were defeated and the Good Guys won. The real good news was that democracy in the Arab world is still making progress, regardless of whether the voters choose to support secular parties or Islamic ones.

The Libyan election was remarkably peaceful, given the number of heavily armed militias left over from the war to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship that still infest the country. Turnout was about 60 percent, and Mahmoud Jibril, who headed the National Transitional Council during last year’s struggle against Gaddafi, won a landslide victory.

The explicitly Islamic parties, the Justice and Development Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and Al-Watan, did far worse than they expected, getting barely 20 percent of the vote in Benghazi, the big city in the east. But they should not have been surprised.

In Tunisia to Libya’s west and Egypt to the east, the Muslim Brotherhood was the mainstay of resistance to the dictatorships for decades, and it paid a terrible price for its bravery. It was natural for voters in those countries to reward Islamic parties when the tyrants were finally overthrown. Gaddafi was more ruthless and efficient in crushing all opposition in Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhoood had scarcely any local presence.

So Libya gets a “secular” government, while Tunisia and Egypt get “Islamic” governments – but the point is that they all get democratically elected governments, and stand a reasonable chance of becoming countries that respect human rights and the rule of law. Tunisia, indeed, has already made that transition, and Egypt, with one-third of the entire population of the Arab world, is still heading in that direction too.

The relevant question is not whether a party is Islamic; it’s whether it is democratic. The Western prejudice against Islamic parties (and local prejudice as well) comes from a confusion between Islamic and “Islamist” groups, the latter being the English word for fanatical groups that reject democracy and advocate violent jihad against infidels and “heretical” Muslims.

This confusion, sad to say, is often deliberately encouraged by Western and local interests that really know better, but want to discredit those who oppose them. That phenomenon was much in evidence during the recent Egyptian elections, where the other major parties, instead of offering serious policy proposals of their own, concentrated on trying to scare the voters about the “Islamic threat”.

It didn’t work in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s party won both the parliamentary and the presidential elections. This did not please the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its allies from the old regime, and they arranged for the Egyptian Supreme Court to dismiss the new parliament on a flimsy constitutional pretext.

Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammad Morsi, has refused to accept the army’s decrees, and a delicate game is underway in Cairo in which he is trying to discredit the soldiers and gradually drive them back into their barracks without risking an open confrontation that could trigger an actual military coup. He will probably win in the end, because the army knows that the masses would promptly be back in Tahrir Square if it did try a coup.

And if Egyptians don’t like what their Islamic government does, they can always vote it out again at the next election.

 

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

Here Come the Muslim Fanatics

25 October 2011

Here Come the Muslim Fanatics

By Gwynne Dyer

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council and the country’s de facto leader, promised on Tuesday that sharia law would be the basis of all new legislation, and that this would involve getting rid of certain existing laws – like the ban on polygamy. On the same day Tunisia announced that Annahda, an Islamic party, had won the most votes in that country’s first free election. Here come the Muslim fanatics.

Or so the Western media think, at least. Even since the “Arab spring” began, they have been worrying aloud about the risk that in overthrowing the dictators, most of whom were secular rulers, the revolutionaries were simply opening the door to rule by religious fanatics. And the fanatics would, of course, hate the West and launch terrorist attacks against it.

This is part of the narrative, mainly of American origin but also widely popular on the European right, in which Islamist terrorists attacked the West not because of fifty years of Western meddling in the Middle East, mainly in support of dictators, but just because they “hate our values.” Or “our freedoms”; take your pick. That gets the West off the hook: it was just an innocent passer-by who got mugged by crazies.

That’s Step One in the process. Then the correct description of the fanatics, which is “Islamist”, mutates imperceptibly into “Islamic”, which just means a person, organisation or doctrine that prioritises the values of the Muslim religion. But if you don’t understand the difference (and lots of people in the West don’t), then you are likely to think that any political success by an Islamic party means that the terrorists win.

So an electoral success by an inoffensive Islamic party in Tunisia and some remarks by an Islamic enthusiast in Libya (who has already promised not to seek permanent political office in the country, like all the members of the NTC) add up to an victory for the terrorists. At least in the view of many commentators and analysts in the West. So let us dissect this notion.

Annahda, at least in its rhetoric, is a moderate Islamic party. “Tunisians have voted in fact for those parties that have been consistently part of the struggle for democracy and opposed to Ben Ali’s dictatorship,” said party spokesperson Yusra Ghannouchi, and that is the simple truth. Moreover, Ennahda’s leaders have explicitly pledged to create a multi-party, secular democracy, not an Islamic state.

And although Ennahda came first in the election, it only got 40 percent of the votes. Since the other five major parties, all centrist or centre-left, will together hold 60 percent of the seats in the new Constituent Assembly, the Islamic party could not impose extreme religious laws on the country even if it wanted to — and it swears it doesn’t.

The struggle will then be over the new constitution, which must be written by the assembly over the next twelve months. The Islamic party wants a purely parliamentary system, in which a prime minister is drawn from the largest party would control the government, provided that his coalition commands a majority in parliament.

The other, secular parties prefer a presidential system, with a directly elected president holding executive power including the right to appoint the prime minister (although the latter would still need a majority in parliament). The attraction of the presidential system is that it normally involves a run-off election between the two leading candidates – in which the 65-35 advantage of the secular candidate wins every time. And the secular parties will get their way.

So no Islamist victory there, and not much of an Islamic one. What about Libya?

Victory in Libya came not through non-violent action, but through six months of brutal war against the forces of Muammar Gaddafi. The people who rise to positions of influence in an armed uprising waged by volunteers are very different from those who come to power in normal, peaceful politics. They tend to be flamboyant, good at violence, and extreme in their views. Mustafa Abdul Jalil is all of those things, but he is not the next dictator of Libya.

He can promise whatever he wants, but he won’t be in power to deliver it. There will be an election: the foreign air support that gave the rebels victory also gave the foreigners the leverage to guarantee that. And few of the people elected are likely to agree with Jalil’s views on polygamy in particular, or even the political role of Islam in general.

For all Gaddafi’s posturing as a son of the desert, Libyans are no longer a tribal people, let alone a nation of semi-nomadic, socially conservative herdsmen. Nor are they a desperate rabble ready to follow the first radical to open his mouth.

Four-fifths of Libyans live in cities. They are pretty comprehensively detribalised, and they have modest but regular incomes and small families. Women have more freedom and equality than they do in most Arab countries, and the vast majority of Libyans own their own homes. These are not people who are going to vote for a return to some imaginary past of devout simplicity.

Repeat three times after me: “Islamic” is not the same as “Islamist”. And Arabs are not fools; they are grown-ups.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The struggle…way”)

1989 and the Arab World

3 February 2011

1989 and the Arab World

 By Gwynne Dyer

It was the Egyptian army’s statement that brought it all back: “To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people.” In other words, go ahead and overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. It’s all right with us.

It reminded me of the day of the first big anti-Communist demonstration in Moscow in mid-1989. There had already been non-violent demos in other Communist-ruled countries like Poland and Hungary, but this was Russia. The enormous crowd filling the broad Garden Ring Road was visibly nervous, and I was staying near the edge of the crowd so I could dodge into a doorway if the shooting started.

Then I noticed that there were Soviet army officers, in full uniform, among the protesters. It was going to be all right: the military wanted change just as much as everybody else. Tahrir Square in Cairo today is the same: the army is with the people.

The army statement in Cairo rang the death knell for Mubarak’s regime, even if he still insists that he will stay in the presidential palace until the election scheduled for September. That won’t happen. A transitional government led by other people will organise the election. But the echoes of an earlier revolution set me to wondering: is this the Arab world’s 1989?

In 1989 the collapse of the old order started in the “satellite”countries, not in the Russian heart of the empire, just as the current revolt against the Arab status quo began in Tunisia, a relatively small and marginal Arab country. The Eastern European landslide only started to sweep everything before it in November, 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. So is Hosni Mubarak the Berlin Wall of the Arab world?

He certainly could be, for Egypt is the most populous Arab country, and the tactics and goals of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples closely resemble those of the peaceful revolutionaries of Eastern Europe in 1989. The Arabs, too, are successfully using non-violent tactics to bring irresistible moral pressure on tyrannical and corrupt regimes, and they are demanding just the same things: democracy, justice and prosperity.

The non-violent formula worked in two to three weeks in Tunisia, and it looks like it will take about the same time in Egypt. At first the president is defiant and sends police thugs out into the streets to attack the protesters, but he cannot use massive violence because he knows that the army would not obey a shoot-to-kill order. Much like in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Then begins the retreat. First the president promises reforms. Then, when that doesn’t work, he fires the entire government and creates a new cabinet (but it’s still full of hated regime cronies). Then he promises to leave power at the next election, but argues that he must stay for the transition period to guarantee “stability.” And finally, he gets on the plane and leaves.

Tunisia has travelled that entire route since mid-December, and Egypt is passing through the next-to-last stage. Other Arab countries may be on the same road: the demos began in Algeria and Yemen in December. They’re only three weeks old in Jordan, but the king has just fired the entire government and appointed a new cabinet with orders to carry out “true political reforms.”

There are hold-outs like Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, boasted last week that his regime is secure because it has a “cause”: confrontation with Israel. More to the point, the Syrian army probably would open fire on protesters, for it is dominated by the ethnic minority to which Assad himself belongs.

Iraq is so paralysed by ethnic divisions after the American occupation that no popular mass movement is possible. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states almost certainly face no risk of popular revolution, for their people enjoy great prosperity because of their oil. Nevertheless, the pressure for change is palpable in most Arab countries.

Fully half the population of the Arab world might be living under different, more democratic regimes a year or two from now. The European 1989 delivered precisely that in just two years; why can’t the Arabs do the same?

They can, of course, but the period after 1989 in Eastern Europe was not entirely happy. The immediate result, in most countries, was a fall in living standards, not a rise. One major country, former Yugoslavia, was torn apart by war. There were various smaller wars along the ethnically fractured southern borders of the former Soviet Union, and Russia ended up back under a gentler sort of authoritarian rule.

The risks for the Arab world are comparable: short-term economic decline, civil war, and the rise of new authoritarian regimes, probably fuelled by Islamist ideas. Nothing’s perfect. But what we are now witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, and may also see elsewhere, is a great liberation not just from dictatorship, but from decades of corruption and despair. That’s worth a lot.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“There are…countries”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.