“After days of deadlock, Egypt’s military-backed interim president named veteran economist Hazem el-Beblawi (right) as prime minister on Tuesday and appointed pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei as a vice president, while the army showed its strong hand in shepherding the process, warning political factions against ‘maneuvering’ that impedes the transition,” Associated Press reports:
El-Beblawi, 76, called for dialogue between the new leadership and their Islamist opponents. “Everyone in Egypt must sit together on the table for dialogue to solve current political differences, stop violence and bloodshed in the street,” he told The Associated Press.
El-Beblawi served as finance minister in one of the first cabinets formed after Mubarak’s ouster and military stepped in to rule for 18-month transitional period. He is one of the founders of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, one of several secular parties in the liberal grouping National Salvation Front.
The appointment came shortly after the interim leadership issued a fast track timetable for amending the constitution and holding new parliamentary elections within seven months, followed by a presidential poll.
The decree shows which civilians they consider among their most important partners…..It is clearly spelled out in the first article of the constitution that Egypt is a country in which “the principles of Islamic Sharia” are the “primary source of legislation.” It explicitly states that the country’s laws should not just adhere to the universal values of Sharia, but also to its interpretation by religious scholars — an extremely Salafist-friendly definition. This was one of the liberals’ main criticisms about the constitution drawn up under Morsi. The fact that it is being tacitly adhered to now is a huge concession to the Salafists.
“Another one of the liberals’ major points of contention with Morsi’s constitution is also being sanctioned by the decree,” notesSalloum:
The Islamist constitution limits freedom of religion to the adherents of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, thus discriminating against Egypt’s Bahai minority. This inequality is once more enshrined in the transitional government’s constitutional decree……The decree is problematic on several other points. It contains a giant loophole that effectively serves to curtail fundamental rights: Freedoms apply only as long as a law doesn’t prohibit it.
“The constitutional declaration shows the strong leverage the Salafist Al-Nour party has on the transitional process, already blocking two prime minister nominations,” he writes for Al-Monitor:
Remarkably, only the lower house of parliament is mentioned, suggesting that the upper house Shura council might be abolished altogether and is not in the current plans… The constitutional declaration also drops the specific stipulation of a 50% share of seats for workers and farmers in parliament, which proved to be problematic. Also, the express mentioning of popular presidential elections suggests that the general underlying intention is to have at least a hybrid political system of some sort.
The Salafists managed to keep the restriction of freedom of religious worship to the “three celestial religions” in Article 7 (i.e., Christianity, Islam and Judaism), Sabry notes:
The overall implications are big in that temporary things have a tendency of becoming permanent, suggesting the articles above could end up becoming even harder to amend. They also indicate the bargaining power Salafists have right now….with the Salafists realizing how their presence helps the military and the opposition maintain the image of a wide multi-ideological revolution rather than that an anti-Islamist uprising, and does not play into “it’s a war against Islam” claims by the Brotherhood and some Islamists.
“One thing that has been dropped is the express reference to Al-Azhar’s role in expressing a supposedly non-binding opinion on Sharia matters pertaining to draft legislation, which some worried might open the door to Al-Azhar eventually exercising heavy influence on legislation in an Iran-like manner as time passed,” he writes:
Freedoms of speech and expression
Article 7 also continues to limit freedoms of speech and expression based on the confines of the law. …..
Military trials for civilians
Article 19 is vague enough to potentially allow for military trials of civilians, another point of long constitutional contention in Egypt.
The right to strike
The right to strike, a major issue over the past 2½ years, is not expressly mentioned in this declaration.
“A somewhat brisk pace that does not sacrifice quality of output nor the sustainability of the transition could surely come a long way in helping Egypt stabilize,” Sabry concludes.
Tunisia is making progress in its efforts to dismantle “terrorist” cells, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said today. But he declined to apply the “terrorist” label to the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia (right) that has been linked with Al-Qaeda and has been implicated in a series of violent attacks.
“This is an illegal organization, and some of its leaders are involved in terrorism,” said Larayedh, a member of Ennahda, Tunisia’s majority party. “I have not yet said that Ansar al-Sharia is a terrorist organization… it must quickly issue a statement clearly condemning violence and terrorism,” he added.
“It seems like Ennahda have finally put their foot down, but that shouldn’t be applauded because over the last two years they have tolerated the growth of Salafism and done nothing about it,” said Aaron Zelin, an expert on Tunisia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“There is likely to be more confrontation in the short to medium term. There could be a cycle of low-level conflict, but neither side has an interest in it becoming larger-scale.”
Ansar al-Sharia is the most radical Islamist group to emerge in what was long one of the most secular Arab countries. It poses a test to the authority of the moderate Islamist-led government and to the stability of Tunisia, a country of 11 million. Zelin estimated that the movement, which is not officially registered, has at least 20,000 activists and is gaining support fast among young people disenchanted with Ennahda’s failure to anchor Islamic sharia law in the constitution, and alienated by unemployment and lack of economic opportunity.
“Salafists have felt targeted and this has only added to their frustration,” said Alaya Allani, a specialist on Islamist groups. “These events are slowing (Tunisia’s) democratic transition and delaying the recovery from an economic crisis.”
Despite the economic challenges, especially debilitating unemployment, the role of religion in governance has emerged as a major obstacle in preparing a constitution, says a prominent Tunis-based civil society activist,
“Two renowned Tunisian constitutionalists have wisely declined to be part of the panel appointed to review the draft constitution. Both Yadh Ben Achour and Kais Saied realize that the text is rife with impossible contradictions (a state religion and Tunisia as a civil state), severe omissions (the universality of human rights) and that highlighting these deficits could endanger their safety,” writes Radia Hennessey, president of the Vineeta Foundation, an NGO dedicated to public health, human rights and governance:
Tunisians are calling the text the Constitution of Shame….It is a constitution that paves the way for a Shariah-based theocratic state with no checks and balances — and immune from future change or amendment. The obsession with religion has so derailed the work of the Constitutional Assembly that the nature of government is not even well established in the draft text.
“The separation of mosque and state, as a way to ensure the freedom of religion, is an urgent imperative if this so-called Arab Spring is not to dry up,” she contends.
Some analysts suggest that the Nahda-led government is using radical Islamists as a ‘trump card’ to distract citizens from its failure to address the country’s pressing problems. The ruling Islamists are also being forced to address a problem of their own making, says a leading analyst. “Since they took over the reins of government early last year, Nahda leaders have focused on issues which divide Tunisian society deeply,” writes Francis Ghilès, a North Africa expert at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs:
“By insisting for months that shari’a should be a major source of law, by inviting hard line Wahabi preachers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to preach in what has traditionally been a tolerant country, by failing to bring to justice the authors of most acts of vandalism against Sufi shrines, and by allowing their militia, the Ligues de Défense de la Révolution, to attack the headquarters of the powerful trades union UGTT last December, the Islamist party has opened up deep lines of fracture in Tunisian society,” Ghilès contends in a must-read report, Still a Long Way to Go for Tunisian Democracy:
Until recently, the party has tolerated the violence of its Salafi friends, arguing, at least to Tunisia’s foreign partners and to ambassadors in Tunis that it was a small price worth paying to ensure that these often young unemployed men joined the democratic process. The attack of the US embassy in Tunis last 14th September, the lynching soon afterwards of an member of Nidha Tunes, Lotfi Naguedh, the attack by Nahda militias of the trades union headquarters in Tunis last November, the torching of sixty Sufi shrines – zaouias – and the murder of Chokri Belaid cast serious doubts about Nahda’s real intentions, all the more as the culprits are seldom brought to trial.
Tunisia’s government, led by the majority Islamist Ennahda party, “was once accused of conciliation to the country’s substantial minority of militants with a violent interpretation of their faith,” notes analyst Alice Fordham. “Now, in a series of statements and actions, the government seems to have decided to crack down on the groups, amid what western and regional officials say are growing security threats.”
A change in discourse by Ali Larayedh, the prime minister, is a key indicator of the shift, say analysts.
“The government will deal with Ansar Al Sharia as an illegal organisation that has committed acts of violence and has ties to terrorism,” he said this week. “The head of this movement is involved in many affairs, including terrorism, and is wanted by security forces.”
“It is a change of language. Larayedh has never before used this term for Ansar … reserving the word terrorist for the groups” which Tunisia’s army is hunting on the Algerian border, said Michael Ayari from the International Crisis Group think tank.
“The words count, but we still can’t say that the policy has changed, that they mark a point of no return, and that the Ansar al-Shariah activists will now be arrested for belonging to the movement, for their political identity,” he added.
Ennahda should instead adopt a shrewder policy, making the distinction between three types of Salafists – scripturalist Salafists who are apolitical and only interested in proselytising; jihadist Salafists who are against using violence domestically (a group that includes some Ansar al-Sharia members); and jihadist Salafists who champion domestic terrorism. Ennahda should tolerate the first lot; pull the second lot into mainstream politics; and come down hard on the third group through targeted anti-terrorism operations.
“Salafist groups, including Salafist-Jihadist and takfiri organizations like Ansar al-Sharia, may agree with less extreme Islamists about many things in theory. But in practice, they always find them both a political obstacle and insufficiently ‘Islamic,’” he writes for Now Lebanon:
Since they rely on literalism, militancy, categorical assertions, and extremism virtually unrestrained by almost any pragmatic considerations, such organizations will invariably find the power-oriented political realism of Brotherhood-style parties to be religiously and politically objectionable. More importantly, they will see political benefits in attacking them rhetorically and, eventually, literally.
A grim set of factors is combining to empower this openly and extremely radical group. Ongoing economic distress has undermined the government, including Ennahda, and strengthened the impact of Ansar al-Sharia’s aggressive social services program. Ennahda’s political compromises with its coalition partners undermine its ability to appeal to Muslim extremists who find conciliation, even in the service of gaining political power, to be distasteful at best. Instability, and the growing power of their Salafist-Jihadist allies in Libya and the Sahel region, have provided Ansar Al-Sharia a new degree of strategic depth.
Tunisia’s Islamist-majority government has cracked down on the operations of Ansar al-sharia, the hardline Salafist group suspected of involvement in the attack on the US embassy in Tunis last year.
The initiative coincides with expressions of concern by international and domestic rights groups today over the draft Tunisian constitution for failing to protect minority rights, specifically the requirement that the country’s president must be Muslim and the absence of protection of freedom of thought and conscience.
A recent statement by Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights these concerns, taking issue with articles that specify the country’s president must be Muslim and noting the lack of protection of freedom of thought and conscience.
The constitution stipulates that the state must protect freedom of belief and of religious practice, but there is no provision for freedom of thought and conscience, says the Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities (ATSM).
Human Rights Watch today called on the National Constituent Assembly to modify key articles in the draft constitution which imperil basic liberties.
“Among the most worrisome articles or gaps are: a provision recognizing universal human rights only insofar as they comport with ‘cultural specificities of the Tunisia people,’ the failure of the constitution to affirm freedom of thought and conscience, and the overly broad formulation of permissible limitations to freedom of expression,” the group said.
Nor does the draft stipulate that human rights conventions already ratified by Tunisia will bind all of the country’s authorities. “The NCA should close loopholes in the draft constitution that would allow a future government to crush dissent or limit the basic rights that Tunisians fought hard for,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Analysts say the impetus for the new crackdown appears to have been clashes that erupted in recent days between alleged Islamic militants and Tunisian troops along the country’s desert border with Algeria. …. Police reportedly broke up public proselytizing events in several Tunis suburbs, igniting stone-throwing clashes that drew riot police.
Authorities have vowed also to crack down on the Salafi practice of raising the black flag with Koranic inscription that has become a trademark of groups linked to al-Qaeda.
“We’re not going to allow the raising of any flag other than the Tunisian,” Lotfi Ben Jeddou, interior minister, was quoted as saying in a television interview on the weekend.
Increasingly vocal and politically active Salafis are outraged.
“It is an attempt by the so-called moderate Islamists to reach power without actually having to abide by Islam,” said Abdelmajid Habibi, head of the Tahrir Party, another Salafi group targeted in the crackdown. “They claim that this new project is in favor of human rights, women’s rights and social justice when, in fact, it is an attempt to weed out real Islam and implement western values that have nothing to do in a society like ours.”
The crackdown follows growing concern over the influence of ultra-conservative Salafist groups which have conducted attacks against secularist individuals and institutions. Human rights groups and democracy advocates fear that Ennahda has colluded with extremist elements, facilitated the immigration of foreign imams and taken an ambivalent stance on the issue of political violence.
Some analysts say the party, like others in Tunisia, is divided between those who are true believers of democracy and those who are under the illusion that ruling Tunisia is a divine right. Others see differences relating to the extent of the party’s commitment to the project of Islamizing Tunisian society.
While secularists accuse Nahda of being too soft on the puritanical Salafis, who are expanding their base by preaching a socially strict Islam, a wing of the party is closer in its views to the Salafis and considers that the leadership is departing from its Islamist mission.
“There’s a lot of disenchantment among Nahda supporters because the pace of change has been very slow,” said Shadi Hamid, an expert on Islamist movements at the Brookings Doha Centre.
The latest draft constitution upholds key civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights, and contains improvements over previous drafts, said Human Rights Watch.
“However, it also contains several articles that are incompatible with Tunisia’s international treaty obligations on human rights and that would undermine rights protections, the group said:
Article 21, which states that “International conventions duly ratified by the parliament have a status superior to the laws and inferior to the constitution,” creates a risk that the constitution will be used to override or reduce the protection offered by some fundamental human rights, set out in treaties to which Tunisia is party.
Other provisions that cause concern are:
The preamble, which lays the foundation of the constitution on “principles of universal human rights in line with the cultural specificities of the Tunisian people.” This sentence offers wiggle-room for legislators and judges to depart from the global standards of fundamental rights;
Article 5, which says that, “The state guarantees freedom of belief and religious practice,” but does not mention freedom of thought and of conscience, including the right to replace one’s religion with another or to embrace atheism. Human rights would be best protected by an explicit guarantee of freedom of thought and of conscience;
Insufficient definition of the permissible limitations on freedom of expression, assembly, and association: several articles in the third draft constitution define the scope of freedom of expression, assembly, and association by permitting the legislature to pass laws that restrict the rights, without setting out clearly the limits on the restrictions; and
A discriminatory provision that only a Muslim can become president of the republic. The provision contradicts Article 6, which states, “All citizens are equal in rights and obligations before the law, without discrimination.” In addition, the draft constitution still limits equal protection of the law to citizens of Tunisia.
“The assembly should address the troubling provisions now, before the constitution is set in stone,” Goldstein said. “Tunisians led the entire region in demanding their basic rights, and they shouldn’t let them slip away now.”
The ruling Ennahda party has facilitated the rise of Salafists, say rights groups. Photo: France24
Tunisia’s major parties may have ended a months-old stalemate by negotiating a provisional agreement on the country’s future constitution, but the country’s democratic transition faces an overlapping threat from violent jihadists and ultra-conservative Salafists, say analysts.
“We have overcome the impasse, we are heading towards a mixed regime where neither the head of state nor the head of the government will have supreme control over the executive power,” said Ennahda’s Rached Ghannouchi, the de facto head of the majority Islamist party.
Yet the transition process may be threatened by the emergence of violent jihadist groups.
“The hunt for al-Qaida-linked militants in a mountainous region near Tunisia’s borders with Algeria in recent days has raised alarm that the birthplace of the Arab Spring has become the latest battleground for violent jihadis,” AP reports:
With neighboring Algeria and Libya full of weapons and violent movements of their own, Tunisia is struggling to prevent the growth of armed groups while making its own tentative transition to democracy.
“We have discovered a terrorist plan targeting Tunisians and the state,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Aroui, citing the presence of some 20 militants encamped in Jebel Chaambi, near the southern city of Kasserine.
Prime Minister Ali Larayedh yesterday insisted that Tunisia’s security situation was improving and that jihadist groups would be defeated, Middle East Online reports.
“We will pursue our confrontation with the violent terrorist groups… dismantle their structures and bring them to justice,” said the former interior minister and Ennahda stalwart.
But opposition MPs criticized Larayedh for failing to crack down on radical Islamist groups when he was interior minister between December 2011 and March 2013, when there was a spike in Salafist violence.
“It has taken the Nahda-dominated government quite some time to take off the kid gloves it wore when treating its Salafi brothers,” writes Francis Ghilès, a North Africa expert at the Barcelona-based CIDOB think-tank.
“As long as this impunity lasts, even speaking of “free and fair” elections makes little sense,” he writes. “The sense of fear and foreboding that stalks Tunisia, not least among its womenfolk, will last as long as many ordinary people remain unconvinced that the government truly believes in the rule of law and democracy.”
Le Temps blamed the “policy of impunity and the complacency of the authorities, who encouraged the terrorists to continue,” accusing the government of doing nothing to curb the rise of Salafist groups since the revolution in January 2011.
He added that the country is still in the delicate process of writing a new constitution and holding elections for a new legislature and president, by the end of the year. The process has been riven by angry disputes between Ennahda and the opposition parties, partly over Ennahda’s alleged laxity towards salafis.
“Please don’t add political and social landmines to those already on Jebel Chaambi,” said Jebali, calling for national unity in face of the threat.
The security threat coincides with growing concern over the influence of ultra-conservative Salafist groups which have conducted attacks against secularist individuals and institutions. While not all Salafists are violent, human rights groups and democracy advocates fear that Ennahda, the majority Islamist party, has colluded with extremist elements, facilitated the immigration of foreign imams and taken an ambivalent stance on the issue of political violence.
“Even though some of them have extremist views, these foreign imams often come to Tunisia with the blessing of the government or the Islamist party Ennahda, the party in power, which accommodate and welcome them,” said Messaoud Romdhani(right), the vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
“The authorities have not reacted to our warnings, and no concrete measure has been taken to stop these practices,” he told France 24, adding that “civil society organizations also have a duty to act.”
“People need to be aware of the dangers of this type of preaching and understand that they have the right to challenge the preachers’ presence. It’s every citizen’s role to ensure public spaces are protected,” he said. “Unfortunately, civil society organizations don’t have the same presence on the ground as the imams.”
A parliamentarian from the centrist Democratic Group this week criticized the authorities’ failure to wrest control of mosques from the hardline Salafists.
“There is a lack of policy for controlling mosques… The Chaambi terrorists can take refuge there,” he said, said Samir Bettaieb,
Ghannouchi, the party’s spiritual and de facto leader, this week urged “young Tunisians” not to join the “so-called jihad which has no place here… The jihad is in Palestine, not on Mount Chaambi,” he told the radio station Mosaique FM.
“Salafist jihadists pose a threat to Tunisia. The Tunisian government ought to tighten the screws, following the attack on the American Embassy,” he told Agence France Presse. “These people pose a threat not only to Ennahda but to the country’s civil liberties and security,” he added.
The UGTT labor union has been the target of violent Salafist attacks
Responding to criticism that Tunisian authorities have yet to arrest anybody for the attack on the US Embassy, the Ennahda leader compared Abu Iyad, the leader of Tunisia’s Salafist jihadist movement, to Osama Bin Laden. “Bin Laden remained free for several years. The international secret services spent a long time chasing him before finally being able to stop him,” he said.
But less than 24 hours later, he asked to “slightly modify” his accusation that Salafist jihadists, “pose a threat.” He said on national TV that “his statements were distorted and reported imprecisely,” adding that “those who attacked the US Embassy in Tunis do not belong to the Salafist movement. They are criminals and terrorists.”
“The double talk of Ghannouchi can be explained based on electioneering purposes. Ennahda includes a quasi-Salafist radical wing, which is part of the party’s leadership, represented by Sadok Habib Ellouze and Sadok Chourou,” said Naji Jalloul, an expert on Islamist movements.
“Ghannouchi cannot ignore these two figures in his electoral strategy, especially given that the results of the Troika government are not terribly impressive at the socio-economic level,” he said. ‘The leader of Ennahda is, therefore, caught between a desire to sell his moderate Islam to the West and the requirements of his radical group. This explains the double talk strategy.”
Political violence is the major threat to Tunisia’s transition, according to a new report from Human Rights First. The introduction of blasphemy laws would undermine freedom of expression and provide a pretext for political violence against rights and democracy advocates, as in Pakistan, the report suggests.
“Whether and how blasphemy and other speech deemed offensive to religion or religious symbols is regulated in Tunisian law is a contentious issue in the transition process,” says Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “Rights and freedoms would be threatened by any broadening or strengthening of laws criminalizing allegedly blasphemous or offensive speech, and several such proposals have been made since the revolution that ousted former President Ben Ali.”
The threats to freedom of expression partly a legacy of authoritarian rule, but also a reflection of Salafist influence, said rights activist Romdhani.
“People here have been so deprived of freedom for so many years that they have a poor understanding of freedom of expression and how to express this, sometimes confusing it with anarchy,” he said. “These practices are being encouraged by the wave of preachers visiting Tunisia from the Gulf or the Middle East.”
First, it appears that the Salafists are attracting a lot more young people from the slums that surround large cities (specifically, Tunis, Sousse and Sfax) than from the cities or the rural areas. The second phenomenon is that despite the “limited” numbers of jihadist Salafists, they have proved their ability to persist and remain active…not only in violent protests but also in proselytizing and charitable work.
Alarm over the recent attacks has been overblown when taken in a broader regional context, said Riccardo Fabiani, the North Africa analyst of the London-based Eurasia group.
“If we compare the situation in Tunisia to the rest of the region, particularly Libya and Algeria, it is pretty much under control,” he told AP, adding that state and foreign interests were not under any significant threat.
He said that part of the problem is how demoralized security forces have been since the fall of Ben Ali, sapping their ability to maintain border security as well as in the past.
“They are countering the problem with limited resources and security forces are downbeat,” he said. “They feel powerless.”
Germany would only provide assistance for Egypt’s transition if Morsi’s government upheld certain democratic ideals, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She called on Morsi to adopt a more pluralist and tolerant approach, telling him that it is “important for us that the line for dialogue is always open to all political forces in Egypt, that the different political forces can make their contribution, that human rights are adhered to in Egypt and that, of course, religious freedom is enjoyed.”
But Morsi suggested that the current turmoil was an inevitable characteristic of political transitions.
“What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy,” Morsi told reporters during a brief visit to Germany on Wednesday. “Nations take time to stabilize and in some countries that took many years. It has only been two years in Egypt and, God willing, things will stabilize soon.”
The Salafist-secular rapprochement took observers by surprise.
“Clearly there are real divisions within the Islamist bloc and they are not on the same page,” said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, a member of the opposition and a political scientist. “Everyone feels that the situation is escalating and reaching a dangerous level. The country fracturing and there is violence everywhere.”
The recent unrest signals the emergence of a potentially powerful new force in Egyptian politics, says a prominent analyst – the country’s disenfranchised youth.
For two years, the well-organized Brotherhood mobilized, manipulated and built alliances with the loose and disorganized liberal camp to bring down the leaders of the old regime. ….Now the game has changed. Once in power, the Brotherhood embraced a self-serving interpretation of democracy. Any previous promises of partnership and power-sharing subsided as the Brotherhood moved to take control of state institutions.
Such heavy-handedness confirmed the worst fears of the liberals that the Brotherhood’s support for democratic transition was only a means towards the end of Islamist authoritarianism. To many liberals, the stand-off with the Brotherhood has become a fight for their survival and of democracy itself.
“The reality is more complicated as, at a deeper level, another dynamic is taking place,” says Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and professor of politics at the American University in Cairo:
Three-quarters of Egyptians are under 50; more than half are under 30. Once excluded from politics, this majority is now central to it. The Tahrir Square protests are largely of their making.
The Brotherhood might be able to get away with ignoring the liberal parties but they are dangerously wrong to underestimate the demands for change by the younger majority.
The events of the past week give us a glimpse of how fast the situation can deteriorate, and how bad it can get. If the Brotherhood cannot be persuaded to change course, Egypt will travel – probably at an accelerating rate – along the road of prolonged instability.
But the secular opposition has been criticized for its opportunism and lack of strategy.
“The National Salvation Front completely failed to galvanize the people against the Brotherhood. You cannot legitimately call for the removal of the president when he was elected,” said Hafsa Halawa, a liberal lawyer and protester. “There should be a way to improvise, a way to allow the president and the opposition to find middle ground.”
“I am not against Judaism as a religion,” he said. “I am not against Jews practicing their religion. I was talking about anybody practicing any religion who spills blood or attacks innocent people — civilians. I criticize such behavior.”
The recent announcement that Tunisia’s dominant Islamist party Ennahdha wants to reshuffle of the cabinet and forge a broader alliance with secular opposition parties is a sign of the group’s growing vulnerability, writes Mohamed Bechri, a former president of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International.
In order to understand Ennahdha’s motives, one should note that a turning point occurred with the Islamist party’s mishandling of the September 14 attacks on the U.S. embassy, he notes on the Fikra Forum. The four resulting deaths led to accusations of Ennahdha’s incompetence and their alleged cover up of the Salafi violence.
To make matters worse, the highly publicized video of Rachid Ghannouchi (left) warning a Salafi convention that the Tunisian administration is still in the hands of the secularists and that “the army and the police are not safe” provided those on the fence with proof of the Ennahdha president’s allegiances. The event put the group’s leadership on the defensive as the opposition and independent media used the video as concrete evidence of “the hidden agenda of the so-called moderate mainstream Islamists.”
In the midst of this tense political situation, Salafi violence returned in the Tunis suburb of Manouba on October 27, when Commander Wissam Ben Sliman was assaulted during clashes with Salafis protesting against alcohol vendors. The violence left Ennahdha with no choice but to apply a two-track strategy: cracking down on jihadi Salafis on the one hand, and authorizing Salafi political parties to keep the potential for political partnership open on the other.
Though the Islamists’ coalition parties are in a state of decay, they are taking a stand against Ennahdha. On November 8, the secretary general of CPR, Mohamed Abbou, announced that his party might leave the ruling Troika if its demands for the abolition of Ennahdha vigilantes, known as “The Committees to Protect the Revolution,” and the nomination of independent personalities to head the sovereign ministries were not met.
The weakness of both the Salafi Islah Front on the right and the secular partners in the Troika on the left explains the recent call by Rachid Ghannouchi for “a large alliance” to prepare for the coming elections, which should be understood as a call addressed to all secular opposition parties. The only exception is the newly formed “Call of Tunisia,” whose platform presents the party as a political alternative to Ennahdha.
While the Islamists’ attempts to shift alliances may be viewed as opportunistic, it undoubtedly reflects their current vulnerability. This in fact presents a valuable opening for their opponents to end Ennahdha’s hegemony.
Both the U.S. guarantee on government debt issues and the European Union’s assignment of privileged partner status embody a confidence in Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Nonetheless, the West’s leverage could be put to better use if it focuses on supporting the following: (1) the cabinet reshuffle as a precondition to ensuring free and fair elections, (2) making Ennahdha’s continued partnership with secular parties a precondition for future improved bilateral relations, and (3) strengthening Tunisia’s thriving civil society as the best line of defense against attempts to return to autocratic rule.
The combined pressure from both domestic and foreign sources would seriously weaken Ennahdha’s political dominance. The country that was the trendsetter of the Arab Spring movement could be the first to exit the Islamist theocratic quagmire altogether, again paving the way in the transition to full democratic rule.
This extract is taken from a longer article on the Fikra Forum. RTWT
“The clash now is between the Popular Association for the Defense of the Revolution, which is a front of Islamist movements supporting Al Nahda, and the Movement for Tunisia; a secular and liberal movement led by Beji Caid Essebsisi, a former prime minister,” says Sharif.
A rival faction, which “clings to the logic of the state and democracy,” is exemplified by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Interior Minister Ali al-Arid.
The latter are “men of the state,” says Mohammed. “But the supreme authority of the head of the Islamic Ennahda Movement prevents them from carrying out their duty.”
“There is nothing moderate or democratic about the Islamists,” Souhir Stephenson, a Tunisian writer living in the United States, writes in The New York Times. “They played the moderate and democratic game to gain power. “
He cites a recently leaked video of Ghannouchi (above) to contend that “the Salafists he was reassuring are not just his supporters, but his own militia, intent on terrorizing citizens into tacit obedience and on turning Tunisia into Little Iran.”
It takes time to infiltrate the ministries, he explained. There are still too many secular people in the administrations, in the police, the army. Don’t worry about Shariah law; it is not what is written but what is enforced, he assured them. You can do your part, he told them, by opening more Koranic schools and camps, bringing in preachers. This is the man who was hailed as a moderate by the West.
Ghannouchi defends the exchange as an attempt to reach out to Salafists and persuade them to adopt a gradualist, democratic strategy.
“I had to convince them that the way people understood sharia wasn’t very clear – that the term ‘sharia’ had been linked to many applications that went wrong in Afghanistan and in some other places,” he said:
I was afraid that sharia was being preached about as anti-women’s rights, anti-human rights, anti-equality and anti-freedom. I was trying to convince them [the Salafis] that constitutions are based not on what divides people but what unites them. So if there’s a lack of clarity on the issue of sharia, if there is a division around it, then it shouldn’t be let out. I was trying to convince them that the revolution had provided them with freedom. They used to be in prison, but now they have freedom to operate in society and through community organisations, in the mosques and by setting up charities and associations.
But there is still scope for institutionalizing democratic gains and addressing the socio-economic grievances that gave rise to the Jasmine revolution.
“The pressure is on Ennahda to deliver a Constitution that protects the rights of all Tunisians under a system of equal justice and to create jobs so educated but unemployed young Tunisians are not drawn to the Salafi movement,” said a recent assessment. “The pressure is also on the secularists to find ways to work with Ennahda to build a better state.”
The Salafists emerging as key political stakeholders across the Middle East are likely to complicate political transitions and undermine regional stability and security, writes STRATFOR’s Kamran Bokhari.
The outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 brought significant attention to groups — known as Islamists — seeking to establish Islamic states in countries once ruled by secular autocrats. Much less attention was paid to the Brotherhood’s principal Islamist competitors, members of the ultraconservative Salafist movement, despite their second-place finish in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. This changed in late September when certain Salafists played a key role in the unrest in reaction to an anti-Islamic video posted on the Internet.
Since then, Salafism has become the subject of much public discourse — though as is often the case with unfamiliar subjects, questions are vastly more numerous than answers. This is compounded by the rapidity of its rise from a relatively minor, apolitical movement to an influential Islamist phenomenon. Bottom of Form
Modern Salafism is based on an austere reinterpretation of Islam, calling for Muslims to return to the original teachings outlined in the Koran and the practices of the Prophet Mohammed as understood by the earliest generation, i.e., the Companions of the Prophet. From the Salafist perspective, non-Islamic thought has contaminated the message of “true” Islam for centuries, and this excess must be jettisoned from the Islamic way of life.
Salafism can be seen as a rejection of the political ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. For most of the movement’s existence, it shunned politics — and thus Islamism — in favor of a focus on personal morality and individual piety, arguing that an Islamic state could not exist without Muslims first returning to the tenets of “true” Islam.
The Salafist movement could also afford to stay away from political activism in large part because it had a political backer in the government of Saudi Arabia. While many Salafists didn’t agree with some of Riyadh’s policies, its historical role as the birthplace of Salafism and role as the patron underwriting the global spread of Salafist thought kept the movement within the Saudi orbit.
The Arab Spring
By the end of the 2000s, Salafism had spread across the Arab world, most notably to Egypt and Tunisia, expanding both the number of its adherents and its institutional scope, which now included social organizations engaged in charity, relief and community work. They stopped short of formal political groups, largely because of the autocratic regimes under which they lived, but they quietly developed the infrastructure for such groups. It was under these circumstances that the Salafists found themselves at the beginning of the Arab Spring.
The case of Egypt’s Salafists is the most telling. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, they were caught unprepared when the popular agitation largely led by liberal youth groups broke out and began to consume decades-old secular autocratic regimes. While they eventually were able to overshadow the largely non-Islamist forces that played a key role in forcing the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak, they lacked the political machine that the Brotherhood had developed over the course of some 80 years. The result was the rise of various Salafist forces haphazardly trying to assert themselves in a post-authoritarian Egypt.
What was most important about these Salafists participating in mainstream politics is that they embraced the electoral process after decades of having denounced democracy as un-Islamic. In other words, they ultimately adopted the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they had hitherto vehemently rejected. This transformation has been more a rushed affair stemming from expediency rather than a natural ideological evolution.
There is an expectation that radical forces joining the political mainstream could, over time, lead to their de-radicalization. That may be true in the case of states with strong democratic systems, but in most Arab countries — which are just now beginning their journey away from authoritarianism — the Salafist embrace of electoral politics is likely to delay and perhaps even disrupt the democratization process and destabilize Egypt and by extension the region.
What Lies Ahead
Clearly, the Salafists are bereft of any tradition of civil dissent. That said, they have exhibited a strong sense of urgency to exercise their nascent freedom and engage in political activism. The outcome of this was the rioting that took place in reaction to the anti-Islamic film.
The Salafists are not just suffering from arrested political development; they face an intellectual discrepancy. On one hand, they wish to be part of the new democratic order and a mainstream player. On the other, they subscribe to a radical agenda that dictates the imposition of their stern interpretation of Islamic law across the Arab and Muslim world.
Their envisioned order is not just a problem for secularists, Christians, Jews and other minorities but also for more moderate Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood lost its monopoly on Islamism close to four decades ago but back then it didn’t matter because the Brotherhood was an opposition movement. Now that the group has won political power in Egypt, the Salafists represent a threat to its political interests.
Some of the more politically savvy Salafists, especially the political parties, are willing to work with the Muslim Brotherhood toward the common goals of furthering the democratic transition and containing radical and militant tendencies. Ultimately, however, they seek to exploit the Brotherhood’s pragmatism in order to undermine the mainstream Islamist movement’s support among religious voters. Additionally, the Salafists are also trying to make use of their role as mediators between the Brotherhood-led government and the jihadists active in the Sinai region to enhance their bargaining power and lessen the Brotherhood’s.
Salafists of various stripes are slowly emerging as political stakeholders across the region, especially in Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Democratization by its very nature is a messy affair in any context, but in the case of the Arab spring, Salafist entities can be expected to complicate political transitions and undermine stability and security in the Middle East.
The major challenge to stability in the Arab world thus lies only partially in the transition to democracy from autocracy. Greater than that is the challenge mainstream Islamists face from a complex and divided Salafist movement.
One person was killed and at least 100 injured following demonstrations against an art exhibition that radical Salafists deemed insulting to Islam. The riots are the worst violence since the January 2011 revolt against Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime sparked a wave of revolts that came to be known as the Arab awakening.
“Some secularists had attended the offending exhibition, saying Tunisians had the right to artistic freedom, and they have also come under physical attack,” Reuters reported. “A labor union office in the northwestern city of Jendouba had been set alight by Salafis overnight while the offices of secular parties nearby were attacked.”
Tunisia’s General Labor Union (UGTT), widely considered the leading force in the revolt that deposed Ben Ali, this week called for a National Dialogue Council made up of political parties and civil society.
“The government institutions must remain the only guarantors for the enforcement of the law,” Abassi insisted.
The Salafist violence is also highlighting a disturbingly equivocal approach to democratic liberties on the part of the relatively moderate Islamist Nahda party, say observers. Nahda’s leaders and government officials condemned the artists for what Rachid Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and spiritual guide, described as “attacks on national sacred symbols.”
Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk declined to condemn the attack on the exhibition on the grounds that it amounted to “artistic provocation” that did not respect the values of Islam.
More than 140 people, most of them Salafists, were arrested for attacking police posts and torching a Tunis courthouse during the riots, the interior ministry said. Among them was the cleric of a mosque in the northwestern town of Jendouba, who called for the murder of police officers during Friday prayers.
The artist whose canvas was slashed said: “I am not afraid of answering to ministers, but I am afraid of ignorant people, of the imbecile hiding somewhere who will attack my family because [the authorities] have abandoned us.”
While radical Islamists claimed responsibility for the violent protests, Nahda’s Ghannouchi (right) suggested that elements of the former ruling party – the RCD – were responsible.
“There are some individuals who have hired thieves and drug and alcohol dealers to create tension and take advantage of people’s feelings about their religion,” he said.
Ennahda is trying to balance its secular coalition partners – the centrist Congress for the Republic and the left-of-center Ettakatol – and hard-line Salafists, “who originally helped the party gain control,” notes an analysis from Stratfor:
If Ennahda responds too strongly to the recent Salafist-generated unrest, it could alienate important Islamist leaders and draw unfavorable comparisons with the Ben Ali regime. If the party responds too passively, however, it could be accused of enabling Tunisia’s more extreme Islamists and allowing the country’s security situation to deteriorate. Ennahda likely will try to exploit divisions among various Salafist factions in order to prevent them from derailing the government’s long-term plans.
Yet independent analysts fear that Nahda’s “mollifying” of the Salafists indirectly promotes their radical agenda.
Nahda reacted to the Salafist violence by proposing a ban on art that offends religious sensibilities.
“In so doing they are supporting the Salafists’ world view: do not bother firebombing galleries, just wait for the government to shut them down,” says Daragahi.
“A primary argument for accepting and even advocating the rise of moderate Islamists in Libya, Egypt and Syria is that only they will be able to confront the radicals in their ranks and guide them into the mainstream,” he notes:
But in reacting to extremist Islamists rioting across the country over a provocative art exhibit, the government faces its greatest political test yet, one with the potential for grave failure. Many Tunisians and international observers worry that its half-hearted response is a misguided pursuit of short-term interests that might endanger the revolution and the hope that a new crop of moderate Islamist leaders will be able to uphold the tenets of liberal democracy while maintaining a Muslim identity.
“Nahda are in a very difficult position,” said Omayya Siddik, an independent Tunis-based analyst. “They [the party’s leaders] do not know how to create a balance between the attacks from the Salafists and the possibility of losing the religious electorate. The problem is that the protests against the art exhibit are very popular among a huge part of the public.”
Coming at the start of the traditional holiday season, the Salafist violence may sabotage efforts to lure European tourists.
“Violence in the name of defending Islam is a new phenomenon in Tunisian society,” Meriem Dhaouadi, a Tunis-based rights activist, writes on Open Democracy. “Tunisia is a Sunni majority Arab country, but individuals with different religious affiliations have peacefully co-existed for as long as I can remember.”
But with the Salafist riots prompting French TV to warn tourists against travel to Tunisia, she says, “Maybe we can look forward to them being amply replaced by people from Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia who will feel more at home in Tunistan.”
Failure to attract tourist revenue and inward investment is adding to the pressures on a government that is already “showing signs of strain.”
“Under a veneer of normalcy that should be the envy of other Arab nations mired in bloodier and shakier transitions, economic grievances are churning right below the surface. They could once again reach full boil,” according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. “The economic and social causes that sparked the uprising a year and a half ago are far from resolved or even adequately addressed or discussed.”
The government’s capacity to address the country’s pressing socio-economic crises is constrained by political maneuvering between Islamist and secular groups in the coalition government and the wider society.
“The major political problem continues to be the imbalance in the political spectrum that pits the well-organized, cohesive, Islamist Ennahda party against a large number of fragmented secular parties,” writesMarina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program.
“These parties are acutely aware that their chances for electoral success are limited unless they manage to forge larger coalitions, but they have so far failed to create lasting groupings—let alone a grand secular alliance,” she notes.
Nahda (or Ennahda), the coalition government’s majority party is also threatened by a “burgeoning” extra-parliamentary alliance of the radical Islamist Hizb al-Tahrir and Ansar al-Sharia, “which share a common opposition to Ennahda’s moderate Islamism,” Stratfor notes:
It is unclear how closely the groups have collaborated thus far, but each has an interest in eroding the credibility of the Ennahda-led government before Tunisia’s next elections in 2013. The groups do not have the collective strength to seriously threaten the current government’s hold on power, but their ability to put thousands of supporters in the streets is enough to prevent Ennahda from focusing on long-term imperatives such as drafting a constitution and stabilizing the country’s economy.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri this week declared jihad against the Tunisian government, prompting officials and independent observers to raise the prospect of an uptick in Salafist violence.
“[T]here are serious worries about the eruption of the situation in the summer and the upcoming month of Ramadan,” one official said.
“There is information about plans for major operations against tourism and commercial sites and public facilities inside Tunisia. The information actually indicates that weapons are being smuggled from Algeria to carry out these missions,” he explained.
Tunisia’s Salafist problem is unlikely to lead to an Algeria-style civil war, analyst Michael Totten writes for World Affairs.
“It could happen, but I doubt it that it will,” he says, citing the population’s “pacifistic streak.”
When asked about al-Qaeda’s call for Tunisians to rebel against the coalition government, Nahda’s Ghannouchi said, “We do not believe that Salafism in Tunisia is linked to al-Qaeda. Zawahiri does not have any influence in our country.”
While a jihadist uprising is a remote prospect, the International Crisis Group suggests that “a legitimacy crisis” resulting from the government’s failure to address socio-economic concerns could generate pronounced instability.
The main mass organizations, namely the General Tunisian Workers Union (UGTT) and the An-Nahda party, are not itching for a political showdown. The various political parties appear to accept the democratic rules of the game and are seeking to reposition themselves on the political playing field ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections. However, socio-economic insecurity and political instability, inextricably linked in this post-revolutionary context, negatively feed on each other and risk snowballing into a legitimacy crisis for the newly elected government.
Former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi (left) recently announced the formation of Nedaa Tunis, or the Call for Tunisia party, an initiative designed to unify the country’s fragmented secular opposition. The move may enhance tension within the governing coalition between Ennahda and its secular partners, which, says Carnegie’s Ottaway, “was never more than a marriage of convenience.”
“While this does not mean that a crisis is imminent, it is a reminder of the difficulties and complications involved in even a successful transition,” she writes. “It is probable that more parties will form before the next vote, and indeed dozens of parties still exist that are nominally registered but dormant. The Tunisian political spectrum so far is showing little sign of becoming less fragmented.”
The strains between the coalition’s secular and Islamist partners are likely to reach breaking point if Ennahda tries to court allies from the Salafist fringe.
“Riots and widespread public dissatisfaction could undermine voter support for Ennahda, while also creating tensions between the party and its secular allies,” Stratfor suggests. “However, given the divergent ideologies and political aspirations of the Salafist groups, Ennahda will likely try to pacify at least one faction through constitutional concessions or promised roles in a future government.”
But an accommodation with the Salafists would empower and legitimize radical forces, while sapping the credibility of Nahda’s declared commitment to democratic norms, analysts suggest.
“Many of the country’s mosques have been taken over by Salafist preachers who have been known to rail against the same democratic principles that allow them to speak freely,” notes the FT’s Daragahi:
Time and time again, Nahda and its leaders have shown they are moderates who generally respect the ground rules of liberal democracy. But by seeming to appease the Salafists, they run the risk of appearing weak or opportunistic: devout Muslims are part of its political base and general elections are scheduled for March next year.
Nahda’s decision may determine whether Tunisia continues a sustainable transition to a relatively liberal democracy or a Pakistan-like hybrid, blending sharia and constitutional law.
As actress and theatre researcher Jalila Baccar asked: “Do we want a country without art, without artists? Who should decide which lines can be crossed in terms of what is sacred? Is it for judges, religious leaders, the constitution that is currently being drawn up?”
The coalition “would better serve its own interests – as well as those of the country – by cracking down on any Salafist who breaks the law, opening investigations into Salafist finances and siding firmly with liberals when basic issues of state and society are at stake,” Daragahi concludes.