Category Archives: Tunisia

The Arabs Between Turbulent Revolutions and Stable Tyranny

By Dr. Hamad Al-Majid, Asharq al Awsat 18/0/2013

God fights against oppression and tyranny but they still remain, despite their enduring connotations of hardship, corruption, injustice, tragedy, and brutality. Like alcohol, oppression and tyranny are primarily a great source of sin, but that is not to say they have no advantages. One of the biggest virtues of tyranny is its accompanying security and economic stability, and this is exactly what the states of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Somalia have lost. It is important to point out here that the latter two, Iraq and Somalia, are completely different cases to the Arab Spring revolutions, as change did not come about as a result of a mass popular movement. The regime in Iraq was overthrown by a superpower that attacked it, and as for Somalia, Siad Barre’s rule was reliant upon a contract structured around tribal and ideological complexities. But the common factor that brings Iraq and Somalia together with the rest of the Arab revolutions is the “forced” change of a strong and stable regime, regardless of who actually carried it out. The Saddam, Mubarak, Assad, Ben Ali, Saleh, Barre, and Gaddafi regimes were all controlled by leaders who held onto power with an iron fist. It is true that they suppressed their people, squandered their wealth, and ravaged, destroyed, and killed, but in return they ensured a stable country and a strong central government.

So far, in all of the Arab Spring states without exception, there does not appear to be anything on the horizon to warm the hearts of the masses. Some tyrannical figures were executed and others overthrown, and the revolutionaries breathed in the air of freedom and finally expressed their opinions, but nevertheless the Arab Spring, in some cases, left behind massive destruction, tens of thousands injured or dead, and millions displaced, as in Syria. At best it left behind weak central governments, fragile security, teetering economies, and disturbances in the street out of the state’s control, as in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. As for Libya, the government’s control does not extend beyond the capital Tripoli, while the rest of the country remains under the control of battalions affiliated to tribes or armed groups motivated by different ideologies.

I am certainly aware that the most notorious consequences of revolutions—whether ancient or modern, Arab or non-Arab—are what we are witnessing now in the countries of the Arab Spring, from fragile security, political unrest, to economic stagnation. The post-revolution situation in these countries is like a patient after an operation to replace his heart or to remove a large tumor from his brain; a long period of recovery is needed. However, the most important observation in this regard remains that the price paid was too high and too dangerous. The Arab revolutions, in terms of their danger, were exactly like a high-risk medical procedure; either it leads to complete success, death, or the patient remains in a critical condition. In the Arab Spring states, no country has been restored to full health but none are resting with the dead either.

The key issue is that the majority of people in the Arab states where revolutions did not break out still consider the Arab Spring as an inspiration for change. They have become intoxicated with the overthrow of tyrannical leaders, energized by the roars of the masses in their million-man marches, but still they completely overlook the critical conditions created by these revolutions. Theses sentiments, coupled with the state of congestion caused by corruption, poor management, and declining popular participation in decision-making, create a favorable climate for infection. As a result, a number of Arab states are no longer safe from the fire of revolutions, regardless of whether they feel immune themselves. Here it would be wrong to rely on changing the convictions of people, for this is nearly impossible. It is more realistic for governments to strive to keep pace with the changes with genuine reforms and an honest and effective fight against corruption.

Dr. Hamad Al-Majid is a journalist and former member of the official Saudi National Organization for Human Rights. Al-Majid is a graduate of Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh and holds an M.A. from California and a Doctorate from the University of Hull in the United Kingdom.

Post-revolt Arab Transitions: Driven by Distrust and Inexperience

Post-revolt Middle Eastern and North African countries are struggling to manage the transition from autocratic to more transparent, accountable societies. Increasingly prejudice, distrust and inexperience are proving to be greater obstacles, argues James M. Dorsey.

Post-revolt Arab nations are experiencing tumultuous times. The assassination of a prominent Tunisian opposition leader has sparked mass protests against Islamists held responsible for his death. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has called for the replacement of the Islamist-dominated Cabinet by a government of technocrats that would lead the country to elections, to the chagrin of his Ennahada party that fears loss of power.

Egypt has been wracked by violent street protests that have left more than 60 people dead in three Suez Canal and Red Sea cities, forcing President Mohamed Morsi to declare emergency rule and bring the military back into the streets and soccer stadiums to maintain law and order.

Underlying Fault Lines

Underlying the volatility in Egypt and Tunisia as well as difficult transitions in Libya and Yemen is the increasing lack of confidence between Islamists and non-Islamist forces. That fault line is fuelled by an ever deeper secularist suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who by and large have emerged from the revolts as the largest, most organised political force, are bent on creating Islamist states and enforcing Islamic law. This mistrust drives the weakening of the civilian and armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad in the continuing civil war in Syria.

For their part, Islamists, including moderates, are not certain where the allegiances of non-Islamists lie and whether significant segments of the secularists would opt for a less free society in cooperation with institutions like the judiciary, the police and security forces in a bid to halt what they see as an Islamist power grab.

To be sure, the militancy and violence of more radical Islamists in Tunisia in recent months as well as Morsi’s imperious style of government, his failed attempt to acquire absolute power, his unilaterally pushing through of a controversial constitution, his failed attempt to fire a state prosecutor and increased reliance on the despised police and security forces, have done little to assuage anti-Islamist fears.

Similarly, Syrian opposition forces with Islamists in the lead have failed to convince the country’s key minorities who could have made a difference in reducing the regime’s power base, that there would be a place for them and that their rights would be secured in a post-Assad Syria.

Yet, lost in the mixture of misperception and prejudice is the recognition that Islamists came to power virtually unprepared for government, having a history of a pressured existence either underground, a legal nether land or exile. The Muslim Brotherhood, two years after the overthrow of Mubarak and seven months after Morsi’s election as president, remains nominally an illegal organisation in Egypt. As a result, this reinforces a sense that he and the Brotherhood fail to truly understand the concept of democracy and are more focused on fending off threats and settling old scores.

A Mental Transition

Morsi, like his counterparts in other post-revolt Arab nations, (apart from Libya that suffers the consequences of Muammar Gaddafi’s refusal to build institutions), have inherited states dominated by police and security forces and populated by institutions moulded by the former autocratic regimes with their own vested interests. It takes a degree of political savvy, mastering of electoral politics, backroom horse trading, give-and-take and an ability to manage public expectations rather than the bunker mentality in which Islamist leaders operated in the past. With few exceptions, they have yet to demonstrate that they can make that mental transition.

In retrospect, Morsi’s deft alliance late last year with the second echelon of Egypt’s military command that allowed him to sideline long-serving commanders who unsuccessfully sought to grab power in the period between his election and his assumption of office, seems more an exception than an indication of his ability to manoeuvre the minefield that constitutes Egyptian transition politics.

Jebali’s call for an interim technocratic government in a bid to avert a second popular revolt in Tunisia comes closest to Morsi’s rare display of political deftness in his handling of the military. It contrasts starkly with Morsi’s surprising reluctance to tackle reform of the police and security forces who for many years targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, his seeming willingness to maintain Mubarak-era structures and his increased reliance on them despite the existence of reformists within all of those institutions.

Relative calm has returned to the streets of Egyptian cities, giving Morsi at best a month to build bridges in advance of the country’s next flashpoint when a court in Cairo pronounces verdict in the case of the remaining 52 defendants accused of responsibility for the deaths of 74 soccer fans a year ago in a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said.

Flashpoint Offers Leverage

To do so, Morsi would have to convincingly reach out to his detractors in a bid to convince them that he has put the bunker mentality behind him, wants his government to be inclusive rather than exclusive and that he is serious about reform of key state institutions and is focusing on a turnaround of the country’s economy.

As much as the Port Said case constitutes a flash point – the court’s sentencing last month of the first batch of 21 defendants to death sparked the most violent protests – it also gives Morsi leverage. In the absence of a justification of the court’s ruling, a leaked summary of the prosecution’s case put the blame for the brawl as much on the police as it did on spectators in the stadium.

The prosecutor’s case, coupled with human rights reports that document that the police and security forces are a law unto themselves, provide Morsi with the ammunition to start the difficult process of reforming law enforcement. It is a move that would prove immensely popular and would help restore political calm needed to embark on a road of economic recovery.

A convincing move to amend the constitution in ways that removes fears of an Islamist takeover would further serve to bridge the widening gap in Egyptian politics. It is too early to write Morsi off as a failed leader. The ball is in his court, though time is running out.

James M. Dorsey is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

This Is Not a Revolution

The New-york review of books|

November 8, 2012
Hussein Agha
and Robert Malley|

All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

—Paul Simon

Darkness descends upon the Arab world. Waste, death, and destruction attend a fight for a better life. Outsiders compete for influence and settle accounts. The peaceful demonstrations with which this began, the lofty values that inspired them, become distant memories. Elections are festive occasions where political visions are an afterthought. The only consistent program is religious and is stirred by the past. A scramble for power is unleashed, without clear rules, values, or endpoint. It will not stop with regime change or survival. History does not move forward. It slips sideways.

Games occur within games: battles against autocratic regimes, a Sunni–Shiite confessional clash, a regional power struggle, a newly minted cold war. Nations divide, minorities awaken, sensing a chance to step out of the state’s confining restrictions. The picture is blurred. These are but fleeting fragments of a landscape still coming into its own, with only scrappy hints of an ultimate destination. The changes that are now believed to be essential are liable to be disregarded as mere anecdotes on an extended journey.

New or newly invigorated actors rush to the fore: the ill-defined “street,” prompt to mobilize, just as quick to disband; young protesters, central activists during the uprising, roadkill in its wake. The Muslim Brothers yesterday dismissed by the West as dangerous extremists are now embraced and feted as sensible, businesslike pragmatists. The more traditionalist Salafis, once allergic to all forms of politics, are now eager to compete in elections. There are shadowy armed groups and militias of dubious allegiance and unknown benefactors as well as gangs, criminals, highwaymen, and kidnappers.

Alliances are topsy-turvy, defy logic, are unfamiliar and shifting. Theocratic regimes back secularists; tyrannies promote democracy; the US forms partnerships with Islamists; Islamists support Western military intervention. Arab nationalists side with regimes they have long combated; liberals side with Islamists with whom they then come to blows. Saudi Arabia backs secularists against the Muslim Brothers and Salafis against secularists. The US is allied with Iraq, which is allied with Iran, which supports the Syrian regime, which the US hopes to help topple. The US is also allied with Qatar, which subsidizes Hamas, and with Saudi Arabia, which funds the Salafis who inspire jihadists who kill Americans wherever they can.

In record time, Turkey evolved from having zero problems with its neighbors to nothing but problems with them. It has alienated Iran, angered Iraq, and had a row with Israel. It virtually is at war with Syria. Iraqi Kurds are now Ankara’s allies, even as it wages war against its own Kurds and even as its policies in Iraq and Syria embolden secessionist tendencies in Turkey itself.

For years, Iran opposed Arab regimes, cultivating ties with Islamists with whose religious outlook it felt it could make common cause. As soon as they take power, the Islamists seek to reassure their former Saudi and Western foes and distance themselves from Tehran despite Iran’s courting. The Iranian regime will feel obliged to diversify its alliances, reach out to non-Islamists who feel abandoned by the nascent order and appalled by the budding partnership between Islamists and the US. Iran has experience in such matters: for the past three decades, it has allied itself with secular Syria even as Damascus suppressed its Islamists.

When goals converge, motivations differ. The US cooperated with Gulf Arab monarchies and sheikhdoms in deposing Qaddafi yesterday and in opposing Assad today. It says it must be on the right side of history. Yet those regimes do not respect at home the rights they piously pursue abroad. Their purpose is neither democracy nor open societies. They are engaged in a struggle for regional domination. What, other than treasure, can proponents of a self-styled democratic uprising find in countries whose own system of governance is anathema to the democratic project they allegedly promote?

The new system of alliances hinges on too many false assumptions and masks too many deep incongruities. It is not healthy because it cannot be real. Something is wrong. Something is unnatural. It cannot end well.

A media war that started in Egypt reaches its zenith in Syria. Each side shows only its own, amplifies the numbers, disregards the rest. In Bahrain, the opposite is true. No matter how many opponents of the regime turn up, few take notice. It does not register on the attention scale. Not long ago, footage from Libya glorified motley fighters with colorful bandanas and triumphant spiel. The real battles, bloody and often from the skies, raged elsewhere. Casualties were invisible.

Throngs gather in Tahrir Square. The camera zooms in on protesters. What about the unseen millions who stayed at home? Did they rejoice at Mubarak’s overthrow or quietly lament his departure? How do Egyptians feel about the current disorder, unrest, economic collapse, and political uncertainty? In the elections that ensued, 50 percent did not vote. Of those who did, half voted for the representative of the old order. Who will look after those who lie on the other side of the right side of history?

Most Syrians fight neither to defend the regime nor to support the opposition. They are at the receiving end of this vicious confrontation, their wishes unnoticed, their voices unheard, their fates forgotten. The camera becomes an integral part of the unrest, a tool of mobilization, propaganda, and incitement. The military imbalance favors the old regimes but is often more than compensated for by the media imbalance that favors the new forces. The former Libyan regime had Qaddafi’s bizarre rhetoric; Assad’s Syria relies on its discredited state-run media. It’s hardly a contest. In the battle for public sympathy, in the age of news-laundering, the old orders never stood a chance.

In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain, no unifying figure of stature has emerged with the capacity to shape a new path. There is scant leadership. Where there is leadership, it tends to be by committee. Where there are committees, they emerge mysteriously to assume authority no one has granted them. More often than not, legitimacy is bestowed from abroad: the West provides respectability and exposure; Gulf Arab states supply resources and support; international organizations offer validity and succor.

Those in charge often lack the strength that comes from a clear and loyal domestic constituency; they need foreign approval and so they must be cautious, adjust their positions to what outsiders accept. Past revolutionary leaders were not driven by such considerations. For better or for worse, they were stubbornly independent and took pride in rebuffing foreign interference.

Not unlike the rulers they helped depose, Islamists placate the West. Not unlike those they replaced, who used the Islamists as scarecrows to keep the West by their side, the Muslim Brotherhood waves the specter of what might come next should it fail now: the Salafis who, for their part and not unlike the Brothers of yore, are torn between fealty to their traditions and the taste of power.

It’s a game of musical chairs. In Egypt, Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime. In Palestine, Islamic Jihad is the new Hamas, firing rockets to embarrass Gaza’s rulers; Hamas, the new Fatah, claiming to be a resistance movement while clamping down on those who dare resist; Fatah, a version of the old Arab autocracies it once lambasted. How far off is the day when Salafis present themselves to the world as the preferable alternative to jihadists?

Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hard-line Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order. As the victorious Brotherhood tries to reach an arrangement with the rest, the political future is a blur. The speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leaders and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted suggest that the Islamists’ confidence has grown, that they are willing to move at a faster pace.

Tunisia is a mixed tale. The transition has been largely peaceful; the an-Nahda party, which won the elections last October, offers a pragmatic, moderate face of Islamism. But its efforts to consolidate power are a source of nervousness. Mistrust between secularists and Islamists is growing; socioeconomic protests at times become violent. Salafis lurk in the wings, assailing symbols of modern society, free speech, and gender equality.

In Yemen, former president Saleh is out of power but not offstage. One war brews in the north, another in the south. Jihadists flex their muscles. The young revolutionaries who dreamed of a complete change can only watch as different factions of the same old elite rearrange the deck. Saudis, Iranians, and Qataris sponsor their own factions. Minor clashes could escalate into major confrontations. Meanwhile, US drones eliminate al-Qaeda operatives and whoever happens to be in their vicinity.

Day by day, the civil war in Syria takes on an uglier, more sectarian hue. The country has become an arena for a regional proxy war. The opposition is an eclectic assortment of Muslim Brothers, Salafis, peaceful protesters, armed militants, Kurds, soldiers who have defected, tribal elements, and foreign fighters. There is little that either the regime or the opposition won’t contemplate in their desperation to triumph. The state, society, and an ancient culture collapse. The conflict engulfs the region.

The battle in Syria also is a battle for Iraq. Sunni Arab states have not accepted the loss of Baghdad to Shiites and, in their eyes, to Safavid Iranians. A Sunni takeover in Syria will revive their colleagues’ fortunes in Iraq. Militant Iraqi Sunnis are emboldened and al-Qaeda is revitalized. A war for Iraq’s reconquest will be joined by its neighbors. The region cares about Syria. It obsesses about Iraq.

Islamists in the region await the outcome in Syria. They do not wish to bite off more than they can chew. If patience is the Islamist first principle, consolidation of gains is the second. Should Syria fall, Jordan could be next. Its peculiar demography—a Palestinian majority ruled over by a trans-Jordanian minority—has been a boon to the regime: the two communities bear deep grievances against the Hashemite rulers yet distrust each other more. That could change in the face of the unifying power of Islam for which ethnicity, in theory at least, is of little consequence.

Weaker entities may follow. In northern Lebanon, Islamist and Salafi groups actively support the Syrian opposition, with whom they may have more in common than with Lebanese Shiites and Christians. From the outset a fragile contraption, Lebanon is pulled in competing directions: some would look to a new Sunni-dominated Syria with envy, perhaps a yearning to join. Others would look to it with fright and despair.

In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy intent on retaining power and privilege violently suppresses the majority Shiites. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states come to their ally’s rescue. The West, so loud elsewhere, is mute. When Libya holds elections, Islamists do not fare well; their opponents believe they finally achieved their one victory in a country that has no tradition of political openness, lacks a state, and is sated with armed militias that regularly engage in deadly clashes. An octogenarian leadership in Saudi Arabia struggles with a looming transition, lives in fear of Iran and its own population, doles out cash to fend off dissatisfaction. How long can all this last?

Mohamed Morsi; drawing by John Springs

In some countries, regimes will be toppled, in others they will survive. Forces that have been defeated are unlikely to have been crushed. They will regroup and try to fight back. The balance of power is not clear-cut. Victory does not necessarily strengthen the victor.

Those in power occupy the state, but it is an asset that might prove of limited value. Inherently weak and with meager legitimacy, Arab states tend to be viewed by their citizens with suspicion, extraneous bodies superimposed on more deeply rooted, familiar social structures with long, continuous histories. They enjoy neither the acceptability nor the authority of their counterparts elsewhere. Where uprisings occur, the ability of these states to function weakens further as their coercive power erodes.

To be in the seat of power need not mean to exercise power. In Lebanon, the pro-West March 14 coalition, invigorated while in opposition, was deflated after it formed the cabinet in 2005. Hezbollah has never been more on the defensive or enjoyed less moral authority than since it became the major force behind the government. Those out of power face fewer constraints. They have the luxury to denounce their rulers’ failings, the freedom that comes with the absence of responsibility. In a porous, polarized Middle East, they enjoy access to readily available outside support.

To be in charge, to operate along formal, official, state channels, can encumber as much as empower. Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 did not curb its influence; Damascus simply exerted it more surreptitiously, without public glare and accountability. Tomorrow, a similar pattern might hold in Syria itself. The regime’s collapse would be a significant blow to Iran and Hezbollah, but one can wonder how devastating. The day after such a long and violent conflict is more likely to witness chaos than stability, a scramble for power rather than a strong central government. Defeated and excluded political forces will seek help from any source and solicit foreign patrons regardless of their identity. To exploit disorder is a practice in which Iran and Hezbollah are far better versed than their foes. Without a Syrian regime whose interests they need to take into account and whose constraints they need to abide by, they might be able to act more freely.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails. The newly elected Egyptian president comes from their ranks. They rule in Tunisia. They control Gaza. They have gained in Morocco. In Syria and Jordan too, their time might come.

The Muslim Brotherhood prevails: those are weighty and, not long ago, unthinkable, unutterable words. The Brothers survived eighty years in the underground and the trenches, hounded, tortured, and killed, forced to compromise and bide their time. The fight between Islamism and Arab nationalism has been long, tortuous, and bloody. Might the end be near?

World War I and the ensuing European imperial ascent halted four centuries of Islamic Ottoman rule. With fits and starts, the next century would be that of Arab nationalism. To many, this was an alien, unnatural, inauthentic Western import—a deviation that begged to be rectified. Forced to adjust their views, the Islamists acknowledged the confines of the nation-state and irreligious rule. But their targets remained the nationalist leaders and their disfigured successors.

Last year, they helped topple the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, the pale successors of the original nationalists. The Islamists had more worthy and dangerous adversaries in mind. They struck at Ben Ali and Mubarak, but the founding fathers—Habib Bourguiba and Gamal Abdel Nasser—were in their sights. They reckon they have corrected history. They have revived the era of musulmans sans frontières.

What will all this mean? The Islamists are loath either to share power achieved at high cost or to squander gains so patiently acquired. They must balance among their own restive rank-and-file, a nervous larger society, and an undecided international community. The temptation to strike fast pulls in one direction; the desire to reassure tugs in another. In general, they will prefer to eschew coercion, awaken the people to their dormant Islamic nature rather than foist it upon them. They will try to do it all: rule, enact social transformations incrementally, and be true to themselves without becoming a menace to others.

The Islamists propose a bargain. In exchange for economic aid and political support, they will not threaten what they believe are core Western interests: regional stability, Israel, the fight against terror, energy flow. No danger to Western security. No commercial war. The showdown with the Jewish state can wait. The focus will be on the slow, steady shaping of Islamic societies. The US and Europe may voice concern, even indignation at such a domestic makeover. But they’ll get over it. Just as they got over the austere fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia. Bartering—as in, we’ll take care of your needs, let us take care of ours—Islamists feel, will do the trick. Looking at history, who can blame them?

Mubarak was toppled in part because he was viewed as excessively subservient to the West, yet the Islamists who succeed him might offer the West a sweeter because more sustainable deal. They think they can get away with what he could not. Stripped of his nationalist mantle, Mubarak had little to fall back on; he was a naked autocrat. The Muslim Brothers by comparison have a much broader program—moral, social, cultural. Islamists feel they can still follow their convictions, even if they are not faithfully anti-Western. They can moderate, dilute, defer.

Unlike the close allies of the West they have replaced, Islamists are heard calling for NATO military intervention in Libya yesterday, Syria today, wherever they entertain the hope to take over tomorrow. One can use the distant infidels, who will not stay around for long, to jettison local infidels, who have hounded them for decades. Rejection of foreign interference, once a centerpiece of the post-independence outlook, is no longer the order of the day. It is castigated as counterrevolutionary.

What the US sought to obtain over decades through meddling and imposition, it might now obtain via acquiescence: Arab regimes that will not challenge Western interests. Little wonder that many in the region are persuaded that America was complicit in the Islamists’ rise, a quiet partner in what has been happening.

Everywhere, Israel faces the rise of Islam, of militancy, of radicalism. Former allies are gone; erstwhile foes reign supreme. But the Islamists have different and broader objectives. They wish to promote their Islamic project, which means consolidating their rule where they can, refraining from alienating the West, and avoiding perilous and precocious clashes with Israel. In this scheme, the presence of a Jewish state is and will remain intolerable, but it is probably the last piece of a larger puzzle that may never be fully assembled.

The quest to establish an independent, sovereign Palestinian state was never at the heart of the Islamist project. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, harbors grander, less territorially confined but also less immediately achievable designs. Despite Hamas’s circumlocutions and notwithstanding its political evolution, it never truly deviated from its original view—the Jewish state is illegitimate and all the land of historic Palestine is inherently Islamic. If the current balance of power is not in your favor, wait and do what you can to take care of the disparity. The rest is tactics.

The Palestinian question has been the preserve of the Palestinian national movement. As of the late 1980s, its declared goal became a sovereign state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Alternatives, whether interim or temporary, have been flatly rejected. The Islamists’ plan may be more ambitious and grandiose but more flexible and elastic. For them, a diminutive, amputated state, hemmed in by Israel, dependent on its goodwill, predicated on its recognition, and entailing an end to the conflict, is not worth fighting for.

They can live with a range of transient arrangements: an interim agreement; a long-term truce, or hudna; a possible West Bank confederation with Jordan, with Gaza moving toward Egypt. All will advance the further Islamization of Palestinian society. All permit Hamas to turn to its social, cultural, and religious agenda, its true calling. All allow Hamas to maintain the conflict with Israel without having to wage it. None violates Hamas’s core tenets. It can put its ultimate goal on hold. Someday, the time for Palestine, for Jerusalem may come. Not now.

In the age of Arab Islamism, Israel may find Hamas’s purported intransigence more malleable than Fatah’s ostensible moderation. Israel fears the Islamic awakening. But the more immediate threat could be to the Palestinian national movement. There is no energy left in the independence project; associated with the old politics and long-worn-out leaderships, it has expended itself. Fatah and the PLO will have no place in the new world. The two-state solution is no one’s primary concern. It might expire not because of violence, settlements, or America’s inexpert role. It might perish of indifference…..

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Which country will be next?

Sunday, July 22 2012 –

Conflicting reports from and about Syria indicate that perhaps the Syria chapter of the so-called Arab Spring – or should I say “the Greater Middle East and North Africa Project”? – is approaching a close as well. Whatever opened in Libya, Egypt or Tunisia with the closure of the “spring” may soon open in Syria as well.

Barack Obama, the American president who has proved to be a “Black Bush,” and may indeed be worse than the original white one, the other day voiced his praise for the Muslim fighters for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere. His words reminded me, and perhaps many others, of the Rambo series: fighting hand-in-hand with the Muslim Taliban and other Muslim guerillas against the Soviet infidel occupiers in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union is long gone, and Americans are now fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Muslim guerilla groups in Afghanistan in a war that has begun to turn into a second Vietnam.

Yesterday was the time of the “Green Belt Policy” devised by the great strategist Zbigniev Brzezinski, the aim of which was to shield and contain the advancing communists. Today, many people have fathered a bastard called the Greater Middle East and North Africa Project. It is still ambiguous. Some say its goal is to change the political map and produce a more secure living area for the Jewish state; some claim is it a project to domesticate the rough Muslims into a milder version of Islam, allowing some sort of democratic governance, thanks to a friendly Muslim cleric now living in Pennsylvania. Those goals might be valid, but it is obvious that the real aim of the project is to convert these large regions into an open market and capitalize on their vast natural riches. That’s what must be seen after the mask is removed: the mask that says the aim is to bring democracy to those countries, grieving under dictatorial, oppressive regimes.

Guess who is the co-chair of the project, which has been under implementation for quite a long time through exploitation of governmental woes, poverty, oppression and gross violation of human rights? Turkey, where critics of the Islamist government are either physically imprisoned or imprisoned in their brains, scared to speak or write. Who is financing it? The Saudis and the Qataris. Are they more democratic than, let’s say, Syria?

In some parts of the region, disorganized, unarmed and civilian opposition groups were armed to the teeth and organized as much as possible; “advisors” helped them to develop strategies, and they began “rebelling” against oppressive regimes. In some other parts of the same region, neighbors and regional organizations helped with international approval to silence people demanding rights, at gunpoint or under the turrets of tanks.

The operation is continuing: On a December day in 2010, Mohammed Buazizi converted his body into a torch to herald the “coming of spring.” Tunisia plunged into unprecedented chaos; 23-year-old Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime collapsed within days. Since then, Iraq has become further destabilized, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi has become history, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been toppled, and now Bashar al-Assad of Syria appears to be on the way out.

Which country will be next? Saudi Arabia? Turkey? Which country, indeed?

Qatar attempts to rehabilitate Sunni islam

It’s been a while that the Qatari have appointed themselves the “rehabilitators” of the misjudged Sunnis in the region. They have been offering a hand to all the Sunni extremists with the hope that they would moderate them and bring them into the mainstream of the consumption society. This is similar to the approach of Turkey in taming religious extremism. While it has apparently been successful in Turkey, any false move or a faltering economy may bring extremism back in the front.
The attempt of the Qataris is laudable in view of the harm that Saudi Arabia has done to the Sunnis by creating monsters like Al Qaeda and salafi fanatics in all the countries they put their hands on. Afghanistan and Pakistan are example of the Saudi Wahhabi negative influences.
Will the Qatari succeed? They have been helped tremendously by Al Jazeera spread in all Arab homes. Yet, Al Jazeera is increasingly criticized for dishonest reporting. In addition the Qataris have made several mistakes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria by supporting too obviously religious groups against minorities or secular groups. They are looked upon increasingly suspiciously by Arab seculars who suspect that they have another hidden agenda close to Saudi Arabia’s religious proselytism and to the USA’s dedication in protecting Israel. These agenda may appear disguised into calls for democratic practices that neither the Qataris nor the Saudis are practicing or intend to practice in the short term.

It’s an long term experimentation, heavily supported by the USA that want to see the end of Moslem terrorists that not only threatens them at home and in the region but also threatens their increasingly isolated ally in the region, Israel.
As long as the question of Israel is not solved, the efforts of the Qatari will be stained with suspicion. So it’s a complex game where it is not easy to win.
Bronco on


A year after Jasmine and Tahrir

By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan- January 14, 2012-
It is still early to come to any conclusion about the dénouement of the churning in West Asia. Things are far from settled.

The euphoria generated by the Jasmine and Tahrir revolutions has all but dissipated during the past year. The unrealistic expectations, the hype built up mainly by the western governments and the media have given way to doubt, disappointment and even despair over the fate of ‘Arab Spring.’ The concern of most observers in the international community is now focussed on the direction in which “people’s movements” in various countries will proceed, and on the loss of lives that occurred in Libya, Yemen and, to a less extent, Egypt, and that is continuing in Syria and can be expected to happen in some other countries in the region in the coming months. It is a sad commentary on the rest of the international community that it unhesitatingly adopts the terminology coined by the West to describe the historic events in West Asia. ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arab Awakening’ is a condescending description; it suggests that the people of West Asia have been sleeping all these decades, not caring for freedoms enjoyed by people elsewhere. The fact is that non-regional governments have been supporting the authoritarian regimes through massive supply of deadly weapons and technology, which were used to suppress the people.

Increased Shia-Sunni tensions

There are some who would like the Egyptians to believe that their revolution would not have happened but for the speech of President Barack Obama in their capital two years ago. The fact is that the people of Tunisia, followed by the people of Egypt, owe their revolutions to no one except themselves; they are the owners of their revolutions. If anything, the intervention of external powers, as in Libya, has complicated matters for the most part, created space for more extreme forms of Islamic thought to gain ascendance and, perhaps unwittingly, greatly accentuated the tensions between Shias and Sunnis. It is still early days to come to any conclusions about the dénouement of the churning in the region. Things are far from settled, except to some extent in Tunisia where it all began a year ago. Some broad trends, however, may be attempted.

Strengthening of Islamist groups

In all countries which have witnessed some degree of protests, Islamist groups have gained significant ground. In Tunisia, a ‘moderate’ Islamic party has won plurality of the vote. In Libya, where regional forces are refusing to give up their arms or disband their militias, hard-line Islamists, including loyalists of the al Qaeda, have secured influential positions. Egypt has surprised most observers, including knowledgeable Egyptians, by giving a huge electoral mandate to the Muslim Brotherhood and, more ominously, to Salafists; together, the two Islamist groups will control about 70 per cent seats in Parliament, to the great disappointment of the ‘secular’ forces. Similarly, in Yemen, the extremists have gained ground and will emerge as the most influential force as and when President Saleh leaves the country. The same phenomenon is evident in Syria in an acuter form. Bahrain is possibly an exception in the sense that the conflict there is between the minority Sunni ruling family and the majority Shia community.

The success of the Islamists by itself need not be seen as a negative outcome, except perhaps by Israel. Their success is an indication of the disillusionment of people with the ‘secular’ authoritarian regimes as well as the reward for the socially useful work they have been doing such as running hospitals and schools. Whatever the nature of the new governments, people will enjoy more freedoms and will have a greater say in running the affairs of the state. The most amazing phenomenon of 2011 is the shedding of fear by the people, first in the Arab world and, subsequently almost everywhere else, including Russia and China. (This does not apply much to India since we always were free and unafraid to protest and demonstrate, although Tahrir Square could have provided some inspiration.) The Time magazine is absolutely right in naming the unnamed ‘Protester’ as the person of the year. This means the Islamists, as and when they occupy positions of power, will not be able to manipulate people in any way they like. In the medium term, the Islamists-led regimes will insist, at the least, on all legislation being compliant with the Sharia, whatever it means in practice.

Security forces, the army and police, will continue to wield significant, even decisive, influence in the stability of governments. The Turkish model will not be followed consciously given past history but some variation of it should be expected to emerge at some stage. Libya has to go through the difficult process of creating an army out of disparate armed militias and will take longer to achieve stability. In Egypt, the armed forces, which have been used to wielding power for nearly five decades, will hold on to it for quite some time, especially since they also have significant vested interests in the economy.

More attention on Palestine

The Palestinian issue will receive much more attention and focus from the new regimes, which probably would mean more support for Hamas. Israel, which already feels threatened by Iran’s nuclear programme, will be under increased pressure to suspend settlement building. Israel’s posture will harden and its military spending will increase. The U.S. is in no position to bring effective pressure on Israel, especially in an election year, but it might appeal to Israel to be more reasonable on the Palestinian track in return for tightening the screws on Iran.

Syrian issue

Syria is a complex case but certain facts are clear. (1) There is genuine popular demand for reform. (2) There is repression and use of ruthless force by the regime — at the same time, it continues to enjoy the support of the security forces and significant sections. (3) There is open intervention by external powers and groups such as the Brotherhood as well as elements subscribing to the al-Qaeda ideology, if not the al-Qaeda itself. (4) Many dissident groups are well armed and have killed a number of security forces. (5) Western powers are determined to bring about regime change. (6) Israel is greatly interested in seeing Bashar Assad removed even if the alternative will be a fundamentalist regime. Its priority is Iran and whatever weakens Iran in the region is considered to be in Israel’s interest. Bashar’s removal will greatly diminish the Hezbollah’s ability to threaten Israel and also reduce Hamas’ clout. (7) Unless a solution is found soon, the country will be headed towards a bloody civil war.

The Shia-Sunni tensions and Saudi-Iranian rivalry will intensify. Iraq presents a most discouraging example in this respect. After so many years of American shepherding, society in Iraq remains deeply divided on sectarian fault lines. Prime Minister Maliki, now that he is liberated from whatever moderating influence American presence might have exercised on him, is dealing with the Sunni community in exactly the wrong way. The sectarian violence seems all set to return to the horrors of the 2005-07 period. Iraq’s Sunni neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, will definitely intervene to protect their Sunni brethren across the border. It is not a coincidence that Iraq’s Shia government has been voting against the Arab League’s decisions on the Alawite Shia-led Syrian regime. The Saudi hostility to Damascus has everything to do with the Shia-Sunni divide. Turkey’s current antagonism to Syria has many explanations and the Shia-Sunni factor is one of them. The Turkey-Syria-Iraq triangle offers quite a few fertile grounds for conflict — water, the Kurdish problem, Shia-Sunni hatred, etc. There is a tendency to downplay the Shia-Sunni tension but it is very much a fact of the Muslim life and it is better to recognise it.

In sum, the region is likely to remain unstable for quite some time. It would become destabilised should the Iranian nuclear issue lead to extremely harsh sanctions — and the process has begun — or worse, military action.

Some Indian experts would like India to take a more proactive role on the happenings in West Asia, to be on ‘the right side of the forces of history.’ It is no doubt good to feel self-righteous and earn an occasional pat on the back from the western or any other government. But it is more important to think of our national interests. Compared to our friends in the West, we are more dependent on the energy resources of West Asia. Most importantly, unlike other countries, we have to worry about 6 million of our compatriots who are working there and sending billions of dollars to their families back home. It makes sense to take a cautious stance, make as thorough an analysis as possible of the evolving situation and try to be on the winning side. That is our challenge. That challenge is coming sooner that we would like, in Iran.

The new Crescenters: Turkey and Qatar


Qatar and Turkey are the new Crescenters ( in opposition to crusaders) of the Arab world. They are working to move the whole Arab world into becoming Sunni Islamic republic. They plan to  “moderate” these countries by injecting massive funds in economical investment.
For that, they have the full support of the USA and the western countries tired of fighting against extremists isla, supporting hopeless dictators and facing increased immigration of moslems to their countries.
As for Iran with which Turkey and Qatar enjoy good relationship, they consider that with a few adjustments, ultimately Iran would become another moderate Islamic republic.
Syria, Lebanon and Iraq  are most difficult countries to tackle because they are not homogeneous so the move to a ‘moderate’ Sunni or Shia islamic republic is not as straighforward as Egypt, Libya, Yemen or Tunisia where the religious or ethnic minorities are either unexistant or weak.
At first, Turkey and Qatar thought that Syria that has a majority of sunni will easily replace the alawite regime by a sunni islamic republic. After 10  months, that plan failed because the regime had the support of Iran who refuses to have its allies in Lebanon isolated.
The different strategies are the following 1) Let Lebanon, Syria and Iraq stay under the umbrella of Iran with the hope that Iran will move to a moderate Islamic republic, 2)Let these countries in limbo to find their own balance or 3) Use a military option make the necessary changes.
It seems that the solution 2) is the one being considered by Turkey and Qatar after many attempts to use solution 3)

Arab Spring boosts political Islam, but which kind?

By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor | Reuters –

(Reuters) – More democracy is bringing more political Islam in the countries of the Arab Spring, but Islamist statements about sharia or religion in politics are only rough indicators of what the real effect might be.

The strong showing of Tunisia’s moderate Islamists in Sunday’s election and a promise by Libyan National Transitional Council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil to uphold sharia have highlighted the bigger role Islamists will play after the fall of the autocrats who opposed them.

These Islamists must now work out how to integrate more Islam into new democratic systems. Many terms used in the debate are ambiguous and some, especially the concept of sharia, are often misunderstood by non-Muslims.

Jan Michiel Otto, a Dutch law professor who led a recent study of how 12 Muslim countries apply sharia, said political Islam covers a broad spectrum of approaches.

“If sharia is introduced, you don’t know what you’ll get,” said the Leiden University professor, editor of the book Sharia Incorporated. His study indicated that, contrary to what many Western observers might think, more Islam did not always mean less liberty.

Yasin Aktay, a Turkish sociologist at Selcuk University in Konya, said Sharia itself was not a defined legal code and not limited to the harsh physical punishments seen in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

“That’s a fetishised version of sharia,” he said.


Many Middle Eastern constitutions already enshrine Islam as the official religion and mention sharia as the basis of law, but also have civil and penal codes based on European models.

Apart from Saudi Arabia, which has only Islamic law, Middle Eastern countries apply a complicated mix of religious and civil law. Sharia can be applied almost symbolically in one country, moderately in another and strictly in a third.

Ennahda, the Islamist party leading the vote for Tunisia’s constituent assembly, is the first in the Arab Spring countries to have to start spelling out how much Islam it wants.

It says it respects democracy and human rights and wants to work with secularist parties to draft a new constitution. Its leader Rachid Ghannouchi has long advocated moderate Islamist policies like those of the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey.

The Tunisian constitution declares Islam as the official religion but does not mention sharia as the foundation of the legal system. Given the country’s strong secularist traditions, Ennahda would face serious opposition if it tried to have sharia declared the basis of law there.

Aktay said Ghannouchi’s writings in the 1980s helped to influence Turkish Islamists to shift their paradigm from seeking a state based on sharia to entering democratic politics.

Since then, the AKP’s success in Turkey has served as a model for Ghannouchi as he entered practical politics in Tunisia, he added.


Egypt, which is due to elect a new lower house of parliament by early December, describes Islam as the state religion in its constitution and calls it the main source of laws.

The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to emerge as the largest party. Its bid to build a “Democratic Alliance” has foundered, with most of the liberal and rival Islamist groups splitting away to run on their own or form other blocs.

“I don’t believe the Brotherhood will claim more than 25 percent of the parliamentary seats, which is an important bloc but not a majority,” said Hassan Abu Taleb from Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Egypt has also allowed several Salafist groups to run. The Salafists, who Abu Taleb said could take up to 10 percent of the vote, want strict implementation of Islamic laws, including those their critics say are anti-democratic.


In Libya, former dictator Muammar Gaddafi ruled by decrees that included mention of Islam as the state religion and sharia as the inspiration for at least some laws.

NTC chairman Jalil surprised some Western observers on Sunday by saying sharia would be the source of Libyan law, but he had already spoken in more detail about it.

“We seek a state of law, prosperity and one where sharia is the main source for legislation, and this requires many things and conditions,” he said in early September, adding that “extremist ideology” would not be tolerated.

The exact place of sharia in the legal system in practice will only be settled once a new constitution is written by a constituent assembly and approved by a referendum.

Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood has fewer than 1,000 members because under Gaddafi recruitment was secretive and restricted to elites, said Alamin Belhaj, a member of the NTC and a senior member of the group.


Syria, where an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has been raging since March, has a secularist government but mentions Islam as the source of law in its constitution.

The main opposition body, the National Council, has so far named 19 members to its general secretariat. Four are members of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood and six are independent Islamists.

It has yet to spell out its platform or make clear what kind of a state should take over, if Assad is overthrown.

“In Syria, the Islamist current is a moderate movement,” said Omar Idlibi, an activist with the grassroots Local Coordination Committees.

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris, Tamim Elyan and Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Tunisia: Islamist Al-Nahda comes to power with ‘modern’ outlook

 Thursday 13 Oct 2011–
On the eve of elections in Tunisia, Ahram Online spoke to Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, whose Islamist party Al-Nahda appears set to lead the next government.

Ask anyone in Tunisia and they will tell you that Islamists, represented by their largest organisation, Al-Nahda Party headed by Sheikh Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, are going to be partners in ruling the country following the January revolution.

Taxi drivers, who habitually have their radios tuned to the Quran, a station ironically established and owned by businessman Sakhr Al-Matri, son-in-law of deposed President Zein Abidine Ben Ali, average citizens in cafes or on the street, and even politicians and intellectuals agree. Al-Nahda, which was banned since its creation under the name “Islamist Outlook Movement” in 1981, until the revolution of 14 January 2011, will be the leading party in Constituent Council elections on 23 October.

Today, Al-Nahda issues its own weekly newspaper Al-Fajr, and the party’s main headquarters on a side street off Kheireddin Pacha Street in the capital is located in a six-storey building once owned by a wireless telephone company. The front of the building is modern and elegant, the glass covered façade reflects the open space before it. In the entrance lobby is hung a picture of Al-Ghanoushi’s books lined up.

Al-Ghanoushi, 70, studied philosophy at Damascus University and is a prominent thinker of “political Islam” in our times. His books are for the first time being sold in public in Tunisia and with locally printed editions.

Al-Ghanoushi met me in his office. He spoke slowly, as if weighed down by years of exile and travel that lasted 21 years and finally ended in London. He avoided answering direct questions about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, although all his answers, in my opinion, challenged the Brotherhood’s posture and its nascent Justice and Freedom Party.

The founder and leader of Al-Nahda Party (which dropped “Islamist” from its title) began his answers by invoking the religious phrase praising the Prophet Mohammed. Then he said:

“I was honoured to be in Egypt as a young man in my 20s to study in a country that represented the aspirations of the youth in pan-Arabism, authenticity and pride. I emigrated there in 1964 and registered to study at the Agricultural College at Cairo University, but this did not last long because of political circumstances.

“Relations between Abdel-Nasser and Borqeba (Egypt’s and Tunisia’s presidents, respectively, at the time) were tense and we benefited from this dispute, but soon they reconciled and about 40 Tunisian students in Egypt paid the price—and I was one of them. The Tunisian embassy in Cairo asked for the names of students who rebelled against the Westernisation tendencies of the time. Borqeba was keen on sending students to the West not the East, which he viewed as a source of suspicion and revolution. As Tunisian students in Egypt, we found ourselves expelled from university although we were very enthusiastic and greatly admired Nasserist Egypt. Then they began handing us over to the embassy for deportation; some went back while others — like me—fled elsewhere.”

Al-Ghanoushi went to Damascus and studied philosophy, remained a devout Nasserist, and joined a Nasserist group called “The Socialist Union” until it became a political Islamic group after the 1967 defeat, according to his autobiography The Islamist Movement Experience in Tunisia.

When referring to Borqeba you used the term “Westernisation”, but some people in Tunisia do not view him as secular. What’s your opinion and what is your definition of secularism?

Borqeba was a secular fanatic, not a moderate. Secularism does not necessarily mean that it opposes religion, but in many cases it co-exists with religion such as the Anglo-Saxon culture. The French roots of secularism, however, have a heritage in opposition of religion which makes it biased. In such a scenario, the state is not neutral towards religion but in conflict with it. Hence, for example, the hijab problem and banning the head scarf was never an issue in Western secular thought except in France. In Britain, on the other hand, they designed Islamic police uniforms for Muslim female officers.

Borqeba’s secularism was extremist and even fascist; it did not believe in democracy but the dominance of the state over society and dismantling its religious structure and identity. This is completely different from a neutral stance by the state towards religion.

So you believe the state should maintain a neutral position towards religion?

I believe the state should sponsor all religions and express the will of society, and not be a guardian over society.

Did you revise your position regarding your proximity to Ben Ali at the beginning of his rule, as stated in the book by Nicolas Beau and Jean Pierre Tuquoi, Notre ami Ben Ali?

When Ben Ali deposed his boss Borqeba on 7 November 1987, our necks were almost in the noose with 10,000 men behind bars. The country was being led by a senile old man and we were in something similar to a civil war and political life was being strangled. We were among the opposition movements that welcomed change but were more pessimistic than optimistic. We knew that the man had previously served as chief of security and former minister of interior, which meant that he took part in the suppression campaigns of 1978, 1984 and 1987. But he came in declaring there is no presidential term for life and promised to reinstate democracy, pan-Arabism and release political prisoners.

When Ben Ali received me on 6 November 1988, he promised to recognise the Islamist movement but asked for some patience. I believed him until the 1989 elections, and the people began to sympathise with the Islamist movement which threw things off balance — it even took us by surprise. The people punitively voted against the ruling party; we misread that, we admit it. Not only were we mistaken about our optimism about Ben Ali, but we were also mistaken because we did not practice democracy was well as we do today.

I will also add, yes, Ben Ali deceived the Islamist leadership and grassroots.

Your campaign in the Constituent Assembly elections seems more modern and open to society, the world and the age. But my observation of the tone of Al-Nahda leadership is contrary and dissimilar to the beliefs of its base and supporters, some of whom are calling for an Islamist state while others want Friday to be the weekend holiday, not Sunday. How is that?

The modern outlook that you noticed is not a decision by the leadership, but the natural progression of the Islamist Outlook Movement and Al-Nahda Movement. In the founding statement of the Outlook Movement in June 1981, there is a clear position for adopting democracy without discrimination or elimination of any party or trend, including the Communist Party. That was an unusual position for an Islamist group to take in those days.

At the time, we were asked at a news conference what would we do if the Communist Party was elected by the people? We did not hesitate and responded: “We have no other choice but to accept the outcome of the ballot box. Then we will go to the people and ask them to revise their choice in the next elections.”

In reality, since the end of the 1970s, we have been coordinating with the leaders of the opposition, including the communist, socialist and democratic parties. Although we suspended coordination for a while because Ben Ali coerced some secular currents and convinced them to fear what he called “Islamist terrorism”, there is consensus among all Tunisian political hues about the type of society, equality between sexes, pluralism that does not exclude anyone and building a civic state. I believe the moderate Islamist trend in general in Morocco, Algeria and even Egypt is heading in this direction, despite differences between one party and another.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, currently support a civic state.

But some of their leaders are still calling for the application of Sharia.

I believe what they mean is that Sharia is the main source of legislation, but the civic state will issue the laws. After the Brotherhood in Egypt proposed the creation of a body of Al-Azhar scholars to revise laws, they withdrew the idea and adopted the notion of a civic state. This means that the people are represented by members of parliament who will write and debate laws. In all honesty, in Islam there is no authority to govern over the people, which is why Sharia is a philosophical and intellectual source for MPs, thinkers and scholars to rely on, but without the guardianship of any entity.

Your campaign does not mention that Sharia is the source of legislation.

The constitution which Tunisians agree on does not mention a secular state but an Islamic state! The previous constitution (of 1959) states that “Tunisia is a free independent state; Arabic is the official language and Islam is the official religion.” No one wants to change this text. Hence, our constitution states that the state’s religion is Islam; it is not a state without religion, which means that religion is a source of all policies and all cultures.

At the same time, no one has the right to claim he represents religion; neither Al-Nahda nor anyone else. Society, through its own dynamic, is the one to formulate and translate religion into policies, laws and culture. The door for debate remains open when we need legislation or policies. This dynamic continues until there is consensus about the opinion of religion on this issue and that. This is a form of interaction with religion that is open to individuals and groups.

In your writings you make it clearer by stating: “There is no religious state in Islam, but a civic state”.

No one in the Islamist trend, at least among the moderates, is calling for a religious state — namely a state that speaks in the name of God. An Islamic state is not a religious one, meaning that it is the state of a Muslim people who are keen for the policies and laws of the state not to contradict the beliefs and values of the citizens, but enforce them. But no one is saying they can be the sole interpreters, or that they speak in the name of Islam.

Are you satisfied with the transition to democracy since the 14 January revolution?

Tunisians today agree on this path. There is consensus that translating the goals of the revolution requires the election of a Constituent Council to write a new constitution. This body will be formed soon. In the year of independence in 1956, the Tunisian state began its work by electing a constituent assembly, and today we all realise that the path we took since that date [1956] was mistaken, misguided and led us to disaster when it concluded by creating a dictatorship, and even a “mafia” type regime.

When Tunisians realised that conditions were beyond reform they revolted; we needed major surgery to rebuild the state to excise single-handed rule. Al-Nahda believes in a parliamentary regime to avoid the causes that led the independent state to the disaster of single-handed rule, although unfortunately this format is rooted in our heritage.

As for the transition after 14 January, I believe that despite criticism progress is being made towards a bright place and decisive period, the election of the constituent assembly. If we arrive there safely, Tunisians will have successfully passed the test.

What are your predictions about the assembly’s composition?

It will be divided among many forces because of the many differences on the political scene and as a result of the electoral system that encourages that.

How many votes will you receive?

We believe we are undoubtedly the largest party, and everyone agrees. All polls state that. How many votes will we win? That will depend on the reliability of the electoral process.

How many do you deserve, in your opinion?

If elections are honest and according to legal procedures, it is not unlikely that we would win the majority of votes; more than 50 per cent of ballots. How will this be translated into seats, I don’t know. According to the electoral process you might need 80 or 70 or 60 per cent to have 51 per cent of the seats on the constituent assembly.

There is ambiguity about major issues in the political arena. There is almost no discussion so far (end of September) about the outline of the new constitution and how institutions will operate in the second interim phase, which begins after the assembly is elected and the constitution written within one year.

The major political forces signed an agreement called the “roadmap” (the Declaration of the Transitional Path) for 24 October, the day after elections day. According to this document, Interim President Fouad Al-Mobzie will invite the Constituent Assembly to convene, and the assembly will choose its chairman and decide on the new transitional administration for the country. It can also elect a new president or approve the incumbent.

The president would then ask the leader of the majority bloc in the council to form a government that would be presented to the Council and offer its programme there for approval. Within one year, the Constituent Council must conclude its mission [of writing a new constitution] as well as monitoring the government and approving the budget.

What is your vision of the features of the new constitution, institutions and regime, and guarantees for public and individual freedoms?

These are all up to the Constituent Council, and no one in Tunisia is willing to repeat the model of an all-powerful president. The only debate is between those calling for a parliamentary system, like Al-Nahda, and others who want an amended presidential system that guarantees balance between powers.

What will the president’s mandate be during the new interim period?

The state administration decree will decide the outline of this stage. The Constituent Assembly will issue this decree that will feature the mandate of the president and cabinet.

Will you propose any ideas on this topic at this point?

No, but we will not go to the Constituent Assembly on 24 October empty handed or without ideas. We will make proposals and a plan for government policies. I believe the cabinet will be formed on 26 October. Anyone who feels they could win must prepare their vision. Already, dialogue has started about the formation of a coalition government, and we are active in this. We believe the country needs a coalition government led by Al-Nahda Party.

What is the point of convergence or consensus for such a cabinet?

The notion of democracy is unanimous; second, is confronting the unemployment problem. These are two fundamental issues for the country.

Do you believe in a free economy?

We prefer a free economy within a humanitarian social framework. Members of the new government must find common ground in the programmes of the three or four parties that will form the government and draw up a plan.

Concerning regional and international conditions, do you feel that the Tunisian experiment in transitioning to democracy, and participation by Islamists in the regime, could be unsettling? Do you feel any pressure?

I doubt any new cabinet will make any serious changes in foreign policy. The top priority will be to address domestic issues such as unemployment, security and development. No doubt, the government will uphold Tunisia’s international agreements; it might amend some things but this is not a priority in any way. The priority now is creating an investment-friendly environment to attract local and foreign capital, and reassure everyone.

There is a sense that the interests of the Tunisian revolution right now are similar to the interests of foreign powers, including Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the elections in 1991 but the results were voided and the country launched into a long civil war.

Yes, Algeria included. The solution is to stabilise conditions in Tunisia. Stability benefits everyone and there is no alternative or guarantee in the shadow of a police or military state. Stability is the only way to ensure the transition to democracy will be successful. It would be a disaster if the process fails and the state collapses.

Hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians will go to the other bank of the Mediterranean (Europe). This is unacceptable and unbearable. Hence, there is a joint interest for everyone to make the democratic transition in Tunisia a success.

Are there open channels between Al-Nahda and the Algerian authorities?

I visited Algeria in August and met with officials there. I sensed that they keen on making our march to democracy a success.

Will this be reflected in the relationship between the Algerian regime and the banned FIS?

That is up to the Algerians. I told them that the Tunisian revolution is not for export, and even if we were to export it, it wouldn’t be to Algeria because Algerians already have a deep culture of revolution, and they don’t need any more input.

The US is said to have given a green light to Islamists in the region and reached compromises to safeguard its interests.

We don’t need a green light from anyone. In our meetings with the Europeans and Americans we reached a common conviction that making the democratic transition successful is in everyone’s interests. The alternative is disastrous.

When did you realise that the Americans want to have a dialogue with you?

After the revolution the Americans began sending messages and contacts were made. Everyone is betting on democracy.

Did they offer guarantees that they would uphold the outcome of elections?

Everyone said that, and they do not object to anyone who comes to power through the ballot box. There is no doubt, however, that everyone prefers a national coalition government that includes Islamists.

By everyone, you mean the Americans and French as well?

Yes. Europeans, in general.

Tunisian Islamist in favor of mild Shariah

Friday, October 7, 2011–
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News–
Shariah is not something that is alien or strange to Tunisia, Ghannouchi says, adding that Islamic law was already enshrined in his nation’s legal code.

Tunisia’s most important Islamist party would prefer to see a mild form of Shariah law implemented in the North African country rather than the “neo-laicism” promoted by Turkey’s prime minister during a recent visit to Tunis, the party’s leader has said.

“What is meant by secularism is different between the Arab world and Turkey. In the Arab world, secularism has been linked in recent decades with dictatorship and with oppression, whereas secularism in Turkey is linked to democracy and freedom of choice,” Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the front-running Ennahda Party, told the Hürriyet Daily News in an interview on Oct. 7.

“Shariah is not something that is alien or strange to our societies,” Ghannouchi said, adding that Tunisian society was familiar with Shariah law and that some aspects of Islamic law were already enshrined in both Tunisian and Egyptian legal codes. “We don’t see Shariah as intervening in people’s private lives and to their freedom to wear what they want. Personal freedom is very important for us.”

Ghannouchi said there were different types of secularism even in Turkey. “The secularism promoted by Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, which is close to Anglo-Saxon secularism, respects people’s freedom of choice and is neutral in regards to religion. The other secularism, which is Marxist secularism or French ‘laicite,’ is forced upon people and is anti-religion,” he added.

“There is the Turkish model of bringing together modernity and Islam, and we can have a Tunisian model that may be different in bringing together modernity and Islam. All share the same principles but there might be some differences between them,” Ghannouchi said, adding that they nonetheless believed the Turkish democratic model was very close to the model that they would like to have in Tunisia.

Erdoğan had issued calls for the North African Arab Spring countries of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to adopt “neo-laicism” during his trip to the countries last month. But while Ghannouchi differentiated between Anglo-Saxon and French secularisms, the Turkish prime minister slammed Western secularism.

“[Ours] is not secularism in the Anglo-Saxon or Western sense; a person is not secular, the state is secular,” Erdoğan said, describing Turkey as democratic and secular. “A Muslim can govern a secular state in a successful way. In Turkey, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, and it did not pose any problem. You can do the same here.”

Gender equality in elections

Ultimately, Ghannouchi said his dream was to see Tunisia “free, democratic, developed and at peace with its own identity and at peace with modernity.”

Enhanda is “a moderate party,” he said. “Our party seeks to combine democracy, which is a Western product, with Islam, which is our own heritage.”

The Ennahda leader also said his party supported the principle of establishing a quota for women for parliamentary elections to take place in two weeks’ time.

“According to the new law, 50 percent of the election lists have to have women candidates. Many of our lists are headed by women, [some of whom] don’t wear a hijab. We have challenged many of the parties who claim to be liberal and who claim to respect women,” Ghannouchi said, adding that his party challenged these liberal competitors to name head-scarved women on their lists.

The most important issue is to emphasize the importance of equality between all people and the principle of equal citizenship between men and women, he said. “All people should be treated equally regardless of their faith and regardless of their gender, whether they are male or female.”

Ghannouchi said that although he was the leader of the party, he would not be a candidate in the next elections. “I want to give an opportunity to young people, because this revolution was made by young people.”