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Civil Society

The Trump Administration does not recognize Muslim Americans

The Trump Administration does not recognize Muslim Americans

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

On May 26, President Trump released a statement on Ramadan, the lunar month that Muslims spend fasting from sun-up to sun-down every day. Unlike statements by other U.S. presidents who used the occasion to recognize the presence and contributions of Muslim Americans, Trump used it to denigrate them and stigmatize their religion and deny the fact that they exist.

As a statement of best wishes on the occasion of a religious event, the intended receiver is supposed to feel good about who they are and what they do. Instead, Trump’s statement made Muslim Americans feel demeaned and defamed. Trump’s statement connected all of Islam to terrorism and portrayed Muslims as people who are prone to violence. Not once did the president use the phrase Muslim Americans. Instead, he talked down to Muslims as foreigners who live in far way places everywhere else in the world, though he acknowledged that some of them–Muslims–live in the United States, but not as Muslim Americans.

If that offensive message was not enough, Trump’s choice for the post of the nation’s top diplomat emphasized the same attitude. On May 29, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, declined a request to host an event to mark Ramadan, breaking with a bipartisan tradition in place for nearly 20 years. Taken together, it is clear that this administration does not recognize Muslim Americans as full citizens of this country. This statement is not based on speculations, it is based in facts—the kind of facts that withstand legal scrutiny. Four courts and judges found Trump to hold anti-Muslim views and for that reason they ruled against his Executive Orders–widely known as the Muslim Ban–in the original and revised editions.

Muslim Americans will resist these odious speech and acts because their right to be recognized as full citizens enjoying all the due protections of the law and shouldering all the responsibilities are not bestowed by one person or by one administration. Muslim Americans exist as a matter of fact: they are 1% of the population, they are represented in all ethnic and racial communities, and they contribute to all aspects of life in the United States. They lead productive lives and they speak against the violent ideology and practices espoused by violent Wahhabi-Salafists. American Muslims are well aware of the double-edged sword of extremism and fanaticism: the absolute majority of victims of terrorism (82-97% of all fatal terrorist attacks) are Muslims and Muslim Americans are victims of domestic terrorism and hate speech disguised as acts of patriotism reacting to “radical Islamic terrorism,” a phrase made popular by Trump and many of his leading supporters and associates.

Trump does not seem to recognize that, upon taking the oath of the presidency, his primary responsibility becomes to uphold the Constitution—not pursue personal ideological goals. With his words, when he denigrates a specific group of citizens, he incites hate and violence. Muslim Americans don’t expect him to change his belief or convictions about Islam and Muslims, but he is expected to uphold his oath of office and stand for the Constitution and for the rights of all citizens, including Muslim Americans.

As a presidential candidate, he insisted on using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” arguing that terrorism must be accurately defined for it to be defeated. He knows the power of words and he has used words as weapons against anyone or any group of people who stand in his way. Muslim Americans now insist that he acknowledges them as citizens by calling them by their proper name: Muslim Americans.


* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Trump’s Statement on Ramadan:

Journalism and media in Islamic societies in conflict zones

Journalism and media in Islamic societies in conflict zones

al-Sharq al-Awasat coverage
Journalism in Arab countries: With the increased violence and potential for sectarian war in the Middle East, one would think that the media and journalists would pay more attention to details, facts, and the language they use to report about the death and destruction in that part of the world. Instead, journalist and the media in general sided with their benefactors or religious/ethnic community, betraying the profession and their duty to objectively inform the public.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat, which wanted to be the New York Times of the Arab world showed its true identity: the mouth piece of the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Aljazeera, whose funders wanted it to be the BBC of the Arab world, resigned to its limited true function: serving the Qatari ruling family and its political allies—the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey. Alarabiya has become the Fox News of the GCC ruling families. Alahram serves Sisi… and the list goes on. 

Here is an example of the kind of headlines the “professional” journalists at al-Sharq al-Awsat ran recently:

5 nations cut their diplomatic relations with Iran… and the world condemn its violations

It did not cross the mind of Iran that its attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Tehran and Mashhad would open the doors of hell on it, including the cutting of diplomatic ties…

[The headlines and opening sentence sound ominous. But the rest of the news story would make you think that you are reading a satirical piece on The Onion or watching a story on the fake news program, The Daily Show. The 5 countries that cut relations with Iran are:

Saudi Arabia (the country the just executed 4 and beheaded 43 including a religious scholar whose crime was “criticizing wali al-amr [the ruler]”)

Bahrain (the tiny kingdom that serves as a bar and resort for the Saudi princes and princesses)

Sudan (Whose president cannot travel much because he faces arrest for war crimes and genocide)

Djibouti (where the hell is Djibouti)

Somalia (does this country actually has a government?)

Arab journalists’ dereliction of duty during these difficult times will make a grave situation graver. In the past, and during peace time, people of that region were used to the media serving as the propaganda tools in the hands of authoritarian rulers. People did not take them seriously. However, with civil wars raging in a handful of Arab countries, the need for accurate information is compelling and Arab journalists ought to take their responsibilities seriously.
Aljazeera devoted half of its space of its website frontpage to reports about the humanitarian crisis in the town of Madaya, Syria, because it is is “Sunni” town. Aljazeera avoided referring to the other towns under siege for years, as the BBC report shows, simply because those towns are inhabited by Shia. To stoke sectarian passion, Aljazeera used graphic images that did not depict people from Madaya.

“This is What the Arab Spring Looks Like”

“This is What the Arab Spring Looks Like”

Tunisia’s transition to representative governance brings hope to Arab Societies

Four days after the fourth anniversary of the spark that ignited the fury of protests widely known as the Arab Spring, Tunisian voters reminded the world about what the Arab Spring is supposed to look like. The election of a new president this week capped four years of hard work that involved politicians and leaders of civil society institutions. In four years, Tunisians elected a constituency assembly primarily tasked with forming a transitional government and writing a new constitution. Those goals, despite many setbacks, were finally achieved. In the past three months, Tunisian voters elected a parliament, narrowed the field of presidential candidates (of more than 24 candidates) during a first round of presidential elections, and finally chose Beji Caid Essebsi, giving him 55% of their vote over the interim president, Mohamed Mouncef Marzouki.

Without doubt, attempts to explain the outcome and meaning of the results of these elections are numerous. Some commentators described the outcome as “buyer’s remorse,” suggesting that the Arab peoples are having second thoughts about the uprisings that overthrew many of the most authoritarian, yet effective, rulers in the region. Other observers contended that the vote in Tunisia, like the one in Egypt, which brought al-Sisi to power, is repudiation to Islamists. Other analysts charged that outside money and influence is behind the counter-revolutionary movements that are repackaging old regimes in order to slow down or undo the radical changes the Arab Spring had set in motion. Indeed, there is some truth in all of these and other theories. However, the constitution that the Tunisian people approved and the process by which they transitioned towards representative governance are remarkably impressive and Tunisians, from all spectrum of social and political life, should celebrate with pride and relief.

Generally, Tunisians have succeeded in keeping outside influence to a minimum. They trusted civil society institutions with mediating political dissent. They supported the interim government in its efforts to isolate violent elements who want to impose their genocidal agenda. In the end, thanks to the people’s sacrifices and commitment to non-violence, Tunisia emerged victorious in many areas. It stands proudly free from the Gulf States’ money-driven half-solutions that stalled progress in Yemen. Tunisians avoided the power grab and political opportunism like the ones that took place in Egypt. And above all, Tunisians succeeded in deliberately silencing the genocidal groups who use knives and guns to slaughter their way to power as is the case in Libya and Syria. 
Tunisians reaffirmed their commitment to the initial cry for dignity.

Importantly, Tunisians have reminded those who claim sole ownership of the revolution for themselves that the uprising was not about replacing one authoritarian regime with another or rewarding a political party over another. By voting for Nida Tunis (and its leader), which has roots in the old bureaucracy, and offering Ennahdha a significant number of seats in the new parliament, Tunisian voters seem to declare that they hold no indiscriminate prejudice against all and anyone who worked or might have worked with or for the old regime. They simply have a problem with incompetence, corruption, cronyism, and abuse of human dignity.

Today, Nida Tunis, the coalition of political parties and civil society entities’ representative that was created as a counterweight to the post-revolution ruling collation, is celebrating; just as did Ennahdha and its allies three years ago. Nida Tunis and its allies should remember that the people, now, have a say in who governs and for how long. More importantly, they should remain mindful not only of the interest of the 55% of the people who voted for them, but also of the concerns of the 45% of Tunisians who voted for Marzouki and the 66% (3.5 million people) of all registered voters who did not vote at all or voted for Marzouki—not for their candidate, Essabsi. Regardless, the 36% of the all registered voters who actually voted for him did not nostalgically vote to bring back the neo-Bourguibists, they voted out those who failed, in their judgment, to govern… again.

The world community should do more than congratulate the Tunisian people and their newly elected officials. They should support them economically, politically, and morally without any strings attached. Indeed, the Tunisian model for transitioning towards representative governance is the most convincing rebuttal to genocidal groups who believe in nothing but their own narrow worldview and tolerate none but themselves.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

A Moroccan view on Catalan independence: Madrid’s continued support for the independence movement in the Western Sahara is hypocritical when compared with their attitude towards independence movements closer to home

A Moroccan view on Catalan independence: Madrid’s continued support for the independence movement in the Western Sahara is hypocritical when compared with their attitude towards independence movements closer to home

by Hassan Masiky*

Behind Spain’s European veil is a country struggling to deal with its painful history. Catalonians’ quest for independence exposes Spaniards’ agony over Franco’s legacy and the destructive historical ramifications of the dictator’s actions in Europe and North Africa. For Moroccans, Madrid’s opposition to Catalans’ rights to self-determination while Spain supports the same rights for the Western Sahara represents an example of Spain’s’ political hypocrisy and dual personality.

Since Morocco seized the Western Sahara from Spain in 1975, Madrid has been publically and covertly supporting the Polisario Front separatists’ call for the self-determination of the former Spanish colony. While Moroccan diplomacy struggled to counter Madrid’s meticulously designed campaign to keep Rabat bogged down in the Sahara, indigenous minorities across Spain stared to ask for their rights to self-rule.

For years, Spain’s support for the Algeria based Polisario Front did not carry any political liability for the Iberian country. However, the nationalist awakening of the Catalan people turned Madrid’s policy in North Africa into a heavy diplomatic encumbrance.

Spanish civil society and partisan parties were Polisario’s first supporters. The former Marxist guerilla movement enjoyed a considerable diplomatic, financial and moral support from the right and the left across Spain’s’ political spectrum. Under the guise of “right to self-determination”, numerous Spanish politicians, human rights activists, writers and actors adopted the Sahrawi cause.

Moroccans watched helplessly as Spain’s support of the Polisario thrust the Sahara conflict onto the world stage. The Spanish government and civil society’s active enthusiasm were instrumental in the rise of Polisario’s profile worldwide. Former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar engagement in this campaign was significant and deliberate

During PM Aznar’s tenure (2001-2004), Moroccan-Spanish relations deteriorated significantly. In the eyes of the Polisario leadership, Aznar moved “the Saharawi file towards a solution that respects the Saharawi people’s inalienable right to self-determination.” The former PM’s sympathy for the Polisario positions was not a proclamation of love for the people of the Western Sahara but rather a major element of his strategy to weaken Morocco.

In Rabat, Moroccans were mystified with Aznar’s right wing Partido Popular (PP) crusade to grant Sahrawi independence knowing the PP‘s disdain for Catalan and Basque nationalists. As Spanish “right wingers” continued their support for the former Marxist Polisario Front, the PP attacked and ridiculed Catalan nationalists.

Madrid contends that Catalans do not “deserve” an independent homeland based on flimsy facts that can easily be dispelled using the Polisario arguments for secession from Morocco. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2012, Aznar dismissed Catalonia’s independence as “Constitutionally impossible” since Catalonians “voted for the 1978 Spanish Constitution”. During the same interview, the former MP stated that Catalans are Spanish and have been part of a “historic nation in Europe for 500 years.”

Moroccans find such statements by a former high ranking Spanish statesman insulting, since Rabat argues the same position at the United Nations to dispel the Polisario arguments for an independent Sahara. The Western Sahara never existed as an independent country and has been part of the Kingdom of Morocco longer than 500 years.

For the Catalans and the Basques, their central government’s explicit support for the right to self-determination in the case of the Moroccan Sahrawi, must be extended to all minorities in Spain. It is incomprehensible to hear Spain’s current Prime Minister Rajoy state at the United Nations that his country “is maintaining its commitment to finding a fair, long-lasting and mutually acceptable political solution to the Western Sahara dispute that allows for the free determination of the Sahrawi people in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter”. Meanwhile, the Spanish government is actively engaged in a secret war against Catalan independence.

As Catalan nationalist campaigns keep on gaining European sympathy, Madrid has started to review its long held pro-Western Sahara independence positions. In a startling reversal of position, Spanish Socialists (PSOE) and PP parliamentarians shunned a recent visit by pro-Polisario parliamentarians to the Morocco controlled Sahara, despite their membership in the Cortes “intergroup on friendship with Western Sahara”.

Catalan and Basque political groups spearheaded this visit to the city of Laayoune intensifying their campaign to link the Saharan conflict to Catalonia’s drive for independence, thus using Madrid’s current and past positions calling for the Sahrawi rights to self-determination to highlight their central government illusory attitude.

Judging from Madrid’s recent cool attitudes toward the Polisario, Spain appears to be falling into the same trap the PP dug for Morocco in the Western Sahara. On close inspection, none of the central government’s anti- Catalonia independence arguments holds up. The contention that the Catalonian vote for the 1978 constitution makes their current demands for independence illegal is injudicious, since the balloting took place three years after the demise of the brutal Franco dictatorship when most of the country was still recovering from a political jolt.

Madrid must recognize the transition underway in Catalonia. Moreover, Spain, as a member of the European Union, should grant the Catalan people the basic right to vote on self-rule. Despite harassments and legal hurdles, a simmering Catalan nationalist movement is thriving and will eventually achieve its goal of creating an independent homeland. Meanwhile, the central government self-denial undermines Spain image as a democratic nation.

* Hassan Masiky is a freelance journalist and former advisor to Amnesty International USA.

Between the two camps, Egypt’s media outlets have chosen to take sides in the ongoing tragic split

Between the two camps, Egypt’s media outlets have chosen to take sides in the ongoing tragic split

by Ahmed Magdy Youssef*
Egypt’s last two weeks’ incessant events not only gripped the minds and hearts of the Egyptians, but they captured the interest of the national and international media as well.

For many Egyptians, mostly those who filled public squares across the country to demand Mr. Morsi’s removal and early presidential elections, the military’s intervention on July 3 was inevitable to save the most heavily populated Arab country from slipping into a civil war.

By contrast, Egyptian Islamists and other supporters of Mr. Morsi remain steadfast in their rejection of what they call a “military coup”, refusing to acknowledge the military-backed interim president Adli Mansour and his newly-appointed vice president and prime minister as legitimate. Mr. Morsi’s supporters have staged a series of mass rallies in Cairo, demanding the reinstating of the ousted president.

Between the two camps, Egypt’s media outlets have chosen to take sides in the ongoing tragic split. To put it more pointedly, not only the state-owned media avowedly backed the military after Morsi’s ouster, but most of the Egyptian privately-owned TV stations and newspapers as well have embraced the military’s perspective.

It’s no secret to say that Egypt’s media landscape has never been non-partisan. The Muslim Brotherhood’s TV station – Misr 25 – and others run by their Islamist allies, in addition to newspapers like Freedom and Justice, official newspaper of the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), were undoubtedly partisan. Additionally, being perpetually accused of aligning with the regime that rules, state-owned newspapers like Al-Ahram did partly side with Mr. Morsi before the 30-June demonstrations. On the flip side, most of Egypt’s privately-owned networks and newspapers were whole-heartedly in the anti-Morsi camp. Their dehumanization and demonization of the Brotherhood’s members and other Islamists, not to mention their disparaging of the pro-Morsi protests, has become engrained.

It all reached a crescendo on July 3 after the “popular” ouster of Morsi by the army’s generals. Under the expediency of restoring national order, the military-led authorities shut down Islamist-run TV stations, including Misr 25, and arrested their managers. Only the Freedom and Justice newspaper “survived” the media crackdown!

With only one tone dominating Egypt’s mainstream media, most of the national media outlets went berserk over what was called the “Republican Guard Massacre”. Last week, more than 50 pro-Morsi protesters were shot to death by the armed forces in clashes between the two sides in front of the Presidential Guards.

The aforementioned outlets not only have failed to acknowledge wrongdoing on the part of the military, but have directed their ire toward the victims, Mr. Morsi’s supporters, as well. By adopting the military’s viewpoint that revolves around accusing the pro-Morsi protesters of trying to raid the military’s facility, many Egyptian media outlets vindicated or even praised the “valiant” actions of the army!

This was further aggravated by some western media, such as The Telegraph, who published footage of an Egyptian photographer who chronicled his own death. The 26-year-old photographer from the Freedom and Justice newspaper was among the victims killed by the armed forces in the Republican Guard massacre’s incident. He had managed to capture the moment in which an army soldier with a rifle on top of a yellow stone building shot him dead! However, this footage was circulated only through different social network sites like Facebook. None of Egypt’s state or privately-owned television channels broadcast this footage!

In this polarized environment, many supporters of Mr. Morsi have resorted to Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language channel, alongside western networks such as CNN , to cater to their needs of seeing unabated coverage of the pro-Morsi protests, in addition to the dismissal of the opposition rallies.

Previously, Egypt’s state-owned and independent media outlets were drifting into two distinct camps; pro- and anti- Morsi. But, from the moment Mr. Morsi was ousted from the political scene, these two different viewpoints have been steered into one sole anti-Morsi direction. This trend, most probably, will continue for a while, till the Islamist TV stations reopen again, given their popularity, wide audience base and their traditional role as primary source of information for the Islamist camp.

*Ahmed Magdy Youssef holds an MA in Global Journalism from Örebro University in Sweden. He has researched the media coverage of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and is currently monitoring the Egyptian media system through the national media watch group, Egypt’s Media Credibility Index (MCE Watch).

Islam and democracy

Islam and democracy

Tunisia at a crossroads 
by Genevieve Theodorakis*

A primary driver of the Tunisian revolution was the unanimous call for freedom of expression and mass participation in national politics. With the demise of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisians hoped their liberation would remove controls on freedom of speech and freedom of the press and further expand women’s rights. In theory, journalists were freed up to share information, unhampered by fear of imprisonment or the harassment that characterised press censorship under Ben Ali, while newly empowered citizens exercised their right to vote in Tunisia’s first democratic elections. However, after recent developments, not only are Tunisia’s newfound liberties under threat, but rights previously enjoyed for decades are being eroded in the process.

 In February 2013, Tunisians experienced their first political assassination in decades, sparking a wave of national protests so fierce that some observers prematurely construed it as the start of a second revolution. While the second revolution did not materialise, the murder of government critic and politician Chokri Belaid was one of many events that led Tunisians to question the sincerity of Tunisia’s liberalisation efforts. Since the election of Tunisia’s first Islamist regime led by the Ennahda party, Tunisians critical of the government have been exposed to verbal and physical attacks together with judicial retribution from rogue actors in society and the state itself. Similarly, long-championed rights for women have been questioned by an increasingly vocal and powerful religious vote that seeks a return to a more traditional Islamic role for women in society. The emergence of these phenomena prompt two questions: what is the status of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and women’s rights in Tunisia’s democracy, and to what extent can the new status quo be attributed to Islamic impositions on democracy?

Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is advanced as one of the most positive outcomes of the Tunisian revolution, yet in practice, this newfound right is unevenly applied. On one end of the spectrum, members of the political opposition, notably the late Belaid, have routinely received death threats for their criticism of the Ennahda party and were the frequent subject of both verbal and physical abuse in public. A few days before his murder, supporters of Belaid claimed he was attacked for speaking out against the government while at an opposition rally in the northern city of Kef.
Yet there are numerous incidences that reinforce the impression of a lack of disciplinary action against the perpetrators of this violence and verbal abuse. In July 2012, it was reported that religious figures in Tunisian mosques were preaching for the assassination of particular politicians and personalities disparaging Ennahda; a crime which would incur severe punishment had violence been directed at state or religious officials. Yet the culprits received no known condemnation from the government for inciting violence. Indeed, the day before his death, Belaid denounced the “climate of systematic violence” germinating in Tunisia and admonished the ruling coalition for tolerating the radical, anti-modernist demands of hardline Salafists. Thus far, few concrete steps have been taken to ensure that all Tunisians are entitled to the freedom of expression which accords with the most basic principles of law and order. 
Nor is there clear evidence that the Ennahda party intends to fully uphold this commitment. When the government issued a draft constitution in May 2013, Human Rights Watch criticised it for failing to protect freedom of thought through its “broad formulation of permissible limitations to freedom of expression” and freedom of assembly. Contradictions within the draft constitution leave room for discrimination – although Article 6 affirms “all citizens are equal in rights and obligations before the law, without discrimination”, the constitution states that only a Muslim can become president.
Limits also restrict equal protection under the law to Tunisian citizens, which may violate international human rights treaties ratified by the Tunisian government by providing the state with a broad leeway to undermine or restrict human rights through ‘cultural specificities’. Speaking to the press earlier this year, Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “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.”  

Freedom of the press

Under the rule of Ben Ali, Tunisians were subjected to one of the most oppressive internet censorship regimes in the world, while any journalistic criticism was stymied by media regulations that criminalised defamation, libel, and the disturbance of public order.
Tunisia’s democratic government has sought to reverse this trend by implementing new laws to liberalise restrictions on journalists. Passed in November 2011, decree law No. 2011-115 was designed to protect the rights of journalists to publish without fear of legal retribution and to discipline individuals or groups that partake in physical or verbal assaults directed towards journalists.
The new law was also envisioned to uphold the privacy of writers’ sources while eliminating prior laws that contradict the articles of Law 115. While the full implementation of Law 115 represents a major break from the past, the principles of the law are not being adequately defended, resulting in whatReporters without Borders have called an “unprecedented campaign of death threats against journalists, writers and media workers critical of the ruling Ennahda Party and its handling of recent events”.
Incidences of violence and death threats directed against journalists from across the media spectrum have only increased since the assassination of Belaid. Indeed, his very funeral was the site of a number of violent assaults on journalists and other members of civil society paying tribute to the politician, while several Tunisian journalists received death threats for their coverage of Belaid’s burial.
Tunisian journalists speaking out against the murder of Belaid and the activities of the Ennahda party have also been the target of anti-media rhetoric emanating from several religious leaders from around the country for allegedly “insulting Islam” or “hindering the work of the Ennahda party”, earning journalists critical of the government verbal and physical hostility.
Furthermore, journalists are not the sole victims of the country’s oppressive media laws. In late March, a blogger and a university professor were accused of defaming the minister of foreign affairs and the general rapporteur of the constitution at the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), a charge which could be punished by a prison sentence of two years. Participants in a rap video that questioned the morals and activities of the Tunisian police were also sentenced to six months of imprisonment in March for defamation and protesting against officials. The video’s rapper, Ala Yaakoubi, has not yet been located by police but was convicted of hate speech and incitement to violence and murder in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison. 

Women’s freedoms

Tunisia’s uncertain transition process sparked a nationwide debate concerning the rights of women in society, economics, and politics. Regarded as arguably the most liberal Arab state concerning women’s rights by westerners, Tunisia boasts a long history of expanding the rights enjoyed by women, beginning with the passage of laws assuring women the right to education and gender equality after the country’s independence from France in 1956.
As part of a campaign to secularise Tunisian society, government authorities went so far as to ban the wearing of the veil in universities and public buildings in 1981. Women were also permitted to divorce their husbands on equal terms, while polygamy was banned during a time when men were able to take up to four wives in many other Muslim countries. 
New political freedoms introduced following the exit of the Ben Ali regime have arguably altered the country’s trend towards secularisation, with Tunisia’s new government pursuing an Islamic reawakening in the North African country. Under Ben Ali, even the hijab was forbidden, but his departure has left women free to express their Islamic identity, with an increasing number of Tunisian women wearing the hijab and the niqab.
As a result, although the Ennahda party has made no real move to limit women’s rights in marriage, observers and Tunisians alike fear an increasing infringement on the rights of women in the workplace, in universities, and in society by the growing power of ultra religious actors in politics.
The war for women’s place in the new Tunisia is exemplified by a recent controversy sparked by the feminist protest of a 19-year-old Tunisian student who posted a topless photo of herself on the Internet with the words “my body is mine, not somebody’s honour” scrawled on her chest. Critics of the FEMEN-inspired protest argued that Amina’s interpretation of ‘women’s rights’ denied Tunisian women the agency to decide for themselves whether or not they would wear the niqab.
While this is an important discussion, the legitimate debate for women’s religious expression runs in danger of being overshadowed by a tide of extremism seeking to impose religion on society, summed up by the public declaration of a prominent Salafist cleric to the effect that Amina deserved to be flogged and stoned to death for exposing herself. Nor is Amina alone; increasing numbers of female secularists have become subjects of verbal and physical intimidation by hard-line Islamists who reject the secular elements of the 2011 revolution. It is the growing role of extremist Islamist groups that has increasingly divided Tunisian society, pitting secularists, who fear the widespread imposition of religion at the political and social level, against the religious, some of whom perceive Salafist groups as rare providers of morality and poverty alleviation during an uncertain transition.
The record is certainly mixed; while radical groups like Ansar al-Sharia have become popular in poor areas by distributing food, clothing, and medication, the group also aspires to implement Sharia law and was accused of attacking the American embassy in Tunis in September 2012. 

Islam and democracy 

Viewed from abroad, Tunisia’s difficulties may result from an inevitable struggle between democracy and Islam, posing the oft-reiterated question, “Is Islam compatible with democracy?” Indeed, as the Islamic world’s primary example of an “Islamist” democracy besmirches its reputation in Taksim Square and elsewhere, it is tempting to attribute authoritarian tendencies to all such Islamist perpetrators.
However, to restrict the debate over a perceived increase in authoritarianism to Islam is perhaps to miss out on the broader forces at play in the region. Though Islamists have long influenced the policymaking of Arab leaders, it is only since December 2010 that popular Islam has been provided with a first chance to directly dictate regional politics. Yet censorship, vicious retribution against government critics, and restrictions on women’s rights have nevertheless characterised the policies of many secular Arab regimes from Morocco to Jordan since independence.
Under the rule of heavyweights such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser and Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba, the state was defined by a strictly secular agenda that silenced the voice of Islam in the name of modernisation. Though women were traditionally allotted more rights within these regimes, during this time, religion was perceived as an obstacle to economic development, and this justified the enforcement of strict censorship laws over self-expression and the press.
Nor were such restrictive practices limited to the Middle East and North Africa, for it is arguable that the majority of developing countries denied their women equal rights and their societies civil liberties, irrespective of religious orientation. Critically, it appears that even ‘bastions of democracy’ within the west are unable to resist the urge to monitor citizens’ behaviour and regulate activism.
Consequently, attempts to understand the sluggish efforts to promote ‘democratic’ values on the part of Ennahda cannot be limited to a discussion of the relationship between Islam and democracy. Rather, what is necessary is a broader understanding of power conflicts within society, particularly in nascent democracies: who are the bearers of power, and how did they obtain the mandate to rule? Which segments of society provide support to the regime, and which segments threaten to challenge its authority? What tools are available to the regime to exercise its power, and how do these tools differ from those available to its predecessor?
In this context, the Ennahda party has been given a mandate to rule that is not legitimate in the long run. Operating only with the power to oversee the writing of the constitution and the ruling of the country until legitimate, long-term elections can be held, an Ennahda-led government has what is potentially an expiry date, prompting fears of a loss of power among individuals long excluded from decision-making and formerly persecuted for their beliefs under Ben Ali.
Increasingly reliant on the religious vote, Ennahda’s attempts to institutionalise its power, to promote the interests of its supporters, and to silence its opposition cannot be condoned. Nevertheless, these efforts are arguably best understood within the context of the party’s insecurity, as opposed to its identity as an Islamist party.
Moreover, the party has good reason to be insecure when considering the difficult transition period it must oversee. Charged with the task of keeping the ship afloat until Tunisians select their new captain, Ennahda has been hard pressed to combat rising inflation as the Tunisian dinar continues to depreciate.
Coupled with global increases in food prices, the devalued dinar has led to inflation of up to 300% in the case of certain foodstuffs, representing a significant deterioration in living standards in a country where food purchases constituted 35.5% of household final consumption expenditures in 2011, in comparison to 6.7% in the US and 9.4% in the UK.
Rising food prices deliver a serious economic blow in conjunction with growing unemployment; in 2012, Tunisia’s female unemployment rate represented one of the highest unemployment rates for women in the world in 2012 at 26.9% against a global average of 6.5%. Moreover, a third of the country’s unemployed are university graduates, and with estimates of 100,000 new graduates entering the job force each year by 2015, job creation fails to keep up with domestic employment demand.
Although there are signs that foreign investment is slowly returning, a full economic recovery will not be likely to happen until the country is securely in the hands of a long-term government that can ensure political, and therefore economic, stability.
Faced with the difficulty of meeting the economic and political expectations of Tunisians, Ennahda has proven ill-suited to managing the transition period. In the midst of growing societal discontent for and against its rule, the regime has been either unable or unwilling to exercise full control over actors that overstep the laws, nor has it prioritised the protection of civil liberties as promised during its election.
Yet despite its shortcomings, it is important nevertheless to examine the party’s behaviour beyond the boundaries of its Islamist identity. In attributing authoritarian characteristics solely to Islam, we not only risk misunderstanding the problem, but also relinquish the opportunity to be part of the solution.
*Genevieve Theodorakis graduated from the LSE in December 2012 with an MSc in Global Politics, specialising in the Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa. She currently works as an analyst for a global publishing company with a focus on the Middle East and Francophone Africa. 

Tunisia’s security syndrome

Tunisia’s security syndrome

By Noureddine Jebnoun*

On May 19, the Tunisian government banned Ansar al- Sharia (Supporters of Sharia), a Salafist group, claiming to be jihadist, from holding its third annual rally in Kairouan – a city located 114 miles south-central of Tunis and which houses the mosque of the general Uqba Ibn Nafa‘a, the “conqueror of Africa” around 670 AD. The “battle of Kairouan”, heavily publicized by the Tunisian media did not occur, despite several clashes between the police and citizens of the same city who protested against the overwhelming police presence as well as the intrusion of the FEMEN movement activist Amina. Her sudden appearance in the city allegedly sought to disrupt Ansar al-Sharia’s congress, ended provoking the sensitivity of the locals while she wrote “FEMEN” on the wall of the graveyard next to the Uqba mosque.

Instead, violent urban unrest broke out as the police tried to prevent Ansar al-Sharia from organizing their meeting the same day in other locations, mainly in Ettadhamen, a western suburb of Tunis. The neighborhood is considered a slum, populated with disenfranchised, marginalized, and impoverished people, in which the hardline Islamist Salafist group was able to mobilize its own social base. As a result, one demonstrator was killed and several protestors as well as members of anti-riots police were injured. Notwithstanding this atmosphere of urban warfare, another critical confrontation opposing the government to armed militants is taking place in a remote area of the country. In the densely forested Jabal Chaambi national park above the city of Kasserine located 150 miles southwest of Tunis, the ongoing security operatives have been hunting the alleged Islamist militants hiding in this topographically inaccessible mountain since April 29. This operation follows one that took place in December 2012 in the same area during which a non- commissioned officer from the Tunisian National Guard – a paramilitary force – was killed and four guardsmen wounded in an ambush that occurred around the town of Bou Chebka, 1.2 miles from the Algerian border.

Commenting on the latter, the current interim Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, the Interior Minister at that time, affirmed that the attack was directed by members of Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafa‘a, an affiliation of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Larayedh pointed out that 16 members were apprehended and that the charges against them included weapons storage with the intention to create an Islamic emirate in Tunisia. Moreover, Larayedh assured the Tunisian public that the whole organization was dismantled and that Tunisians were out of harm’s way.

The recent injuries suffered by roughly 17 army and security personnel included amputated extremities and blindness caused by the shrapnel from improvised explosive device (IED) blast waves. These casualties bluntly refuted the official tale of the Uqba Ibn Nafa‘a’s group decapitation and raised legitimate questions about the steadily growing insecurity context since the fall of the dictatorship in January 2011. These dramatic casualties inflicted upon the army and security forces revealed that Uqba Ibn Nafa‘a’s group succeeded in building a sophisticated clandestine infrastructure in Chaambi upland. This infrastructure was comprised of training camps, food and medical supplies, handmade bombs, detonators, SMS phone chips, maps, religious literature, uniforms and combat instruction manuals. The equipment left behind in their campground displayed a fairly high level of readiness in planning, and, eventually, carrying out qualitative lethal operations.

Seemingly, the increasing pressure from the French military offensive in northern Mali, as well as, the aggressive Algerian counterinsurgency campaign, likely forced AQIM away from the intertwining Saharan spaces and pushed it further towards the northern hinterland. AQIM is now likely seeking to explore new bases of retreat along the Algerian borders with Tunisia and Libya. Such areas could be used as safe havens for criminal activities and to seek support for AQIM’s northern national command in the surrounding areas of Kabilya and Algiers. It goes without saying that this operational repositioning in the thinly populated areas of the borderland, geographically advantageous, facilitated all kinds of lucrative cross-border trafficking activities, and compensated for any financial losses. It is commonly known that AQIM’s financial support was generated by hostage ransoms and illicit trading activities, including tobacco aka “cheap whites”, vehicles, drugs, arms, counterfeit merchandise, and smuggled oil.

Consequently, the killing of AQIM’s major commander, Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid, by the French and Chadian troops in February 2013, as well as the alleged neutralization of Zeid’s main rival Mokhtar Belmokhtar, AQIM’s senior commander in the “Emirate of the Desert”, and later founder of the notorious “Signed- in-Blood Battalion”, led to the disrupting of AQIM’s Saharan-Sahel financial networks. Yet, the AQIM could likely use the borderland as an active operational area for planning and executing major attacks in Algeria akin to the assault on Algeria’s natural gas plant at Ain Amenas, executed by Belmokhtar’s battalion in January 2013. The hostage-takers in this attack, who snuck across the Libyan border, were made up of eight nationalities, including 11 Tunisians. More significantly, the post-Qaddafi instability in Libya facilitated AQIM’s access to sophisticated weapons, ammunitions and explosives from uncontrolled stockpiles as well as the black market.

In addition, AQIM may attempt to adopt a twofold strategy for pursuing and reconfiguring its regional influence in Tunisia. On the one hand, the group will likely take advantage of the country’s political fluidity and fragile security in the post-authoritarian era by building sleeper cells and social and criminal networks. On the other hand, it will try gauging Tunisia’s military and security capabilities through the implementation of the “hit and run” modus operandi based on the dual surprise and subversion to retain the initiative.

AQIM’s use of cheap, reliable and rudimentary IEDs made of plastic and ammonium nitrate – a chemical compound already used by the group in an attack on a bus carrying employees from Halliburton’s BRC subcontractor that occurred in Algiers’ western suburb in December 2006 –, which are undetectable by the landmine detectors used by the Tunisian Army’s engineering corps. The employment of IEDs prevents access to AQIM’s operational hubs and restricts the army’s mobility by inflicting them with indiscriminate casualties and exposing their powerlessness. The AQIM’s ultimate objective is to negatively impact the troops’ psychology by killing or disabling them in order to undermine the army’s cohesion and motivation and create security disarray across the country.

Salafi movements within the Tunisian political realm challenged the government’s version of the events carried out at Chaambi and spurred various political reactions. On May 9, the president of the political bureau, Salaheddine Bouazizi of the Salafist party, Jabhat al-Islah (Front of Reform), released a statement in which he pointed out that “the absence of a claim of responsibility from AQIM on Chaambi’s events is indisputable evidence that the organization was not involved in such attacks”. Bouazizi emphasized that “terrorism is an international political game used by some to intimidate the people”, adding that terrorism “is not confined to religious groups and militants hiding in the mountains. Rather there are smugglers who operate along the borders with the neighboring countries, which negatively impact our country’s economic development”.

One day later, Hizb al-Tahrir (Islamic Liberation Party), an ultra conservative component of Salafiyya networks in Tunisia, released a critical statement, in which the party openly accused Algeria and its intelligence agencies of instigating the deterioration of security in the borderland. It pointed out that Algiers “until the last minute supported the tyrant Qaddafi, and mocked and conspired against Tunisian revolution… and [now] is seeking to ruin it”. One should admit that these grave accusations against neighboring Algeria could consolidate the sentiment among Algerian leadership that it is besieged by unfriendly neighbors during a time of uncertainty, especially as the country undergoes a transition of power due to President Bouteflika’s illness. Though security and intelligence cooperation between Algiers and Tunis have been keenly proactive before and in the aftermath of the fall of the autocratic regime, these assertions will not help dissipate Algeria’s anxieties which are driven by increasing instability in Tunisia and mayhem in Libya. Both are viewed as threats that could spill over into Algeria. Furthermore, the statement portrayed the Tunisian government led by al-Nahda as “powerless, complicit, and incapable of disclosing these mysterious events … which makes them beneath the expectations of their people, and worthless of the revolution”.

This criticism against the government shows that the divide is not a simple Islamist versus secular-liberal trend. Rather, it is a schism within the mainstream Islamist movements and is increasingly challenging the cohesiveness within al-Nahda. The rift was caused because some viewed the party as an Islamist-liberal wing. This minority is believed to be committed to the modern notions of democracy, freedom, social justice, and gender equality. Whereas, the traditionalist- conservative oriented wing, is more inclined to the religious narrative defended by the Salafiyya nebula, which is far from being monolithic. In this regard, Tunisia’s Salafi jihadist strain may challenge al- Nahda from its right wing. The Salafi jihadists did not comment immediately on Chaambi’s events, though the media and secularists suspected that they had facilitated the recruitment of Tunisian youths to fight in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra and its franchises, were the mastermind of the assault on the U.S. Embassy last fall, and are trying to impose a regressive way of life on Tunisians.

On May 13, Saif Allah bin Hussein alias Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, head of Ansar al-Sharia – has been at large since September 2012 after having been charged of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis –, posted a statement on the movement’s Facebook page focusing on another issue. One day before the release of this statement, the Tunisian Ministry of Interior banned the installation of the so-called Khyiam al-Da‘wa “Call Tents” built by Ansar al-Sharia followers across the country. Indeed, the Ministry of Interior subordinated such activity to an administrative authorization that must be delivered by the department. These measures resulted in violent clashes with the police. Ansar al- Sharia activists argued that they did not need any authorization as they already have “divine permission”! Abu Iyadh endorsed his followers and ferociously denounced “the tyrants who improperly claimed the credentials of Islam”, adding that, “Islam is innocent from them”. He warned al-Nahda without calling it by its name that “you are committing stupidities which imply that you are precipitating a battle [with us]”.

Abu Iyadh recalled that “our youths who fought bravely in defending Islam in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Syria will not hesitate to sacrifice themselves for their religion in the land of Kairouan”, adding that “America, the West, Algeria, Turkey, and Qatar from which you are seeking support, will not save you when swords clang deadly …I swear that our lives are cheap if our religion is fought and our call restricted”. Though this is the most threatening tone ever adopted by the head of Ansar al-Sharia since the emergence of the group within the Tunisian political sphere in March 2011, the use of word “tawagheet”, or tyrants, in Abu Iyadh’s communiqué proves that the discourse of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), AQIM’s predecessor, is likely appealing to Ansar al- Sharia. This discourse depicted the Algerian regime as a disbeliever entity protected by an apostate army that has to be fought. It should be pointed out that GIA’s image of Algeria was thus transformed into a land of armed jihad, where the state was identified with the devil, the national army was considered equivalent to the French colonial army, and society was divided into believers and renegades. This metamorphosis of Algeria into infidel territory prepared GIA fighters, intellectually and psychologically, to view Algerians who resisted them as “enemies of Islam” who should be annihilated.

Interestingly, the reference to specific countries is significant in more ways than one. The United States is seen as the spearhead of the “Global War on Terror”, launched by the Bush administration and reshaped by the Obama administration responsible for killing Bin Laden, who Abu Iyadh had praised as “our leader” at the time of his death. This implies that the United States is still seen in the jihadi sphere as a major foe threatening the Islamic Umma. Reference to the West, mainly France, suggests that the former colonial power is seen as meddling in Tunisia’s affairs and siding with secularists long before even the French Interior Minister Manuel Valls depicted the country as “Islamic fascist dictatorship” in the aftermath of the leftist militant Chokri Belaid’s assassination in February 2013.

Moreover, the willingness of Michèle Alliot-Marie, former Foreign Minister in Sarkozy’s government, to provide security assistance to the fallen dictator seeking to suppress the popular uprising is often used as an excuse by the Salafiyya to discredit the leftist-secularists rivals who continue to believe that the unfriendly pattern of French secularism towards religion is still relevant to the Tunisian context. Algeria is seen as a counterrevolutionary hub that waged a ruthless wave of repression against its Islamists during the “bloody decade”. Furthermore, Algeria has been a pivotal regional ally in the pentagonized war led by Washington against AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel region. Algeria is also seen within the Salfiyya milieu as a serious threat since they argue that the powerful Algerian Department of Intelligence and Security as well as the military establishment have enough means to abort Tunisia’s political transition. In referring to Turkey, Abu Iyadh wanted to send a clear message to al-Nahda party that the Turkish Islamist model embraced by its leader Rashid Ghannoushi, and described as a similar to the European Christian-Democracies is utterly rejected by the Salafiyya as inapplicable and inappropriate to the Islamic context.

As for the reference to Qatar, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia sought to denounce the Qatari role in the countries of the Arab uprisings by supporting the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt, Libya, Syria and mainly al-Nahda in Tunisia. From Ansar al- Sharia’s perspective, it is difficult to trust a country that has a special relationship with the “far enemy”, the United States, and that maintains open communication channels with the “eternal enemy” Israel. The Qatari role is also denounced by the secularist-liberals who saw the Emirate as an undemocratic city-state ironically seeking to promote democracy by providing al-Nahda prominent figures with financial logistical support and preferential treatment.

Given the hyper-polarization of the political arena in Tunisia and the deep mistrust between secular- liberals and Islamists tendencies, the debate over the country’s national security priorities shifted into an emotional, useless, biased and polemical dispute. National media as well as political leaders involved in controversial debates have displayed an obvious level of amateurism, irresponsibility, mediocrity, ignorance and populism that illustrated their poor understanding of how to deal with security challenges. Rather raising public awareness of violence implications for the population and the country, media outlets orchestrated and waged a psychological campaign that sapped the morale of the majority of Tunisians. Operating under questionable professional standards, media campaigns misrepresented and exaggerated the threats that the country is facing by drawing irrelevant comparison with the situation in neighboring Algeria that led to civil war in the early 1990s. The quality of articles, analyses, and documentaries on Chaambi’s events rely more on ficti- tious stories and distorted facts than professional investigative journalism. Controlled, suppressed, muted, co-opted, manipulated and censored under the fallen regime, most of the media are struggling to emerge as an effective actor in this sensitive transitional period, often at the cost of provoking discord within the society, which is exasperating the new ambiance of free expression.

More than a week after the beginning of the security operation, interim President Moncef Marzouki, in a field trip to the military and security forces in Jabal Chaambi, inquired solemnly about the suitability of the equipment and material put at their disposal. Providing adequate military tools to accomplish the ends should not be an object to debate while a tactical operation is underway. For lack of anything better, military and security forces have to be encouraged to make do and use what they have to achieve their ends. Like his predecessors, Marzouki failed to understand the nature, dynamics, and complexity of the civil-military relations, especially in a time of crisis.

A transition to a democratic political system requires – among other things – a commander-in-chief able to comprehend that national security strategy has to be based on a fair sacrosanct balance between ends (what do we want to achieve?), means (with what?), and ways (how?) rather than demagoguery. Given the immaturity of emerging Tunisian “democracy”, we still tend to observe radical transformations in national security depending on who is in the office. Divided authority and competing visions entail that there is no consensus between the political players as to what elements should be used to preserve, protect, promote and pursue the national security interests. It is likely that these dismal actors are more concerned by political calculations. Since the quest of short-term electoral interests is the driving force of Tunisia’s political landscape, there is little inclination to commit to the country’s strategic long- range security vision.

Furthermore, the lack of professionalism and low-skilled security forces under the control of the Ministry of Interior cannot help with ensuring domestic security and fighting transnational threats. Despite minor signs of security reform, the perception remains that the department lacks transparency as well as accountability in implementing the law, and is extremely politicized. The concept of “republican police”, overused by the security forces, police unions as well as political actors, is irrelevant in the Tunisian context as the goal pursued is more of an over-securitization in reaction to risks and threats rather than a professionalization seeking to align with international standards. The most professional police force in the world is Scotland Yard, which is no less “republican” than its French counterpart. This concept, blindly adopted from France, failed to embrace the Tunisian political context as civil servants within the bureaucracy are still acting in patronage based networks seeking to serve their political protectors rather than the interests of the Tunisian people. Professionalism applied to the security sector implies – among other things – a proper balance between intelligence, effectiveness and transparency, and a leadership who is able to stand for what is right, defend the state and its population, be subject to the democratic control, and protect public safety and human rights obligations.

Unfortunately, in Tunisia, like in other countries across the Middle East and Africa it is difficult to require that security forces comply with the aforementioned obligations while politicians lack professionalism in terms of drafting security legislation or oversight for intelligence agencies. Their conception of responsibility is based more on control over performance than on accountability (obligation to respond legally to their actions) over authority. Thus, in this context it is not surprising to hear Tunisian citizens portraying a professional politician as a professional liar. Politicians in Tunisia suffer security illiteracy and are incapable of connecting the dots when it comes to state security within a democratic context, and are more part of the problem than part of the solution. Any meaningful dialogue about the security of the country involves remedying the absence of professionalism. Also, professionalism in which rights of citizens are not clearly protected and guaranteed against abuses under a security pretext will no longer be acceptable. Though a nascent hybrid “democracy”, Tunisians find it difficult to justify a purely repressive response to their country’s security syndrome.

* Noureddine Jebnoun is faculty member at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and co-editor of Modern Middle East Authoritarianism: Roots, Ramifications, and Crisis (Routledge, 2013). This article was published by IPRIS as IPRIS Viewpoints, No. 123, May 2013, which may be accessed here (PDF).

The origins and evolution of the Grinch that derailed the Arab Spring

The origins and evolution of the Grinch that derailed the Arab Spring

The Pakistanization  of Turkey and the Afghanization of Syria in the new proxy-war

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Witnessing the first democratic elections in Tunisia in 2011, I stood at the edge of the city listening to residents explaining the role of “neighborhood watch committees” in keeping peace and protecting personal and public property. I listened as my interlocutors told me stories of new connections emerging to create tighter relations between neighbors to face unprecedented violence and loss of security. On a rotating basis, residents, carrying wooden sticks, stood guard at the main intersection separating one neighborhood from another. To them, safety developed a new meaning. Without thinking of the American context (gun control debate) for my question, I asked if they would have felt safer if they had guns instead of sticks and brooms while guarding their families and properties. Without hesitation, one of the people accompanying me stated that he is alive because people did not have guns.  

On February 26 (2013), the Tunisian government announced that three suspects in the  murder of Chokri Belaid had been arrested and that authorities were searching for the person who shot the victim. Ali Laraydh, the current prime minister, stated that “extremist Islamists [islamiyyun mutashddidun] code name for takfiri fighters, were behind the murder. This formal accusation confirms what many Tunisians had said even before the assassination:  Takfiris are behind the violence and unless they are restrained they will continue to use violence to intimidate and eliminate those who criticize them and oppose their interpretation of Islam.

To have a full picture of this transformative moment in Tunisia, one must examine political violence in its global context, especially, in the context of the takfiri Salafism.

In the 1980’s, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan created an alliance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The United States provided Stinger missiles, training, and intelligence. The Saudi rulers provided ideology, propaganda and recruiting tools, and volunteers. Pakistan provided the entry point, training camps, and the madrasahs. The joint efforts created the legendary Jihad groups consisting of hardened takfiri fighters who came from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and several other Arab and Muslim countries.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, many of these traveling takfiri fighters returned to their homelands. But it was not easy integrating them into normal life. These so-called Arab-Afghans see the world only in black-and-white shades: one is either a true muslim or deviant muslim, Muslim or non-Muslim, and that only true muslims can be on power. Some wanted to change their own societies into more “Islamic” ones. Their attempts put them face-to-face with Arab regimes that do not tolerate even moderate Islamist groups, let alone violent militants. Consequently, many left their countries to live in more hospitable environments for their brand of Islam. And those who stayed were imprisoned, tortured, and some were executed. The case of Libyan takfiri fighters, like Abdel Hakim Belhaj, is now well-documented.

Algerian takfiri fighters returned to a country that was taking its first steps towards political pluralism. These trained fighters did not believe that moderate or non-moderate Islamists will ever be allowed to govern. They argued that only through Jihad can Islam be imposed–not through the ballot boxes. Their prophecies came true. Despite the fact that moderate Islamists won most of the votes in the parliamentary elections of 1991, the ruling secular elite, backed by the military generals and their Western backers, nullified the election results and canceled the second round of elections, plunging the country into a decade long civil war that took the lives of more than 150,000 people. Many of the takfiri fighters are still carrying out sporadic attacks and retreating to the mountains and the desert.

The chaos in Somalia, the insecurity in Yemen, the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., the 2003 suicide bombings in Morocco, the numerous and repeated attacks in Saudi Arabia, and the frequent bombings and attacks in Pakistan are some of the aftershocks of the Afghan proxy war and the consequences of relying on non-state fighters as a foreign policy tool.

The second case of manufactured proxy war emerged after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The presence of the U.S. troops and the rise of Shias, which takfiri fighters consider deviant, made Iraq the new land of Jihad. The Saudi rulers, again, eager to dispose of its takfiri fighters, opened the door for them to join the fight alongside al-Qaeda in Iraq. Syria, too, eager to give the U.S. a hard time for its hostility towards the regime of Assad, looked the other way as Islamist fighters from Syria and Lebanon set training camps on the Syrian-Iraqi border and joined the fight for Mesopotamia. In a sense, the Afghan model was replicated in Iraq with minor differences. This time, U.S. was not a direct ally. It was the enemy. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar remained the ideological backbone of the takfiri fighters. Qatari Satellite channel, Aljazeera, played a major role galvanizing support for the insurgency in Iraq to the point that then U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it the “mouth piece of al-Qaeda.” Another minor difference, Syria, this time, played the role of Pakistan. In that it served as the first stop for takfiri fighters coming from other countries on their way to Iraq.

It should not be a surprise, then, that when the war in Iraq started to wind down, Syria quickly fell into chaos the same way Pakistan did after the end of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, it became the new Afghanistan (or the new Iraq). 

With the end of the Iraq war and the start of the so-called Arab Spring, takfiri fightersquickly relocated to the countries that were in turmoil. Syria, sharing the border with the former hot spot, Iraq, was the natural destination. Many of the Syrian takfiri fighters were veterans of the Iraq war. These roaming takfiri fightersregrouped in Syria the minute they knew that the Qatari and Saudi rulers were throwing their weight behind a rebellion that will rid the Arab world of a leader who sided with their Persian nemesis.

The takfiri fighters did not need much convincing to wage a war on the Syrian regime: these are secular atheists, heretic Alawites, deviant Druze, anti-Sunni Shias, or infidel Christians. They must submit to the true “Islam”, pay protective tax and accept their inferior social status, or die resisting. At this stage in the Syrian crisis, Syria became Afghanistan, Turkey (and to some extent Jordan) became Pakistan, France became the U.S. and Qatar and Saudi Arabia continued to play the same role they played in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both instances these two countries have provided the propaganda and recruitment tools to send fighters to the new land of Jihad: al-Sham, the historic seat of the Umayyad dynasty, the prototype emulated by the Saudi and Qatari rulers.

The vicious cycle continues. Syria is now the new land of Jihad and it is attracting takfiri fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic worlds. Most notable is the large number of Turkish, Tunisian, Jordanian, and Saudi young men who joined Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups to fight the Syrian regime on religious grounds. These countries that are sending their citizens to Syria are forgetting that the War in Syria will end one day and these fighting takfiri fighters, or at least those who survive the war, will one day return home.” With them, they will bring an ideology of exclusion, puritanism, and violence. They will bring the war home. In Tunisia, the first returning soldiers may have arrived already.

The proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria are good examples of “chicken coming home to roost.” Some of the rulers of Arab countries who think that they can export their troubled, extremist youth to fight a war somewhere and die doing so did not and still don’t, anticipate that some of these takfiri fighterswill survive and return home. They will return with an ideology that divides the world into “muslim” and “kafir.” They will soon see the rulers of Arab countries through the same lens they saw Assad and his regime: kafirs infidels who must dies if they resist the rise of pure “muslims”.

Soon, Turkey will be Pakistanized if not Afghanistanized, the same way Syria was Pakistanized and then Afghanistanized after the iraq war. The attack on U.S. Consulate in Istanbul last February, that killed six and the suicide bombing near the border with Syria, are a preview of what could become of countries that support takfiri fighters. No one will be immune from their wrath because no one is a true “muslim” in their eyes.

The peaceful Arab Spring that ended the rule of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt has also created space for takfiri fighters who do not believe in personal human agency, reason, or publicly mandated authority. These takfiri fighters want to have it both ways: they want to benefit from the freedom brought by the dignity revolutions, but they also want to use these freedoms to arm themselves to impose their version of “Islam.”

The assassination of Chokri Belaid is a deadly warning shot that those who were brainwashed to believe that anyone who does not share their faith is a non-believer will be coming home soon and they cannot be easily de-programmed. The brand of Islam espoused by the takfiri fighters is eerily similar to another destructive interpretation and application of Islam from the formative years of Islamic societies: kharajism. Arab leaders and their Western allies should know that entering into a pact with the neo-kharajites comes with costly risks. History tells us that much.

* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Statements in this article are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

Islamists win again in Egypt confirming an emerging electoral trend

Islamists win again in Egypt confirming an emerging electoral trend

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Two days before the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that forced Hosni Mubarak out on February 11, 2011, the newly elected members of the Egyptian parliament (Majlis al-sha`b) convened for the first time and endorsed a member of the Muslim Brethren as speaker. Saad al-Katatni was elected on Monday receiving 399 votes out of 498 cast.

The 59 year old botany professor was elected to the current parliament as the representative from the province of Minya (south of Cairo). However, he is not new to politics. Katatni is a seasoned legislator who served as the leader of the Muslim Brethren parliamentary bloc between 2005 and 2010, when they ran as independents because, then, the Islamist movement was not allowed to field candidates directly.

The Egyptian results, compared to those of similar elections in Tunisia, Palestine, Iraq, and Turkey suggest that in any fair and transparent elections in the Islamic world, Islamist parties and their affiliates can easily win at least 40% of the votes. In fact, in the case of Egypt, Islamist parties together won over 77% of the seats. These results can be used as predictors of future elections in other Arab and Islamic countries in the area. Arguably, if fair elections were in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, Islamists are likely to win 40% or more of the votes. The question, then, is no longer whether Islamists could win a majority in elections, but which strain of Islamism and by how much.

By all accounts, the elections in Egypt were unprecedented. More than 30 million people voted (over 60% of the eligible voters), and more than ten million of them voted for the party of the Muslim Brethren, the Freedom and Justice Party (al-Hurriyya wa-‘l-adala). This margin of victory allows that party to govern without needing to form a coalition with any of the major parties. The party won 127 seats through the party list and 108 individual seats for a total of 235 seats. The parliament consists of 498 elected members, ten appointed, for a total of 508 seats. They only need about 20 seats to establish a governing majority. Therefore, the Freedom and Justice Party has many options to form a majority government.

The FJP could enter into a coalition with al-Nur, the Salafi party that came second after winning 24% of the votes, a result that surprised most observers. The FJP could also merge with another Islamist party, the Center Party (al-Wasat), which won 10 seats and attract some of the independent members. Alternatively, it can enter into a governing coalition with both Islamist parties, a move that will heighten secular politicians’ anxiety. The so-called liberal parties combined won a mere 15% of the seats, led by the oldest party, al-Wafd, which came in third after securing 38 seats. However, despite the weak performance of al-Wafd, the FJP might be inclined to enter into a coalition with it instead of one or both of the Islamist parties, which it considers to be direct competitors.

Regardless of the coalition choices the FJP may make in the next few days, this body of elected representatives will be tested as it faces a host of problems during this transition period. Importantly, the leaders of the parliament must appoint a committee consisting of one hundred members tasked with drafting the new constitution. The FJP will face pressure from the right as well as from the left.

The ultraconservative al-Nur party, whose supporters have generally shunned democracy as un-Islamic, will likely push for the inclusion of explicit language about the shari`ah being the main source of law in the new constitution. Liberal politicians and western governments will advocate for a constitution that favors secularism. It is likely that a compromise will be struck that will enshrine shari`ah as a main source of law. Short of that, and if leaders of the parliament cannot reach consensus on this and other critical issues, the military would likely intervene—a scenario favored by a number of military leaders.

One thing is certain however: the next Egyptian president will not be allowed to consolidate power the way Mubarak and his predecessors did in the past. The Muslim Brethren implicitly endorsed such a plan. First, immediately after the fall of the regime, that party announced that it will not field a presidential candidate. The move was interpreted as reassurance to the Egyptian public and foreign governments that Islamists are not interested in a power grab. That move did not mean that Islamists are disinterested in the position. Instead, they are interested in reforming it. Second, all indications show that the Muslim Brethren favors a ceremonial presidential position and a strong government under the oversight of the parliament. Ultimately, this divested-power model might benefit Egyptian society, which has suffered under authoritarian rule since independence. It may also promote the emergence of autonomous civil society institutions, which is necessary for accountable government.

The most important achievement of these elections, however, remains the embrace of the electoral paradigm for the determination of political legitimacy. Indeed, the ban on Islamists in past turned them into political martyrs. The Salafis’ rejection of democracy attempted to discredit the representative governance model. Now, the participation of more than one Islamist group in local and national elections takes religious absolutism out of the equation and empowers the people to determine their political leaders and institutions; that in and by itself is a step in the right direction.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.
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