Tunis – The annual meeting of the Council of Arab Interior Ministers, which was lately held in the Tunisian capital, gathered high-level security, military and political delegations from all Arab states, some of which were headed by prime ministers, vice-premiers, or ministers.
While official speeches mainly focused on fighting terrorism and supporting the Palestinian people, intra-Arab disputes over the stance towards Iran and other controversial issues prevailed over backstage talks and closed sessions.
Disagreements arose between those who reject Iran’s interference in Syria, Yemen and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on one side, and political and military groups, which support the Persian State and its allies, on the other side.
The concept of terrorism was another subject of disagreement, and has clearly shown that Arab states have been divided into well-defined regional hubs.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi did not attend the opening session of the 34th meeting of Arab Interior Ministers’ Council to avoid being directly involved in a gathering that has seen regional and international disputes over the relations with Iran, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Shiite militias of Iraq.
When it came to fighting terrorism, a major point of disagreement emerged over accusing Iran of sponsoring terrorism and labeling Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.
During last year’s meeting of interior ministers, some countries refused to sign the final statement, as it pointed to Iran as a sponsor of terrorism. However, the subsequent Arab League Summit has seen the majority of countries backing the final statement, especially with regards to the attack against the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tehran.
While Tunisian officials tried to avoid speaking about internal disagreements, statements made by Gulf officials to reporters, as well as speeches during the meeting, have confirmed the presence of those disputes.
Officials from the Bahraini interior ministry described Iraq as a hotbed of terrorist militias accused of perpetrating terrorist attacks in Bahrain and other Arab countries. Interior ministers of Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria rejected such claims.
As Tunisia was keen on avoiding severe intra-Arab disputes during the high-level meeting, some countries have pointed out to Iranian threats against their internal security,
while other states warned against using the Iraqi territories to attack Bahrain and Gulf countries.
A “mini” Arab Summit
The Arab interior ministers’ meeting has developed into a quasi-extraordinary economic, security and military summit, as it has seen a high level representation even during the sideline talks. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, who is also Saudi Arabia’s interior minister, headed the Kingdom’s delegation, while the Palestinian, Qatari and Kuwaiti delegations were presided by Premier and Interior Minister Rami Hamdallah, Premier and Interior Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, and deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Khaled Al Jarrah Al Sabah respectively.
Palestine, the “Present Absentee”
Consensus over the need to condemn terrorist organizations acting in the name of Islam, including al-Qaeda, ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia, has not prevented a number of delegations, including Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria and Iraq, from focusing on the terrorism exerted by the Israeli authorities inside and outside the occupied Palestinian territories.
In this context, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said that fighting terrorism imposed by the Occupation State should top the priorities of the Arab Anti-Terrorism Strategy, which was ratified during the meeting of the Council of Arab Interior and Justice Ministers in Cairo, 20 years ago.
In parallel, the meeting of the Arab Interior Ministers Council coincided with the holding of Arab and international security, political and cultural demonstrations.
The Arab Organization for Education, Culture and Science (ALECSO) hosted a conference in Tunis on challenges facing Arab regional security, in the presence of Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and a number of Arab and foreign diplomats.
Libya, Syria and Yemen
Although Syria’s seat in the meeting remained vacant, and despite the fact that Libya and Yemen had a shy representation, official and backstage discussions have shown that the terrorism phenomenon was exacerbated following Iraq’s invasion in 2003 that has led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also in the wake of the 2011 “Revolutions”, which ousted the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
The majority of officials have agreed that wars and security chaos in some Arab states were also linked to international “agendas”.
Tunisia-The Political Adviser to Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, Minister Noureddine Ben Ticha, confirmed that his country will deal with U.S. President Donald Trump just like it dealt with his predecessors, considering the dispute on his policies an internal U.S. affair.
Ben Ticha explained that differences between Washington’s European allies with Trump’s administration will not affect Tunisia’s foreign policy.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the minister stressed the cohesion of PM Youssef al-Shahed’s government and expected the problems of Nidaa Tounes to be resolved ahead of local elections scheduled to be held end of 2017.
He downplayed fears over a decision allowing soldiers and security personnel to vote in the upcoming elections.
Ben Ticha further noted that Essebsi’s planned visit to Rome on Wednesday will focus on convincing economic and political decision-makers in Italy to urge tourists and investors to return to Tunisia after the work atmosphere has improved and after security and stability have been achieved.
The Tunisian minister said his country shares common interests and continuous consultations with Italy and EU member states, including talks on legal and illegal immigration and problems over thousands of asylum requests from those fleeing wars and conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he is optimistic about the return of Europeans and tourists, especially that Tunisia witnessed last summer a rise in the number of visitors from Russia and several Arab countries.
Regarding Tunisia’s effort to reach a settlement in Libya, Ben Ticha said that this initiative was taken after years of armed conflicts and disputes among Libyans.
He said that Tunisia has been receiving for many years hundreds of thousands of Libyans, which were recently estimated to have reached two million refugees.
He noted that Tunisia is characterized by receiving Libyan officials and leaders from different movements and political and military parties as they meet regularly with his country’s senior officials.
Furthermore, the senior adviser said that the initiative is open for development and interaction with Libyans, Arabs and the U.N. under the condition of respecting its major components, which are the rejection to exclude any Libyan political party, holding onto a peaceful settlement because a military solution is ruled out, in addition to the importance of reaching an inter-Libyan solution.
On the other hand, in regards to the return of Tunisian militants who have fought with terrorist groups abroad, including Syria, Ben Ticha said that Tunisia is following the files of extremist youths, and is seeking to deal with the issue firmly in line with the international law and the constitution.
Tunisia- The assassination of the Tunisian Engineer Mohamed al-Zoari has sparked wide popular protests in the country calling the government to hold the parliament and media responsible for the security and political failure amid indications on reconstructing the political and national partisan scene in the country.
Many Palestinian national free movements have endorsed the aviation engineer and inventor Mohamed al-Zoari, considering him the Martyr of Mossad, who was providing the Palestinian factions with drones and coordinating with them fir over 10 years.
Positions of officials and the opposition varied between supportive and reserved amid fears of another revolution in the country, especially with the anniversary of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s fall in January 2011 looming.
Although some parties and syndicates have suggested to organize a huge unprecedented demonstration on Saturday, some of the slogans raised after the assassination have taken other dimensions. Some participants have sought to exploit these social and political movements to change the political scene amid calls for another revolution leading toward a total political shift.
AN ASSASSINATION THAT UNIFIED TUNISIANS
In spite that Tunisia have experienced social disturbances and tensed political circumstances in the rule and the ruling party led by Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, reactions to Zoari’s assassination revealed that Palestine has unified the Tunisian decision makers, according to the Former Education Minister and Writer Salem Al-Abyad from the National Arabic Movement.
PRESSURES AND CHANGES
A clear shift has appeared in the official Tunisian position from Zoari’s assassination under the pressures of media and social media outlets. after the Minister of Interior Hedi Majdoub considered the Tunisian assassinated aviation engineer as a “murdered” during a press conference, the Prime Minister and other officials from the government called him “martyr” and “inventor”, revealing the Tunisian government’s willingness to submit a complaint against the foreign intelligence accused of violating the Tunisian sovereignty.
A member in the Parliament said that the Tunisian people will keep pressuring the government to prove its loyalty to its national principles and the Palestinian cause.
TWO DIFFERENT POSITIONS
While the leaders of many parties have rushed to take advantage of the assassination, many of Ennahdha Party’s officials surprised the Tunisian people with over-rational statements, which raised question marks around the rush to accuse Israel and the Tunisian government of committing the crime before concluding investigations.
Although many observers have suggested that Ennahdha would be the biggest beneficiary of these popular protests and movements, the party’s leadership seemed cautious in supporting the marginalized youth’s emotions in the assassination issue.
Currently, the political leadership in Tunisia is going through a very difficult situation, torn between the public and international pressures. Despite the improvement of the security situation in the country last year, the accusation of a Tunisian young man of committing Berlin’s attack has ashamed Tunisia, which is classified among the top countries to ‘export terrorists’.
POSITION FROM THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
Some right-winged politicians have kept exerting efforts and pressures over the government and the president, calling them to announce complete repudiation from terrorist groups, Takfiri organizations and the Muslim brotherhood’s Movement.
THE ROLE OF SYNDICATES
However, the biggest challenges facing Leader Essebsi and his government have been the expansion of protests to include syndicates of laborers, journalists, engineers and the civil society to reject the assassination of Zoari.
A WAR OF SUCCESSION
While Tunisia has witnessed political and security ups and downs, some observers insisted on discussing the “war of succession”, pointing to the post-elections phase. The new developments underscore the growing role of civil society along with social media influencers and syndicates, which all aim at using security issues to weaken the government.
Tunisia – Many study centers in Tunisia, including national institutions estimate that Tunisians top the list of religious extremists who joined armed organizations in the tension areas in Libya, Syria and Iraq; and in spite the difficulty of providing accurate statistics, officials in Tunisia estimate that around 13,000 Tunisians have joined fundamentalist and salafi jihadi groups.
How this phenomenon can be read? What deep reasons and conditional motives stand behind it? How will it evolve amid the developments in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and the improvement of security coordination between Tunisia and Turkey; which was the main “route” to join armed factions in the Levant and Iraq?
Many researchers and experts of social science in Tunisia including Sociology Professor and Former Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk has linked this phenomenon to the deep changes that took place in the Tunisian community and in other countries of the region.
Those experts note that the spread of violence and the hopeless choices among young generations have emerged before the Arab revolutions, when youth used tens of “death boats” in the Mediterranean for illegitimate migration to Europe; social and psychological studies carried on over the two past decades have showed that rates of violent behaviors, homosexuality, abuse of alcohol, drugs and psychotropic substance have risen by 10-20% among students.
Failure of the educational system
In the same context, many activists in the youth and cultural associations have linked between the “hopeless solutions” – including joining to extremist groups- with the failure of the educational system and what they describe as a rupture with the official and unofficial institutions of media and culture.
Samar Milad (23), a university researcher told Asharq Al-Awsat that the failure in education and social integration pushed her colleagues to take embittered options like joining extremist groups or mafias, which seek to encourage youth to migrate either to Europe or to the lands of Jihad with ISIS through illegitimate means.
Media and Islamic law
Sami Ibrahim, researcher in extremist intellect asserts that Tunisian media outlets have played an important role in promoting extremist thoughts on Jihad and Islamic law after the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011; he also consider that social media websites with more that 80% followers among the Tunisian youth have been also responsible for this promotion.
Associations specialized in media monitoring have urged from efforts of some Islamic parties like Hizb-UT-Tahrir in inciting youth to support the Sunni state in the Levant and Iraq.
Journalist Al-Jami’ al-Qasimi sees that policies, official positions and their promotion in the Tunisian media are factors that contributed in encouraging thousands of youth on migrating to the areas of tension to fight polytheists, Nusairis, Alawis, and apostates…He added that the travel to many countries like Libya, Syria, Iraq and Turkey does not require visas from Tunisians since 60 years, which has played a remarkable role in facilitating migration of Jihadists. However, the Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said that raising the level of security coordination between Turkey and Tunisia has reduced the rate of Tunisian migrants who may possibly join extremist groups.
Estrangement with youth
Mohammad al-Juwaily, General Director of the National Youth Official Observatory in Tunisia points that more dangerous factors stand behind this phenomenon; it sees that the huge gap and estrangement between the Tunisian youth and the country’s institutions, political parties, and NGOs plays a major role; according to recent statistics, the young generation in Tunisia lost its trust in the state’s institutions and officials who call for the sake of the nation and its supreme interests.
Freedoms in weak states
On another hand, some media figures consider that the spread of extremism in a secular country like Tunisia have been invested over the past 60 years; Haykal Mahfouz, international law professor says that after the revolution in 2011, the state has made default decisions; it has made procedural steps for reform and change rather than replacing the old regime’s institutions.
Youth and terrorism
Mohsen ben Ali, general director at the Tunisian Ministry of Commerce sees that the growth of people smuggling and the roles of smugglers in the country have significantly contributed in encouraging youth on leaving the secular Tunisia and to migrate to the lands of conflicts.
Ben Ali also noted that discord between local officials and human rights activists regarding the case of returners from war-regions has been another reason pushing youth to choose extremism or to stay in the areas of tension rather than returning to their country.
Rached Ghannouchi announced that the Tunisian Ennahda party that he leads will experience sweeping changes in its leadership and structure during the summer. These changes include a complete division between the political institutions of the party, its charities and its missionary arm in accordance with the resolutions of the party’s tenth conference.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Ghannouchi stressed that Ennahda and moderate parties in the region are “a real alternative for militant groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda and groups that temporarily emerged in the form of violent reactions to temporary political phenomena such as the suppression of religious practice or the persecution of Sunni Muslims in Iraq or fears of political isolation”.
He stressed that Ennahda has “evolved from a totalitarian Islamic movement into a national civil party that is compatible with the state and society”. He continued by saying that after the “fall of the dictatorship and the recognition that Islam and Arabism is the identity of the state (Tunisia), the party’s use of mosques and its politicisation of them is no longer justified”. Ghannouchi also said that the era of totalitarian communist, nationalist and religious movements had ended.
Ghannouchi denied that the movement would transform into a secular party and said “We have never said that the party has changed from an Islamic party into a secular party, and the regulations of our conference did not discuss the abandonment of Islamic points of reference.”
Tunisia- ISIS terrorist groups have recently stepped up power channeled to target Tunisia from within its Libya centered headquarters, West sources warned. The sources confirmed that the last attack on Ben Gardane, a commune and coastal town in south eastern Tunisia near borders with Libya, proves evident drawback and permeability of the security status in Tunisia.
Sources also highlighted that ISIS fighters have achieved worry-raising operations which point to underlying intentions of the terrorist organization centralizing in Tunisia. Taking refuge and headquarters in Tunisia would replace the space-loss ISIS suffered in Raqqa, Syria, which they have fled after incessant pounding of the coalition’s air force.
The Ben Gardane attacks which took place last March are a retaliating campaign avenging U.S. airstrikes targeting ISIS locations in Sabratha city, Libya. The airstrike had reportedly taken down ISIS leader, who is of Tunisian origins, Nour Addeine Shoshan.
Attacking Ben Gardane, ISIS hopes to establish a new off-shoot outside Libya in light of the Washington campaign moving towards an intensified military intervention in Libya.
Alternatively, Prime Minister of the Libyan UN-backed government of national accord GNA Fayez Al-Sarraj, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, down-sized the ISIS threats imposed on the security and political affairs of both of Tunisia and Libya.
Al-Sarraj considered that the quest for Libyan sovereignty will be won in recognition to the support offered by Tunisia, Algeria and many other neighboring countries, and by the virtue of the U.N.-brokered agreement.
“Neighboring countries are supporting us until security is reestablished across the region, and until the new state’s sovereignty is completed,” said Al-Sarraj.
“Libya-Tunisian bordering zones are a bridge for partnership in which terrorists will not find victory in,” he added.
Furthermore, Libyan military sources revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that a series of secret meetings between representatives of US and British forces and local leaders loyal to Al-Sarraj’s government were held at the Maitiqa base. The sources asserted that they also had information about the presence of British special forces that are fighting alongside the Misrata brigades against ISIS.
Tunisia- Libyan Presidential Council’s delegate Mohamed al-Taher Siyala told Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper that the political and military escalation witnessed in some Libyan cities and sides, including Sirte and some other areas east of Libya, will not reduce the Council’s determination to complete the stages of the peaceful settlement and give effect to the national unity’s government, headed by Fayez al-Siraj, across the country.
This escalation will not change the stance against all scenarios that aim at undermining the country’s unity and sovereignty, he affirmed.
Siyala also explained that the war against ISIS and other terrorists in eastern Libya, Sirte, and other cities is the responsibility of the Libyan Central Government, the unityl government, and the Presidential Council; confirming that it is not the responsibility of any of the countervailing forces, whatever their intentions are.
He added that spreading the council’s influence all over the country is just a “matter of time”, noting that Skhirat agreement provides all the citizens with their rights.
Siyala expected those who have been reluctant about him to join the absolute majority of the Libyan national leaders, who have taken part in the bloodshed, political settlement, national reconciliation, and the reconstruction of Libya depending on their local powers.
When asked about the outcomes of the 34th session of Arab Maghreb Union’s Foreign Ministers Council meeting, which was held in Tunisia few days ago, Siyala answered saying, “Maghreb’s foreign ministers agreed on supporting current political consensual track in Libya, led by the Presidential Council, and stressed on the refusal of any foreign military interference in Libya.”
He also mentioned the special support provided by the United Nations, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya’s neighboring countries for the Libyan negotiators to reach their new consensual political agreement.
The government in Tunisia confirmed that it is fully prepared on a military, security, and a humanitarian prevention level, in caution of a new war breaking in its neighboring country. Moreover it will not get involved in any war The North Atlantic Treaty Organization decides to take on, even if it were for the reasons of defeating and terminating ISIS.
Khaled Shawkat, prime ministerial spokesperson, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, said that the government is keeping up on its efforts with the U.N. special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler. They are also discussing all that is possible with Libyan parties and concerned international forces to achieve peace in Libya and in hope of avoiding war.
Even though Tunisia is constructing roughly a 200 km barrier, which runs along its border with Libya, MP Shawkat asserted that borders with Libya will not be closed. He also welcomed all his fellow Libyan citizens seeking refuge from the war in Tunisia.
Terrorist threats are real in view of the disturbed atmosphere across the borders with Libya, Tunisian MP Shawkat added.
Tunisia is saving no effort to seriously face all terrorist threats, however, persistently opts to achieve balance between the right to maintain its homeland security and the long-held course of diplomacy it believes in. regarding not interfering in its neighboring countries affairs.
Tunisia suffers no disastrous dilemma, Shawkat affirmed. The situation is completely under control, moreover, there is an approximate ready-for-investment 8 billion dollars that are postponed on employment due to hold ups and disorders, he added.
On the question of the ruling party resigning, Shawkat said that Nidaa Tounes will not seize and the crisis will be topped.
Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since the crisis following the elections of October 23, 2011, sudden changes in the political scene have not been unusual in Tunisia. The elections led to a coalition government with a relative majority for the Islamic Renaissance Party—Ennahda—led by opponents of the former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and included Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Leftist Ettakol Party, and Moncef Marzouki, leader of the National Congress party.
Now, more than two months since the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Mursi and detained the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia has come under unprecedented political pressure from a number of prominent decision-makers both domestically and internationally. A number of political leaders are calling for radical changes on the country’s political scene, specifically demanding the dismissal of the current government led by Ali Laarayedh, the secretary-general of the Ennahda Party.
This begs an important question: what lies in Tunisia’s future, three years after the overthrow of the Ben Ali government and the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”? Do people fear that Tunisia will become another Libya, Egypt or Yemen, where the political scenes are rapidly changing in ways that favor the regimes that existed before the Arab Spring? Or have developments in Egypt since the events of June 30 and July 3 persuaded decision-makers that resolving their political differences without the involvement of the armed forces is a necessity?
According to the latest statements of the secretary-general of the Federation of Trade Unions, Hussein Abasi, and head of the Association of Laborers, Wadad Bushami, “All the government and opposition political leaders are willing to make major sacrifices and painful concessions” to resolve the political crisis Tunisia has been trapped in since the assassination of Arab Nationalist and Leftist opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi in July. Nonetheless, some opposition factions have called for “a new uprising until the overthrow of the government and the National Constituent Assembly [is achieved].” Meanwhile, leaders of the coalition government have said that “an attempted coup against the legitimately elected institutions would cross a red line,” in the words of former president Hamadi Al-Hibali and Islamic social leader Abdel Al-Fattah Moro.
The search for assurances and guarantees
Despite the signs of an “uprising,” statements made by an official spokesman for the coalition government, Mouldi Riahi, and the leader of the Leftist Bloc Party, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, to Asharq Al-Awsat were upbeat. They also revealed that negotiations between leaders of the opposition parties and the coalition government led to “agreements on all of the contentious issues, including the idea of the current government resigning and replacing it with a non-partisan government.”
However, disagreements persist on some key issues. The opposition has stuck to its demand that the government resign before beginning any national dialogue about the future of the country, while the coalition government wants dialogue sessions first, and then an agreement on a plan of action and the naming of a new president before dismissing the current government.
At the same time, Ali Laarayedh reiterated in a recent statement on television that his government is ready to make all concessions necessary to avoid chaos and a political vacuum. Still, his government’s resignation is unlikely before the beginning a national dialogue and agreement on a new road map. Before reaching a new national political agreement, the leaders of the opposition and coalition government are moving at a faster pace towards ratifying a new constitution and the holding of the deferred parliamentary and presidential elections.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, political expert and independent human rights activist Salah El-Din El-Jourshi summed up the situation by saying: “Parties are nervous about the future and want political guarantees, in anticipation of the country entering a stage of calculation and mutual exclusion.”
Changing the situation domestically and regionally
Others are less optimistic about the future. Two leftist leaders, Hima Al-Hamami and Samir Al-Deeb, alongside the rest of the “radical” opposition figures, say that Tunisia’s situation has changed markedly over the past few weeks and months.
In the words of Hima Al-Hamami, the leader of the Communist Workers’ Party, “In the current coalition government, the Ennahda Movement and the political Islam trend is resurgent. It is no longer generally acceptable to maintain the current leadership of the legally elected coalition government.” This is especially true of Ennahda, he says, because hundreds of thousands of Tunisians have been taking to the streets since the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, demanding its removal.
Many figures on the Left have resigned from the Constituent Assembly and have sought instead to galvanize support among a number of the workers’ unions and leftist parties. For example, Manji Al-Rahwy, a member of the party of the deceased Chokri Belaid, called for “the overthrow of the government immediately and the exclusion of all Islamists from the political scene.”
Rahwy says that he holds those allied with the leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, personally responsible for the terrorist attacks that led to the assassination of some members of the security forces, as well as members of the opposition like Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, because of what he describes as “their toleration of Salafi extremists during the past two years.”
The changing situation on the ground
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Latif Al-Mekky, a minister in the current coalition government and one of the prominent leaders of the Ennahda Party in the negotiations with the opposition, denied that his movement and his government were “stalling and changing the situation on the ground.”
He said this in reaction to accusations from members of the opposition like Ahmed Nageeb Al-Shaby, leader of the Republican Party, and Abd Al-Rezaq Al-Hamamy, the secretary-general of the National Democratic Workers Party, both of whom joined the coalition “United for Tunisia” led by Beji Caid El-Sebsi, leader of the former government and foreign and interior minister in the era of President Habib Bourguiba.
Leaders of the left-wing opposition parties also say that Ennahda and its allies are trying to effectively extend the term of Ali Laarayedh’s government, using the bloody events in Egypt and the terrorist attacks on Tunisia’s border with Algeria as a pretext. Prolonging the issue gives them an opportunity to continue improve their positions on the ground in preparation for the upcoming election campaign, they allege.
Security and economic challenges
But while Tunisia’s leaders have been successful in meeting some of the country’s security challenges in the past two years, the economic problems are growing and could be about to cause explosions of social unrest capable of undermining both the government and opposition at the same time.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Finance Minister Elyas Fakhfakh warned of “financial and structural economic pressures and an accumulating budget deficit at many levels.” He also cautioned that funding pre-existing contracts, combined with a drop in the value of the Tunisian dinar and an increasing public deficit, was exacerbating the country’s financial problems, which were already growing thanks to the increasing cost of paying into pension funds and other support funds. (Costs rose from TND 1.5 billion before the revolution to TND six billion this year, despite an increase in fuel production in 2012) Meanwhile, the deficits of social security funds, inflation of social burdens, and the proportion of wages and grants in the national budget, are all rising thanks to investment in public work programs.
According to the Tunisian finance minister, the deficit of the main public institutions—estimated to be about TND 18 billion before the revolution of 2011—has grown 450 percent. He also noted that “these developments are recorded at a time when there is doubt as to whether retirement, social security and health insurance funds will be able to meet their obligations to millions of Tunisians, especially in the public sector.” He indicated that the risks associated with this development include a reduction in the nation’s abilities to “increase the flow of money” for the benefit of public institutions and social funds, “because the new burdens have exceeded TND 7 billion since 2010, 3 billion for increasing wages and the remaining 4 [billion] for the support fund.”
Despite these economic problems, the government’s political opponents—trade unionists, and leading figures from opposition National Salvation Front—are pursuing a confrontational approach. In recent weeks, they have organized a wave of popular action. The emergence of divisions within the opposition has persuaded a majority of Tunisian politicians that returning to the negotiating table is crucial.
Despite the announcements about failed negotiations this past week, Hussein Al-Abassi, the secretary-general of the United Workers, returned to announce a new initiative for talks and negotiations in the name of human and workers’ rights organizations and trade unions. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Asadiq Belaid, a professor of law and political expert, suggested that talks between Hussein Al-Abassi and Rachid Ghannouchi, leaders of the United Workers and Ennahda movements respectively, are confirmation that “a majority of political parties are convinced that it isn’t possible force any side to govern Tunisia by itself, and that political consensus is very crucial to pulling the country out of its current crisis.”
Beleid also expressed optimism that independents and trade unionists could play a major positive role in the new transitional phase, and is expecting successful results from the national dialogue announced by Hussein Abasi and the rest of the leaders of the opposition and coalition government.
A short window
However, Beleid also said he was worried about “the risk of extending the dialogue sessions and negotiations about a united initiative and about the great proposals by political parties, especially regarding suggestions made by the Call for Tunisia Party and Ennahda to extend them indefinitely.”
He said he believed that the maximum term for completing the dialogues and consultations should not exceed the current deadline, October 23, in order to clear the way for drafting the new constitution and determining the date of the next election, which can be held no later than the first three months of 2014. Belaid considers the weeks leading up to October 23 to be enough time to complete the marathon negotiations that are expected to take place in preparation for the formation of the new transitional government. The talks will be overseen by an independent figure who will not be a candidate in the upcoming elections.
Belaid predicted that a majority of leftist and socialist activists would leave Beji Caid El-Sebsi’s Call for Tunisia party and the alliance that he leads and join the New Socialist Party instead. He added that this may include symbols of the Republican Party, such as Mr. Ahmed Naguib Al-Shaby and Samira Al-Teeb, and others like Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Fadl Mousa and Riyadh Ben Fadl, as well as leaders and activists from the Popular Front.
Beleid indicated that the rest of the politicians and activists from Tunisia’s 180 parties will form a more conservative bloc, which may be called the “United for Tunis,” and develop into “a political party uniting a majority of Muslim activists in the Ennahda movement and the Noda Tunisia party.”
“This would work because there are no substantial conflicts between a majority of constitutionalists and members of Ennahda. It is also possible that they will form between them a conservative party to compete with the liberal labor parties,” he added.
Jurist and former minister Hamouda Ben Salama indicated that the political arena is unduly preoccupied with “political initiatives,” at the expense of social, economic or development issues. This has led to social and security tensions, complicating the general situation in the country, he says.
Salama added that it has become a priority for activists and independent experts, such as Sayeed Salah Al-Deen Al-Jourshi, to purify the general political climate via genuine national dialogue. This would pave the way for the formation of a technocratic government before October 23.
Liberals and jurists close to the coalition government defend its continuation and reject the idea of a coup. These include Belkasim Hassan, the secretary-general of the Culture and Work Party, and Mohamed Kwamy, the secretary-general of the Reform and Development party, who believe that it is possible to complete the constitution before October 23, particularly if the conditions for dialogue and political consensus can be achieved. They are also of the view that party leaders must not put their own electoral considerations ahead of the wider process.
The role of unions
In this context, the spotlight will on the labor and student unions during the coming weeks. There were indications that they were going to call for strikes and sit-ins to support moderate solutions and begin preparing for the coming elections, especially after meetings between the opposition leader Sebsi and Ennahda’s Ghannouchi in Tunisia and France. The reaction of the unions to Ennahda’s “project deals,” in which the party commits not to run a candidate in the presidential elections and to limit their participation in the national and parliamentary elections, will also be of key importance.
But at a time when the when political groups appear focused on their own agendas and building alliances for the forthcoming elections, every party will continue to use “local, national and regional” papers, says Salama, “in an attempt to change the balance of power on the ground before the selection of a date for holding elections.”
Most political and strategic studies on the development of political organizations in the Islamic world reveal that such groups are based on a number of axioms, especially submission and obedience to the central leadership. The requirement of submission and obedience takes on more significant and serious dimensions within religious–political organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots that adopt its strategy despite differences in structure.
Perhaps the most significant principle of the Brotherhood and the similar-minded parties in the Arab and Islamic world is that new members are officially affiliated by taking an oath of devotion and obedience to the movement and its leadership, for better or for worse. In other words, members are sworn to obey even when the organization is going through crisis, whether that crisis is persecution, smear campaigns, waves of arrests, torture or interrogation.
Over the past decades, most Muslim Brotherhood branches in the Arab world have been operating undercover in order not to be discovered by the authoritarian regimes in the countries in which they operate. In light of this, Brotherhood leaders doubled their efforts to instill a sense of obedience in their supporters. All branches of the Muslim Brotherhood—whether that is the main organization, Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and the Movement of Society for Peace in Algeria—follow a similar procedure. The leaders, whose titles vary between “amir,” “supreme guide” and “chief,” are often appointed for an unspecified term or re-elected almost automatically in an attempt to consolidate members’ loyalty to rulers through thick and thin.
In many cases, the head of the group is appointed for life, with his supporters expected to obey almost automatically. This is the case even in the groups that claim they seek to achieve peaceful transition of power in their country and that emphasize the necessity of electing the executive, legislative and even the judicial institutions administering public affairs.
Based on the experiences and political tests of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in several Arab countries, we can see that this requirement of submission and obedience to leaders is the organization’s main strength—and its main weakness.
The absolute loyalty demanded of the groups’ members might bring to mind the mentality of many secular parties and their devotion to the opinions of the majority, but it’s not the same thing at all. In religious–political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, where leaders are venerated akin to saints, maintaining the hierarchy and obeying the leadership is considered a religious duty of the membership.
True, some parts of the Muslim Brotherhood took to holding elections at their meetings, as the Tunisian organization did during the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the closest these groups came to internal democracy was the leader consulting the membership, rather than feeling himself bound by their decision even if it was against his wishes.
This concept of absolute obedience has caused a series of rifts and desertions in the Islamists movements. It has also contributed to acts of rebellion within these organizations, by both individuals and groups, as evidenced by the long list of Islamist groups that have emerged in Egypt and the Maghreb since the 1970s. (Most of which are offshoots of the Brotherhood.)
The same splintering effect was repeated in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Algeria. Several Islamist parties and movements emerged from the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, Hamas in Palestine, the Reform and Renaissance Movements in Algeria, the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, and Al-Adl wa Al-Ihsane in Morocco. Perhaps the rifts within these ideological groups can be best accounted for by the different religious authorities (marjaiya) of their members.
From their experience, these groups have seen a high proportion of their members— who start as ardent disciples of their sheikhs, whom they almost deify— mature as they become well-read in Islamic and intellectual issues. This, in turn, prompts them to rebel against the group. This maturity is especially evident when members delve deep into the sources of Islamic Shari’a law, which honor man and show that faith is merciful as well as serve human interests rather than undermine the role of intellect.
When the members of such groups find that the mistakes of their leaders have incurred political losses as well as arrests, trials and exile, they take to self-criticism by scrutinizing the leaders they were obligated to blindly obey. Once members realize how fatal the mistakes of their leaders and senior staff were, desertions emerge and rifts deepen. This explains the plethora of Islamist parties and movements of all sorts in the Arab region, particularly in post-2003 Iraq and the countries that witnessed the Arab Spring in 2011.