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Posts Tagged ‘Tunisia’

The French Intifada or an Arab is an Arab is an Arab – apparently

The Guardian published on its website an extract from a book by Andrew Hussey The French Intifada: how the Arab banlieues are fighting the French state, on February 23rd. This extract made quite the buzz on my Francophone Twitter timeline with many comments being quite approving.

I fail to understand this positive perception. While I had never heard of Andrew Hussey before, as per his Wikipedia page, he is a cultural historian and biographer who works at the University of London Institute in Paris, his historical works on Paris and French culture sound interesting. Yet, this long article (or extract) fails to convince or to provide much of an insight.

Hussey starts out with a description of the riots in the Gare du Nord back in 2007, when a ticket control resulted in a young man’s broken hand and the subsequent – and rapid – mobilization of hundreds of banlieusards wreaking havoc in the station, the most important regional train hub linking Paris to its poorer Northern suburbs. He links this violence with 2005, “when two young men were electrocuted while trying to escape police”, which “was followed by almost a week of rioting every night, during which thousands of cars were burned.” So far, so good, and clearly the frequency of these riots – one could mention Lyon in 2010 as well – shows that something is rotten in the state of France’s societal fabric.

Yet, Hussey then goes off the rails when he claims denial of the fact on the part of those who blamed a “fracture sociale” for these riots. Instead – citing Gilles Kepel – he argues that “what happens here is because of our relationship with the Arab world, and our history there.” He then goes on to recite in detail the Tunisian revolution as an expression of the same sentiment that caused French youths of Arabic origin to whistle the French national anthem before the France-Tunisia friendly match in Paris in 2008.

This is absurd on multiple levels of course. Yet, apart from a few sloppy errors such as implying that the military had originally partaken in the repression of demonstrations in Tunisia and the ministerial portfolio of Michèle Alliot-Marie his description of events is sound and full of vivid detail. It is his very facts that contradict his assessment though. If it was “a young Congolese man” whose arrest caused the riots at the Gare du Nord, if these rioters were made up of “mainly black[s]” [and Arabs], then how does that square with Islam and/or a coherent Arabic society – a sort of ummah (أمة‎) if you want – lying at the root of this unrest?

The application of one identity – Arabic or Islam – to a whole group of people only some of which are even of Arabic origin or Muslims is not only nonsensical per se, it also pretends to explain the motives of rioters in France with a dangerous simple-mindedness. Yet, it is highly dubious to argue that the banlieusards’ ‘us’ against ‘them’ logic is based on an underlying religious commitment or an adherence to pan-Arabism. If the latter had been the case wouldn’t French Arabs have demonstrated – rioted if you may – following Alliot-Marie’s proposal to supply Ben Ali with French security expertise against the demonstrations in Tunisia? Wouldn’t rioters in that case have targeted shops run by français-de-souche or in general non-Muslim business owners just like African-Americans in Los Angeles had done with Korean-American-run shops? Yet, neither of this took place.

If Hussey is as familiar with Tunisia as he purports to be, then he will be aware of the strong economic roots – youth unemployment, corruption, and inequality especially – of the Tunisian revolution. Religiously motivated demonstrators, let alone those demonstrating out of a pan-Arabic sentiment, were at best part of a barely visible minority there also. These social grudges are of a national nature though, and while some of the same underlie societal problems in France – youth unemployment mainly – the scale of both their pertinence and outcome is incomparable.

There are obviously some parallels between riots in France and Tunisia, the exploitation of social media and mobile phones, which lead to a potentially much quicker mobilization of popular or mob reinforcements for example. Or, arguably, in general the 21st century’s high street-level mobilization as could also be seen recently in Turkey, Egypt, Ukraine, et al. Yet, none of these parallels are based on French colonial history, Islam, or some kind of an inherent Arab cultural link that surpasses generations, country borders, and the Mediterranean to extend from rural Tunisians to suburban French city-dwellers.

Hussey himself admits as much when he talks about how “it is almost impossible for immigrants to France from its former colonies to feel authentically “at home” there.” Yet, if this is – one of – the reasons for conflict, it is not something that is peculiar to either Muslims or Arabs, nor can the same argument feasibly be made for the revolutions in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. By linking the Tunisian revolution and French riots to an ill-defined Arabic/Islamic society, The shame is that Hussey undercuts his own – or Kepel’s – intriguing argument of French colonial history lying at the core of the country’s recurring violent eruptions by this orientalist scapegoating.

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The Islamist Challenge in Algeria – What Lessons for Egypt?

Comparisons between Algeria and Egypt have been all the rage recently. A whole number of interesting pieces about the worrisome potential similarities (and the seemingly reassuring dissimilarities) have been written. Amongst these the most insightful ones I read were Hicham Yezza on Open Democracy and William Lawrence on Fikra Forum. Of course, as Lawrence puts it, stating the obvious, “Egypt is not Algeria,” yet at least superficial similarities between the two military-led putsches against an electoral majority abound and make a closer look into them worthwhile.

Following a suggestion by Shadi Hamid on Twitter, I thus read Michael Willis‘ history of events in Algeria until 1996 entitled The Islamist Challenge in Algeria – A Political History. Willis starts out his book, based on his Ph.D. thesis, with a history of political Islam – or Islam used for political means however you prefer – in the region of what is today Algeria. The difference between the traditional Sufi-inspired variety of Islam in the region and the reformist Islam essentially imported from the Gulf and Egypt he highlights is very interesting, especially in light of its urban (reformist) vs rural (traditional) component, if maybe little relevant outside the Maghreb. Following a discussion of (the regionally traditional) Islam as a tool in resistance against the French in the 19th century, he moves on to a discussion of a reformist Islam as a mainly cultural tool of national affirmation in the early 20th century. This movement during the Algerian war of independence is essentially incorporated into the FLN (Front de libération nationale).

Political Islam as an independent movement comes to the forefront once again in the 1980s then when the FLN-regime following the death of President Houari Boumedienne and in light of economic stagnation and rising unemployment was faced with wide-spread societal opposition (also from Feminist and Berber groups). The emergence of political Islam as an actor in political debate in for example the passing of a more restrictive Family Code in 1984, was paralleled by a minority of its adherents attempts at a ultimately defeated violent campaign against the state led by Mustapha Bouyali‘s MAIA (Mouvement algérien islamique armé).

Some of Algeria’s traditional Islamist leaders then went on to found the FIS (Front islamique du salut) to seize upon a thaw of the regime’s authoritarian mode of governance in the wake of massive demonstrations in 1988. In a clear parallel to the movements of the Arab Spring, these demonstrations were not predominantly made up or led by figures representing political Islam yet they were thrown into a leadership position thanks to their discipline and organisation in the face of a disparate if not to say chaotic mass movement.

The Algerian President at the time, Chadli Bendjedid, positioned himself in favour of a further opening of the political system allowing competitive elections first at the local level in 1990 and then nationally in 1991. Willis seems undecided as to his motives, which might have simply been a belief in the need for more democracy, but – this is the cynic in me talking – more likely was a reflection of him trying to establish himself as an independent power broker between the traditional ruling party, the FLN, and the new force in the field, the FIS. Chadli also seems to have underestimated the electoral appeal of the FIS, which not only swept the local elections in 1990, but also the first round of national elections in 1991, almost winning an absolute majority of seats in the first round alone.

An interesting aspect, interspersed in between the local elections dominated by the FIS and the national elections in December 1991, is that the national Assembly introduced a electoral voting reform in the Summer of 1990, with the FLN majority essentially trying to gerrymander itself to victory. The FIS called a general strike against this clearly anti-democratic attempt, yet it failed to mobilize a majority of working Algerians in support of this strike. It did manage to incite important crowds to take part in demonstrations, which became increasingly violent. This, of course, points to another interesting parallel with the Arab Spring, these being the bifurcation of society and especially the attractiveness of political Islam – or alternatively anybody who positions himself against the state as recent events in Egypt and the Tunisian interior have shown – as an alternative for those de facto excluded from the relative prosperity offered to a select few by an over-regulated economic system.

The Algerian military putsches itself into power in early 1991 then, forcing Chadli to resign and installing a civilian President, Mohamed Boudiaf, at the head of a council also including the actual strongman of the new regime, Khaled Nezzar, as its Defense Minister. In an interesting aside for Egypt, Boudiaf, untainted by much what had gone on in the past due to his exile, assumed a much more prominent role in trying to reignite the Algerian economy and incorporating the FIS’ voters back into society’s fold than most had presumed. Adly Mansour has so far shown little signs assuming such a role and in any case Boudiaf might have paid for his (semi-)independence with his life as he was assassinated soon after in uncertain circumstances.

Algeria descended into a civil war of course with anywhere from 60 to 150 thousand victims. Willis’ book – for no fault of his – ends a bit disappointingly early in 1996 and thus tells us little about the end to this slaughter. Yet, his portrayal of its beginnings and the vain attempts to end it early on remain insightful. Maybe the most important lesson for Egypt is that the FIS was essentially beheaded by the Algerian security forces, its leadership in prison or in exile, which served the radicalization of those activists not – yet – in prison. Resistance or insurrectionist groups thus multiplied and were essentially incontrollable by any single entity. Notably, the FIS never had any control over the most important of these groups, the GIA (Groupe islamique armé).

The danger for Egypt and its new government might thus not be that it cannot effectively get rid – les liquider ou les emprisonner tous (Le Monde)– of the cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, what instead arguably poses the greatest threat to the country is what happens afterwards. Will the Egyptian military create the very Hydra it claims to be fighting? It is at this point that I side most with Lawrence’s aforementioned piece which argues that it is essentially the military’s behavior from here on out that matters most.

The Islamist Challenge in Algeria provides an interesting insight into the past of political Islam in Algeria, while seemingly offering some pertinent lessons for the countries of the Arab Spring. Rashid al-Ghannushi the Tunisian governmental Ennahda party’s President for one was in Algeria and closely associated with the leadership of the FIS at the time, arguably his more moderate and inclusive leadership, which has allowed Tunisia to remain the best hope for democracy in the region still standing, is also due to the lessons he drew from his Algerian comrades’ experience. Something that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are learning in a disgustingly bloody way now.

Die taz und Tunesien

Die Berichterstattung der taz über den Militärcoup in Ägypten erschreckt mich schon seit längerem in ihrer Rechtfertigung einer Konterrevolution, die jedwede demokratische Prinzipien missachtet – ungeachtet aller gerechtfertigten Kritik an der Regierungsweise Morsis und der Muslimbrüder. Edith Kresta setzt hier in der heutigen Ausgabe der taz noch einen drauf mit zwei unglaublich tendenziösen Artikeln, welche außerdem ihre Ahnungslosigkeit furchtbar bloßstellen.

Fangen wir beim grundsätzlichen an, der Begriff Säkularismus ist in Tunesien – und gesamten arabischen Raum – leider kaum anwendbar, da er in Bezug auf die im christlichen Europa vorherrschende Vermischung zwischen Staat und Kirche entwickelt wurde. Im Islam ist der Begriff kaum anwendbar, einerseits weil es unter den Nachfolgern Mohammeds keine Trennung zwischen Staat und Religion gab, andererseits aber weil es im Islam im Prinzip überhaupt keine Kirche als solche gibt. Es ist also unklar was Kresta eigentlich meint, wenn sie von „säkularen Parteien“ spricht, islamisch sind diese nämlich auch und sie werden auch den Islam als Religion Tunesiens – laut Artikel 1 sowohl der neuen als auch der alten Verfassung und damit allgemein Konsensus – verteidigen. Sie sehen sicherlich eine schwächere Rolle für die Religion als Quelle der Gesetzgebung als Ennahdha, man sollte diese Unterschiede, die sich vor allem an Symbolpolitiken wie der Scharia als Inspiration oder Fragen der Verschleierung aufhängt, aber nicht als einzig relevante Dichotomie verkaufen wie die Autorin dies tut, das ist Augenwischerei.

Kresta meint weiterhin, daß eine neue Verfassung nicht unbedingt nötig sei, „denn so schlecht, so undemokratisch ist die alte nicht.“ Das unter dieser Verfassung Tunesien seit seiner Unabhängigkeit 1956 diktatorisch regiert wurde ignorieren wir jetzt einfach mal und lassen den Leser selber urteilen.

Neuwahlen seien vonnöten für „eine effektive Befriedung des Landes.“ Inwieweit diese reale gesellschaftliche Probleme, wie das Verlagen von jungen verschleierten Frauen studieren zu dürfen beantworten sollen, geschweige dann den Terrorismus an der Grenze mit Algerien zu bekämpfen erscheint wenig klar.

Soweit Krestas Kommentar auf der ersten Seite. Im Inneren, auf Seite 2 (das von mir gelesen Original in der Papiertaz war um einiges länger), geht es dann weiter. „Nida Tounes“ sei eine „neu gegründete[…] säkulare Partei.“ Säkulare Parteien gibt es wie bereits gesagt im Prinzip nicht und daß „Nida Tounes“ zu großen Teilen aus ehemaligen Anhängern der diktatorialen Regierungspartei RCD besteht, scheint der Autorin entweder nicht erwähnenswert oder nicht bewußt. Es bleibt wohl dem Leser überlassen zu beurteilen, welche dieser beiden Möglichkeiten ein besseres Licht auf sie werfen. Das gleiche gilt übrigens für die große Demonstration für Ennahda, welche am Sonntag standfand, und – es ist schwierig sich hier auf Zahlen zu verlassen – wohl mindestens genauso groß wie die regelmäßigen Anti-Ennahda Demonstrationen war. Kresta tut dies mit einem Zitat einer Gegnerin der Regierung, daß diese Demonstranten vom Land kämen und bezahlt seien, ab.

Schließlich macht sich Autorin die Meinung der Demonstranten, daß die Regierung den „Terror der Salafisten“ herunterspielen würde, zu eigen. Im Gegensatz hierzu sind viele objektivere Beobachter einhellig der Meinung, daß die Regierung seit einiger Zeit streng gegen ebendiese gewalttätigen Salafistengruppen vorgeht.

Was Kresta anscheinend nicht begreift, bzw. nicht sehen will – ich weiß es nicht – ist, daß die tunesische Gesellschaft unglaublich polarisiert ist zwischen einer gebildeteren, französischsprachigeren, westlicheren Minderheit, welche aber in den westlichen Medien überproportional vertreten ist, und einer Mehrheit an religiöseren, eher arabischsprechenden und vor allem auch ärmeren Menschen, welche Ennahda zu ihrem – demokratischen – Sieg verholfen haben.

Das die Frustration mit der Regierung zunimmt wegen der schreckenserregenden politischen Morde aber auch – und vor allem, zumindest außerhalb von Tunis, – der mangelnden Verbesserung der wirtschaftlichen Lage steht außer Frage. Aber westliche Journalisten dürfen, wenn sie eine reflektierte Berichterstattung aus Ländern wie Tunesien liefern wollen, nicht nur mit den gebildeten, mehrsprachigen Tunesiern reden, die im Prinzip verwestlicht sind, sie müssen sich auch in ärmere Stadtteile und Regionen vorwagen auf die Gefahr hin, daß ihre simplizistischen, fundamental undemokratischen Erklärungsmodelle in sich zusammen brechen. Allein die Tatsache, daß Kresta außer in Bardo mit niemandem gesprochen hat, zeigt insofern auf, daß sie ihre Arbeit nicht wirklich getan hat.

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Final Election Results for the Tunisian Constituent Assembly

Les listes et partis Nombre de sièges Nombre total des voix % of total votes going towards seats in the Assembly % of seats in Assembly % of total voters % of total eligible voters
Ennahdha 89 1,500,649 54.0% 41.0% 36.9% 19.8%
CPR 29  341,549 12.3% 13.4% 8.4% 4.5%
Al Aridha 26  252,025 9.1% 12.0% 6.2% 3.3%
Ettakatol 20  248,686 8.9% 9.2% 6.1% 3.3%
PDP 16  111,067 4.0% 7.4% 2.7% 1.5%
Parti de l’initiative 5  97,489 3.5% 2.3% 2.4% 1.3%
Pole démocratique moderniste 5  49,186 1.8% 2.3% 1.2% 0.6%
Afek Tounes 4  29,336 1.1% 1.8% 0.7% 0.4%
Alternative révolutionnaire 3  29,336 1.1% 1.4% 0.7% 0.4%
Mouvement du peuple 2  13,979 0.5% 0.9% 0.3% 0.2%
La voix de l’independent 1  13,432 0.5% 0.5% 0.3% 0.2%
l’Independent 1  11,980 0.4% 0.5% 0.3% 0.2%
MDS 2  8,230 0.3% 0.9% 0.2% 0.1%
Pour un front national tunisien 1  7,421 0.3% 0.5% 0.2% 0.1%
Parti libéral maghrébin 1  6,621 0.2% 0.5% 0.2% 0.1%
Parti de la justice et de l’égalité 1  6,098 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
L’Espoir 1  6,022 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
Parti du militantisme progressiste 1  5,860 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
Parti néo-destourien 1  5,826 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
Parti de la nation social-démocrate 1  5,643 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
Parti de la nation culturel unioniste 1  5,269 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
La Fidélité 1  5,070 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
La Lutte sociale 1  4,749 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
La Justice 1  4,232 0.2% 0.5% 0.1% 0.1%
L’Union patriotique libre 1  3,599 0.1% 0.5% 0.1% 0.0%
Mouvement des patriotiques démocratiques 1  3,599 0.1% 0.5% 0.1% 0.0%
Fidélité aux martyrs 1  2,540 0.1% 0.5% 0.1% 0.0%
total in/for Assembly 217  2,779,493 100% 100% 68.3% 36.7%
total votes  4,069,786 100.0% 53.8%
total eligible voters  7,569,800 100.0%
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Elections in Tunisia – preliminary results

After an impressively calm Sunday dominated by long queues in front of the electoral bureaus here in Tunis, preliminary results are slowly trickling in. Amongst the least surprising of these is the resounding victory by النهضة (Ennahdha – Renaissance), which is set to become the premier party of post-revolutionary Tunisia. Ennahdha had been at the head of most pre-electoral polls and either finished first or a close second in all electoral districts for which results circulate so far. An Islamist party – even a moderate one, self-styled on the AKP’s model – winning a democratic election outright in an Arabic country is a historic event in and of itself of course. The FIS had won the first round of elections in Algeria in 1991 only for the secular FLN-government to annul the second tour leading the country straight into a bloody civil war the aftershocks are filled up to today. In Palestine, حماس (Hamas) won the legislative elections in 2006 only for Western governments to turn around and impose sanctions on the newly, democratically elected government. A democratically elected Islamist-led government – or in this case technically a constitutive assembly, which will appoint an interim government as well as propose a constitution – emerging peacefully from the Tunisian revolution and accepted as an interlocutor by Western powers would be historically unprecedented and an important symbol for political development in the volatile region. While this looks like a distinct possibility at the moment it remains Zukunftsmusik (music of the future) for the time being and in any case is widely being discussed in the Western media already.

Back to Tunisia then. Aside from the expected success by Ennahdha a number of surprising subplots stick out. The biggest of these might be the trouncing of the PDP, the biggest – legal – opposition party under the Ben Ali regime, which had been portrayed in the Western media – and by itself domestically as well as abroad – as the secular counterpart to Ennahdha in a duel of – near – equals. The PDP will in all likelihood finish fifth at best. Its devastating results symbolize well the foreign media’s superficial understanding of the political scene in Tunisia as well as the dramatic disconnect between Tunis’ secular elites and the majority of the highly critical and economically disowned Tunisian population. Thus rumors circulating as to money from sources related to the ancien régime financing the PDP’s electoral campaign sowed distrust against it, more importantly though the party was seen – unfairly maybe and to a large extent based on its participation in the intensely unpopular interim Mohamed Ghannouchi government – as not offering enough of a break from the previous regime.

An interesting political science question to consider following these elections is that the only two parties to have significantly invested in advertisement before the start of the official campaign period (during which advertisements were forbidden) had little success at the urns. This includes the PDP but also the UPL a generic party founded by a Tunisian business man, Slim Riahi – an émigré who had become rich in the UK – that was omnipresent in Tunis for a few weeks with advertisements at every bus stop and in every newspaper. His party has not won even a single seat so far. Political advertisement seems to have played into Tunisians’ fear of parties ‘just wanting to win’ or wondering about whose money (and interest) were behind them.

The two parties that performed well alongside Ennahdha were interestingly enough the ones that had broken out of the secular parties’ confrontational course versus Ennahdha, the CPR and Ettakatol. The CPR, led by Moncef Marzouki a long-time opponent to Ben Ali and former President of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, had mainly because of its leader become the talk of the town in the days before the elections. A completely unrepresentative survey of my Tunisians friends in the week preceding the elections showed nodded approval to Marzouki everytime someone brought him up – which happened frequently. Meanwhile Ettakatol, which some Tunisians argue has the attributes of a weather cock, largely confirmed its good standing in pre-electoral poll numbers.

Following these two – on the European spatial axis, not the American one – (centre-)left parties comes the biggest surprise winner of these elections, العريضة الشعبية (Aridha Chaabia). Arguably even many Tunisians had not heard much of this party before this weekend. Its leader Hechmi Hamdi lives in London from where he runs a private TV station, Mostakella, which serves as his platform for a decidedly populist presidential campaign. He personally did not even stand for elections this time around, yet his promises of free health care and grants to be paid out to all unemployed, spawned enough votes to catapult his party onto the national scene. Especially in Sidi Bouzid, Hamdi’s home region, Aridha Chaabia had an astonishing amount of success with its list, led by Hamdi’s brother, looking likely to finish with the highest vote total of all parties. Even if unlikely for political reasons, the Tunisian electoral commission (ISIE) has thrown some rain on Aridha Chaabia’s parade by declaring that complaints against the party have been raised because of Mostakella’s continued advertising following the official closure of the campaign. ISIE could invalidate part or all of Aridha Chaabia’s lists.

Looking towards the future then, the Tunisian Constitutive Assembly looks to be dominated by Ennahdha, which most likely will be short of anywhere up to 20 votes of an absolute majority. They will thus in all likelihood enter into some kind of an – issue-based? – coalition with the CPR and Ettakatol. Ariadha Chaabia presents an unpredictable factor in an already historically unprecedented situation in Tunisia as does the PDP’s handling of its – to be expected – isolated opposition role.

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