Monday, December 19, 2011

Sidi Bouzid: Some hope in the heart of the Arab Spring

The following is an excerpt from my latest piece in Al Masry Al Youm, which can be viewed in full here:

Locals in unfurl a banner of local hero and "Arab Spring" figure, Muhammad Bouazizi, in downtown Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December, 17, 2011, the anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation.

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Many have called Sidi Bouzid the birthplace of the Arab Spring after vegetable seller Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his humiliation and extortion at the hands of local police. Bouazizi’s act served as the spark that ignited the country, with protesters forcing the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Popular uprisings followed throughout the region.

However, one year after Bouazizi’s act, many Sidi Bouzidans insist that nothing has changed.

“We all love Bouazizi. I can’t describe this day — it’s like I entered paradise,” says Hisham Laife, a 24-year-old vegetable seller who says he and Bouazizi had been friends since childhood. Yet, as over 10,000 Tunisians hold celebrations — blocks away from the vegetable seller’s cart — honoring the one-year anniversary of when Bouazizi burned himself alive, Laife remains pessimistic.

“Not a thing has changed since the revolution,” he says.

A neighboring vegetable seller, a 60-year-old by the name of Rabah Rabihi, nods his head in agreement only a few steps behind Laife.

“There haven’t been any changes. They need to solve unemployment,” says Rabihi.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Faces of Tunisia’s ‘sit-in’ protesters

Protesters of numerous political stripes demonstrate outside Tunisia's new Constituent Assembly in Tunis, Tunisia on December, 6, 2011.

December, 6th marked day six of a sit-in protest in front of Tunisia’s newly elected constituent assembly in the Tunis district of Bardo. Dozens have camped out in tents, while thousands from diverse groups with diverse political objectives have come to make their voice heard as the country’s newly elected governing body begins plenary sessions. Many of the demonstrators appear to be in agreement on at least two things: they want more checks on the power of the constituent assembly, and they want the government to tackle the high rate of unemployment.

“We want to prevent the imposition of a new dictatorship - the dictatorship of the majority,” says Wassim Meddeb, a recent university graduate and filmmaker.

Meddeb came to Tunis from the coastal town of Klibia and has been living in a tent adorned with political placards with fellow demonstrators for almost a week.

“We need a civil, liberal state, one that addresses unemployment,” says Meddeb, who has himself been looking for jobs for over a year.

The Islamist Ennahda party won roughly 40 percent of the votes in Tunisia’s historic October 23 election. They have since worked to create a coalition with the leftist parties CPR, which came in second in the elections, and Ettakatol, which came in fourth. Ennahda Secretary General Hamadi Jebali took the post of Prime Minister, CPR leader Moncef Marzouki is set to become President, and Ettakatol leader Mustafa Ben Jaafar is President of the Assembly. However, many are worried that the President’s role in decision-making may be limited, providing little check on Ennahda’s ability to govern without consensus.

“The other party leaders will become figureheads without real power,” says Sonia Dridi, an English student at Tunis’s High Institute of Human Sciences. “[The constituent assembly] has to divide power between the Prime Minister and the President.”

Other protesters held placards calling for a proper separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of power. Many say they want all legislation in the assembly to be passed with a two-thirds rather than a simple majority. Tlijani Hassane, a youth union leader who rooms with Meddeb in his makeshift shelter, believes that government ministers should not come from the ranks of the elected constituent assembly.

“We want a parliamentary system with precautions. If they combine powers, there will be one power that will dominate the system,” he says.

Others are calling for greater accountability and transparency by asking the government to televise all the assembly’s proceedings on a separate, national television station.

“We want parliamentary TV. We want to see with our own eyes,” says Dridi. “We don’t have confidence in our journalists. They are biased, with no critical views.”

The constituent assembly is tasked primarily with writing a new constitution and laying the groundwork for the next elections. At the same time, the assembly is also tasked with the role of creating an interim governing mechanism. Prior to elections, many civil society groups in Tunisia advocated for holding a referendum, parallel to elections, that would limit the assembly’s power and duration. The referendum was never held, but a group of 11 parties agreed amongst themselves to limit the duration of the assembly to one year before holding the next elections.

However many are concerned that the apparent lack of systemic checks on the assembly will lead to a concentration of power.

“There is no democratic system in the world that does not have a separation of powers,” says Mechergui Haifa, a medical student who is working as a volunteer at the Bardo protests.


Haifa, along with several other volunteers, has been visiting the tents, providing check ups and medicine to those spending cold nights outside the assembly. Most of her patients are unemployed, and she says that fears over unemployment, which according to the latest figures stands at 18 percent, run just as high as fears over concentration of power.

“The situation is miserable. We cannot work. Even doctors cannot find work,” she says.

One person at the sit-in that Haifa checks up on is Ridha Amara. Amara, a 35-year-old from the phosphate mining town of Gafsa, has been out of work for 5 years despite holding a master’s degree. He, along with dozens of other out of work miners from Gafsa, came to Tunis to join the Bardo sit-in a week ago.

“They have disputes over the next president, but we just want a job. They leave us here,” he says.

Mouldi Shanafi, an English teacher who also says he has been out of work for five years, has come to the Bardo protests three days in a row.

“They are simple people just defending their right to work, like me for example,” he says describing many at the protests.

However, he says there is second group among the protesters with a more political agenda.

“They want to break this victory of Ennahda and to win the presidential post in the next elections. They are preparing now for the next elections,” Shanafi says, pointing at what he calls the “election losers.”

But some, like Amara, are just sick of the whole system.

“We are here for a new revolution against a new dictatorship,” Amara says.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The obscure future of women in a new Tunisia

Below is an excerpt from my piece in Al Masry Al Youm:

The Islamist Ennahdha party’s election victory in Tunisia has come to mean many things to many people. For many outside observers wary of how the “Arab Spring” might reshape regional politics, their victory signals a trend that will allow more conservative elements in the region to follow suit and succeed to power. For others, the victory is a positive sign that political Islam in the region has become ‘moderate’ and will adhere to a model of democracy a la Turkey.
But for women’s rights activists in Tunisia, the victory is a worrying sign that their battle for equality has suddenly become a great deal more difficult.
Days after Tunisia’s historic 23 October elections for a constituent assembly, tasked primarily with writing a new constitution, Tunisian feminists held an emergency meeting at Tunis’ feminist university to discuss strategy options.
“Our conviction now is that we have to fight for the preservation of the women’s rights that were included in the previous constitution,” says Salma Hajri, a physician and a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, or ATFD by its French acronym.
Ennahdha, which bills itself not as an Islamist party but as a party “in reference to Islam,” won roughly 40 percent of the vote and took 89 out of 217 seats in the new assembly, three times more than their closest opponents. The victory has set off alarm bells for many women’s rights activists who are concerned that instead of pushing to achieve legal parity, they will now be forced to defend the rights that Tunisian women have already won. “We have to be very watchful and very focused,” says Hajri.
Tunisian women enjoy relatively strong legal protection of their rights in comparison to neighboring countries. The Code of Personal Status, promulgated in 1957 by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy, created stricter divorce laws aimed at protecting women, and improved women’s access to higher education. Subsequent amendments to the code have further bolstered women’s rights.
However, Tunisia is not a constitutionally secular state, and women’s rights are still subject legally to a reading of Islamic law in one particular and important case: inheritance. Tunisia’s inheritance law, based on Islamic law, or Sharia, grants the greater share of inheritance to male heirs. ATFD saw such Islamic influence over the law as a threat to women’s rights and are concerned over greater reliance on the Sharia following Ennahdha’s win. “Feminism is really completely the opposite of the philosophy and conviction of the Islamists,” Hajri says.

The full article can be viewed here:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Syria, Iraq: Turkey’s foreign policy headaches

Noticed a couple things on my recent trips to Istanbul and Ankara. The media in Turkey these days is awash with stories on Syria, predictably. Somewhat less predictable is how Turkey will respond to the turmoil across its border.

Some Syrian anti-regime demonstrations have morphed into an armed resistance, with the Telegraph reporting this week that Libya’s new leaders intended to send hundreds of fighters and weapons to anti-regime forces in Syria. Some in Libya believe that the alleged proposal was a rogue one made by the Islamist, Libyan militia commander Abdul Hakim Bel Haj. While it is unclear how many Syrian anti-regime demonstrators have turned to armed resistance and exactly which outside parties are helping which side and to what extent, developments indicate that violence and repression are set to escalate in Syria.

The consequences of such an escalation would directly affect Turkey. Syrian refugees in Turkey who are staying in camps on the border number over 7000 currently. However, if the death toll keeps rising and certain key groups in Syria turn against the regime, the ensuing hostilities may force tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more streaming across the border. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army opposition group, made up mainly of former Syrian Armed Forces members who defected, are currently based near the Syrian border in southern Turkey. The Turkish government has failed to clarify what support, if any, they are providing to this group; however, it can be argued that Turkey, de facto, is harboring a group bent on violent regime change in a neighboring country. So much for Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

While the Turkish government has made it clear in recent weeks that they would like to see Assad step down, and that his regime has lost legitimacy, it is unclear how Turkish foreign policy makers will proceed. Turkish officials are quick to insist that the term “regime change” is not in their diplomatic vocabulary. However, it seems as if global consensus is pushing towards building pressure on the Assad regime. On Saturday, the Arab League agreed to impose sanctions on Syria, after Assad declined to respond to an Arab League proposal (Assad had been given a deadline to respond by 11 am GMT Friday) that would have set a course for a diplomatic solution. On Wednesday, Turkey followed suit and imposed its own sanctions. Both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan have suggested that a militarily secure buffer zone might be set up on the Syrian border if things get out of hand. It is so far unclear which side of the border this buffer zone would need to be set up on in order to achieve its intended purpose, but many have speculated that such a move could provoke the Syrian regime and its Iranian backers. Any sort of intervention or peace-keeping mission, even a NATO-backed one, would place much of the burden on Turkey. With the country's large military and shared border, Turkey would be expected to take the lead in any NATO mission, something which would put Turkey in the uncomfortable position both domestically and across the Arab world of appearing to do the bidding of the West in a confrontation in the Middle East.

Along with sanctions, Davutoğlu also announced that Syrian trade routes would be detoured through Iraq. Turkey will host U.S. Vice President Joe Biden first in Ankara and then in Istanbul. The visit is important as Biden handles the White House’s Iraq portfolio, and American troops are set to withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year. While Washington has said that the troop withdrawal will not mean a complete U.S. disengagement from Iraq, Turkey is anxiously looking to the December withdrawal date. Any power vacuum in Iraq could lead to greater Iranian influence in the country, particularly in the south and amongst the Shia population. A power vacuum could also allow the PKK, the separatist Kurdish terrorist group based in northern Iraq, to have greater freedom of mobility and operations, a direct threat to Turkey.