Tag Archives: Egypt

What the Tunisian government should learn from Egypt

ImageThe deposition of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi: call it what you like – a popular uprising, a military coup, a continuation of the “Arab Spring”, or a hammer blow to democratic reform efforts. Whatever it was, Tunisia is certainly not immune to it. Tunisia’s transition is relatively more protected from such happenings, and the country as a whole has a bit more working for it in the long run (namely a smaller population, less geostrategic pressure, and a historically less politically involved military). However, Tunisian government officials must be keenly aware of what’s brewing beneath them as well as take careful notes on what just happened in Egypt.Whether it is ultimately for better or for worse, it will not take long for Egypt to see more tumultuous days ahead of it and more instability before any semblance of normalcy. The “Egypt scenario,” which may threaten the country’s transition as a whole, can be avoided. Roughly speaking, this is what the Tunisian government should work on to avoid such a scenario:

  1. Encourage and actively support political inclusiveness: the Tunisian government must make active efforts to incorporate the opposition in not only high-level decision making, but in the management of tasks and projects at each ministry. The opposition, too, must work to achieve this political plurality by opening up to collaboration and focusing on the various tasks at hand as opposed to political pretenses.
  2. Avoid regressing on freedom of expression: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion must be available to all. The quick, rash, and hasty trial that 25-year old rapper Weld el 15 underwent cannot be repeated again. Weld el 15, who was hastily sentenced to a 2-year prison sentence that was later reduced to a 6-month probationary term outside of prison, was faced with legal action because of a song entitled “Police are Dogs.” His trial, along with many other instances where the government tried to infringe upon this sacred freedom, mobilized many Tunisians. In some cases, the government retreats. However even when it does, it fails to defend freedom of expression. For example, even when Ennahda – the Islamist party that leads the government – issued a statement condemning the Egyptian military’s arrest of journalists, the party has avoided explicitly defending the freedom of expression. The point is that even if the government believes that a rapper, activist, journalist, filmmaker, etc, has infringed upon the country’s “moral code” (can’t help but roll my eyes here), due process must be followed and fundamental trial rights must be ensured for all defendants. Leading me to my next point…
  3. Redraft the legal code: the government and the assembly’s focus should not be limited to rewriting the constitution. In fact, the majority of Ben Ali’s transgressions did not occur through the constitution – most were executed legitimately through a very flawed legal framework that we have yet to pay much attention to. Did you know that rapping is technically a crime in Tunisia? Such penal codes must be critically looked at and redrafted to make sure that freedom of expression is not only enshrined in the country’s law of the land, but through the very minute workings of the rule of law.
  4. Create realistic employment schemes and strategies: talking about employment and the economy is never enough. We still see protests in Tunisia that decry the lack of employment generation resources such as, a) employment centers, b) public recruitment programs, and c) the active flow of business. Most importantly, it must drag the stalled economy out of crisis as soon as possible – sustainably and efficiently.
  5. Respond to and meet popular demands at all levels: we hear too much about ministerial brouhahas and “he said she said”s stuck around the top level of governance. Seldom, however, do we hear about what the government is doing to meet local demands through the country’s 24 governorates (states) and municipalities. Much of public criticism stems from the ever-present levels of corruption in the municipalities, and if the government, national assembly, and presidency, are at all serious about transitioning into democracy, their eyes must be fixed on the municipalities and reforming them from the bottom up. Too much is happening locally, and the demands resulting from these challenges are consistently ignored.

The Tunisian government is already facing tremendous public ire and disgruntlement, and it should really consider doing the above to not further sully its credentials. Most importantly though, the government should do the aforementioned to move the country forward. And that is in everyone’s interest.

Note: article originally posted on Nawaat.

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How Gaza is putting the “Arab Spring” to the test

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Many in the Arab world argued that the power transitions taking place within the framework of the so-called Arab Spring will only help Palestinian efforts of self-determination. The logic is as follows: former authoritarian regime protected US and Israeli interests by suppressing the will of the people. By robbing the people of personal freedoms, human rights, and economic flexibility, these regimes have effectively diminished any chance the people had to act in defense of Palestine. Today, citizens can follow through with their own initiatives – to raise awareness or campaign for the Palestinian cause or otherwise.

More importantly, it is argued, the countries that have disposed of their former dictators (notably Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt) have elected representatives that are a genuine sample of the the people’s will and desires. While this is far from being a fully accurate statement, one cannot deny that these new governments are a drastic improvement from those that preceded them.

The latest escalation of violence in Gaza has undoubtedly created outrage within the Arab world. According to the Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza, 24 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 8 children, 4 women, 3 elderly. Over 280 Palestinians have been injured. Demonstrations have been held all across MENA in protest of Israel’s attacks.

A Tunisian delegation, including Tunisia’s foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem and the director of President Marzouki’s cabinet, will visit Gaza on Saturday to offer “all political support” to Hamas and increase Arab pressure on Israel.

Egypt also made an appearance – prime minister Hisham Kandil visited Gaza earlier today to show support for the Palestinian people as well.

What do these visits mean – and what real impact, if any, do they have on stopping Israeli airstrikes?

Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, are mired in tricky and messy transition periods. The real question that should be asked is whether these countries have the institutional and political capacity to leverage influence on the situation.

The Arab League announced that it would be holding an “emergency meeting” for Gaza… on Saturday. This of course, is days after the aggression first begun. Today, the Iraqi representative to the League denied the existence of an Iraqi proposal to “look into” the aggressions. Best case scenario, the league will decide to simply denounce the attacks on a piece of paper. Few take the League seriously anymore, and its reputation has eroded decades ago. This leaves willing countries to take matters into their own hands and bypass the League altogether. But what can they do?

While Tunisia and Egypt’s efforts are certainly noncommittal, they demonstrate a goodwill attempt to do something. However, to actually have any sort of impact, greater coordination and strategy is necessary.

I leave this article open-ended for one reason: I want to hear back from any readers who may have thoughts on this. I have yet to articulate a clear vision as to what the next steps should be for Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya on this issue – and I will surely be writing on this once again in the very near future. Stay tuned.

Mainstream Media Coverage on Tunisia: Short, Bittersweet, and Overly Deficient

We all know that after former Tunisian president Ben Ali packed his bags, Egyptian Mubarak and Libyan Gaddafi soon shared similar fates. One was hospitalized for political and moral exhaustion, the other killed in what was a Hollywood-worthy (but slightly gorier) scene. Suddenly, the short-lived spotlight on Tunisia was quickly shifted to Egypt and Libya. The heavy news coverage in Egypt and Libya continues till this day. Tunisia was pushed back to, at best, starring on the headline tickers. The relative international media blackout on Tunisia-related issues, however, can put all parties at a disadvantage. What is at stake here?

Some considerably difficult challenges lie ahead for Tunisia’s rocky transition to democracy. One would think that with all the talk—usually airy and empty—revolving around democracy, especially in the Western world, audiences would be interested in tracking one small country’s ambitions to build a pluralistic society; a country with relative geo-strategic importance perched on Africa’s crown bridging Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Admittedly, keeping out of the headlines does ring in a few benefits for Tunisia. With the exception of the Islamist-Secular dynamics with which the media seem to be overly preoccupied, sensationalism has been kept out of general debates. Further, the Tunisian government, along with civil society, has been afforded the opportunity to go about its business without deeply influential foreign commentary like what we see in Egypt and Libya. Yet, Tunisia being out of the limelight is no new trend. From the early days of the revolts in mid-December, few major news organizations took the movement as seriously as recent history has come to show us. A little before mid-January, however, news started breaking on a more regular basis on major international networks such as the BBC, France24, and others. The small, stable country long described by Westerners as a secular, quiet country, was in up flames. It merited the attention, it seemed, if only as a reminder to Western governments: “Your dictators are not here to stay.”

Sure enough, once the country edged back into stability, news coverage on developments in Tunisia nearly halted.

It is well-accepted in Tunisian folklore that the less attention one receives, the more successful the respective experience will be. “The evil eye is not easy,” it is said, and should be taken seriously. What is most alarming in the lack of media attention may reveal an undercurrent of interest-driven coverage in corporate media channels and another undercurrent of racism/otherness within the audiences consuming the news. The question, as most folks reading this probably realize, is: what news makes money? The second question is: why?

The natural resources (read: oil) Libya has, and Egypt’s proximity to Israel, are two major factors that augment the level of coverage the two countries receive. One factor is material and reads dollar bills, the other is geo-strategic. Tunisia, with nary a natural resource to even sustain the country, does present a crucial interest of study in all countries and academics in the world. The plunge in news coverage on Tunisia exacts a heavy toll on academic efforts in the field of nation building and democratization. The country can be seen as something of a testing vacuum for democracy and Arab sociology. There are several reasons for this.

The country is small, and has a relatively shorter list of “external factors” contributing to the ascension or descent of sociopolitical order—little foreign intervention contributed to Ben Ali’s fall, and most foreign governments took long enough to release statements endorsing the uprisings. It has been demonstrated time and time again that there is little vested interest in the country. Thus, organic movements can have a genuine chance to flourish. It is the perfect atmosphere, then, to put democracy to the test.

Every Constituent Assembly debate should be recorded, transcribed, followed, and reported on, for every one of them reflects the societal nuances that are found all over the region. In constitution drafting, every word, letter, and conjugation should be noted. In the enumeration of presidential candidacy prerequisites, should the word “candidate” be conjugated in the female or male version? The market’s pulse—and how it changes depending on what type of economic system the country eventually adopts—needs to be monitored. What does it mean to go from a closed to an open market in North Africa? How will it contribute to the boom of exports, or the deterioration of the local currency? The conclusions that could be reached from such questions are crucial to our understanding of the modern world.

The honeymoon-reporting phase is over for Tunisia. The euphoria of deposing a long-ruling dictator has ended months ago—a sentiment which could not be more acutely felt than in the country itself.

Even when Tunisia does receive media coverage, it is plagued by constant comparisons with its neighbors. More than anything, apple-orange comparisons with Egypt and Libya rob audiences of understanding the social and economic nuances and contours between the countries. The countries’ diverse colonial history, for instance, impacts modern-day economics and legal frameworks. The Tunisian legal code is a near carbon copy of the French, which influences the methodology the constitution is being written in today. Egypt’s history with the Muslim Brotherhood is decades older than that of Ennahda’s, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is a factor that cannot be ignored. Yet, a plethora of attractive factors still beguile media giants into treating the “Arab Spring” countries as a monolithic entity, with Tunisia receiving an honorable mention of “starting” the trend.

There is more to the news than trendy appeal. There is more to the news than national interests. Serious and regular reporting about Tunisia’s internal challenges is absolutely necessary for our understanding of democratic development and post-Ben Ali North Africa as a whole.

Original article posted on Jadaliyya.

Linking Islam and citizenship, according to the NY Times, is a fear

In an article dated June 25, 2012 in the New York Times, titled, “Challenges Multiply for Presidential Winner in Egypt,” the author asserts that among the 48% that voted for Shafiq, along with the majority of Egyptians who did not vote, there exists a fear that Morsi’s true goal is “to bind the notion of citizenship itself more closely to Islam.”

The reality is that, a. This is not a fear. I’m pretty sure those who did not vote have a litany of other, more important fears on their plate, b. Theoretically and even practically, binding the two concepts – within Egypt’s context – is actually a good thing.

Keep in mind that the majority of Egypt’s population is Muslim, ridden with poverty, and poorly educated. Linking the concept of citizenship, a relatively foreign one for most MENA countries, to something as familiar to the people as Islam, will only help Egyptians in the short and long term.

Democracy and citizenship, labels we use to identify concepts that are materialized by the (predominantly) “western” world, are far from being foreign to Islam as a faith. Thus, while it could be risky, linking citizenship to Islam could help democratize Egypt gradually but permanently. It may provide a shift of focus, Islamically speaking, within the haram-halal spectrum. Rather than argue about nail polish and how much skin a woman is not allowed to show, Muslims can begin debating the merits of cleaning up a neighborhood, voting, and other things that hold more societal weight.