Tunisian cats take their place in politics

There is so much that can be (and has been written) about post-revolutionary art in Tunisia. From street art to photography, there has been an explosion in politically-oriented expression. I look forward to writing more about it, but for today, just some comic relief. These are from Nadia Khiari (read her profile in Paris Match) who is the artist behind Willis from Tunis, one of the sharpest cartoonists working in Tunisia today. I’ve provided English translations (and context where appropriate) in the captions.

At the Constituent Assembly: "Ok guys, thanks to the Salafists, female circumcision, the snow, the jailed journalist, floods they're giving us a break." "I propose a swarm of locusts so that we can continue to do nothing in complete tranquility" For Tunisian's upset at the slow progress of their newly elected parliament.

Residents of Tunisia found that cats became extra affectionate during Tunisia's recent cold spell. This cartoon is a play on words with chat (cat) and chauffage (heater).

On the anniversary of Tunisia's revolution: "So, Mr. Ben Ali, what do you have to say on this January 14, 2012." "I was right to get the heck out of there."

January 13, 2011 Ben Ali: "I have understood you." January 13, 2012 The Troika (Mustapha Ben Jafaar, Hamadi Jebali, Moncef Marzouki):"He have understood nothing." This plays on Ben Ali's famous last speech to Tunisians before he was forced to flee the country.

What is the Emir of Qatar doing in Tunisia? "Inventory" Playing on the fear that Tunisia is becoming a tool of Qatar.

Relaxing drug laws in Tunisia – it’s not just for potheads

One of the joys of post-revolutionary Tunisia is the seemingly endless number of advocacy groups that have sprung up. One such group is the movement to decriminalize pot. I first heard about their protest last week in front of the Bardo, where Tunisia’s parliament sits. Another such protest took place today.

There is much more to this movement than stoner pride.

Activist and blogger Slim Amamou was quoted in BusinessNews.com.tn:

Cette loi appartient à l’ancien régime dictatorial et ne doit plus être appliquée après la révolution. Nous ne demandons pas la légalisation du cannabis ou d’autres drogues, nous nous insurgeons contre ces pratiques visant à assimiler les consommateurs à des criminels…Il est aujourd’hui aberrant de traquer et d’emprisonner quelqu’un pour une simple consommation ! »

English translation:

This law comes from the dictatorial regime and should not be applied after the revolution. We are not asking for the decriminalization of cannabis or other drugs, we are fighting against practices aimed at equating consumers (of drugs) with criminals….It’s abhorrent that today we hunt down and imprison someone for simply consuming!

Tunisia, like much of the Arab world, has extremely harsh drug laws. I have personally talked to several Tunisians that have personal experience with these draconian laws. Five years for a joint, 10 years for minor dealing. The drug laws here turn a minor infraction into a devastating life event. Countless young people have had their lives ruined for what many in the west would consider “youthful indiscretions.”

Of course, these drug laws were also part of the totalitarian state built up under Ben Ali. Police searches were common, of course, only if you weren’t a friend of the regime. As a tourist, it was common to be offered drugs under Ben Ali. But if your loyalty was questioned, it was inevitable that police would find a joint on you.

It’s uncertain the level of support the legalization movement has. Drugs are considered taboo in Tunisian society. But one thing is certain, Tunisian society would benefit from relaxing the kinds of laws that have done little except encourage corruption and tear apart families.

Postscript: My personal experiences with these laws came from a time living in Tunisia in the 1990s. A  close friend of mine’s brother was jailed for possession of a small amount of zetla (hashish). He spent 5 years in prison. He lost out on most of his 20s. His employment prospects dimmed. All for something he did when he was a young man. This harsh punishment cost not only a young man his freedom (for a crime he did commit), but also a family their son, and to society a bright young contributor. I don’t editorialize often in this blog, but on this, I agree with Slim.

A note on “Jihadi Soft Power in Tunisia”

Tunisia has recently focused its attention to victims of extreme weather that has affected large parts of the country, particularly in the west and north of the country. The historic winter weather, with some regions receiving over 6 feet of snow, has brought out the best in Tunisians. Just days after the situation deteriorated, civic organizations organized solidarity caravans to help those affected. The relief efforts, which included providing food, blankets, and tarps, were badly needed and much appreciated by local populations.

But as Aaron Zelin, publisher of the Wasat and Jihadology websites notes, it wasn’t just Tunisian civil society that mobilized. Far right wing jihadists in Tunisia also answered the call to provide relief to their compatriots and coreligionists.

He notes:

On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihadfi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate.

Zelin goes on to examine the implications these kinds of efforts might have in recruiting people to their cause, and what that might mean to Ennahdha. The entire article is well worth a read.

I have two brief observations:

Firstly, Zelin’s piece shows a side of the religious right in Tunisia that is often ignored or dismissed. Secular elites often belittle salafists as backwards “beardos” who want to drag Tunisia back to the 7th Century, without ever looking at what might be appealing about their cause. The reality is that groups like Ansar al-Shariah appeal to those who think that the country has been off course because it has gotten away from its moral grounding. It’s likely that while the majority of Tunisians take a markedly more moderate stance toward religion, few would object to the kind of aid the group is providing.

Secondly, Zelin’s work exposes limitations in the Tunisian press to the diversity of opinion in Tunisia right now. When Zalin approached me about the situation, I have to be honest, I’d never heard of Ansar al-Shari’ah or their aid caravan. While I had read dozens of articles about the relief efforts of civil society, businesses, political parties, and foreign governments, Ansar al-Shari’ah never came up. One thing is certain though, the town of Haidra, the beneficiaries of the group’s aid, know very well about the group now.

These problems exposes a real danger for Tunisia. Despite the lifting of press restrictions after the revolution, there remains both an inablility to recognize why some Tunisians are drawn to hard-line ideologies and this is reinforced by an echo chamber of like minded beliefs. While culture wars rage on Facebook, there is little true public understanding of the groups that are waging war for Tunisian public opinion in the neighborhoods and small towns across Tunisia.

Is Tunisia labor unrest a threat?

[Today's article is a follow up to last week's piece: Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken]

Tunisian labor unrest continues to tear at Tunisia’s new social compact with municipal workers staging a four day strike. This week’s strike, called by Tunisia’s largest union, the Union Generale de Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), has already caused significant service disruptions for Tunisians. In particular, garbage collection has been suspended, leading to very messy (and stinky) streets.

This week’s events occur just days after a major disruption at one of Tunisia’s largest employers, Leoni, which shut down briefly over ongoing labor disruptions. Battle lines seem to have been drawn between the ruling party, Ennahdha, and the powerful Tunisian unions.

Tunisia Live reported yesterday  that UGTT offices had been targeted for vandalism, and one office was ransacked and burned in restive Kesserine. Tunisian blogger Mohammed Ali Charmi  reports: “The Echab (people) newspaper, voice of the UGTT, announced in its page in facebook that syndicalist militants arrested three militiaman who tried to attack UGTT office in Manouba in the west of the capital Tunis.”

Tunisia Live goes on to say that “Shems FM quoted Sami Tahri, a spokesperson for the UGTT, as saying “this is a political act, well organized by the Ennahda movement.”

While the retraction of inflammatory statements like Mr. Tahri’s seems to be commonplace in post-revolutionary Tunisia, his remarks point to a more open battle between labor and the new government. Ennahdha has frequently cited strikes and sit-ins as a principal reason for job losses since the revolution. According to Ennahdha spokeman, Samir Dilou:

les perturbations ont occasionné, depuis la révolution, des pertes de l’ordre de 2,5 milliards de dinars, ce qui aurait permis de créer 80 mille emplois.


[labor] disruptions since the revolution have caused losses in the range of 2.5 billion dinars ($1.66 billion USD), which would have allowed the creation of 80,000 jobs.

The party has two principal goals in bringing labor unrest under control. The first is their goal of kick-starting the economy through new investment, something which depends heavily on the stability of the labor market. The second goal is to show Tunisians that they are capable of governing. Had the Leoni factory ceased operations last week, it would have been a major blow to the former. The strike of municipal workers threatens the latter.

Charmi sees the threat of conflict between unionists and Ennahdha as an existential threat:

In absence of serious opposition to Nahda and his intention to include Islamic laws in the constitution, many Tunisians see the UGTT as an alternative opposition especially with its capacity to mobilize the Tunisian street. Note that UGTT played an important role the Ben Ali regime fall in January 14th after in successful general strike in different cities. It participated also a movement of protestation that pushed Mohamed Ghanouchi government to resign and lead to the constitutional elections that brought Nahda to power in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s secular elites have largely focused on issues that, while important, are not bread and butter issues (freedom of speech, women’s rights, censorship). Tunisia’s unions, however, have the ability to mobilize massive numbers of Tunisians. As of last year, the UGTT had a membership of over 500,000 workers, making it a formidable force in Tunisian politics.

While it has historically aligned with the ruling party (to the detriment of its workers), its statements this week show that it is showing its independence. And why not? Its membership demands it. A municipal garbage worker brings home 120 dinars per month (less than $80, or about $2.5 per day). Many workers are dismayed that the party that says it represents all Tunisians, especially the poorer class, seems to be ignoring substandard working conditions and pay.

Ennahdha has been the beneficiary so far of working class support. But as it is forced to take a stand on policy more and more, it risks alienating its constituencies. One can already see support for Ennahdha peeling off toward more conservative Islamist groups. It will need to tread carefully on the issue of workers rights – it may very well be its Achilles heal.

Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken

Mateur Tunisia is home to a small factory that typifies Tunisia’s industrial base. The plant in Mateur is one of three owned by the  German cable company Leoni, which has taken advantage of Tunisia’s low wages and relative stability to set up shop and employ up to 14,000 Tunisian workers. The plant produces components for fiber optic cables and is part of Leoni’s global supply chain.

Recently, however, an ongoing labor dispute between Leoni management and the UTT, Tunisia’s second largest trade union, threatened to close Leoni’s Mateur operation and throw 2,700 workers on to the streets. While negotiations have recently resumed, sparing the workers (for the moment), the precarity of the situation is indicative of wider unrest in the Tunisian labor market. It also represents the biggest risk to the current government.

While Tunisian unemployment and strikes have been well documented in the last year, little reporting has focused on the nature of the strikes and just what it means to Tunisian and multinational businesses operating in Tunisia.

Labor unrest was not unheard of under either Ben Ali or Bourguiba. In the 1950s, as Tunisia gained its independence, Habib Bourguiba relied on labor support. He later co-opted Tunisian syndicates, in an agreement that assured that the union had a place at the table, but in return unions bargained away worker rights. Ben Ali continued with this model, and while strikes, particularly in the mining sector, were periodic, there was never any regime-threatening labor unrest under the dictatorship.

Tunisian syndicalism took on a new form with the uprising in 2010/2011. Unions cast their support with the protesters – a key -ans often overlooked aspect to the uprising’s success. The subsequent period of transition from January 14 to the installation of a new government in December last year saw labor unrest increase dramatically. It seemed that any half-way organized union or guild went on strike. The airports, trains, utilities, and ministries all were affected by strikes. The police force, the enforcers of Ben Ali’s regime, were ironically some of the first to gain concessions from the government. Even workers in Tunis’s medina went on strike to protest the government’s feeble attempts to get tourists back in the souks.

While the government was in a position to acquiesce to demands from public sector (and state-owned enterprise) workers, private businesses were on their own to negotiate new contracts with their employees. While some firms were able to offer concessions to workers, a credit crunch from Tunisian banks and uncertainty in Europe narrowed the options for most businesses.

What was perhaps most critical was the “democratic” nature of the strikes. Many Tunisian workers went outside of their labor unions to protest employment practices. After a half-century of collaboration with the ancien regime, Tunisian workers felt that wages and benefits had been artificially kept low for too long. This represented a major change for business managers, who no longer knew with whom to negotiate.

The rules of the game shifted.

Some managers I’ve spoken to, who generally had good relations with their employees, were terrified that a rogue group could shut down their operations. They also believed that making concessions would not stop the problem, but only encourage more workers to use rogue strikes as a tool for negotiations.

It appears that this may have been the situation with Leoni, which stated, according to Tunisia Live, “this decision has been taken due to the impossibility of ensuring a normal continuation of operations at Mateur.”

Leoni is not the first foreign enterprise to consider ending operations in the country. Yazaki, a Japanese cable and wiring company, also ceased operations in southern Tunisia last year; negotiations are still underway this week between the Tunisian government and Yazaki to enable the return of normal operations.

Jeune Afrique reports that 170 foreign firms ended or partially ended operations in Tunisia last year. Tunisia experienced a 29 percent drop in foreign investment during the same period.

The social contract between capital and labor in Tunisia is broken. Tunisian unions feel the need to show their bona fides in the face of skeptical members, and managers do not feel that negotiations are being done in good faith. And the government has been reluctant to do anything about it.

As I’ve noted previously, Ennahdha has a generally neo-liberal economic worldview. They have promised greater globalization and are looking to further liberalize Tunisia’s economy. Some members of Ennahdha appear to hold extreme anti-labor views, with one radical member calling for protesters to be crucified. While foreign investors would be happy to see the situation stabilize, its unlikely that the death of their workers is in their interests.

Unions are skeptical of the government’s intentions. However, in this highly unionized workforce, the government cannot attract foreign investors without engaging the unions.

Meanwhile, the government is frantic to get Tunisian employed. A report today from the Financial Times states that the government is looking  to negotiate greater Tunisian immigration to Europe:

Mr Dimassi (Tunisia’s Finance Minister, Ennahdha ) says the government has been trying to convince European authorities to allow for “organised immigration” to the European Union to take some of the pressure off.

Increased emigration may help, but it seems a rather dramatic solution for the most fundamental issue in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

The FT goes on to explain various formulas the government is considering to create greater employment. This is a bit like adding a prosthetic arm to a patient that is still hemorrhaging. You need to stop the bleeding first. The proposed solutions, increased aid to young graduates and more government jobs are exactly what the former regime did in the weeks preceding the revolution. Ben Ali promised hundreds of thousands of jobs – but the promise was empty – because the system was broken and needed reform.

In order for growth to resume and investment to return, Tunisia needs to have a compact with labor that assures union rights, while forming credible mechanisms to resolve negotiations. Without it, the government just has promises and debt. Ennahdha has so far proved unable to to negotiate this compact but its survival depends on it.

Discovery of a Tunisian terrorist cell – more questions than answers

I was surprised to read this morning about the discovery of a terrorist cell in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city, about 4 hours south of Tunis. However, having read the reports and the statement by Laarayedh, the interior minister, the reports we have now raise more questions than they answer.

First of all, the group appears to be part of the same group that attacked the police in Bir Ali Ben Khalifa (near Sfax). When that story came out a couple weeks ago, there were a lot of people that downplayed its significance.

Here are a few questions the Tunisian press should be pressing the government on include: why do you think this cell was connected to Al Qaeda? How many dangerous criminals were released in the amnesties of 2011/2012? where did this group’s financing come from? does the army have the resources to protect the Tuniso-Libyan border?

Instead, all we seem to know is the following:

Most of the French language press reported that they were Salafist extremists (or Beardos “barbus”, as they’re known here). Some reports even questioned whether it wasn’t a holdover of RCDists from the former regime. This kind of report from Businessnews was common. It raises the important point that under the Ben Ali regime, it was common to group Islamists and terrorists together, however it concludes with the statement:

Les citoyens tunisiens semblent aujourd’hui déchirés entre leurs libertés indispensables, fraîchement acquises, et un besoin vital de sécurité. Mais le climat d’insécurité qui règne aujourd’hui est-il réel ou s’agit-il simplement d’une psychose qui, à force d’événements amplifiés et remis au goût du jour, tente de déstabiliser le pays…
In English (my translation, italics mine)
 Tunisian citizens appear to be torn between their indispensable freedoms, newly acquired, and the need for security. But is the security climate that reins today real or does is consist simply of a psychosis, which because of recent trumped up events, attempts to destabilize the country?
The government itself downplayed it as well. The Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, said that the events didn’t pose a significant threat.

Basically, it was whitewashed. Now, however, the Interior Ministry is singing a different tune.

Yesterday’s reports confirm that it’s the same group of people from Sfax. Only this time, they’re not called barbus, but terrorists, and according to some, part of Al Qaeda. According to the press reports, the group’s aim was to set up an Islamic Caliphate in Tunisia, though their targets were not yet known.

There are a few interesting things about the French language press reports this morning:

1) Some reports make the link with Al Qaeda (http://www.lapresse.tn/14022012/45192/des-avancees-sur-le-plan-securitaire.html), “They have ties to Alqaeda, but we don’t know the nature of these ties” “Ces derniers sont en liaison avec Al Qaïda et on ignore encore quelle est la nature de cette liaison.”

Others say that they may be linked – through Libyan ties with Al Qaeda (Le Temps, “The network maintains relations with other terrorist cells in Libya, some of whom are close to Al Qaeda” “Le réseau entretient des rapports avec d’autres cellules terroristes installées en Libye dont certaines sont proches de l’organisation terroriste Al Qaida.” Tunisia Live‘s is less nuanced, its headline reads dramatically that “Tunisian Authorities Break Up Alleged Al Qaeda Terror Cell.”

None of the press reports I’ve read make any distinction between Al Qaeda or AQIM.

2)  All of the reports this morning state that the members were trained in Libya, but that the suspects are Tunisian. The articles talk about their education levels, and more importantly, they appear to have been in jail under Ben Ali and released as part of one of the amnesties last year.

3) They were in possession of arms, bullets and money. It’s not clear whether they are talking about the suspects apprehended two weeks ago in the shoot out (where they also found stockpiles of contraband), or whether they have found more. The reports say that the contraband all came from Libya.

4) The Interior Ministry seems to have called for an arms amnesty. La Presse reports that Laarayedh called on any Tunisian possessing a firearm to turn it in within the next 15 days. They say that the IM will release a statement on this today. This would indicate that the worries over a growing arms trade in Tunisia have been confirmed by the government.

5) My general impression is that the press conference yesterday sounds odd and out of character for the government up to this point. Laarayedh, who’s a member of Ennahdha, sounded a lot more like one of the Ben Ali guys than I would have thought. The language is vague and non-specific and refers generally to extremists. Generally speaking, Ennahdha has tried to draw distinctions between religious fundamentalists and terrorists, but this time that didn’t seem to be the case.

A hopelessly romantic vision of Tunisia

Just in time for Valentine’s day, this piece is a reflection of some of the dreams I have living in Tunisia, understanding that while it might now come true – it could. It is me at my most hopelessly romantic. It may be naive, but one of the things many Tunisians (and residents of Tunisia, like me) have come to realize since the revolution was the immense potential of the country. On my dark days, I don’t think like this, but on good days my mind wonders about the endless possibilities – like this one. Names are amalgamations of historical figures in Tunisia’s past.

Dateline: February 2016*
Place: Tunisia

Tunisia has been gripped by the excitement of yet another election, the third since the fall of Ben Ali. While the Islamist party Ennahdha held on to 36 percent, the real winners were the secular left coalition, which came in just ahead with 38 percent of the vote in their first elections since the uprising. Salafist party Tahrir, running for the first time since their legalization last year, garnered just 2 percent of the vote, which has shut them out of public financing for the next elections under Tunisia’s new campaign finance laws.

The secular left, having abandoned their opposition to working with Ennahdha, has set up a committee to organize the powersharing agreement with Ennahdha struck before the elections. Their victory, based on a comprehensive campaign throughout the whole country, was largely attributed to the dynamism of their new leader, Elyssa Hadad, the first female prime minister in the Arab world. Hailing from El Kef, she was able to bring together rural and urban voters into her coalition which focused on the environment, equality and integration of the regions.

Ennahdha had long been expected to lose the election, after disruptions in their internal politics caused the defection of the guard politicians to Tahrir. The party’s founders were replaced by a new generation of Ennahdha leaders, which focused the party’s message on economic growth and development, rather than cultural issues. Ennahdha’s new, young leaders can take heart that their campaign was judged to be the most straightforward of all of the parties contesting the elections and their new cadre of deputies from around the country are promising young politicians which will ensure that their support continues in the future.

Ennahdha’s loss surprised many outside observers after their many successes in the past four years they were in power. Education reforms, solid economic growth, and a campaign against corruption have made Tunisia the star of the Arab world. Many observers see these successes as leading to their eventual decline in the polls. The reality was that while Tunisians saw their country going in the right direction, they were anxious for a change, and four years was simply enough. While they suffered a disappointment at the polls, Tunisians continue to see Ennahdha as the party that led Tunisia out of the uncertainty of their post-revolutionary phase, and into the stability of an increasingly prosperous and free society.

Education was Ennahdha’s first success. Following the end of the 2011-12 school year, which was marked by sit-ins and conflicts between Salafists and administrators over mixed classes and the wearing of the niqab, a grand bargain was struck that paved the way for real educational reforms. After months of wrangling over the new constitution, secular leaders and Ennahdha began their first negotiations. It was agreed that freedom of dress was a fundamental right of Tunisians, and niqab wearing students were allowed to return to class. In exchange, secularists were able to include in Tunisia’s bill of rights an amendment which enshrined equality of the sexes in the new constitution, considered the strongest protection for equality in the Arab world. Secularist fears appear to have been misplaced, as in 2016,  most Tunisian women seem content with traditional Maghreb clothing  – the overwhelming majority rejecting Gulf style imports in their culture.

Ennahdha and secular party leadership was greeted with widespread popular support, as Tunisians cheered the ability, for what seemed like the first time, of the parties coming together and working together for the common good.  This breakthrough set the tone for the remainder of the constituent assembly’s work, which was concluded on October 23, 2012, exactly one year to the day after the elections. Tunisian lawmakers worked tirelessly through the summer to complete the document, including all night post-Iftar sessions during Ramadan. The constitution has been hailed as the most important piece of law in modern Arab history. It calls for a complete separation of powers, including of the independent electoral commission, and is the first Arab constitution to include a bill of rights, enshrining into law the fundamental freedoms of Tunisians.

After the ratification of the new constitution by Tunisians and the election of a new government (won again by Ennahdha, this time with 47 percent of the vote), real reforms got underway.

Following the success of the educational reforms, further work was done to strengthen Tunisia’s educational system. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, who held a behind the scenes role during the constitutional process, was, in a surprise move, appointed Minister of Higher Education.

Using his long-list of contacts built up during his exile overseas, Ghannouchi’s first victory was in attracting 6 foreign universities to form a multinational consortium of universities. Anchored by Stanford University, the consortium includes Freie Universitat Berlin, Science-Po, Princeton, Cambridge, and Bocconi.

The agreement, which by 2014 had brought the universities to a major campus in the Berges du Lac area of Tunis, has created the most important center of academic learning in the greater Middle East and caused many universities operating in the authoritarian Gulf region to reassess whether true academic work can be done under regimes that cannot be considered free.

It also revived an otherwise moribund area of greater Tunis, known mostly by its similarities to the blandness of the aforementioned authoritarian countries in the Gulf. Berges du Lac is now a thriving community attracting students from around Tunisia and the world.

Ghannouchi’s real popularity though, stemmed from the inclusion of 10,000 scholarships per year for Tunisians to attend these prestigious institutions, which also work closely with Tunisian universities. This arrangement is what brought previously unknown Tunisian hacker Hanibal Ben Yusuf, to worldwide attention. His software, which revolutionized social networking, has made him today the richest man in the Arab world, outside the Saudi royal family. Affectionately called the Arab Zuckerberg, after Facebook’s founder, his company now employs 13,000 Tunisians and 8,000 foreigners. His decision to base his company in Ben Arous, a working class suburb of Tunis, has had a mushroom affect, with dozens of start-ups popping up around the headquarters. Tunisia’s silicon valley now employs thousands of recent graduates every year.

Ghannouchi didn’t rest on this accomplishment. He also took the courageous step of shutting down Tunisian diploma mills and, in their place, establishing vocational poles throughout the country. These schools have had the effect of bringing tens of thousands of Tunisian youth, especially young men, into the workforce. The decision last year to move 60 percent of Volkswagen’s European production last year to Kesserine was based largely on the workforce, which rivaled the Czech Republic’s for mechanical skills, thanks largely to the influx of highly trained young graduates. Volkswagen’s plant in Kesserine now employs 22,000 workers, and with the parts plants that have sprung up in neighboring Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid, the region has reduced unemployment from over 30 percent in 2011, to under 10 percent in 2016.

These accomplishments seem easy in retrospect, but Ennahdha faced pressure from within and outside their party to achieve them. Throughout 2012 and 2013, conservative forces within Ennahdha urged party leaders to engage with the opposition in the culture wars, which they had mistakenly believed had brought them victory in the elections.  The purging of corrupt officials throughout the government, and in particular in the interior ministry, had further weakened the leadership.

It was only through a combination of support by Ennahdha’s younger members, and the backing of Tunisia’s major trade union, the UGTT, that Ghannouchi and Jebali were able to hold onto their positions. In the subsequent two years, Jebali reaped the rewards of this cleansing of the government, with foreign direct investment surging 50 percent year over year from 2013-2015 and annual GDP growth of 8 percent.

It was the increase in tax revenue, however, that ensured that the government was rewarded – anti-money laundering initiatives, as well as increased tax collection from businesses allowed record growth in government revenues. This allowed the government to reinvest in its health care system to the point that every Tunisian has access to a hospital or clinic.

In 2016, many Tunisians remain needy. Years of growth have made Tunisians optimistic about their futures. Recent polling by the four reputable new polling firms in Tunisia confirm that 82 percent of the country think that the country is going in the right direction. But serious problems remain. Environmental issues have emerged as a top priority and unemployment, while dramatically reduced, remains high.

Prime Minister Hadad has an ambitious agenda to tackle both issues through sustainable tourism and agriculture. She aims to reduce soil erosion and diversify Tunisian agricultural production with a goal of increasing Tunisian production of high-quality goods and to dramatically increase Tunisian exports to Europe of organically produced food. She campaigned on the promise of using her experience as a civil society leader in Kef, where she spearheaded efforts that led to a dramatic increase in ecotourism in the region. Her efforts in the region have made Kef the fastest growing tourist region in the country. In the region, there has been a boom in small scale, high value agriculture, coupled with a rise in independent hotels.

The previous government’s decision to allow foreign ownership of hotels was not without controversy, but the compromised that was reached, which featured lower taxes in exchange for more employment, has led to a mini-boom for small scale hotels across the country. The knock-on effect has been an increase in artisanal production around the country and international recognition of Tunisia’s previously isolated inner regions.

The new government will have their work cut out for them. But the hard work and tough compromises of the last few years has left Tunisia ready. It all changed in 2012 when all the parties (political and civil society) began to accept the fact that Tunisia was more pluralistic and diverse than anyone had previously thought. Secularist slowly began to realize that the ability to practice one’s religion was a fundamental right and Islamists began to realize that secularists were not a priori against Islam or Islamic values, just for a different way of governing. These realizations created the space for public debates that engendered mutual respect, rather than mutual distrust. It also allowed them both to focus on what Tunisian’s cared about most – providing for their families and creating a better Tunisia.


Tunisia’s new government: 5 things we’ve learned about Tunisian foreign policy

Foreign policy has been a back drop in the Tunisian political landscape since the January 14 uprising against Ben Ali. Never a major international player, Tunisia spent 2011 getting its domestic business in order. However, as the new government gets down to business, international relations are once again returning as an important part of Tunisian politics, but their importance is as much domestic as anything else.

What are the keys to understanding Tunisia’s new foreign policy?

1) It’s rule by committee + 1

Tunisia’s troika, composed of the three major parties in Tunisia’s post-elections coalition, delegated foreign policy responsibility across two branches of government. The president sets foreign policy in consultation with the foreign minister, who is appointed by the prime minister.

Some observers think that Marzouki, whose party finished second in the October elections, sacrificed his party in order to give himself the power of the presidency. This stood in contrast with Ettakatol leader Mustapha Ben Jafaar, who will lead the process of drafting the constitution as speaker of the Constituent Assembly.

Nonetheless Marzouki seems keen on pushing Tunisia’s foreign policy agenda. In the past week, Marzouki has made headlines in two areas. On Saturday, February 4, Marzouki announced the withdrawal of the Tunisian ambassador to Syria and this week, he will visit Algeria, Morocco, and Mauritania in an effort to restart the moribund Maghreb Union.

Meanwhile, Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, has played a lower profile, mostly meeting with counterparts of Tunisia’s allies, after outcries of nepotism failed to derail his nomination in December (he is Rached Ghannouchi’s son-in-law). Neither Abdessalem nor Prime Minister Jebali have publicly challenged Marzouki’s course yet and the foreign ministry has not played a high profile in the new government’s direction.

Perhaps driving Jebali’s and Abdessalem’s relative absence from the foreign policy spotlight is Rached Ghannouchi’s continuing presence. Despite not holding a position in the government (he was neither elected nor appointed to a government position), it is widely known the Ghannouchi calls the shots in Ennahdha, including on foreign policy. Widespread rumors say that he instigated the calls for the recall of Tunisia’s ambassador to Syria this week.

2) Proximity matters – Maghreb version

Libya: Tunisian foreign policy concerns are dominated by the continuing instability of its neighbor, Libya. Economic ties between Libya and Tunisia were increasingly close prior to the Libyan uprising, with Tunisia being the beneficiary of favorable trade relations (including oil imports), Libyan tourism, remittances and foreign direct investment. [See also this excellent report from the African Development Bank showing the significance of Libyan trade with Tunisia.]

Following the start of the uprising against Ghaddafi, Tunisia opened its doors and its stores to Libyans, on both sides. Tens of thousands of refugees flooded across the border and Tunisia began shipping tons of food and water supplies to those stuck in Libya. On the other hand, Libya began exporting weapons and paramilitaries to Tunisia. The continued instability in Libya has forced Tunisian authorities to close its border on several occasions, effectively closing off trade from this important market. An issue which has dragged on for months has been the incarceration of Libya’s former prime minister. Tunisia has so far refused to extradite him to the Libyan authorities, who have repeatedly ask that he be returned to Libya.

What marks Tunisian relations with Libya is strict pragmatism. Throughout the NATO bombardment and uprising against Ghaddafi, Tunisia remained an engaged, but nonetheless neutral, observer. While Western governments fear the next government in Libya, Tunisians hope that, just as under Ghaddafi in the last decade, there will be no bumps in this important strategic relationship. The number one concern that could up-end this otherwise beneficial relationship is the vast number of arms that appear to be pouring out of the country.

North Africa: Since the new new government was formed, Tunisian authorities have expressed their desire to re-start talks on the integration of Maghreb. The Maghreb Union has been inactive since 1994 due to disagreements between Algeria and Morocco. Marzouki’s visit follows a visit by Ennahdha’s de-facto leader, Rached Ghannouchi, in November 2011. Tunisia’s educated population and solid infrastructure could benefit from greater trade with its neighbors, though it is unclear that it could have any role in unlocking the stalemate between Algeria and Morocco. Regardless, as noted, Marzouki will visit three countries in the region this week.

The move attempts to show Marzouki as a statesman, as well as project Tunisia’s power in the region. Tunisia may hope to benefit from popular goodwill among Maghreb populations as a way to kick start its diplomacy.

On the domestic front, Marzouki’s move will show that despite Tunisia’s newly important relationship with countries like Qatar, regional ties remain important.

3) Proximity matters – or does it? – Arab Spring version

It’s safe to say that Tunisia, unlike other countries in the region, has not been transfixed with the Arab Spring. While Tunisians feel (justifiably) proud of their role in kickstarting the Arab revolutions of 2011/2012, other uprisings have not galvanized the Tunisian population. There are two reasons for this relative ambivalence:

1) Tunisia, if you haven’t noticed, has been dealing with its own issues. From the economic crisis to the elections to the constant protests and sitins, Tunisia has been getting its house in order. It has hardly had time to focus on Egypt, let alone countries like Bahrain or Yemen.

2) The violence, anarchy, and destruction that has characterized other Arab revolutions was virtually absent in Tunisia. Despite a period of several months when there were virtually no police on the streets, Tunisian society stayed together. Unlike Americans or Europeans (or Gulf Arabs) I speak with, Tunisians I know do not identify their country with these other uprisings.

One departure from this relative ambivalence to the Arab Spring, has been the Syrian uprising. The recall of Tunisia’s ambassador to Syria on Saturday caused an uproar among Tunisian opposition parties and has sparked protests on the internet. As in many other parts of the Arab world, views on Syria are divided. Many see the uprising as a conspiracy by Qatar and its Western allies to bring war back to the Middle East. Others see the bloodletting as symptomatic of the same kind of Arab dictator Tunisia deposed just one year ago.

The debate over Syria, however, is much more domestic than it is geopolitical. Opposition parties see an opportunity to confront Ennahdha. They see the government’s actions as a payback to Qatar for supporting Tunisia (and Ennahdha) since the revolution. A common theme among civil society opponents of Ennahdha is to claim that Tunisia went from being subservient to France under Ben Ali to being subservient to Qatar under Ennahdha. This plays into widespread anxieties in Tunisia over foreign interference into their sovereignty (a common theme throughout the Arab world).

4) Europe can only be ignored for so long

Tunisian relations with Europe have been frayed since the January uprising. Ben Ali’s close relations with Europe, particularly France, have caused Tunisians of all political stripes to question its “special” relationship with its former colonial ruler. In the meantime, Tunisians are frustrated by what they consider to be increased Islamaphobia in Europe. Even among Francophone Tunisians, recent comments by French officials regarding civilizations that are not worth anything have caused an uproar, as a perceived slight against Islamic/Arab culture.

Nonetheless, critical issues tie Tunisia with Europe – immigration and trade. Tunisia exports close to 70 percent of its products to Europe. Europe invests heavily in Tunisia, with over 3,000 French companies alone operating in Tunisia. Additionally, Algerian gaz reaches Italy through a pipeline that links Tunisia’s Cap Bon peninsula with Sicily.

Although Europeans are often seen placing greater importance on the issue of Tunisian (part of a wider trend in North Africa) immigration to Europe, Tunisians as well have long relied on Europe as a destination for higher studies or short periods of training.

Despite these links, post-Ben Ali Tunisia has drifted further and further from Europe. This estrangement is based partly on European support for Ben Ali, but also on Ennahdha leaders disdain for the French. As Tunisia’s debate over language shows, there is a strong trend in the country to look away from Europe. While this may be part of Ennahdha’s long-term plan, in the short-term, this is simply unrealistic. In the past year, Tunisia has been promised billions of dollars in aid from the World Bank, joined the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and signed onto multi-million dollar deals with European investors.

It may take some time, and learning on both sides of the Mediterranean, but economic ties will continue to bind Tunisia to its northern neighbors.

…..and finally…..

5) The Gulf doesn’t matter

Despite the constant refrain that Qatar and other countries in the Persian Gulf will dominate Tunisian foreign policy, little evidence suggests that Tunisia’s foreign policy posture will change dramatically. As Tunisia Live reported, the visit of Qatar’s emir to Tunisia to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Tunisia’s uprising caused an uproar in some circles in Tunisia. And, it is undoubtedly true that Qatar has played up its image as a supporter of Arab revolutions. However, there is little proof that beyond support in international arenas (such as the Arab League or the UN) Qatari support will change Tunisia’s foreign policy outlook.

Gulf support was seen by some as critical to Ennahdha’s organization and ultimate victory in the October elections. Ennahdha leaders have called for greater investment from the Gulf in Tunisia – including Islamic tourism. This is unlikely to amount to much. Oil rich countries will undoubtedly look at investment opportunities in Tunisia. Reports that Qatar will help Tunisia float its currency surfaced late last year. Nonetheless, Tunisia’s strategic position on the Mediterranean makes it unlikely that Gulf investment could supplant European investment in the country.

Some observers see the Gulf as an exporter of culture. Many see the rise of Salafism in Tunisia as an import from the Gulf. While it’s true that Tunisians may be influenced by Gulf-based conservative television stations, Salafism in Tunisia grew up in as much in the jails of Ben Ali’s prisons as it has in any petro-state. That said, there is an undeniable strain in Tunisian society that look much more toward Saudi Arabia than to its Mediterranean neighbors. That, however, is an abstraction at this point. The reality is that Tunisian culture is as close to Qatari culture as Russian culture is to Portuguese culture.

It is possible that over time Tunisia will orient itself eastwards, but this will take time and significant exogenous changes (such as a major collapse of the European economy). In other words, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Can nepotism bring down Ghannouchi?

Charges of nepotism have swirled around Rached Ghannouchi, the de-facto leader of Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahdha. In the weeks since forming a new government, Ghannouchi has shrugged off charges that he is promoting his family members. However, unlike other charges that Ennahdha opponents have hurled at Ghannouchi, these charges might stick – and they could become very destructive to Ghannouchi and his party.

There are three cases of nepotism that have been widely reported on. The first, and most serious, is the inclusion of Ghannouchi’s son-in-law, Rafik Abdessalem, in the new government – in the important position of Minister of Foreign Affairs. Abdessalem, while well-learned and far from a new comer in Ennahdha’s ranks, also has been criticized as having come into his position after a stint at Qatari television station Aljazeera. This latter fact plays into Tunisian fears of foreign interference into their revolution. His nomination was controversial at the time and remains a point of contention for Ennahdha opponents. More importantly, it is a difficult charge for Ennahdha backers to defend against.

A second case, much more trivial, was the recent story about Ghannouchi’s son being part of the official Tunisia delegation to the World Economic Forum summit in Davos last month. Tunisia Live reported that his son “accompanied him reportedly for logistic needs, translation, and secretarial purposes.” But it was nonetheless taken to be another strike against Ghannouchi for promoting family over merit.

A third case has been widely reported on in Tunisian (online) media,, even though is has been debiunked. Hyper partisan and anti-Islamist websites reported that Ghannouchi’s brother had obtained the first McDonald’s franchise in the country. McDonald’s holds an interesting place in Tunisian society. Not only is Tunisia one of the few places in the world that doesn’t have McDonald’s but the reason they don’t have it is that in the 1990s Ben Ali’s in-laws had insisted that any franchise be owned by the family. This played into the mafia image of Ben Ali and his associates and remains a strong link to the kind of corruption that has held Tunisia back. The charge against Ghannouchi, however, turned out to be completely false – but it was only debunked after several days of negative criticism.

Charges against Ghannouchi are but some of the examples that have been trotted out against Tunisia’s new leaders. Every nomination to the government has been scrutinized and will continue to be.

These cases show a vulnerability of Tunisia’s Islamist leaders. The charges against Ghannouchi are not particularly serious. The foreign ministry charge is the most blatant – and is something that Western democracies have battled with for centuries (see JFK’s nomination of RFK, or Sarkozy’s appointment of his son). The other charges include a minor offense and an outright falsehood.

However, Ennahdha among all parties, is uniquely vulnerable to charges of corruption. Riding to power on a platform of restoring morality to the government – Ennahdha voters expect the new government to break from the old ways of doing business. As I have previously written about, Ennahdha leaders sometimes come across as amateurs. The fact that the Davos story garnered as much attention as it did is not, as many Ennahdha supporters think, just because there is a media conspiracy against them. Rather, it is because the bar is set so high for Cheikh Ghannouchi.

The irony is that in the kleptocratic society that Ben Ali engendered there were very few clean hands. Those that throw stones at Ennahdha were likely beneficiaries of the same kinds of treatment, whether it was getting into good French-language schools, getting jobs in the government or at media organs, or being able to start a business with a little help from someone up high. However, Ennahdha’s reputation as being clean was one of the major reasons they were supported by 41 percent of the people. Even many that didn’t vote for Ennahdha expected them to refrain from corruption.

As political parties develop further in Tunisia, my guess is that one will see secular leftists toning down the culture war rhetoric (of niqabs and foreign films), and making the debate about good governance and freedom from corruption – charges that unless Ennahdha is more careful – could stick in the next elections.

Ennahdha’s real vulnerability – they’re amateurs

Tunisia’s continuing strikes and sit ins have put the ruling Ennahdha party in an uncomfortable and tenuous position. While the social troubles in Tunisia pale in comparison to those in its fellow reolutionary countries, try telling that to a mother who has to walk her children through a growing mountain of trash on the way to school because of an ongoing dispute between sanitation workers and the local government.

Ennahdha’s reaction has been halting and convoluted – and shown just how much they are new to the process of governing. In a word, they’re amateurs.

The government of Ennahdha has been pressed to put an end to these work stoppages. They know well that governments can rise and fall based on popular revolt and they need to show their ability to run government effectively. The problem is that the very nature of Tunisia’s revolution has made them vulnerable to any action which can be construed to go against the popular wishes of the people.

Thus, when Ennahdha calls for an end to work stoppages, they get slammed from the left – after all, wasn’t one of Ben Ali’s biggest crimes the suppression of wages and the cooption of unions? They also get slammed from the right, which doesn’t object a priori to a law and order party – but remains distrustful of the still un-reformed police.

On top of it, Ennahdha’s right wing has made life difficult for centrists. Last week constituent assembly member Sadok Chorou called for a hard crackdown on protesters, invoking medieval punishments such as crucifixion.  Prior to his recent comments, Chorou was already known as a hardliner who had spent 18 years in jail under Ben Ali, after leading Ennahdha in the early 199os.

While his comments sparked outrage and protest among Tunisia’s left wing, it was Ennahdha’s official reaction that was more telling. According to Magharabia.com:

Lotfi Zitoun, conseiller auprès du Premier ministre Hamadi Jebali, a expliqué quant à lui que les paroles de Chourou ne devaient pas être prises “au sens littéral”.

“Il estime que ces sit-ins font du tort à l’économie”, a-t-il déclaré. “Cet homme a passé plus de vingt ans en prison et a été interdit de parole pendant seize ans en détention solitaire, il a le droit de dire ce qu’il souhaite, bénéficie de l’immunité en tant que membre de l’assemblée constituante, et ne peut être jugé sur ses intentions.”

My translation:

Lotfi Zitoun, adviser to Prime Minister Jebali, explained that Chorou’s comments should not be taken “literally.”

“He thinks that these protesters have hurt the economy,” he stated. “This man spent more than 20 years in prison [sic] and  was forbidden from speaking during 16 years of solitary confinement, he has the right to say what he wants, and with immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament, he cannot be judged based on his intentions.”

According to Businessnews, when asked about Chorou’s comments, Samir Dilou, Ennahdha’s spokesman, stated:

il ne faut pas trop s’y attarder, c’est une affaire morte. M. Ellouze s’est d’ailleurs exprimé au nom de tous les Nahdhaouis à la Constituante pour expliquer que le but de la citation coranique n’est autre que de dénoncer les sit-in et leurs méfaits

My translation:

We shouldn’t dwell on this, it’s over. Mr. Ellouze [Ennahdha representative from Sfax] has already stated in the name of all Ennahdha supporters in the parliament that the goal of citing this Quranic verse is for no other reason that to denounce protesters and their misdeeds.

This is but one example of Ennahdha leaders downplaying comments by more extreme elements in their movement. In the case of the Tunisian television head who is being tried in criminal court for airing the cartoon Persepolis, Ennahdha’s official reaction has been that there should not have been violence against the station or its staff, but that the broadcast was inflammatory. In the case of the ongoing sit-in by niqab wearing students at Manouba university, Ennahdha has refused to take a stand one way or another.

It’s these kinds of statements that make Tunisian secularists label Ennahdha the party of multiple discourses, saying one thing to their hardline constituents while saying another to the general public. This very well may be true. Though it should be noted, political parties often have multiple discourses. In the United States, a democrat running for office in Idaho will have a very different message than a democrat running for office in New York City.

But perhaps there is an alternate explanation altogether: Ennahdha are simply amateurs, too used to being opposition members and never really having to lead or confront hostile audiences.

In many ways, Ennahdha’s situation is like that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As Khalil al-Anani wrote recently in Foreign Policy [hat tip Issander el Amrani at the Arabist]:

Paradoxically, despite the outright majority attained by its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the MB is still thinking and acting as an opposition movement rather than a responsible power-holder. It seems reluctant to take full power over the country or as Nathan Brown aptly puts it, “the MB confronts its success.” Hence the MB’s leaders are grappling with making the shift from long-standing repressed mentalities to those of statesmen…

Time after time, Ennahdha has hedged words and responded re-actively to the problems they have faced. While their platform was extensive, they seem vulnerable to attacks by a small minority of secularists. This in spite of the fact that they still enjoy popular support and that most Tunisians genuinely want the government to succeed.

But Tunisia’s Islamist leaders are afflicted by two distinct problems:

1) the breadth of views among their constituents (they were supported by moderate, urban middle class voters, overseas constituencies, the rural poor, as well as hardline religious zealots). Pary leader Rached Ghannouchi shows the moderate, polished, educated version of Ennahdha, while Chorou represents the wing of Ennahdha that languished for years in Ben Ali’s torture chambers prisons.

2) The contradictory message of Tunisian voters. Tunisians overwhelmingly want a return to the calm and order of Ben Ali. At the same time, Tunisians mistrust their police force and want the right to protest against their employers – many of whom supported Ben Ali’s kleptocracy.

Ennahdha’s amateurism would likely have afflicted any other party – it’s always easier to criticize than to lead. But right now, since the elections, Tunisians expect Ennahdha to lead, not to mince words. Time will tell if Ennahdha gets its voice back.