Political party update 2: Ghannouchi on the U.S, Qatar, and women, Ennahda’s structure, and Ennahda’s conflict with the media

Ennahda’s full structure was released, following its election by the party’s Shura council. TunisieNumerique reports: “It is Hamadi Jebali, secretary general of the movement, Abdelhamid Jelassi, vice president of the party structure, Abdelfattah Mourou, vice president of public affairs, and Rached Ghannouchi, official representative , Laârayedh Ali, deputy Secretary-General.” The complete list is here.

Rafik Abdessalem, Minister of Foreign Affairs, made news this week saying that the current government will remain in power for several years at a meeting held Sunday, August 26, 2012 with members of the local office of Ennahda in Hammam Sousse. Slate reported in remarks to the official news agency, TAP, that he also stated that the Tunisian government was not trying to muzzle the media but to “clean up” and prevent them from becoming “platforms” of the opposition. The government “does not seek to control the media, however, it will not allow certain media to transform themselves into forums of opposition to government action,” he said.

In related comments, Lotfi Zitoun, an advisor to the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, reportedly told a meeting of Ennahda supporters in Mahdia: “that the government is faced with the obstacle of corrupt media who play the role of opposition, forgetting their principal mission to disseminate information.”

Rached Ghannouchi’s interview with Jeune Afrique offers interesting insight into how the leader of Tunisia’s largest party thinks. Some extracts:

The article on the Rights of the Child adopted by the commission on rights and freedoms of the Constituent Assembly gives full powers to the family to educate and care for children. Is this not a disengagement of the state (from this role)?

Nothing replaces the family. The role of government is to ensure that the structure is preserved. There is no question of sacrificing children to improve economic productivity. For children, the family must take responsibility and we must assume this responsibility until the end. The State must also assume its responsibilities by providing education and care for children and sometimes it must intervene. For example, you can not ask a woman who has six children to go to work, she must be given the means to raise them. We ask a lot of women.

Another article (in the constitution) considers woman the complement of man. Is this not  a decline in the rights won by women?

This is a good law. Who can deny that the man and woman complement each other? The woman alone can do nothing, man neither. The man and woman are independent but complementary as the two halves of a bean. There is no incompatibility between gender equality and complementarity. Everyone needs his half to flourish. But women are free and responsible, and they are equal to men. The prayer of a woman is not worth less than a man, they fast in the same way. They are equal under God and the law, the law of God and of men.

Obama’s America has had a sort of “pact” with Islamists in the Arab world, especially to neutralize jihadism?

Each seeks its own interests. The United States, having long been partners with dictatorships, have understood that it was encouraging extremism. They decided to support democratization to combat terrorism. The Islamists were not created by the United States, they are born of our land. America has recognized the need to include moderate Islamists in the democratic process, they came to us and have revised their crusader policy.

Qatar’s role in the Arab Spring and its real intentions are subject to numerous questions. Some have specifically criticized its interference in the Tunisian revolution. What relations does Ennahda have with Doha?

We are economically colonized by Europe, with which we carryout 83% of our trade. This is very far from being the case for Qatar, which has no army or colonial ambitions. However, Qatar has contributed to the revolution through its media support to Al-Jazeera. It is a ​​partner of the Arab Spring. We respect it (Qatar) for it and appreciate its economic support. It supports several large projects, including a refinery at Skhira, the development of a complex sugar, phosphate extraction and a tourist village in Tozeur. What have we to fear from it (Qatar)? But it is not only Qatar, our policy of openness also includes other Gulf countries. To overcome the crisis and save their economies, Europeans and Westerners received direct money from sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf. Are we not closer? Are we not in the same world? They are Muslims and Arabs like us?

What do you think of the refusal of Saudi Arabia to extradite Ben Ali?

All Tunisians want to him see in the dock. We disagree with the position of Saudi Arabia and will not cease to demand Ben Ali via Interpol. He is a criminal.

How can you reconcile the exclusion of former members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD former ruling party) with transitional justice and national reconciliation?

Why did we have a revolution? We oppose the return of the former RCD and its leaders. Ben Ali was not alone. He had the support of an entire system, from coordinating committees to political office. We urge those responsible to come to account, but it is not a general or judicial sanction. Few of them are in prison. It is a sanctions policy under the responsibility of everyone. This is the principle of exclusion.

See political party updates 1 and 3.

Guilty! Tunisian courts convict Persepolis translator

File:Persepolis film.jpg

Today Nessma TV, a Tunisian television station, was found guilty of blasphemy and disturbing the public order for last October’s airing of the French-Iranian film Persepolis. Prosecutors brought lawsuits against the TV owner and other involved in the film’s production and translation into Tunisian dialect.* While both convictions are setbacks for free speech in Tunisia, it is the conviction of the film’s translator and producers that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect.

(For more background on the case, see Masood Hayoun’s article in the Atlantic this week)

The case has played out for over 8 months, beginning with the film’s airing just weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on October 23. Outraged by the film’s brief scene with God, protests ensued immediately after the airing – followed by a lawsuit brought by conservative lawyers. Nessma TV employees were threatened and Karoui’s house was ransacked. The new government, led by Islamist party Ennahdha, condemned the violence against Karoui – as well as the “provocation” caused by the film.

The convictions show failures in Tunisia’s political system on three levels.

Firstly, the fact that the case was a criminal case is a miscarriage. Human rights groups  have pointed out that the prosecutions have been based on Ben Ali era criminal codes which essentially allow the government to prosecute anyone who might be deemed to have done something offensive. These laws were used liberally by the former dictatorship and it is disturbing to see them still being used to silence speech. (see here and here for more background on the criminal aspects of the case)

Secondly, the conviction of the film’s translator is particularly troubling. Supporters of the convictions often use the argument that governments have the right to protect public morality over the airwaves. This is true and is an often used restriction on free speech throughout the world – but that should extend only to the television station itself. The fact that the film’s translator was convicted shows that the prosecution not only wants to restrict diffusion of potentially controversial speech, but to limit its very creation.*

Finally, there is the failure of the government to defend free speech. Each time the government has expressed its opinions about the free speech cases it has been equivocal. “We do not support violence or provocation to violence.” This is unacceptable in a case like this. The government has every right to condemn Nessma. It has every right to condemn the film. It has every right to encourage Tunisians to boycott the film or its supporters.

But it is cowardly to not defend the people who translate art against prosecution; to not call for the end of authoritarian restrictions on speech; and to not differentiate between free speech and provocations.

*This paragraph originally identified Boughnim as the translator based on an outdated article on Tunisia Live. Tunisia Live has subsequently updated their article, stating: “Karoui was fined 2,400 dinars. In addition, Hedi Boughnim, programming director at Nessma TV, and Nedia Jamal, president of the women’s organization that dubbed the movie, were each fined 1,200 dinars.”

Are press freedoms in Tunisia really in the crosshairs? Refuting Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post wasn’t the first to sound the danger alarm – but his op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday was clear, Tunisia is back-sliding on press freedom. The article has been cited numerous times in the last two days as evidence that the Arab Spring, even in Tunisia, is turning cold (see here, here, here, and here).

Unfortunately for Americans, whose news on Tunisia is few and far between, Abrams analysis is inaccurate and prosaic and a miscaracterization of the very important debate Tunisia is having over the judicial system, the media, and basic freedoms.

Abrams says: “Tunisia is everyone’s favorite Arab country nowadays, the one where the Arab Spring started and that has the best chance to “make it” to democracy. So it would be especially disturbing if Tunisia, and its supposedly moderate Islamist government, led by the Ennahda party, went off track…..Yet several prosecutions in Tunisia show that old habits die hard.”

He goes on to highlight two cases as evidence that Tunisia is sliding back into the totalitarian darkness of Ben Ali. The first case involves Nessma TV’s owner Nabil Karoui, who faces criminal charges for disturbing public order and violating sacred values over his station’s airing of the French/Iranian cartoon Persepolis last October. The film depicted God in human form, a sacrilege to most Muslims. (For more background on the case see here and here.)

The second case involves local newspaper publisher Nasreddine Ben Saida. His newspaper, Attounsia, reprinted on its front page a GQ photo of half-Tunisian footballer Sami Khedira with his half-naked wife. Ben Saida also faced criminal charges for his offense, but was let off with a $600 fine.

First of all, Abrams is right – the two cases highlight problems that the country must address if it is to truly be considered to have a free press. Firstly, the fact that both cases were prosecuted under criminal law is deeply disturbing. As Amnesty International observes: “the public prosecutor bypassed a new Press Law which took effect in November 2011, resorting instead to using Article 121 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals.”

But Abrams dismisses Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s agreement with the use of civil penalties for Ben Saida, and his rejection of what he called “Ben Ali era judgments.” Rather, Abrams is skeptical: “Ghannouchi’s finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed.”

Essentially, Abrams is accusing of the ruling party of attacking the press because of one case that, while still ongoing, took place prior to the elections and another case which is essentially the same as existing American laws on public decency (In fact, if one wants to get technical, Abrams worked for the same administration that in 2006 increased fines for media companies accused of public indecency – and the GQ photo is surprisingly similar to the incident that set off a public debate in the States – the infamous Janet Jackson “nip slip”).

There are legitimate concerns about press freedoms in Tunisia. The country has one of the worst track records for press freedom in the world, and the way in which both cases have been prosecuted raise important concerns. Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have all actively both lobbied the Tunisian government and raised awareness of free speech among the citizenry. They have also correctly sounded the alarm bells about reported abuses by the government.

While Tunisians won a victory in the high court last month regarding internet censorship, the fight is far from over. As Reporters Without Borders stated: “This is good news, although we would have preferred that the court had given a final ruling…“We call once again on the Tunisian justice system to reject Internet filtering once and for all on appeal.”

As I have written about previously, Ennahdha is unhappy at the press coverage they have received and have called for greater objectivity by the media. Media advocates are being vigilant because these recent statements, which many have called attacks on the free press. While their vigilence is commendable and necessary, it is also important to point out that parties have every right to criticize the media. In fact, it would be difficult to find a partisan Democrat or Republican who did not question the medias intentions and biases.

After reading Mr. Abrams, I do wonder what his real motivations are – are they to encourage real support for democracy in the region? Or is he trying to undermine the U.S. government efforts in the country?

He states: “the U.S. government has been silent [on these cases]. Tunisian liberals say that the U.S. Embassy in Tunis is unengaged with their efforts to make sure the Tunisian model remains one of expanding freedom. The State Department and the White House have said nothing about these incidents.”

I, for one, am happy the the U.S. State Department is not commenting on the Tunisian nipplegate.

Rather, Secretary Clinton decided to focus her visit last month on what matters: visiting civil society and the country’s youth, meeting its political leaders – oh, and committing $190 million in development assistance. Rather than focusing on Tunisian footballers and their model wives, Clinton was focusing on getting funds dispersed to organizations working to make Tunisian civil rights the model for the region.

Perhaps instead of focusing on GQ, Mr. Abrams could have used the opportunity to salute Tunisians on a week in which two women stood up for all Tunisians against obscurantism. Or to raise awareness that today Tunisians around the world are  marking the anniversary of the death of cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui with Tunisian National Day for Internet Freedom*.

The U.S. can play a positive role in Tunisia. And Mr. Abrams is right about being vigilent with Tunisia’s new government – no one gets a free pass on civil rights. The fight for freedom in Tunisia is far from over. But it takes more than platitudes and misinformation to change a country.

*Mr. Yahyaoui died as a result of ongoing health problems from the torture he suffered as a prisoner in one of Ben Ali’s gulags. He was one of many that died in Tunisia for reporting the truth and his courage inspired a generation of Tunisians to stand up for their rights to information.

Victimization without leadership – a new paradigm

It’s been a busy two weeks in Tunisian politics. In foreign policy, Tunisia hosted the Friends of Syria summit; on the domestic front, crippling strikes set off a wave of recriminations between labor and the government, the government and journalists continued their standoff, and the Constituent Assembly began debate over the role of religion in the new constitution.

A common theme throughout these debates has been the self victimization by political parties .

Take for example the labor unrest. To hear the government say it, recent strikes by the country’s largest trade union are anarchists trying to destabilize the country (according to the foreign minister) or former regime officials trying to destabilize the country (according to the prime minister. The anthem is that the UGTT (the main union) is trying to insert itself into politics – an area it doesn’t belong. The result, according to Ennahdha supporters, is that the country is destabilized and Ennahdha can do nothing to get the economy back on track – the country is being held hostage by these corrupt, rapacious syndicates. It could not be based, as the UGTT says, on the poverty level salaries (less than 2 dollars a day) being offered for labor.

Of course, from Ennahdha’s perspective, the sabotage against their agenda is largely encouraged if not outright supported by the anti-Ennahdha press. According to the Tunisian Interior Minister, the media are largely responsible for the decline in tourism and foreign direct investment. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s president, called on the media to be more objective. To the chagrin of Tunisian journalists, Ghannouchi seems to want the media to be less critical of the government’s work. Quite a sign only one year after the end of a dictatorial regime.

Of course, Ennahdha’s not the only group claiming to be a victim. To hear it from left-wing activists, Ennahdha’s victory (which was illegimitimate) is being supported by the colonial powers, mostly the U.S. and Qatar, who very well may have been behind the so called reovlution to begin with. To many Tunisians, the uprising was merely a short period of action in between being played for pawns by the world’s powers. In other words, they got played – and the country is paying the price.

On both sides, it’s an unfortunate discourse. Victimization, a brother of conspiracy theories, absolves one of responsibilities and makes one an object of one’s circumstances, rather than a subject.

There are signs of hope. Tunisian foreign policy, as Alex Warren points out in a recent article in Foreign Policy, has been increasingly assertive. While the Friends of Syria conference and President Moncef Marzouki’s efforts to revive the Arab Maghreb Union have been derided by many in Tunisia, they do show signs of leadership and a willingness to take risks. So far, however, the winning hand seems to go to the victims.


Too shy? Why Tunisian political parties need new media – and so do voters

Tunisia is witnessing an explosion in media. In the last 3 months there are over 100 new print publications, 12 new radio stations, including 6 in the capital, and authorization of several new television stations. This will have an important and positive impact on elections – giving Tunisians a real choice at the ballot box this October.

The elections, scheduled for October 16, will be the first chance for Tunisians to express their political preferences since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011. Tunisians will elect political parties to be part of a constitutional assembly, a sort of constitutional convention, which will write the new constitution and prepare the country for the election in 2012 of a new government.

In the run up to the elections, a more pluralistic media will have an impact on both political party decision-making and the ability for voters to make real choices.

With so many parties, confusion reigns

Since the fall of the regime, over 100 political parties have been added to the electoral register in Tunisia, creating a perception of freedom of choice, but also adding to the confusion of the post-revolutionary period. The number of parties is a reflection of the diverse views that have emerged over how the country should be governed and by whom. However, the lack of coherent platforms and inadequate political analysis of the various political parties by Tunisian media has made Tunisians more jaded and fearful of the upcoming elections.

The increase in media sources will be an opportunity to change that as candidates and parties will be required to clearly articulate their political platforms and reach out to an increasingly complex and well-informed electorate.

Until recently, post-revolutionary political parties could reach out to a few key media sources in order to disseminate their messages. In fact, the most common way to do this for most parties was to publish a press release that contained their main messages – though not necessarily their platform. State controlled newspapers would generally publish these without comparative analysis or commentary.

A frustrating and alienating experience – they’re all the same

For voters, the lack of political analysis has been frustrating. Without differentiation between party platforms, they all looked the same – and that looked a lot like the former regime. All of them wanted a “better” Tunisia, with economic opportunities for all, especially the young and unemployed, and unity for the country.

Sound familiar? It has to Tunisians. It sounds like the former regime, which stated the same goals for the last 23 years. Upon releasing these statements through the traditional media, their poll numbers didn’t move. Why? Simple, no one could tell them apart.

Exacerbating the problem was that not only did most parties not talk about their platforms; most parties actually had the same platform, with over half of the newly created parties identifying themselves as centrist parties. Meanwhile, with the exception of the Islamist party, Ennahda, there have been no political leaders who have emerged as identifiable, let alone liked by Tunisians, according to recent polls. And even then, in the most recent poll released by 3C, Ennahda only garnered 14 percent support, despite engaging in intense campaign activities over the last two months. The next closest party, the also well financed Parti Démocratique Progressiste, known by its French acronym PDP, received only 5 percent support. With over 100 parties competing, only two parties have over 5 percent support!?

While the traditional media have reported heavily on the political process, the lack of analysis has failed to inform voters about the real differences between parties. This has lead to a marked rise in apathy, witnessed both anecdotally, and in the aforementioned 3C poll, with over two-thirds of Tunisians undecided over which party to support.

Voters need a choice

One of the most discouraging aspects of the recent attention of Ennahda by both domestic and foreign media (a debate that has been focused on the role of Islam in Tunisia), has been that this has diverted attention away from a debate on issues Tunisians fought for this past January

The reasons behind the revolution have been well documented. The combination of poor economic prospects and the greed and theft of the state by the Ben Ali/Trabelsi clan infuriated average Tunisians. Today, Tunisians want economic freedom, jobs, security, and justice. The October elections should be a referendum on what party can give them that choice.

Ennahda has gained momentum in the polls through effective campaigning and clear differentiation from both the old-regime, under which it was banned. As a result, it has been able to build a base of support without clearly articulating positions on how it would address the problems Tunisians have identified. Unless voters get tired of platitudes or scared of the prospect of political Islam, Ennahda can continue to campaign as it has, though it may eventually hit a wall of support. (For further reading, see  Marc Lynch recent look at the politics behind the Ennahda campaign, see also my criticisms.)

Other parties face the very different challenge of establishing name recognition and building support for their platforms. While fringe parties, such as the Communist Party (PCOT) led by Hamma Hammami, have laid out clear ideological platforms, most parties in the center have failed to properly articulate their positions.

The rise in new media outlets creates an opportunity for an ambitious party to raise its profile with voters and articulate its message without the financial backing enjoyed by the PDP or Ennahda, which despite their substantial means lack broad-based support.

Media as a proxy for polling

I’ve written before (here and here) that the lack of issue polling in Tunisia has been a detriment to political analysis of the upcoming elections. In particular, it has opened the door to the debate over secularism that has so captured the attention of the foreign media. The lack of polls and subsequent analysis of voter attitudes has had a harmful impact on Tunisian political parties, who cannot use polls to judge whether their strategies or platforms are resonating with the public.

The rise in a diverse and critical media may create a proxy for issue-based polling that could help Tunisian parties better understand the political landscape and reach out to voters more effectively.

Competition created by the new media outlets, which are generally more outspoken than state controlled media, will be an opportunity for political strategists within political parties to reach out to different constituencies of the Tunisian electorate by expressing how their platform will address the needs of voters.

In a multi-party race with limited financial backing, this is an opportunity for smaller parties to raise their profile with voters and help reinforce grassroots support.

Much like voters around the world, Tunisians are tired of empty rhetoric and fruitless and unfocused debates. Let’s hope that the political parties in Tunisia will use these new media outlets to get out their messages and help shape a more productive political debate.

A note on social media platforms as a means for political debate: I have not written about electronic and/or social media, which has had an important impact on political discourse debate, and will certainly impact the coming elections. This is for two reasons. One, the average Tunisian does not get their information from the internet (only 33 percent do). Two, political parties have not used social media to present or defend their platforms to voters. Rather, one finds mostly user-generated commentary, not comprehensive analysis of political party platforms from the website’s editorial staff.

A note on Islamism and the securlar debate: I have decided not to take on the issue of secularism and the potential changes that could result from the election of Ennahda. This is an important issue, but Tunisians have not identified it as being the most important one. Perhaps the subject of a future post, I leave it aside at this point