Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

File:El Ghriba.jpg

The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.

 

Setting the reset button on Franco-Tunisian relations

Just minutes after French election results were reported, showing that Socialist candidate Francois Hollande had defeated incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Tunisian leaders celebrated the socialist’s victory. Hollande’s victory opens the possibility for improvement in the declining relationship between Tunisia and its number one trading partner.

First the political reactions: Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s president, released a statement less than an hour after Hollande’s victory, saying:

On the occasion of your election to the presidency of the French Republic, I am pleased,on behalf of all the Tunisian people, to give you my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to you and all the French people….We hope your election as head of the French Republic will restore momentum to our two countries with the aim to restore and strengthen their long-term partnership.

Mustapha ben Jaafar, speaker of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and leader of the Ettakatol party, endorsed Hollande as a fellow social democrat:

We are hopeful that the arrival of the Socialists (in France) will give impetus to the historically strong relationships between our two countries….With France, the new democratic Tunisia wants to build a true partnership that respects the values of freedom and human rights, based on a strategy of co-development and shared prosperity. The special relationship of friendship and solidarity forged between Ettakatol and the Socialist Party are an added impetus for relations between France and Tunisia.

As Maghreb Emergent reports, it is not just Tunisia’s elites who are happy about the change – ordinary Tunisians are happy to see a change from a regime that they saw supporting their former dictator:

Compromised by his ties with Arab dictators and his lack of judgment during the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Nicolas Sarkozy has lost the confidence of Arab countries. Anxious to restore the image of France on the international scene, Francois Hollande has surrounded himself with new personalities who will be competent in changing these policies over his coming term.

Implications for Tunisian relations: France’s actions following the uprisings in Tunisia have not been forgotten. French Defense minister Michelle Alliot-Marie’s name continues to be invoked regularly as a symbol of France’s close ties with deposed dictator Ben Ali (she offered Tunisia support to quell the January 2011 uprising).

Ties between the countries have continued to be strained. Tunisia’s Islamist government has made it a priority to reduce study of the French language and to expand relationships beyond the traditional colonial relationship that has endured since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.

Despite these political tensions, commercial ties between the two countries remain important. While Tunisian newspapers report on new agreements with Gulf countries for golf courses or hotels, it is the ~3,000 French companies operating in Tunisia that remain the backbone of Tunisia’s trading partnerships. For more on Tunisia’s international relations, see this article from February 2012)

It is in this context that Hollande’s victory tonight is so important. Hollande has the opportunity now to reset the relationship that had been so fraught between Tunisia’s transitional government and the Sarkozy administration. Most importantly, it opens the door, as Marzouki and Ben Jaafar’s statements show, for Tunisian politicians to engage with France without losing political credibility.

International relationships remain based on complex political interests and it is wishful thinking that Tunisia’s relationship with France will change overnight with a new French administration. The historical relationship between the two countries remains complex. Nevertheless, the cloud that hung over Franco-Tunisian relations since January 2011 may be lifted with Hollande’s victory.

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.”

May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.

Will Egypt’s disfunction spillover to Tunisia? The presidential race raises questions

Despite the obvious parallels between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and the clear effect Tunisia’s successful ouster of Ben Ali inspired Egyptian activists, there has been surprisingly little cross-pollination of democratic ideas between Egypt and Tunisia. But as the Egyptian presidential race heats up and Tunisia enters another dangerous escalation between secularists and Islamists, there is the possibility that Tunisia’s Islamists, long a bastion of moderation among Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties, will adopt Egypt’s more conservative approach. This could have two contradictory effects in Tunisia, both of which could drive further fissures through Tunisia’s increasingly divided political landscape.

Despite the dominate narrative of the Arab Spring – as a collection of uprisings linked by common cause against authoritarianism in the Arab world – Tunisian public debate has been largely insulated from events elsewhere in the Arab world. While Tunisians are aware of and sympathetic toward the other uprisings – especially in Libya and Egypt – there has been little public discussion of the paths toward democracy these countries have taken. Tunisians rightly see their path as a model to follow – rather than the violent and chaotic paths followed by their neighbors.

Tunisia’s separate path has also been due to the much more moderate inclinations of its leaders. After well-run and fair elections, Tunisia’s Islamist party immediately joined hands with secularist counterparts to run the government and write the constitution. Unencumbered by ultra-conservative political parties in the government – such as Salafi parties – the coalition has taken many moderate stances, including the announcement last month that Ennahdha would not endorse inclusion of sharia law in the new constitution.

Ennahdha’s moderation, however, has cost it support both among its more conservative members, many of whom are more influenced by traditional Muslim Brotherhood political ideas (from whence the movement began) and by an increasingly vocal Salafi movement, which while officially excluded from politics, is making itself and its views seen across the country. And despite its moderation on key positions, its inaction against rising extremism and its seeming complicity against very public threats to basic freedoms has made Tunisian secularists skeptical if not openly worried about the future path Ennahdha will take.

It is against this backdrop that events in Egypt could conspire to influence Tunisian politics. The New York Times reported today that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate has taken a much more conservative line:

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

The article goes on to describe how throughout the post-Mubarak period, Egypt’s MB has played a much more moderate game:

The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel.

What effects could a more conservative Egypt have on Tunisia? They are twofold:

Firstly, while Ennahdha is a well-oiled and disciplined political machine, its leadership is widely recognized as lying at the more liberal end of the party’s political spectrum. The debate over sharia was, by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s own confession, widely contested within the party before being decided upon. Ghannouchi’s argument was not a defense of civil institutions, but rather a wish to avoid a controversial debate at a critical time for the country.

If Egypt tilts further to the right, Tunisia’s more conservative Islamists – many trained side-by-side with their Brothers in Egypt – could begin to press for more conservative stances within Ennahdha – testing Ghannouchi’s leadership. Tunisia’s Salafi groups may be further emboldened at pressing for more radical change. At the same time, Ennahdha’s secular partners in the government (CPR and Ettaktol), already under pressure from opposition groups to join them, would be forced to choose between abandoning their partner in government, or going along with a platform much more conservative than they had agreed upon.

Secondly, Tunisia’s secularists (in this case I use the term to describe both secularists in the liberal sense, as well as those from the Bourguiba mold), already anxious about a country run by Islamists, may take bolder actions against the government. Already Tunisian secularists are sounding the alarm bells. At a meeting yesterday, secularists from various parties gathered to voice their extreme concern over events over the weekend which saw Salafi activists disrupt a planned event of a well-known secularist activist and a physical attack on a political figure. The events, troubling in and of themselves, caused even greater alarm by the perceived luke-warm response of the Ennahdha ministers at the justice and interior ministries. The meeting yesterday included calls for the opposition to boycott the Constituent Assembly and to change their tactics from those of opposition movements to “resistance” movements.

Tunisia’s secularist will look with anxiety to an Egypt which has turned further to the right. Coupled with Ennahdha’s moderate rhetoric, secularist alarmism has mostly fallen on deaf ears in Tunisia. Most Tunisians simply do not see their country following the path of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the Algerian civil war – with its complex moral narrative – is already a decade in the past. An Egypt which has turned toward the extreme would provide secularists with a narrative that could be a call to action among secular sympathizers in the country.

Both of these effects would be dangerous for Tunisia. Already polarized, Tunisia’s fragile political system would break down if the CPR and Ettaktol abandoned the government. Neither Ennahdha nor the secularists have enough seats to form a majority government. But even barring this extreme example, political parties will find it increasingly difficult to compromise in an even more polarized political environment. With elections scheduled within a year, the government may find it difficult to write the constitution on time – creating further pressure in the system as the country would face a constitutional crisis and the government (in whatever form it took) would face criticism that it could not act.

Ghorbal: Tunisia ignoring the real problem with the constitution – the courts

Samy Ghorbal, a Tunisian writer and political advisor to the opposition PDP, writes in Slate Afrique this week that while secularists celebrated Ennahdha’s abandonment of inscribing sharia law in the new constitution, they are ignoring the real problem – which is how the constitutional council interprets the constitution.

His argument, which no doubt many of my more conservative readers will take issue with, nonetheless raises the important fact that many essential debates over the shape of Tunisia’s future regime have yet to take place.

Some excerpts, translated by me, below. The whole article, in French, is worth a read.

…The real battle [not that based on Article 1 of the constitution], focusing on the architecture and processes of constitutional review, is just beginning. Because it is the role of a constitutional judge to propose and establish an interpretation of this section [Article 1). It is he who will tell how it should be understood, what it permits and what it prohibits….Everything will depend, ultimately, on the court or the Constitutional Council to be established; the checks and balances within it; and how its members will be appointed.

Tunisia has no tradition of independent constitutional justice. It is starting from zero. Established by presidential decree in 1987, the Constitutional Council, which ceased to exist after the (January 2011) Revolution, when the Constitution was repealed, was complicit in the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Can a constitutional court, which has long indulged in a servile/auxiliary role of the state, fulfill its cultural revolution and become the guarantor of rights and freedoms? Will it be given the means to do so?

These issues are of crucial importance for the future of the young Tunisian democracy. Yet they are strangely absent from public debate, and have found little echo in the Constituent Assembly. Most “modernist” parties were content to generalize about the rule of law and the need to ensure separation of powers in their election manifestos – without going into details.

The proposals unveiled by the Islamists in their program by 365 points, submitted on 14 September 2011, are equally succinct. Yet, to think about it, they leave no worry. Ennahda says it wants to establish a parliamentary form of democracy, “based on the separation of powers and judicial independence.”

In fact, in their system, all power emanates from the parliament, and, in the event a party would have the absolute majority, then all power emanates in reality from the majority party. Institutions would become hostage to one party or faction – starting with the Council or the Constitutional Court, whose president is elected directly by Parliament. There would be every reason to fear that this body is diverted from its intended liberal and turns, simply,as the guardian of the Islamic identity of the state and religious morality.

A Balancing Act: Ennahda’s Struggle with the Salafis

My new article, co-written with Brandeis researcher Aaron Zelin, has been published at the Sada Journal of the Carnegie Endowment. An excerpt:

On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements.

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition.

Read the full article here.

Photo courtesy of Sada Journal.

Can Tunisian Islamism survive without secularism?

Writing in AlJazeera, Northwestern University professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd argues that democratically elected Islamist parties in the Middle East have overturned the secularist/islamist divide.

Yet outside actors should also consider what Middle East Report calls the “pull of the possible”, and reach out to actors, parties and tendencies that refuse to be defined by the political limitations imposed by a secularist versus Islamist frame….

Overcoming the urge to classify actors as secularists or Islamists will take some work. The US failed to see the Egyptian revolution coming in part because it followed the lead of the Mubarak regime and divided the world into two camps: radical Islamist threats to the regime and friends of Mubarak (and the US)….

…If interested parties in the region, the media, or the international community re-instrumentalise the secularist-Islamist divide it could jeopardise the long-awaited transition to democracy in the Middle East and North Africa…

…Democratic voices that are non-secular and non-theocratic exist across the Middle East today, and not only in Tunisia. Now would be a good time to listen to what they have to say.

Dr. Hurd’s point misses the fact that Islamist parties grew up and became popular as opposition movements to secularism. The question is not whether the West can get along with Islamist movements, but whether Islamist movements can define themselves without secularism.

As I wrote last month in Foreign Policy:

Ennahda seems intent on [characterizing] its opponents as extremists. The party aims to project itself as the guarantor of Tunisia’s moderate center, while at the same time pushing the center to the right. Recent statements by Ennahda’s leadership group “fundamentalist” and “extreme” secularists with radical Islamist groups. This is an interesting strategy because it co-opts the language used by the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali that described the government as the guarantor of a certain Tunisian moderation. It also shows opponents of the regime as not only divisive, but also dangerous.

Today, Western governments are meeting with, providing aid to, and supporting the new Islamist led governments in Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. The question may be not whether the West can handle Islamists, but rather whether Islamists can operate without secularists.

Labib is dead, long live labib! The demise of Tunisia’s favorite desert fox

As my loyal readers know, I have been somewhat attached to the Tunisian symbol for the environment, a desert fox, or fennec, known as Labib. The cartoon Labib was created under the regime of Ben Ali to promote environmental causes and statues of him, and his family, are ubiquitous across Tunisia. Dressed in blue jumpsuits and armed with a purse, these long eared animals were long the target of baseball-bat wielding vandals. According to Business News, the demise of Labib is because, according to the ministry of the environment, “Labib’s system has failed”. Nevertheless, the spokesman for the ministry stated that popular support could bring back Tunisia’s desert fox.

Willis from Tunis predicted the event last year in this cartoon: Caption: After the president, the family, and the RCD...whose turn is it next to "degage"? Cat: Me, I know! Me, I know

Graffiti in my neighborhood depicting Tunisia's symbol for the environment, Labib the desert fox, locked up.

Erik with Labib

Erik with Labib, the Tunisian mascot for the Environment