A Second Article for the Fletcher Forum

This column discusses internal factions within Ennahda in light of the fractured nature of the party membership for the 20 years prior to the Revolution. For regular followers of the news in Tunisia, some of its content may appear dated, but I wanted to share regardless:



مقالة جديدة (New Article)


Dear Readers,

Apologies for the radio silence — things have gotten quite busy around here! No time for a full update right now, but I wanted to share my first column for The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, an international affairs journal I have joined as an online correspondent.

This piece touches on some themes discussed in prior posts, but in a 500-700 word format. I hope you enjoy!



جنس، اكاذيب، و شريط الفيديو (Sex, Lies, and Videotape)

The political discourse in Tunis took an increasingly bitter turn this week with the release on Thursday of a videotape allegedly depicting the current Interior Minister, Ali Larayedh, engaging in intimate relations with a fellow male inmate while in state prison in the 1990s. A former Secretary-General of Ennahda, Larayedh was imprisoned for over 15 years for his anti-regime views — 10 of which were spent in solitary confinement.

While the source of the video is unknown, and its low quality makes its authenticity dubious, it seems clear that this is an attempt by detractors of the current regime — likely ex-RCD members (Ben Ali’s party), to discredit and humiliate Larayedh. But instead of having the intended impact, the video has largely been greeted with disgust, as it is a potent reminder of the brutal methods of repression prevalent under the former regime. Despite the taboo nature of the film’s content, many Tunisians are rallying around Larayedh and condemning the release of the tape in the first place. (That said, there were rumors of a satirical gay pride rally in honor of Ennahda being held on Saturday — I don’t think it actually transpired).

Apparently, it was a common tactic for the old regime to try and induce homosexual behavior in political prisoners — whether by bringing young men into the jails, or by the influence of drugs — and videotape it in order to create blackmail that could be used at a future date. In addition, according to a mid-2000s report by the French NGO Ban Public, many political prisoners were purposely cut off from the outside world, deprived of the right to read newspapers, watch television, exercise, and communicate with other prisoners or their families, except on an exceedingly infrequent basis.  Larayedh underwent even more extreme psychological abuse, including death threats by injection of toxic substances and/or the HIV virus, and the abduction, sexual abuse and filming by security forces of his wife, the viewing of which caused him a nervous breakdown. Tunisia Live reports that in an AFP interview, Larayedh testified that, “I almost died several times within the cells of the Ministry of the Interior.”

That this man is now Minister of the very organization that subjected him to such egregious, extended harassment underscores some of the difficulties underlying transition in Tunisia. While RCD leaders have been removed from leadership positions in all government ministries, the rank and file of the bureaucracy and security forces remains largely the same. The latter population is especially key to the national reconciliation process, as they served as the enforcement mechanism of the authoritarian system.

Some cosmetic attempts appear to have been made to rehabilitate the security forces, . Starting this year, police officers will now wear a new uniform, so as to remove mental association with the old regime. There have also been calls for improved training and recruitment, to include human rights education for all security forces. Last March, the interim government announced the disbanding of Ben Ali’s political police, but it remains unclear to what extent this has actually occurred, primarily because the structure and organization of the security sector has always been, and remains, opaque to the broader population. According to a 20-year old student who participated in the demonstrations last year, this means that many Tunisians remain fearful of the police, because for all they know, the traffic operator on the corner could have formerly been one of Ben Ali’s thugs. Given this context, it is not too hard to imagine the culture war that must be going on inside the Ministry of Interior right now — in fact, some suspect the video was released specifically by an internal rival to Laarayedh from within the Ministry itself.

Since the topic of security sector reform is a large component of my research here, I’ve been trying to contextualize these events by reading about lustration and reconciliation processes in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Lustration — literally meaning, “to purify through ritual sacrifice”, refers to the process of weeding out members of the old regime, and their collaborators during a post-revolutionary transfer of power. Countries in transition undertake lustration in order to fulfill the public desire for justice, to ensure the dismantling of authoritarian systems of repression, and to recognize, apologize for, and punish wrongdoings committed under the old system in order to smooth the transition process. This is often accomplished by banning members of the old regime from participating in the new government, asset seizure and redistribution from the old elite, and truth and reconciliation commissions like those seen in South Africa following the end of apartheid.

While the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe may have been equally repressive to that of Ben Ali, it seems that in the former scenario, there existed an innate desire among individual citizens to come clean about their role in the former regime, both in order to understand the system and move forward to the new. In Tunisia, I have seen very little of that sentiment. Going back to the notion of hard-line versus liberal secularism I spoke about in the previous post, most secular elites — many of whom participated to some extent in the old regime — seem to have nothing but scorn for the new government. There is little optimism here, and there does not seem to be any desire to come to terms with prior wrongdoings, except among those who outside the prior ruling class.

This does not bode well for transition.  Perhaps this difference can be partially attributed to the role of Russia, an external player, in perpetuating the Communist system, versus the fully indigenous nature of Ben Ali’s authoritarianism (some Tunisians may argue that the broader support of the old regime by Western powers contributed to his stay in power, but the association is nowhere near as direct). It is easier to admit individual wrongdoings when they were committed in the name of a broader external ideology, practicedat the societal level, which eventually became bankrupt. But there was no equivalent ideology driving the old system in Tunisia; like many autocracies, the old system was designed above all to support the preservation of power by the status quo.

On this topic, a Tunisian friend frankly stated, “there has been no transitional justice in Tunisia since the Revolution.” While the government has taken pains to provide monetary compensation to families who lost lives in the uprising, there seems to have been shockingly little done in the way of actively punishing members of the old regime. An initial 23-year ban on ex-RCD members running for political office was shortened to 10 years last April, but many of the secular parties here, even if their elected officials are not ex-RCD, are known to represent RCD interests. In terms of asset seizure and redistribution, I am not aware of anything significant having occurred, outside of the immediate real estate owned by the party, the fate of which still hangs in the balance. And there has been no institution created to facilitate a national reconciliation process.

Opponents of lustration processes often argue that, especially in developing countries, removing all members of the old regime can create devastating consequences, because it creates a huge gap in technocratic capacity.  From a security perspective, the experience of de-Baathification in Iraq also demonstrated that overly-zealous lustration policies can create massive roadblocks to national consensus. But if lustration is avoided, old grievances will persist, the perception that justice has not been served will be reinforced, and the transition to democracy will become increasingly unlikely. Transitional justice is a process and different countries require different policies to successfully make peace with the past and embrace the new. That said, it seems clear that Tunisia has a long way to go in this regard.

Readers, can anyone share insights from the Eastern European context?

مستقبل العلمانية في تونسية (The Future of Secularism in Tunisia)

An undergraduate research group from Tufts has been in Tunisia for the past several weeks, and last night I accompanied them to a meeting with a steering committee member of Afek Tunis (roughly, “aspiration”), a secular political party formed after the Revolution. Yesterday’s headlines were dominated by the news that Afek, PDP (Progressive Democratic Party), the Tunisian Republican Party, and potentially Tajdeed (a left-wing socialist party) had formed a coalition to combat Ennahda (the leading Islamist party) in the newly-elected legislature.

The party representative was unsurprisingly political: he immediately proclaimed that there was no competence to be found in Ennahda, and that only the secular parties were equipped to govern. He explained that he was compelled to enter into politics after the Revolution, because “we cannot allow another dictator to take power — this is the crucial moment.” Especially if the coalition of secular parties holds, he predicted an Ennahda upset in the next elections. He also asked us not to publish any pictures of him drinking beer, anticipating slander from the Islamists in the press.

After the meeting concluded, one of the undergrads incisively remarked, “I learn more about these parties based on where we meet them and what language they speak in than by what they say.” The Afek Tunis member met us in the Plaza Hotel in La Marsa, a moneyed coastal suburb, and spoke to us only in French. A PDP member had met them in the Sheraton (one of the nicest hotels in Tunis) and spoke only in English. And Ennahda met them in a classroom in an interior, underdeveloped town, and spoke to them in Arabic. My initial impression of the Afek representative (and perhaps broader movement) as being elitist was reaffirmed when he shared what he felt was the party’s biggest struggle: to communicate their message to the masses. Partially, this can be attributed to the fundamental lack of political experience of most of these parties, none of whom have ever participated in elections before. While there were opportunities to participate in the ruling party under Ben Ali (RCD), he admitted to me after pressing him on it that, this wasn’t “real” politics (ie, you didn’t really have to try to campaign well because whatever the ruling party decided would in reality be enforced).

More broadly, however, this observation cuts to an underlying reality of current Tunisia that presents a significant challenge to the democratic transition process. Namely, the lack of national unity and wide disparity in sociocultural orientations and belief structures. Though I think he often oversimplifies things, Tom Friedman’s NYT column touches on this phenomenon, with specific reference to Egypt. As with all Arab Spring uprisings, a key component of the grievances driving what Tunisians consider to be an ongoing revolution are economic. In the Tunisian case, the vast majority of economic development and opportunity occurred in Tunis, on the coast, and the rest of the country — separate from tourist sites — was left to fend for itself (readers will remember that Tunisia’s revolution started with the self-immolation of a 24-year old vegetable seller in the interior town of Sidi Bouzid). The functional impact of this policy is that many Tunisians, for their entire lives, have been living starkly different existences, have not necessarily been part of a shared national community, and as a result, will likely want exceedingly different things when it comes to governance, besides the obvious catchphrases of freedom and democracy.

From a political standpoint, creating this type of social division in order to prevent the emergence of a public consciousness is a frequent tool of authoritarian governance, so in viewing the outcome of Arab Spring revolutions, it is often helpful to look at how the former dictator regulated the public sphere and inter-communal relations in order to understand the challenges of political consolidation. In this regard, I think Tunisia has it much better off than what can be seen in post-regime change Libya and Iraq, for example, where tribalism was purposely kept alive and well by Gaddafi and Saddam, respectively. Disparities aside, Tunisia is still fairly developed and highly educated, and the presence of things like a public transportation system (at least in Tunis) creates a different type of community dynamic from what I experienced in Amman, for example, where people are much more siloed within their immediate family and social networks, and civil society is extremely limited.

At the CSID lecture yesterday, John Esposito highlighted the difference between “liberal secularism” and “hard-line secularism” — an important distinction for analyzing the true democratic quality of new political parties. First, he explained that although the “secularism” term is widely used, people often mean different things by it. For example, the European conception of laicite suggests a secularism wherein expression of any faith in the public sphere is strictly condemned. This is traditionally, “the type of secularism that the US has been ok with in the Middle East,” such as in Turkey prior to the rise of the AKP party. This stands in contrast to liberal secularism, as seen in the US, where there is a general tolerance towards the pursuit and expression of any faith (or none at all) by citizens in both the public and private sphere, framed by an overarching belief in the separation of church and state.

Given the all-out repression of Islamic observance under the Ben Ali regime (see anecdote in prior post for an example), can we really support the mission of current secular parties if they believe in hard-line, and not liberal, secularism? I do not know definitively if Afek espouses a hard-line brand of secularism, but am merely raising the question. Afek recognizes that their core ideology does not resonate with a large number of Tunisians — the representative acknowledged that some accommodation needs to occur because, “we have to accept the facts on the ground.” Whether or not they will be able, and more importantly, willing to do that if they do in fact regain majority control of the government in the future, is the key question. To some extent, this is ironic in that the majority of the discourse in US foreign policy and academic circles lately seems to center around the idea that elections will moderate the Islamists. Clearly, the notion of moderation through democratic politics applies to both sides of the aisle.

Since the Revolution, the international media is frequently awash with news stories on Tunisia that highlight displays of “extremist” Islamic sentiment (the jist of the story inevitably asking, does this represent Ennahda’s true colors? Are the rights of secular Tunisians being trampled by the new Islamists in power? Is this 1979 Iran part II?). Two that come to mind are a protest and property damage done to a TV station that aired Persepolis, a movie depicting God in physical form and otherwise insulting to Islamic beliefs), and a series of armed sit-ins at Tunisian universities whereby Salafists have attempted to force the right of women in niqab to enroll at Tunisian universities, long forbidden under Ben Ali (neither incident resulted in any serious physical harm, to my knowledge). To be sure, it is no less correct for the religious to use violence against secularists to assert their beliefs than it is for secularists to use violence to suppress the religious practices of Muslims. For now, however, I (tentatively) see these incidents more as an assertion of the right of Muslims to practice as they believe, as opposed to an attempt to enforce their beliefs on the Tunisian body politic as a whole. These actions are largely a response to decades of top-down, hard-line, and not liberal, secularism.

In the view of a Tunisian friend of mine here, most incidences of citizens attempting to enforce their beliefs on others (I am not aware of any directly, but heard someone make a reference to a Tunisian man telling a Tunisian women she should be wearing a veil) can be understood as a result of a sense of individual empowerment after the victory of Ennahda on the part of citizens whose views were previously violently suppressed by the state. One of Ennahda’s biggest tasks, he explained, is now to educate its followers.

Some initial food for thought on a topic that surely cannot be covered in one post…I look forward to everyone’s comments.

البداية (The Beginning)

It’s been two weeks since I arrived in Tunisia, flying south from Europe over the Mediterranean Sea to the North African coast. Today marks the one-year anniversary of Former President Ben Ali’s departure to Saudi Arabia, captured in explicit detail in this recent Al Arabiya piece (hat tip to Ravi Kaneriya).

Aside from overcoming massive jet lag, adjusting to 5 hours of Arabic class every day, and generally getting a handle on my new surroundings, I’ve had difficulty putting my initial thoughts down on paper. As many readers of this blog know, my fellowship was initially intended for Damascus, a plan that never came to fruition due to the ongoing uprising within Syria. With the hopes of broadening my country experience (ruling out Jordan & Egypt) not wishing to go to the Gulf, and fairly limited options given the broader regional instability (ruling out Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, etc), Tunisia seemed like the next best option. I partially raise this to affirm that, in no way should I be considered an expert on Tunisia — not just the in-country experience, but the history, culture, and current political dynamics — are all new to me, never before having been covered in any of my previous academic or professional experience. Like many Westerners, Tunisia first appeared on my radar when it launched the first revolution of the Arab Spring. I’m hoping to figure it all out simultaneously as I go along.

When I told people I was going to study Arabic in Tunisia, many looked at me strangely, saying, “but everyone speaks French there!” After serving as a semi-autonomous state of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia became a French colony in 1881, and gained independence in 1956. However, unlike the experience of many other newly liberated states, Tunisians never fully disavowed the cultural practices or language of its former rulers, largely due to the pro-European attitude of its long-time President, Habib Bourguiba. The impact of this approach is strikingly apparent in contemporary Tunisia, and has made me second-guess my preconceived notions of “Arab culture” formed in Jordan and Egypt. Tunisia is exceedingly different from Jordan, for example (this will be a recurring comparison), in food, and gender relations, to name a few categories. What many Americans perceive as “Middle Eastern Food” (myself included) is in fact Lebanese food – many of the staples I came to know and love in Jordan (hummus, labneh, pita bread, tabouli, eggplant dip, you name it) are simply not eaten or available here. There is a very sad corner of my local grocery stores where a few bags of stale, crusty  حبز لبناني (Lebanese bread) — can be found. (More on this later – adjusting to the food has been extremely challenging, with the general flavor palate for all meals consisting of a mix of canned tuna, cheese, white bread, olives, and harissa – an extremely spicy red chili/garlic paste). In the French style, Tunisians eat baguette and many of the cafes on the main downtown thoroughfare don’t even have shisha (flavored water pipes) – something unimaginable in Egypt! (Heck, they even call them brasseries). Tunisians learn French starting in primary school, and the local colloquial dialect is a mix of Arabic and French, although Arabic predominates. Even though the local dialect is beyond my grasp at the moment, this mixture has made it extremely easy for me to communicate from the outset, as I can always refer to a word in French if I don’t know it in Arabic.

Again, I am cognizant that my lack of knowledge of Tunisia prior to the January 14th Revolution presents a significant challenge to my analysis of the current situation. For example, after hearing how “European” the country was, upon driving back from the airport on New Year’s Eve, my initial impression was that, with some obvious variation in landscape, it did not seem all that different from Jordan. My driver spoke Arabic, the radio broadcast was in Arabic, and at least half the women I saw were wearing some form of Islamic veil (though certainly more hijabs than niqabs or burqas). Only later did I come to understand that prior to January 14th, 2011, wearing any kind of Islamic veil was illegal, as was growing a beard for men (a sign of piety in Islam). In one example of the repression of personal practices that previously existed under the Ben Ali regime, an American who studied here in 2008 told me that the 20-year old son in her host family was often harassed and followed by the security forces because he frequently tried to attend the morning prayer. His mother only prevented his arrest by putting a picture of Ben Ali on the front door of the family home, and minimizing his excursions to the mosque to a handful of times per week. The very issues that frequently cause firestorms in the Western media when European countries try to enforce bans on the hijab, for example, were in fact fully outlawed in an Arab country for decades! It is in moments like these that I begin to realize how much the country has changed since the Revolution.

A fellow classmate from The Fletcher School has been in town for the past few weeks conducting research on a business proposal for a $100K Business Plan Competition back in Boston. Given the lackluster state of public transportation in many developing countries (though Tunisia is fairly impressive in this category) and frequent sexual harassment of women in public spaces, their initial idea was to create a family-oriented bus service for women and children, in order to provide a cheaper alternative to taxis. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that in their meetings with local citizens, many of them self-proclaimed feminists, this idea was widely condemned, with many Tunisian women refusing to accept the perpetuation of gender segregation. They also found that the idea did not enjoy wide support from the new government, notably led by an Islamist party, who clearly does not want to be perceived as forcing Islamic values down the throat of its citizens. Separately, the subject of belly dancing came up over the last week in a discussion with a Tunisian friend, who explained that it currently was not present in Tunisia — not because it had been condemned as immoral by a religious authority, but because many women felt it degrading to them (this is not Jordan!) From a purely aesthetic standpoint, a significant portion of Tunisian women dress in the European style, wearing tightly fitting clothing that would not seem out of place on the streets of any Western city (heeled boots, sweater dresses, skinny jeans, leather jackets, etc). While most skin is nonetheless covered due to the chilly weather here (40s at night and 50-62 during the day, with wind), I’ll be interested to see what the wardrobes look like in the spring and summer.

Much more to come later, but for now I need to get in a work-out prior to attending a lecture downtown with Georgetown Professor John Esposito at the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy…..