Early Perspectives on the Mali Crisis from a Jihadist Forum (I)

SUMMARY: The following is an excerpt from a longer write up from summer 2012; it comes from the same write up as the post ‘Creative Responses to the Rebellion in Mali: A Look at the Forum Poetry‘ (06 July 2012). This post is one of two; a second excerpt will be posted in the future. The longer paper surveys posts dealing with the Mali criss on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Arabic forum, a top tier jihadist Internet forum. The focus is mostly on user-produced content — essays, columns and debates, as opposed to content posted by the Islamist groups in northern Mali (AQIM, Ansar Ed-Dine, MUJWA, etc.) or their media groups. It describes posts on the Ansar al-Mujahideen forum from January through early August 2012 by summarising and analysing three general categories of user/member-generated content (essays, articles, discussion threads, etc.):

  • News and Analysis of Northern Mali and Its Jihadis
  • Northern Mali and Jihadi Strategy in Africa
  • Creative Responses

This post addresses several threads representative of key narratives emerging among jihadist forum users regarding the conflict there. Generally, forum members view events in northern Mali as reinforcement for their existing political and religious views. Posters appear to percieve events in the region — from the arrival of Islamist armed groups in Timbuktu and Gao to corporal punishment for violations of shari’ah – as evidence of an unbridled ‘awakening’ to jihadism in west Africa in an international context. Some debate over the origins and legitimacy of the Islamist groups in northern Mali does take place, largely due to a lack of propaganda material released through conventional jihadist Internet media outlets; late in the summer of 2012 this began to change, as both MUJWA and Ansar Ed-Dine began posting more content to the jihadist forums in the form of videos and newsletters. Continue reading

Some Things We May Think About MUJWA

SUMMARY: This post is a general description of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA, also known by the English acronym MOJWA and the French MOJAO)[1], following on previous posts on the group’s origins and activities in northern Mali. It discusses the group’s origins, activities, leadership and relationships with other armed groups in northern Mali, including Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar Ed-Dine and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It also points to recent analyses of the group’s origins. Unlike previous posts on this blog dealing with MUJWA, which deal with competing explanations for the group’s origin it is preoccupied with its activities and recent comments by its leaders. Among the strongest formal descriptions of the group in English (such as they exist) comes from Dario Christiani for the Jamestown Foundation, published in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 10, Issue 7 (6 April 2012). Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali has dealt with the emergence of the group in overviews of the Islamist armed groups for al-Jazeera, first in Arabic and now in English (PDF). Though relatively little is known about MUJWA with certainty and any analysis of the group must cautious to stress this, more information has become available with time and certain observations and even claims can be about the group. Continue reading

Links and Reports on Mauritania Islamism and Security

In the last couple of months the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put out two reports on Mauritania:

Both are substantial and worth reading, even if one quibbles with specific parts of either. Both will be added to the next iteration of the Mauritania Bibliography.

The Algerian newspaper El Watan also recently published several articles on the Salafist trend in Mauritania, including a brief interview with Nouakchott Info journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali (whose long article on the situation in northern Mali was discussed here).

Magharebia also has an article on a meeting of shaykhs at Aleg last month on the role of mahadhras (religious schools; these are discussed at some length in the Boukhars report, and should be looked at in ) in promoting moderation, sponsored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Mauritanian Association of Religious Scholars.
A post on this blog on President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz is forthcoming, going back to the broader domestic politics in the country and his handling of foreign affairs and crisis situations, which will hopefully be relevant as far as current events in the country are concerned, the protest, democracy and labour movements especially. Stay tuned.

Zelin on Maaroufi

The Salafi and Salafi-jihadi trends in Tunisia will be of increasing interest, especially as en-Nahdhah moderates its positions in hopes of governing together with secular and left-wing parties. The party’s moves to the center open space for more conservative and more “radical” elements to rally supporters in the name of a more pure Islamist cause. As was seen after the incidents at Bir Ben Khalifa and Sfax (and in Jendouba) earlier this year where Salafis clashed with local authorities and some were arrested suggest Tunisia’s Salafi trend, more or less peaceful if pushy, does still contain important confrontational and violent elements. Groups like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) have been covered well by Aaron Zelin on his blog and recently on Tunisia Live. AST is active on jihadist forums and identifies itself with jihadist causes explicitly on Facebook and elsewhere, and its leadership includes experienced jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and are well connected with militant networks in North Africa and Europe. His latest profile is of Tarek Maaroufi who recently returned to Tunisia from Belgium, after spending time in prison there for his role in the Brussels Cell. Maaroufi was involved in the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) and spent time in Afghanistan. Zelin writes:

The main modus operandi of Maaroufi’s “Brussels cell” was facilitating document forgery and recruiting individuals to fight abroad. As such, based on Maaroufi’s background, one could surmise that he may be attempting to tap into the swell of Tunisian Salafi youth that are outraged by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of their Sunni brethren. Such speculation could be bolstered by Abu Ayyad’s remark in an interview with As-Sabah last week that “we have a large group of young people who want to go out to jihad in Syria.” Based on past relations between Abu Ayyad and Maaroufi, and the fact that Abu Ayyad leads AST, it is possible that Maaroufi may be recruiting individuals to go fight in Syria—or that he may end up doing so if he remains in Tunisia. During the height of the Iraq war, Tunisia was a key staging area where fighters from Europe and North Africans West of Libya would go prior to making their trip to Syria and then later into Iraq. These networks may be re-established for the jihad in Syria, and Maaroufi could ultimately play a role in their regeneration.

The flow of fighters into Syria could be a future issue for Tunisia. Unlike many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia was unaffected by major violence following the Soviet jihad of the 1980s following the return of foreign fighters. One of the main reasons for this was a lack of promotion on the part of the former Tunisian regime to send unwanted individuals abroad. Though the current government is not promoting jihad abroad, the access to information through the internet has changed the game. There are already reports of Lebanese, Palestinians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Europeans joining the Syrian jihad. The last thing Tunisia needs though is a group of hardened fighters returning in a few years while the country is still transitioning to a better future leading to potential instability, especially if the economy continues to sputter. This is why although Maaroufi may only be in Tunisia for ten days, more should be paying attention, or at least determining his true intentions.

Zelin mentions Libyans showing up in Syria; these reports have been somewhat murky but there is no secret about militia leaders in Libya encouraging men to head to Syria or arms from Libya reaching the Syrian rebel fighters. And there appears to be official tolerance for whatever flow of men and guns may be moving to Syria from Libya (as well as overt support for the Syrian National Council from Tripoli, diplomatically, financially and in humanitarian terms). Imam Shaykh ‘Aymad Drissi was reported to have confirmed that fighters from Benghazi had gone to fight the As’ad regime in Syria, while saying jihad in Syria was incumbent on all Muslims and calling on Libyans to support the fight in Syria financially, morally or through pray and praised Libyans electing to take up arms there. At present these are relatively minor variables, but nonetheless worth watching as things change in the region, and outside actors (in the Gulf especially, but elsewhere too) push for the continued militarisation of the Syrian crisis. It is of course also important to be wary of exaggerated and false claims by the Syrian regime and its supporters about hordes of Libyan and Jordanian Salafites massing at the country’s borders, poised to wage an epic jihad against the Damascus government, designed or deceive internal and external opinion of Syria’s rebels — and there are no shortage of such reports in Arabic coming out in the last few months.

Re: The MSP & Leaving the Coalition

Boosted by the success of peers in the region, a leading Algerian Islamist party plans to leave the ruling coalition before April’s parliamentary election to press for constitutional reforms to limit the powers of the president.

“We are for a parliamentary system, not a presidential system as is the case now, and we will campaign to change the constitution,” Bouguera Soltani, leader of the Islamist Movement for Society of Peace, told Reuters in an interview. “The final decision belongs to the shura (advisory council) which should take it by the end of this month. Personally I am with those who support the idea to leave the government and the majority is with me,” he said.

The MSP’s withdrawal from the coalition would not strip the government of its majority but the party has a big following among conservative Algerians – a large part of the population.

[. . .]

Islamist parties have done well in elections this year after uprisings which overthrew leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “The circumstances that have seen the birth of the government coalition in 2002 are over. We need to find new ways to do politics,” Soltani said.

Algerian Islamists set to quit government and push for reform,’ Reuters 27 December, 2011.

Some quick, disorganised thoughts on these public musings by the head of the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the 2012 parliamentary election and the evolving political climate in Algeria.

The MSP sees activity as an opposition party as more profitable than its formal association with the government/regime. The MSP is the largest legal Islamsit party in Algeria. The party’s internal struggles over Soltani’s leadership style and over the party’s role in the ruling coalition have been important in that the party lost seats in parliament as a result (because a group of MPs decided to split off from the party), and that they have called Soltani’s credibility as a leader into question in the last four years or so in particular. Soltani has become less popular with the RND and segments of the FLN in recent years, especially because he has had a tendency to criticise at inopportune times and because members of his party have disagreed with the other coalition parties during votes. In one incident in 2006 Soltani claimed to have dossiers on government corruption, which caused President Bouteflika to publicly rebuke him (the dossiers were not released, but a few years later some of the MSP ministers and their entourages were faced with threats of corruption investigations; Soltani himself has been accused of shady deals with Chinese firms when he was at the Ministry for Fisheries). Some members in parliament have wanted the MSP to have amore independent line than Soltani looked able to to maintain. Others felt the MSP’s views were drowned out by the much larger FLN and RND in policy discussions. That he is now talking to the press about leaving the coalition (for at least the second time with a major media outlet) suggests the MSP is more likely to actually make the split and that it will try to present itself as magnet for religious voters who will give it weight and negotiating power with the FLN and RND. And this kind of move could energise the party’s cadres and rally some support around Soltani. Soltani has said the government is not serious about reform and the coalition and other participatory Islamist parties have come out to point out their dissatisfaction with the last decade in politics, including Abdallah Djaballah (whose situation was written about in this space recently). These formal Islamist parties look to be trying to take the initiative in forming a new political context in a period when the dominant feeling is that reforms are needed and uncertainty and suspicion make it hard to point to credible or viable political leaders or trends as real alternatives. It is perhaps not unreasonable for the party calculate that the Islamist line will be a potent alternative, though the ‘freshness’ of the existing Islamist parties, especially in the MSP, is lacking and they will need to do work to distance themselves from almost a decade of as part of the system. Other parties like Djaballah’s can rely on their more distinctive conservatism and time in the opposition. It is unlikely Algerians will vote for Islamists simply for the sake of voting for Islamists and the fact that the FLN and RND both have considerable resources at the disposal of their party machines both as a function of their incumbency and patronage networks means they can offer and provide local notables and business elites benefits the Islamist parties can only promise. 2011 saw much discontent in Algeria but it remains unclear whether the Islamist tendencies can break the wall of voter apathy and necessarily capitalise on the current climate.

The move also points to the general disillusionment felt by the major legal Islamist parties, whose experience participating in the post-civil war regime has strengthened the regime more than the Islamist trend. While these parties have gain relevance and access to resources they would not otherwise have if the FIS were legal, their involvement in formal politics have kept the religious movements divided and competing with one another in a context of FLN/RND hegemony. The presidential system has the president forming governments and appointing a full third of the upper house of parliament (the Senate); the MSP seems to be calculating that a structural reform allowing parliament to form the government or to have an expanded role in that process could be among the government’s planned reforms (which is unlikely) or that it would able to negotiate such a reform if it won enough seats in the lower house on its own or in cooperation with some other Islamist party or parties. Voter turnout has been low in most elections since 1997 and in 2007 and 2002 saw boycotts by important parties, often secular parties. An enthusiastic Islamist constituency could capitalise on a lack of popular participation if it can be mustered by the parties and their informal leaders, which Djaballah has said he anticipates. Much of this depends on the electoral strategy of the FLN, RND and the non-Islamist opposition parties like the leftist Workers Party (PT) and Front of Socialist Forces (FFS) and right wing secular party the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD). If the FFS runs (it boycotted in 2007) it would likely take a significant part of the vote and pull votes from the RCD and PT currently the largest secular opposition parties in parliament. The MSP does not seem to anticipate the electoral law will be changed to allow the FIS to run, although the government approving a number of smaller Islamist parties as means of dividing the Islamist trend and diluting its performance relative to the historic mass parties and secular opposition parties is not inconceivable. A factor to watch is whether the remaining coalition parties look to pick up another partner party in the event the MSP does leave the coalition, and how the MSP leaving would impact voting and amendments to reforms going through parliament in the interval between a departure and the elections. Times change and the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood believes it is preparing to move to better political footing as the regional climate changes and the Algerian scene movs into a period where its past arrangements are perhaps less sustainable, especially as President Bouteflika’s era beings to fade. (Keep in mind these parties’ prominence and activity in formal politics very much depended on Bouteflika’s need for them in building the reconciliation narrative and a political segment to help dilute the power of the deep state in formal politics, so they are very much a product of Bouteflika’s rise to power as the general rise in Islamist politics over the last thirty years.) A French-language report on the this development can be seen at DNA, with some background on Soltani’s recent career and background as an imam and state minister and his corruption problems. Readers can search for a number of posts on the MSP and Soltani on this blog as well.

And the World Turns

Continuing on the theme from the last post — speculation and anticipation about the Algerian regime’s posture ahead of the 2012 legislative election — are a two articles taken from recent headlines; one which comes from an interview with Chafik Mesbah (a former Algerian intelligence (DRS) officer and political scientist), dealing with issues similar to the Le Soir article discussed previously and another comes from El Khabar and includes the latest in Abdallah Djaballah’s and Louisa Hanoune’s tit-for-tat on the Islamist tendency in Algeria. Continue reading

The Way Forward: Schmes & Speculation

There are many rumours and whispers about what will happen in Algeria’s election next year; how the parliament will look, what parties will be allowed to run and which will not, which will perform well and which will not. The Islamist trend is generally assumed to do well, given regional trends, popular sentiments and the government’s effort to put on a show of piety which some say means even they know or believe Islamists inside Algeria may hope to turn out to do what other have in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. A ‘well informed source’ (government) told the Francophone daily Le Soir D’Algerie about the Algerian government’s supposed strategy for managing the Islamist trend in the upcoming legislative election in either February or March 2012. The article outlines the regime’s perception of the situation generally, lays out how it sees the main Islamist trends emerging and their relationships to one another and to the regional Islamist trend in eastern Algeria and to the ex-FIS cadres and then drops some names from the ‘revolutionary family’ the article’s source says will appear in the campaign in 2012 as part of the Algerian regime’s effort to balance and control Islamist parties and trends. It also includes a reference to the possibility of the FFS participating in the election (it boycotted in 2007). In any case on is curious to find out why other reasonably prominent parties like Moussa Touati’s Algerian National Front (FNA) and  so on are not mentioned in the grand scheme Le Soir lays out. This is of course but one report.  The is an interesting piece in looking at the Algerian scene as some see it and should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. This blogger’s comments are interspersed in the text of the summary below.  Continue reading

One Kind of Response to Islamist Victories in the Maghreb

Abdallah Djaballah’s comments on the prospects for Algerian Islamists in next year’s parliamentary election have met a mixed response in Algeria. Some interesting comments in in response come from  Louisa Hanoune, head of the Workers Party (PT), a Trotskyist outfit and one of the major non-Islamist formal opposition parties. The PT has more seats in parliament than any other opposition party — unless the one of the parties in the presidential alliance (the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Democratic Rally (RND) and the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP)) decides to leave governing coalition. To recap Djaballah told reporters he believed the Islamist trend in Algeria would certainly out perform competitors in the 2012 legislative elections if they were free and fair. Boudjerra Soltani, head of the Algerian Muslim Brotherhood (Movement for a Society of Peace) also made comments projecting favourable Islamist performance next year (in August he said ‘What is happening in the Arab world shows that the people want to be ruled by Islamists,’ and floated the idea of Islamist parties joining forces in the 2012 parliamentary election). Both based their comments in part on the strong showings of religious parties in the Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan elections and made their comments in the context of the Arab uprisings (or Arab Spring). Both come from Islamist parties and trends that were not historically alined with the Islamic Salvation Front that won Algeria’s storied 1991 elections. The MSP has been a part of Algeria’s three party ruling coalition since 2003.  Continue reading

Nasira and Comparing Islamists

Hani Nasira describes the roles of Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists in those countries’ uprisings and transitions. Salafists have a considerably stronger presence in Egypt — where they formed parties and performed exceptionally well in recent election — than in Tunisia. Both parties have been forced to cooperate with other parties and factions, some of them non-Islamist. En-Nahdha in particular entered a coalition with left-wing and secular parties in that country’s constituent assembly. What Nasira does not describe, perhaps for reasons of space or something else, is how the Tunisian and Egyptian socio-political contexts differ and how this contributes to producing rather different Islamist scenes and behavior in relation to both Islamist and non-Islamist elements. What kind of relationships to Islamist actors have with the masses and institutions in the rest of society? What structures their course of action? That en-Nahdha was pushed into a coalition with non-Islamist parties in Tunisia can easily be understood given how divisive religious issues are there; and how the diversity of expectations regarding religious politics in Tunisia differs from the Egyptian situation where Muslim identity politics leans in the favor of the major religious parties somewhat decisively. The Tunisian tradition of official state secularism also differs qualitatively from Egypt’s (as well does the overall conversation about religion), and there is a comparatively large element which is comfortable with excluding religion as such from public life which pulls the politically active religious trend more to the center of things and it also means there is more popular contestation between the religious and secular tendencies over the larger picture as compared to in Egypt. Non-Islamsit parties performed much better in Tunisia than in Egypt, and the average Tunisian and probably in somewhat of a different place politically form the average Egypt in how he views Islamism and Islamists more generally, even accounting for class and regional variation which is quite acute. Islamists and secularists ‘get away with’ certain things in Egypt which they cannot in Tunisia and vice versa. Some Tunisians voted for en-Nahdha not out of ideological solidarity but because they felt the other parties were too obscure or arrogant or shallow or the like — protest votes, which one heard about when so many Algerians voted for the Islamic Salvation Front in 1991. But because of the way the electoral system was arranged there was the problem of ‘wasted votes’ and the actual returns for en-Nahdha might have been somewhat understated in the final election results. The Salafist trend differs considerably in the two countries, both in their numbers and their attitudes toward elections. The number of their parties in Egypt is truly impressive. What accounts for the vast numbers of Salafists in Egypt and the ideological and political diversity of Salafist parties there in comparison to Tunisia?

In any case, with all the ink let out over how well Islamists have performed in recent elections, it is worth looking at how these parties got to where they are in political context — what regulates their electoral performance and popular appeal, internally and externally, socially (in official and non-official ways) and  both at the elite and mass levels.

UDPATE: Reader ‘Salah’ left the following thoughts in the comments section and they help explain some of en-Nahdha’s performance. Continue reading

Party Hopping in Algeria

Former presidential candidate in Algeria and radical IslamistAbdallah Djaballah is set to create a new political party, Algeria’s national radio said on Saturday.

Djaballah announced on Friday the imminent creation of “national body” which would later form a party, to be baptised the Justice and Development Front.

The new party would base itself on “the culture of mutual aid and social justice” said Djaballah, who was beaten in presidential elections in 1999 and 2004 by current President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

He has already been at the helm of the Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement, which he formed in the early 1990s, and the National Reform Movement (MRN), both Islamist parties that he left after internal disagreements.

There was “no official response so far” to his application but the latest declarations from Algeria’s Interior Minister Daho Ould Kabila were “encouraging”, he said.

At the end of this month, Algeria’s parliament is set to vote in a new law that would facilitate the creation of parties, one of a number of political and constitutional reforms President Abelaziz Bouteflika has promised before the end of January to strengthen democracy in Algeria.

Controversially though the law would ban ex-Islamic Salvation Front members — whose electoral success in 1991 led to civil war — from forming a party.

Dozens of potential new parties are awaiting authorisation to form once the law is approved.

Islamist parties, such as Tunisia’s Ennahda which won a majority of seats in an October 23 election to form a new constituent assembly, have been winning more influence across North Africa since the “Arab Spring” revolutions.

Algeria radical Islamist to create new party,’ AFP, 26 November, 2011.

En-Nahdah’s electoral victory in Tunisia and the recent success of Morocco’s PJD seems to be renewing interest in Algeria’s Islamist tendencies. Of course the Algerian context makes such comparisons rather difficult: not least because these elections took place in the wake of uprisings or in response protest movements (and after reform platforms were introduced). Algeria’s reforms look likely to be limited in scope and have not come in response to mass protests or a popular uprising or revolution; instead the government’s planned reforms appear to be a response to intra-elite pressures (and from specific strands within the elite, such as those arguing for a managed transition or the dissolution of the parliament/the participatory opposition both Islamist and reformist ‘democrats’) and anxiety over the potential for protest movements. The 2012 legislative election will probably be managed as in previous years though one should pay attention to party and electoral law reforms and in the population of FLN/RND party lists and the participation/performance of specific opposition parties which usually point to what the official agenda and narrative will be as far as reform and ‘inclusion’ are concerned (i.e., how do the Islamist parties perform and which are allowed/decide to participate? How does the PT gain seats? Does the RCD or FFS participate and if they do where do they get or keep seats? What kind of people are put on the FLN/RND lists and how many of their MPs get to run again and get reelected? How old are all of these people, and so and so forth). The level of popular participation, which is usually quite low, is another thing to watch — do the people continue to basically boycott elections? These things may help gauge the impact of the Arab uprisings on Algeria’s internal politics at the formal level. Informally, one should watch the independent unions’ activities and what kind of concessions and consultations they get from the government over the next few months as well as the frequency of strikes, sit-ins and similar demonstrations as well as the number of and concentration of youth rioting in the cities relative to the interior towns and the regime response to such things. There has been a lot of party hopping in the smaller parties, leaders moving from one party to another after falling out with their internal rivals for personal reasons or (as is sometimes speculated) as a result of regime pressure of some kind; in other cases (such as left wing elements in the FLN jumping ship to the Trotskyist Workers Party (PT) there are ideological motivations. But it afflicts both secular and religious parties and establishment and opposition/small parties. Some characters have been serial party founders and exiles.

Anyway, what about this ‘radical’ (that label is probably a bit of a stretch) called Abdallah Djaballah? Some randomized thoughts and background (some of this may need correction since this is just a thought/data dump).  Continue reading

Two more articles to read

Another Jeune Afrique article on happenings in northern Mali, specifically the attitude of many Malian Arabs (Moors) toward the government in Bamako in light of recent events in Gao and Kidal on the Tuareg file. An interesting read.

Also, see this fine piece by Jihadology‘s Aaron Zelin on en-Nahdah’s recent rhetoric and its relationships with secular parties:

[. . . ] Ennahda has been in talks over the past several weeks with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, to form a coalition government for the new Constituent Assembly. As one can see from the above comments by Ettakatol, the two secular parties will no doubt play a productive role and provide a check on any potential Ennahda overreach.

One should be cognizant, though, that the transition will not be perfect. Moreover, with every potential accommodation Ennahda makes now that they are in power, it could erode potential grassroots support. More radical youth elements may believe that after years of suffering under the yoke of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali it is time to finally implement the oft-quoted phrase “al-Islam huwa al-Hal”; or “Islam is the Solution.” By not living up to these words one could foresee a scenario where some support is shifted to the less mainstream Salafi movement, fomenting a potential culture war in Tunisia in the medium future.

Ennahda’s pledge to respect women’s rights and not regulate social issues, such as wearing a bikini at the beach or the sale of alcohol, could become contentious issues in future elections that could pull Ennahda further to the right. Even if they do not, as more time passes since the fall of the Ben Ali regime and there are more freedoms and openness in Tunisian society, the contestation of the role of religion, its meaning, and interpretation will become a heated debate. In the near-term, though, with Ghannouchi stewarding Ennahda through the transition, such potential drift or confrontation is less likely.

Ennahda’s transition from banned opposition party to a leading voice of reform for civic Islamism is still playing out. There will be ups and downs over the next year, but its political discipline and maturity will rise over time. If there is one political party in the Middle East and North Africa that can navigate the tough challenge ahead on debating the contentious issue of the role of religion in society, Tunisia’s Ennahda party is best situated for the task. Although talk of the Caliphate is a head-turning event for many in Tunisia and in the West, since last January, Ennahda’s actual actions to date should be speaking louder than some of their ill-conceived words.

More to Read on Algeria, etc.

The always insightful Crossing the Green Mountain provides a fine list of works worth reading by Louis Martinez and Omar Carlier. (Also view their AQIM bibliography, full of terrific readings in English and French and the rest.)

Luis Martinez

Martinez, Luis. “L’enivrement de la violence: “djihad” dans la banlieue d’Alger.” L’Algérie dans la guerre. Sous la dir. de Rémy Leveau (1995): 39-70

Martinez, Luis. “Youth, the street and violence in Algeria.” Alienation or integration of Arab youth: between family, state and street. Ed. Roel Meijer (2000): 83-105

Martinez, Luis. “Le cheminement singulier de la violence islamiste en Algérie. (Abstract: The particular path taken by Islamist violence in Algeria.).” Critique Internationale 20 (2003): 165-177;180

Martinez, Luis. “Why the violence in Algeria?.” Journal of North African Studies 9 ii (2004): 14-27

Martinez, Luis. “Why the violence in Algeria?.” Islam, democracy and the state in Algeria: lessons for the Western Mediterranean and beyond. Ed. Michael Bonner, Megan Reif & Mark Tessler (2005): 14-27

Martinez, Luis. “Autoritarisme et usage de la violence: état d’une recherche.” L’autoritarisme dans le monde arabe. Autour de Michel Camau – Luis Martinez. Coord. A.Boutaleb, J.-N.Ferrié, B.Rey (2005): 82-90

Omar Carlier

Carlier, Omar. “La guerre d’Algérie et ses prolégomènes: notes pour une anthropologie historique de la violence politique.” Naqd 4 (1993): 32-44

Carlier, Omar. Entre nation et jihad. Histoire des radicalismes algériens, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 1995.

Carlier, Omar. “D’une guerre à l’autre, le redéploiement de la violence entre soi.” Confluences Méditerranée 25 (1998): 123-137

Carlier, Omar. “Guerre civile, violence intime, et socialisation culturelle: la violence politique en Algérie (1954-1998).” Guerres civiles: économies de la violence, dimensions de la civilité. Sous la coord. de J.Hannoyer (1999): 69-104

Carlier, Omar. “Civil war, private violence, and cultural socialization: political violence in Algeria (1954-1988).” Algeria in others’ languages. Ed. by Anne-Emmanuelle Berger (2002): 81-106

Carlier, Omar. “Violence(s).” La guerre d’Algérie: 1954-2004, la fin de l’amnésie. [Ed.] Benjamin Stora et Mohammed Harbi (2004): 347-379

Complaints about Polls and Politics in Tunisia

From Jeune Afrique:

« Nous devons suspendre la publication des sondages politiques jusqu’au vote de l’assemblée constituante », assène Rida Kéfi, membre de l’Instance nationale de réforme de l’information et de la communication (INRIC).

« Nous devons suspendre la publication des sondages politiques jusqu’au vote de l’assemblée constituante », assène Rida Kéfi, membre de l’Instance nationale de réforme de l’information et de la communication (INRIC). Sans historique d’élections libres, sans références, nous n’avons aucun moyen de redresser les résultats ».

[. . .]

Manque de crédibilité

Malgré cet argument purement économique, les critiques se multiplient (comme en France) à l’encontre des instituts de sondage, dont les méthodologies sont jugées opaques. Notification aléatoire du commanditaire, échantillonnages peu représentatifs, questionnaires orientés… La liste des griefs est longue.

« Plusieurs experts estiment que les échantillonnages de certains sondages ne sont pas crédibles », affirme ainsi Rida Kéfi. Les critères comme l’appartenance sociale ou géographiques ne sont pas pris en compte cars ils ne sont pas recensés dans les statistiques officielles, poursuit-il. Quant à la marge d’erreur des sondages, elle est selon lui trop souvent minimisée par les instituts.

Ali Ben Yehia, directeur du bureau d’études ID Claire, récuse ces arguments, préférant insister sur les similitudes existant entre politique et business. « L’analyse est différente entre les sondages d’opinions et les études marketing, dit-il, mais les techniques, les moyens et les équipes terrain sont les mêmes ». Ben Yehia rejette également les accusations de clientélisme avec certains partis politiques friands de sondages : « procès d’intention », estime-t-il.

Pratiques douteuses

Ben Yehia reconnait toutefois l’existence de « un ou deux instituts ayant des connivences avec certains partis », sans plus de précision. Son concurrent, Hichem Guerfali, avoue quant à lui que le milieu doit faire face à certaines pratiques douteuses. « Les instituts sont tentés de modifier les résultats moyennant promesses aux partis », affirme-t-il. Une pratique qui, selon le journaliste Imed Bahri, vient de l’absence d’un cadre légal. « Tant qu’il n’y aura pas d’encadrement, il n’y aura aucun moyen de vérifier et on continuera à s’interroger sur l’argent qu’il y a autour de ces études », estime-t-il.

Autre problème posé par la nouvelle utilisation des sondages en politique : les abus auxquels se livrent les médias. « On assiste à une surenchère dans la presse depuis la révolution », s’insurge Rida Kéfi. « Les journalistes ne savent pas utiliser les sondages », déplore de son côté le représentant de l’instance de réforme des médias, qui a commencé à dispenser des formations à l’analyse des sondages. Mais jusqu’à présent, les journalistes ont été très peu nombreux à y assister.

This is an interesting problem. A number of polls have come out of Tunisia in recent months, most showing that the largest part of the public is undecided in its opinion of the various political parties and factions emerging there. Usually they show that an-Nahdha has the largest support among those with their minds made up and show a smattering of center- and far-left parties with various slivers of support (and the numbers vary widely). Virtually all of these polls show a great deal of political polarization in their samples. The methodology is sometimes murky and one wonders who is bankrolling the project and why. Polls are instruments of politics at every level, especially in hotly contested environments.

A Tunisian wrote to this blogger, angrily, complaining that al-Jazeera’s poll from a few months ago was “free propaganda for an-Nahda and the Islamists”, noting the party’s supposed links to Qatar and alleging selection bias and a range of other complaints (some of them strongly classist and prejudicial in tone). There can be no doubt that an-Nahda has strong and obvious support inside Tunisia; one wonders how much outside perceptions of this are amplified by media coverage, potentially exaggerated polls, and  so on. (As far as outside observers go the party probably also benefits from the mere fact of its Islamism, which is a favorite subject for Francophone and Anglophone observers for structural and political reasons that have relatively little to do with Tunisia’s situation.) It is an interesting question. Still more interesting is how divisive such polls actually are given Tunisia’s very really class and cultural divisions between, for example, the rural south and northern cities, secularists and Islamists (or even merely observant Muslims; one recalls stories of young women forced out of schools for wearing hijab, for instance), leftists and centrists, the poor and the rest and so on. The supposed trouble posed by polls is probably symptomatic of these broader troubles.

A moratorium on polls sounds like a rash, if not problematic, response and would frustrate the growth of a sometimes dubious and sometimes necessary features of modern democracies, the political services community and consultants, the partisan and third party hangers on (“communications specialists,” etc). In any case, this is a strong reminder that one should always look any poll critically, especially in particularly fluid environments. Professional standards and the like evolve with time, experience, outside criticism, even market pressures. The controversy over polls, though, is a more favorable one to have than, say, an environment where there are no polls or the only polls allowed are those showing 99% favorability of the RCD. Or might be until polls actually are banned.

Minority Questions

Piotr Zalewski’s piece on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Foreign Policy leaves the reader with questions. The piece changes in the Syrian Brotherhood’s attitude toward religion and politics since its violent encounters with the Syrian regime in the 1970s and 1980s; the Syrian Brothers, he quotes one as saying, “have  faced a revolution in our thoughts.” Zalewski describes this process broadly; he touches on very few specific questions and relies primarily (though not wholly) on interviews with Syrian Brotherhood members in the diaspora, in Turkey or Europe. The bulk of the article is concerned with explaining the influence of Turkey’s AK party as a “model” for Syrian Islamists. The party’s worldview has been influenced heavily by generational shifts and the success of Turkish Islamists. But the piece suffers heavily from avoiding a discussion of specific changes in the party’stance on specific questions.

For example: It would make sense to consider the Brotherhood’s position on the rights of religious minorities in the Brotherhood’s Syria. Given the strong sectarian element in Syria’s politics and the deep (and sometimes irrational) fear many Syrian minorities have at the prospect of the Ba’th regime falling and leading to even the possibility of “domination” by the Sunni majority (by means of the Brotherhood, for example) it is just as relevant to explore the Brotherhood’s “evolution” in this context as well as its view of the female dress code or the “light” role of ideology in general. Should a non-Muslim have the right to be the head of state (recall the Brotherhood’s campaign against the this provision in Syria’s proposed 1973 constitution)? Should Islam be the state religion? What do Brotherhood members when they refer to free “practice” of religion? How are their positions on these questions different from what they were in the 1970s and 1980s? How does the Brotherhood’s sectarianism relate to the sectarianism elsewhere in Syrian society?

Studies VII: The PCOT & Religion and the State (II)

This post is a part of a new series of posts which will consist of translations and excerpts from the communiques, statements, pamphlets and other literature from left-wing political parties in the Arab world, especially Tunisia (others as well, Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania in particular). The selections will focus on foreign policy, women’s issues, relations with other political factions (mainly Islamists and other leftist tendencies), ideology, rhetoric and general worldview. The purpose of this series is to put into English elements of the contemporary Arab political discourse which are generally neglected in western and English-language reportage and analysis while the of Islamist tendency receives extensive, if not excessive coverage. The translations in this series should not be taken as this blogger endorsing or promoting the content of particular materials: the objective is to increase access to and understanding of the contemporary Arab left by making its perspectives known, especially in areas of interest and relevance to English-speakers. This series will include both leftist and Arab nationalist [party] documents, statements, communiques, articles and so on. The series will attempt to touch on as many of the main (and interesting) leftist parties as possible.

Below is a translation of an essay (“Marxism and the relationship between religion and state: State secularism”) included in a pamphlet released by the Tunisian Communist Workers Party titled في اللائكية ”On Secularism”. The essay is itself an excerpt from a longer piece dealing with similar issues. The title of the pamphlet and this essay use the term اللائكية (al-la’ikiyya) derived from laïcité/laïque rather than علمانية (al-’ilmaniyya), the the standard Arabic term for secularism. This has been discussed earlier in this series. The essay lays out the author’s view of the corrosive influence of religious and religious partisans on science, freedom of conscience, women, class and the most effective means of dealing with the religious problem from a leftist perspective. It makes a strong effort to avoid targeting Islam as a religion and to cast its criticism of religious politics firmly in the realm of materialist political discourse, criticizing “Islamism” and “Islamists” as a system of political philosophy and explicitly admits that the party and the left cannot attempt to ban or eradicate religion from society. The essay also lays out the party’s view of what the Marxist take on religion in Tunisia ought to be.Below is a translation of an essay (“Marxism and the relationship between religion and state: State secularism”) included in a pamphlet released by the Tunisian Communist Workers Party titled في اللائكية ”On Secularism”. The essay is itself an excerpt from a longer piece dealing with similar issues. The title of the pamphlet and this essay use the term اللائكية (al-la’ikiyya) derived from laïcité/laïque rather than علمانية (al-’ilmaniyya), the the standard Arabic term for secularism. The implications of this have been discussed earlier in this series. Most of the essays/polemics in “On Secularism” are aggressive and loud critiques of Islamist political thought and leaders like Rachid Ghannouchi. More than one of the essays come from the late 1980s but others are not dated, like “Marxism and the relationship between religion and the state”.

The essay lays out the author’s view of the corrosive influence of religious and religious partisans on science, freedom of conscience, women, class and the most effective means of dealing with the religious problem from a leftist perspective. It makes a strong effort to avoid targeting Islam as a religion and to cast its criticism of religious politics firmly in the realm of materialist political discourse (drawing heavily on Leninist themes), criticizing “Islamism” and “Islamists” as a system of political philosophy and activism, explicitly admitting that the party and the left cannot attempt to ban or eradicate religion from society. The author clearly hopes to avoid conflating opposition to Islamist politics to Islam as practiced by ordinary people (which might alienate potential followers) while at the same time arguing for open-mindedness on religious thought (note that the essay mentions the right to atheism, for example). The forceful arguments on education and minority rights are notable as well. These come in support of the piece’s three main problems with religious government (its negative impact on”scientific renaissance, its suppression of free thought and its restrictions on political freedom). “Marxism and the relationship between religion and the state” was selected for translation because it represents a relatively brief and straightforward introduction to the party’s ideological and practical stance on religion and politics, in the general sense. It does not deal specifically with Tunisian rivals of the PCOT or secularism in general by name; it discusses the subject in social and historical terms. Thus it gives readers a general idea of the party’s overall stance which is fleshed out further in other (longer) and more specific essays. Additionally it reveals important elements of the party’s attitude toward education in general. (The article includes footnotes which are not included here but will be in a later format.)

Fisher’s Comparisons RE: the Ikhwan

Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and an-Nahda are often well organized and popular. They enjoy numerous advantages over secular parties in being able to tap into religious networks and other, secular parties have often been crippled and divided by years of successful politicking at the hands of repressive regimes. Conventional wisdom says Islamist parties will out do all others in free elections in Tunisia or Egypt, or even most Arab countries. This is not certain, but it is likely. Other scenarios are possible, if not probable as well.

The obsession with religious parties is at times almost humorous. In popular outlets, sensationalism and exaggeration are the rule, this is especially true. This being said, Max Fisher writes: Continue reading

Studies II: Religion, Politics & Leftists, Tunisia (I)

This post is a part of a new series of posts which will consist of translations and excerpts from the communiques, statements, pamphlets and other literature from left-wing political parties in the Arab world, especially Tunisia (others as well, Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania in particular). The selections will focus on foreign policy, women’s issues, relations with other political factions (mainly Islamists and other leftist tendencies), ideology, rhetoric and general worldview. The purpose of this series is to put into English elements of the contemporary Arab political discourse which are generally neglected in western and English-language reportage and analysis while the of Islamist tendency receives extensive, if not excessive coverage. The translations in this series should not be taken as this blogger endorsing or promoting the content of particular materials: the objective is to increase access to and understanding of the contemporary Arab left by making its perspectives known, especially in areas of interest and relevance to English-speakers. This series will include both leftist and Arab nationalist [party] documents, statements, communiques, articles and so on. The series will attempt to touch on as many of the main (and interest) leftist parties as possible.

The following is a series of communiques from Tunisian left/center left political parties translated from Arabic. The purpose of this set of translations is to flesh out some of the discourses about competition with Islamist factions on the Tunisian left; naturally this post cannot reflect the totality of that discourse.

The communiques here were selected because: (1) they all deal with either physical or rhetorical/ideological competition between individual left or center-left parties which are generally secular in orientation and Islamist parties (an-Nahdha) or factions (groups of Salafis, religious activists, etc.); (2) each reflects the increasing polarization between secular (or semi-secular) and religious factions in Tunisia and the efforts taken by the secular parties to respond to this tension and deal with similar questions and incidents; and (3) each in its own way reflects the kinds of ideological and tactical challenges faced by Tunisian left-wing and secular parties when faced by competition from religious opponents and those parties’ style of response to these attacks and criticisms based on religious grounds. Common threads include: the use of mosques as political bully pulpits; accusations of atheism or apostasy as a means of discrediting communists and leftists; the use of violence by supporters of religious groups against communists and leftists; the position of Islamists toward freedom of thought, political tolerance and labor rights, along with other issues. Translations of communiques and tracts dealing with religious issues in more depth will come in later posts in this series. These particular communiques are relatively recent (from early/mid-June-early July) and reflect an increase in tension among various Tunisian political factions (coming in the same period as recent demonstrations, clashes with security forces and deepening suspicion between “the street” and the transitional authorities; translations dealing with these other questions are soon to follow as well). In the meantime these brief translations will introduce the subject in general in this series.

The communiques here come from: (1) The Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party (PCOT); (2) The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP); (3) The NationalDemocratic Action Party (PTPD); and (4) The Ettajdid Movement (Mouvement Ettajdid). Short summaries on each of these parties can be found here. The PCOT has been discussed in this series before, here. The PDP is a center-left/social democratic party headed by Maya Jribi and Ahmed Najib Chebbi. The PDP was founded in 1983 as the Progressive Social Rally, drawing from a Marxist backdrop and revising its name and ideological framework in 2000, move toward a more centrist position. It became was active against censorship and other violations by the Ben Ali government. It publishes a newspaper called al-Mawkif. It tends to poll second after an-Nahdha in opinion polls. It participated in legislative elections under the Ben Ali regime until 2004 and has a relatively middle class base of support. The PTPD is a small Marxist party, founded in 2005 and led by Abderrazak Hammami. It publishes a newspaper called Al-Iraada and was legalized only after the January uprising. Ettajdid is the former Tunisian Communist Party (PCT), reformed and now in a social democratic orientation. It publishes the Attariq al-Jadida newspaper. It was legal under Ben Ali and fielded candidates in the 2005 and 2009 elections and tends toward an aggressive stance on the separation of religion and politics.  Continue reading