A Dispatch from the Left (Tunisia)

Below is a translation of a statement from July 2013, from the leadership of the Tunisian Workers’ Party (POT, formerly the Tunisian Communist Workers’ Party, or PCOT), a leading party in the leftist opposition coalition the Popular Front (Jabhat ash-Sha’abiyyah). It was part of a public exchange between POT leader Hamma Hammami and Minister of Finance Elyes Fakhfakh, prior to the current leadership crisis which began with the assassination of Popular Front leader Mohamed Brahmi at the end of July. Tunisian politics has been extremely polarised since 2011, though with the assassinations and terrorist attacks of 2013, the last year has been notably intense. The tone of leftist opposition groups in Tunisia shows greater urgency and radicalism than much the rest of the opposition in Tunisia, and on the Arab left in general. One of the dominant meta-narratives about Tunisia since 2011 — especially among westerners — has been its ‘moderation': its political class reacted to a youth-driven revolution with a soft-coup by a mostly politically marginal military, which led to a negotiated transition and elections in which moderate Islamists were joined by moderate leftist-social democratic secularists. Tunisian Islamists were cast as being so moderate that even its Salafists were friendly. Indeed, many have looked at the mostly secular opposition as being more extreme than Ennahda in their description of their worldviews (which is frequently shockingly maximalist). Opposition to Ennahda has evolved into two broad camps, a ‘centrist’ bloc, with Bourguibian accents and roots in the old order, and a rather hardline left-wing bloc, made up of anti-revisionist communists, Nasserists and others; something often missed is how radical the Tunisian left is compared to leftist tendencies in other Arab countries. Even if they can only take third place by eyeballing and performed badly in elections, Tunisian leftists have more ground game than their Egyptian or Levantine counterparts and tend to use rhetoric and take stands on religious questions that would be impossible elsewhere; they are also more strident in general (which says something about the Arab left more broadly). These parties often have the same problems that face others of their persuasion in the region: a lack of constructive criticism of either government policy or their own failings in recruitment, propaganda or getting out the vote (insufficient self-criticism); a tendency to fragment over the most trivial internal disputes — whether driven by ideology or personalities — at exactly the worst time; a maximalist line that can alienate popular opinion; a tendency toward hyperbole (in which they are not alone); discourses about poverty and rural suffering that sometimes tend not to match with the actual substance of their campaigns, though when compared to others in the region on this front they look quite good, though they do not match up to their Islamist rivals, despite significant advances in popular opinion and ground game. Many of these tendencies are not simply ailments of the Arab or Tunisian left but of all leftist currents, especially on the far left — and Tunisia has perhaps the biggest concentration of far out there leftists than most other Arab countries today.

The passage below — a polemical piece by Hammami in his typically acerbic style — highlights some of this in action, a sort of snapshot of the feverish spectacle of Tunisian politics which seems to get only more and more intense, till one compares it with the horrors of Syria, Libya, Egypt and other places where people struggle in similar and also very different ways against different odds. This piece was posted on a variety of Popular Front outlets last July.

Industry Arabic - translation services 300-1

This translation was provided by Industry Arabic, a full service translation firm that provides English-Arabic-French technical, legal, and engineering translation management. Industry Arabic will provide glimpses from Algerian and Maghrebi presses to this site as part of an ongoing partnership. 

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Translation: ‘Ton corps est ton crime,’ by Kamel Daoud

[NOTE: This is a guest post and translation by author and translator Suzanne Ruta, who has contributed translations to TMND in the past. The piece was written in the context of  the Amina trial in Tunisia and discussion around women's dress in Algeria.

Kamel Daoud, Algerian novelist and journalist, (Quotidien d’Oran, Algerie-Focus)  wrote this rant  the day eighteen year old Amina Sboui was found guilty in Tunisian court, of carrying pepper spray at a Salafist demonstration in the Tunisian holy city of Kairouan in late May.  She was still in jail as of June 5th, when she appeared in court, in handcuffs and a full body covering, to answer charges of public indecency and desecration of public property. (She had written the word FEMEN on a cemetery wall.)

The whole flap  began when Amina wrote in Arabic on her bare torso, and published the photo on facebook in March ” My body belongs to me. It is not the source of anyone’s honor.”  Daoud backtracks that hopeful assertion.  “To whom does a woman’s body belong? To her country, her family, her husband, her older brother, her neighborhood, the boys on her street, her father, and the State, her ancestors, her national culture and its taboos.” 

This is another of Daoud’s  highly original riffs, where he jumps from close up social observation, to millennial grief  you could call it, but somehow with a  heartening result.  It’s best understood against the background of fog, obfuscation and vast lies by omission that permeate Algerian TV (the lone state run channel) and political discourse.  It continues his lament, over the last year, about creeping salafism in Algeria, as its spokesmen are emboldened by recent successes in Tunisia. In Blida, Daoud noted lately with some bitterness an imam proposes that young women adopt the hijab at the age of ten!  Daoud has a big following in Algeria and in France for his witty passionate succinct commentary on current events. 

Daoud has been writing a column several times a week in the Quotidien d’Oran, raina raikoum – meaning your opinion, my opinion, for the last ten years. He is also a prize winning novelist and short story writer. His facebook link is https://www.facebook.com/kamel.daoud.7

Guest Post: Byrne in Tunisia

The pictures and text below are contributed by Eileen Byrne, a Tunis-based journalist whose writing has appeared in the Sunday Times, the GuardianFinancial Times, and the Economist – placed here with permission. They were first published on the Tunisian news website Kapitalis. Readers will recall that last year she contributed to this blog a video on Tunisia and a guest post on a short trip across the border into Libya. In February she traveled to rural western Tunisia, which has had a hard time since last year’s revolution economically and socially, with unemployment and poverty (not to mention some terrible weather). In the town of Kasserine she found wide-scale corruption around a government jobs scheme, which she wrote about the Guardian in February. All pictures copyright Eileen Byrne.  ebyrne202@yahoo.com

There is a lot of good news that comes out of Tunisia and into English; the country has done much better than some of the other “Arab Spring” countries that are now engaged in muddled transitions and the leftover rivalries and troubles that come out of armed conflict. But there is still a lot of suffering in Tunisia, a lot of hunger, a lot of people that need somebody to pay attention to them.

Western Tunisia: At the Grassroots  Continue reading

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.

More on Comparing Islamists & Gradualism

This blog does not generally or usually deal with Morocco. It is worth looking at James Asfa’s article on the Justice and Development Party’s recent performance in Morocco’s parliamentary elections. These were less momentous and exciting than the ones in Tunisia and Egypt given the tightly managed nature of the reform process there and the enduring strength of the monarchy; but they do fit into general trend in the region and point to interesting trends in the Maghreb. The piece can be looked at as a jumping point to think about some recent developments elsewhere in North Africa; in Algeria — where the regime’s efforts to lumber through this past year through managed reforms resemble Morocco’s to a certain degree — and in transitional Tunisia and Egypt, where change has obviously been more radical and where political polarization is more intense when it comes to religion than in Morocco. Asfa’s summary of the lessons the PJD has drawn from the Algerian experience are notable and worth reading. Indeed, as Paul Pillar writes, there is some danger in ‘sloppy thinking in failing to distinguish radical Islamists (who of course have represented the most salient and worrisome form of transnational extremist violence in recent years) from all other political Islamists.’ Asfa’s piece is worth reading in these terms. Continue reading

More North African Readings

A new Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik report on the Tunisian elections (‘Tunesien: Einmal mehr Vorreiter‘ (‘Tunisia: Once Again a Pioneer’), SWP-Comments 2011, No. 49, November 2011 by Isabelle Werenfels; in German) offers positive comments on Tunisia’s election results and notes some of the economic and structural problems facing the country. It argues for European support for the country’s continued democratization; and it represents a nice break from some of the (widespread) writing in French about the Islamist element. It is worth noting that optimism is easily dashed — even if nowadays Tunisia looks quite good compared to all of its neighbors and Egypt (where transitional problems are being dealt with differently). Certainly worth reading. 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.

Studies VIII: ‘Ethics’ & Performance

The translation below is an excerpt from the Tunisian Communist Workers Party pamphlet ‘On Secularism,’ (by Hamma Hammami) other sections of which has been translated elsewhere on this blog. This excerpt was posted on the PCOT’s website on 27 October, 2011. It is interesting that this was posted so close to the election; it appears to reinforce convictions in the rightness of the leftist perspective as non-communist forces gained on the party, especially in the Islamist tendency (who are mentioned explicitly; in PCOT literature الظلاميون ‘obscurantists’ is often a euphemism for Islamists). The re-publication of this excerpt on the site can be seen as a part of the party’s reaction to the electoral environment in general; communist tendencies in most Arab countries today are non-conformist in that they are the opposite of dominant opposition and political forces which are accommodating of political Islam and religious views (which are vastly more popular), the market liberal economic consensus (especially among non-Islamist factions) and the predominant view of religion in society which is usually conservative and comfortable with having religion used as a core pillar of collective (including national) identity. It focuses on the changing nature of socially acceptable behavior and political ideas. This translation was done quickly and without a dictionary and so edits will likely be made. Continue reading

El-Amrani & Lindsay on Tunisia

Issandr El-Amrani and Ursula Lindsay have an excellent and exciting overview of the Tunisian elections at MERIP. The pair describe the performance and background of Nahdah, the major secular parties and the overall atmospherics of the poll and campaign. Your blogger has stated on this blog and elsewhere that while the Islamist tendency is important in Tunisia and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to pay attention to political trends outside that file. Even though an-Nahdah won a plurality of seats in the constituent assembly, it did not win a majority and the parties which won the rest are still important: an-Nahdah will not be able to act unilaterally and will before into coalitions and politics with other, mainly secular, parties as many observers have noted. El-Amrani and Lindsay do a terrific job at describing the main secular tendencies in the constituent assembly and why they performed the way they did and their attitudes and relationships with an-Nahdah. The conclusion:

The first post-Ben Ali government resulting from an election — Tunisia’s first free and fair one, at that — is likely to be composed of an Ennahda-CPR-Ettakatol alliance. With over 62 percent of seats in the constituent assembly, this coalition should be stable enough to provide a centrist consensus for both the constitution and government policy. Yet, even within this alliance, there are significant divergences over how to proceed with regard to the constitution and the mechanisms by which it will be decided, what kind of policies the interim government should (or has the legitimacy to) carry out, as well as negotiations over the government’s formation (with many secularists, for instance, weary of Ennahda’s interest in the education portfolio). The question of who will be Tunisia’s next president and whether the political system will be parliamentary (as Ennahda prefers) or semi-presidential (as CPR, Ettakatol and most other parties advocate) will also loom large over the next year. Reconciling these differences will not be easy, but at least, for the first time in its post-independence history, Tunisia has genuine politics.

They do not discuss the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT), which won just two seats, leaving market space open for others to cover that small party’s strategy and politics which are quite interesting if obscure (in fact, it seems most roundups omit the party because it won only two seats, which in some instances reflects writers’ ideological biases/ignorance (no names named) or, as is likely in this case, demands fo space and format and a careful consideration of the major power centers and what is most urgent for the reader; this blog has covered them as a matter of principle). Ettajdid (former communists; El-Amrani has written on some of their tendencies before) and PDM (mentioned in the piece) also deserve attention, having won seats and representing the left. Again, this blogger believe it is important to fill in the whole picture when it comes to the Arab countries that have seen uprisings. There are many more forces at work than just Islamist sects, as El-Amrani and Lindsay show here and others struggle to recognize.

Studies VII: The PCOT and Electoral Performance

Below are translations of two communiques (originally in Arabic) from the Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT). The first is a campaign statement in advance of the Constituent Assembly election in October, the second is a post-election statement explaining the party’s view of the elections and its performance. This is a ‘far left’ party which won three seats in the Constituent Assembly (its program was covered earlier this year on this blog). Of those represented in the assembly the PCOT is certain among (if not the) party farthest to the political left (another hard left trend, the Democratic Modernist Pole, won five seats). It may be the most ideologically extreme party of any particular ideological tendency though it has enough popularity where it does not quite warrant being called a fringe party. Its members had tussles with Salafists in the months before the election. The PCOT was certainly in the ‘secular’ column insofar as the polarization between religious and secular parties was concerned and the party probably suffered, as has been noted, from its atheism/secularism and generally unabashed communism. Its rhetoric on religious issues has been laid out on this blog previously. The party has historically had a hardline on religious matters and one can see this even in the translations below where campaign tactics involving houses of worship used by its opponents are compared to the behavior of the old Ben Ali regime. Its ideological tracts include harsh invectives against Rachid Ghannouchi and Islamist political philosophy and personalities in general. Some of these are rather nuanced, for instance its stance on the hijab (it ran candidates for the constituent assembly who themselves wore hijab). It also made an effort to appeal to religious voters by distancing itself from a stance against religious practice and religious people during this past summer. Being a communist party of the Enver Hoxa variety calls up certain connotations for many Tunisians and others. (they ran candidates under the name al-badil ath-thawri or Revolutionary Alternative, leaving out ‘communist’). A party that declares itself committed to democracy and human rights but also has to explain its view of the dictatorship of the proletariat and its opinion of Marx or atheism is bound to face challenges in a country where many people are observant Muslims (it is worth mentioning that the PCOT was relatively less hostile toward the religious set during the campaign than the PDP, for example). But there is a constituency for such a party in Tunisia and its members have gained some credibility from non-communists for having been rather harshly treated and detained under Ben Ali. Hard secularism proved less advantageous in October’s election and the overall results do not point to an Islamist take over and it is likely Nahdha and the center left and left wing parties in the new Constituent Assembly will have to compromise rather than impose narrowness on one another. Of course your blogger is always interested the idiosyncratic and obscure but will post some translations from some of the larger left-leaning parties later on. Continue reading

‘Ominous’ Anxiety – Tunisia

Westerners and Tunisians alike are all fired up over who might come out well in the country’s 23 October election.

The Washington Post has an article on the anxiety of the PDP and other secular parties over the ban on campaign ads in Tunisia and how the ban has hindered their ability to reach beyond their core urban and semi-elite demographic, and how they have tried to cope. The big fear is that an-Nahdah, Tunisia’s dominant Islamist party, having launched an able grassroots campaign and has used religious institutions and infrastructure to spread its message, will be the main (if not only) beneficiary the ban. In short, the can be read as an anticipation of a strong showing by an-Nahdah (as most of observers have for some time) and the ongoing relative weakness of ‘secular’ parties of the center left, left all the way through to the right wing. Around half of Tunisians remain ‘undecided’ as to how they plan to vote in the country’s upcoming election for a constituent assembly. The article suggests the ban on campaign ads might have something to do with this and it probably does. It is a good illustration of the mutual suspicion between the parties in the new Tunisia and likely to bigger systemic challenges the country is facing in reorganizing itself.

Continue reading

Electoral Lists in Tunisia

Registration for the Constituent Assembly elections on October 23rd began Thursday, September 1st and is set to close on Wednesday, the 7th of September. This week-long stage leading up to the actual campaigning for election, set to begin on October 1st, has revealed some surprises. The lists of candidates of various parties given to the press reveal organization in some parties, disorder in others.

As of today, September 5th, few parties have compiled complete lists of candidates. Leading with candidate lists in 23 governorates throughout Tunisia is the main Islamist party, Ennahda. No other party matches this total.

Abdelfattah Morou, an ex-member of Ennahda who has seemingly split with his party, has compiled an alliance of lists in 20 districts.

The Communist Party of Tunisia (PCOT) is also well represented. They have submitted 14 lists of candidates for seats on the Constituent Assembly, mostly in coastal regions.

Another party that has submitted names of candidates for their list is the Party of Culture and Work (PCT), a new party on the left of the political spectrum. They have submitted 9 lists of candidates for the upcoming election.

The Reform and Development Party, a new center-left party, has submitted 8 lists.

The Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), however, is thought to be facing some internal problems. Though they are considered a major player in the Tunisian political scene, they have published only 8 lists. The PDP office in Kairouan is known to be facing some problems after releasing an official statement on September 2nd that they froze their membership. The PDP has not yet officially discussed this pressing issue.

Available Election Lists Favor Ennahda and Point to PDP in Crisis,” Tunisia Live, 5 September, 2011.

This is interesting: though the PCOT is probably less popular than the PDP and a number of larger center left parties. It would appear that the PCOT has a strong organizational culture, typical of the communist parties in the Arab world (in his The Communist Movement in the Arab World (2005), Tareq Ismael argues that superior organizational discipline is one of the most important features and legacies of the Arab communists). This is a party that has been active in hiding for nearly thirty years. One is not surprised to find their lists concentrated on the coast as opposed to the interior. It is surprising to see the PDP and similar parties without so wide a spread. It is also notable that the organized parties appear to be en-Nahdah and mostly leftist or center-left parties. There seems to be a demand for politics that recognizes and respects Arab-Islamic identity and/or makes use of populist economics. On the left there is a lot of rhetoric against the IMF/World Bank and the liberal economics. One sees a similar trend in Egypt emerging; the Ben Ali and Mubarak political and economic models helped produce the uprisings. Many seem eager to move off them; international and internal elite pressure will likely moderate these tendencies. This is already very evident in Egypt as far as the SCAF and Gulf states’ behavior can be indicators.

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.

Bohn’s Interview with El General

At Foreign Policy‘s Mideast Channel, Lauren E. Bohn has an interview with the Tunisian hip hop artist El General (also known as Hamada Ben Amor) whose song “Rayes Lebled” landed him in jail during the January uprising and became an anthem for revolutionaries in Tunisia and the region. Not long ago, this blogger complained about Robin Wright’s essentialist approach to hip hop in the Arab countries in her lackluster new book, Rock the Casbah (Issandr El Amrani complains that the review forgot to mock the title; but how easy would it be to make fun of its goofy title when its chapters have titles like “Extreme Makeover” and “The Scent of Jasmine”?) Even the short introduction to Bohn’s interview with Ben Amor is more edifying than Wright’s chapter on the subject. (Note: After this post goes up, this may sounds like hyperbole.) Today there is a lot of Arab hip hop that testifies to the brilliant internationalism of hip hop and how art as a people’s propaganda, far more overtly than its contemporary American or European cousins. The interview brings this out well.

Ben Amor has much to say and readers should look at the interview. Interestingly, but not really surprisingly he cites Tupac Shakur and the Algerian rapper (little known in the English speaking world, unfortunately) Lotfi Double Kanon as major influences. He rejects a catch all sort of self-identification. One can be more than one “thing” at once; one can be unique and have more a few things in common with those “different” from one’s self. One have beliefs and convictions in common with others and still carry on his his own way. Continue reading

Studies VIII: The 14 January Front

This page includes a 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 an English translation of the founding statement of the 14 January Front (an alternative English translation can be read here), a coalition of Tunisian leftist parties formed after the overthrow of Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali (14 January was the day Ben Ali stepped down from office). The statement lays out the groups’ intentions to continue demonstrations until the “objectives of the revolution” are met, including the removal of Ben Ali-era officials and the overthrow of the interim Ghannouchi government. It appeals to the Tunisian people to continue protesting — “especially in the street” — to keep the interim authorities on their toes and politics in a constant state of play, lest elements of the old regime move things revert back to the way they were before the uprising. It is a strong representation of the arguments for “continuing” or “permanent revolution” made by many on the Tunisian left. This is a tendency also found among Egyptian leftists (reflecting the prominence of Trotskyist thought among many contemporary Arab leftwing factions; although, the Egyptian left is more overtly bourgeois in orientation than the Tunisian hard left (as seen in the 14 January Front and among older members of Ettajdid) and has stronger social democratic inclinations ideologically). Fundamentally, there is little trust that centrist Tunisian or Egyptian bourgeois democrats can be trusted to carry out revolutionary objectives and a belief that working class people must set and drive revolutionary objectives. Furthermore, the rhetoric of Arab revolutionaries of all orientations, but especially leftist ones, tends to call out for other Arab societies to join them in revolt. Contrary to some of the early writing in western presses about the limited objectives of Arab uprisings (notably with respect to Palestine) the chants and the statements of the groups and individuals partaking in uprisings this year frequently make reference to one another and call on other Arabs to sustain pressure for change in the region by rising up  — the Arab uprisings do not accept a concept of “revolution in one country” (even the Stalinists among them). As Hossam Hamalawy told NPR recently: “You cannot build a democracy in a country where you are surrounded by a sea or an ocean of dictatorships”.

On this tendency Marx set out on the subject (see here) arguing that the working class is tasked with organizing autonomously (hence, for example, the foundation of the Egyptian Workers Democratic Party (WDP), which describes itself as the country’s first party for workers) and pressing for driving “the proposals of the democrats to their logical extreme”:

[t]hey [revolutionaries] must drive the proposals of the democrats to their logical extreme (the democrats will in any case act in a reformist and not a revolutionary manner) and transform these proposals into direct attacks on private property. If, for instance, the petty bourgeoisie propose the purchase of the railways and factories, the workers must demand that these railways and factories simply be confiscated by the state without compensation as the property of reactionaries. [...] The demands of the workers will thus have to be adjusted according to the measures and concessions of the democrats.[. . .]

Although the German workers cannot come to power and achieve the realization of their class interests without passing through a protracted revolutionary development, this time they can at least be certain that the first act of the approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will thereby be accelerated. But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

In any case, the 14 January Front’s statement is widely available on the Internet on various party sites, forums and Facebook pages (it has its own website: http://front14janvier.net/). Since its formation, the front has gone through many changes of course and by now its collective strength has heavily eroded. It nevertheless remains a key element in understanding the evolution of the Tunisian left’s political development after the fall of Ben Ali. Understanding its objective also helps contextualize the ongoing protests by those described as the “far left”.  Continue reading

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