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.
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.
Continue reading A Dispatch from the Left (Tunisia)
The pictures and text below are contributed by Eileen Byrne, a Tunis-based journalist whose writing has appeared in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Financial 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. email@example.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 Guest Post: Byrne in Tunisia
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.
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 on Comparing Islamists & Gradualism
Patrick Harrison has an interesting series of posts based on interviews with top cadres of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party, including Samir Taamallah. Read them here and here.
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 More North African Readings