Interviews, Perspectives 0 comments on Experts react: What’s next after Tunisian president’s parliamentary freeze? .. by Atlantic Council

Experts react: What’s next after Tunisian president’s parliamentary freeze? .. by Atlantic Council

On July 25, Tunisian President Kais Saied took drastic measures to bring “peace” to Tunisia and “save the state” from a political system that he claims is plagued by corruption and unfit to handle the current economic and health crises facing the country. President Saied invoked Article 80 of Tunisia’s constitution to sack Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and freeze parliament. By invoking Article 80, which entitles the president to take the necessary measures to halt any imminent “danger threatening the integrity of the country,” Saied assumed full powers under the executive branch. In a publicly broadcast speech, President Saied said he would name a new prime minister within the next thirty days—a deadline which Saied said can be extended until the “situation settles down.”

Below, Atlantic Council experts react to the events, assess the impact on the fledgling democracy, and offer their thoughts on how the international community may respond.

Domestic crises were an excuse for Saied to act

Tunisian President Saied has decided to freeze parliament for at least a month, remove the immunity of parliamentarians, sack the prime minister, and take control of the security forces. That Saied considers these actions legitimate, according to his interpretation of Article 80 of the 2014 constitution, is not surprising. The crisis has been developing since the summer of 2020, when the president fired Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh and forced parliament to accept the appointment of his advisor, Hichem Mechichi. Many would argue that Saied felt threatened by the leader of the Islamist Ennahda party and Parliament Speaker, Rached Ghannouci. Immediately thereafter, when Mechichi disagreed with the president on several fronts, Saied initiated a series of aggressive political measures to have him removed.

The events of July 25 were the last resort for Saied to reach his objective to assume complete control of the country. The failure of the government to deal with the economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic provided the excuse for President Saied to act. This divisive maneuver could have irreparable consequences for the fledgling democracy, chief among them an intensified confrontation between various political actors. The grievances and tensions within Tunisia are now high enough to worry about an eventual escalation from civil demonstrations to armed confrontation.

Karim Mezran, director of the North Africa Initiative and resident senior fellow.

Tunisia 2014’s constitution includes a specific provision on the state of emergency. According to Article 80 of the constitution, the president, “in the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state, may take any measures necessitated by the exceptional circumstances.”

Per Article 80, exceptional measures can be imposed to maintain the integrity of state institutions and services and ensure the continuity of the government despite the gravity of a crisis. However, the president must also ensure that such measures guarantee a return to the normal functioning of state institutions and services as soon as possible.

The adopted measures should be suspended once the reasons for their implementation have ceased. Considering their exceptional character, certain conditions must be in place. Prior to the announcement of the state of emergency, the president must consult with the prime minister and the speaker of parliament and inform the head of the constitutional court. However, the latter is impossible to fulfill given that Tunisia has yet to institute a constitutional court that oversees a legitimate implementation of the constitution. Additionally, through an official statement to the people, the president must announce that he intends to implement such measures.

The condition expressed in Article 80 does not specify whether the president must consult with the parliament and government on the critical situation the country is facing, or on the measures to be taken. The president has a certain degree of discretion to decide whether to delay the state of emergency. However, Article 80 does not confer unrestricted powers to the president. It clearly states that during a state of emergency, parliament shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period. Therefore, the president cannot dissolve parliament. Moreover, a motion of censure against the government cannot be presented. This implies that the state of emergency does not settle a constitutional dictatorship, which would have concentrated all three branches of government in the hands of the president nor allow the suspension of the separation of powers.

Given the nature of the measures announced by President Saied, he exercised his powers beyond the scope and conditions stipulated in the constitution. Yet, the crisis in the country has been ongoing for months and is undeniably of an exceptional character, which legitimately allows the recourse to Article 80. However, their scope should be limited and restricted, mainly in the absence of a judicial review by the constitutional court.

Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

International repercussions

Once again, Tunisia is on the frontline of a major global crisis. In 2011, when soaring global prices led to a spike in the cost of living, socioeconomic despair in Tunisia converged thunderously with political dissent and kicked off the Arab Spring. This time, widespread anger over the mismanagement of COVID-19 and its calamitous fiscal fallout has set the stage for another political inflection point. International reaction to President Saied’s move will be complicated by the fact that he has not sought to suspend the constitution prima facie but rather to act within it. While Saied has enlisted the support of the armed forces and his sacking of the government was celebrated by large crowds in the streets, he ultimately lacks the party apparatus to consolidate his position formally. Just as Tunisia ten years ago became the trial case for democracy in the Arab world, so the coming weeks may test the prospects—and the dangers—of a political insurgent claiming to take on a corrupt system and unilaterally calling time on a dysfunctional elite. Therefore, the outcome will carry implications beyond the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, particularly as pandemic-related discontent intensifies globally.

Alia Brahimi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

How Algeria responded to the events

News of President Saied’s dismissal of the government and parliament reached neighboring Algeria amidst an already turbulent period.

Earlier this month, the Pegasus spyware scandal escalated tensions with Morocco, Algeria’s neighbor to the west, to their worst levels in years and raised delicate questions about the country’s cyber defenses. The coronavirus pandemic has swelled dramatically in recent days, threatening to overwhelm the country’s health services, sending citizens scrambling for oxygen and other supplies, and prompting renewed curfews. Preoccupied with these and other challenges, none in Algiers welcome the possibility of a constitutional crisis in Tunisia.

Algerian state media reported that Saied called his Algerian counterpart, Abdelmadjid Tebboune—likely to reassure Tunisia’s largest neighbor that the shakeup will not jeopardize the country’s stability. On the contrary, Saied will have presented his move to sideline the Ennahda party as best for Tunisia’s future prosperity. That message is unlikely to provoke objections from Algerian leaders, no strangers themselves to bending the rules to subvert Islamist advances—as they did most substantially in 1992, touching off a decade of violence. To maintain Algeria’s critical support, Saied will need to reassure Algiers that his move will not have such destabilizing effects on Tunisia or the wider region.

Ordinary Algerians, who share tight ties with their Tunisian neighbors, are also watching events closely, as they have ever since protests there touched off the Arab Spring a decade ago. To many Algerians, Tunisia’s rocky but heretofore successful democratic transition was proof that a third way existed between the strongmen and the Islamists. That hope was one of many factors that helped kindle Algeria’s Hirak, a mass protest movement for political change that began in 2019. Today activists in Algeria and across the region are watching Tunisia closely to see whether it will remain a model worth aspiring to.

Andrew Farrandnonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

What does the crisis mean for Egypt?

With his decision to dismiss the government and freeze parliament’s activity, President Saied attempted to sideline Ennahda, the main Islamist party, whose historical leader, Ghannouci, is the current parliament speaker. Saied and Ghannouci’s difficult relationship seems to mirror that of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s. In Egypt in 2013, one year after his election, Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was ousted by the military after large-scale protests against Morsi’s government. Today in Tunisia, we are witnessing a president riding on the anger of many Tunisians who have been protesting what they see as a corrupt and inefficient parliament. This anger is directed against Ennahda, which is being blamed for ineffectively addressing the country’s mounting economic and political problems. Furthermore, President Saied is not hiding the desire to concentrate all political power in his own hands, by imposing a robust presidential system and emulating what Egyptian President Sisi has already realized.

It is very likely—in the name of their shared aversion to political Islam—that Sisi will welcome and support the latest developments in Tunisia, as another example of the failure of the political branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and their inability to transform into reality the revolutionary ideals of the so-called Arab Spring. Cairo could favor a possible transformation of the Tunisian political landscape if it moves toward an anti-Islamist and strong presidential system. This could pave the way for creating an arch in North Africa against political Islam, possibly also influencing the political situation in Libya.

Alessia Melcangi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

What happens in Tunisia, doesn’t stay in Tunisia

The unfolding Tunisian crisis was an endmost litmus test for the credibility of countries that often hype liberal ideals, democratic norms, and progressive values as cornerstones for good governance. Yet, the settling dust of European and American complacency observed towards Tunisia’s democratic challenges is revealing a bleak picture that vindicates the MENA region’s authoritarians that often count on their Western counterparts’ complacency. Those whose thrones once creaked under the strain of freedom-seeking Tunisians’ ardor are now rejoicing in their gloom. The irony is not lost on observers: a decade that began with the region’s youth forcing an agenda for change through collective mobilization is ending with aging authoritarians applauding as the only fledgling democracy borne out of the decade’s early revolutionary fever has its wings clipped.

While there are legitimate questions about President Saied’s capabilities to steer Tunisia out of the quagmire he has embroiled it in, what is indubitable is that his intentions—well-meaning or not—are of no consequence to those already leveraging the ossifying president’s blundering impulses to push their own narrative. In neighboring Libya, an unrepenting General Khalifa Haftar has welcomed the move—congratulating Saied for acting against Islamists. Similarly, Gulf-funded media outlets are misleadingly using Tunisian developments to scapegoat Islamism for the country’s ills. The muted response of Western countries to the current crisis while they predominantly spectated as Tunisia’s post-revolutionary democratic candlelight dimmed has enabled these forces to reinforce their echo chambers.

Much like 2011, Tunisian developments and how they are dealt with will ripple beyond its borders. Neighboring Libyans, whose country’s precarious post-conflict transition currently hangs in the balance, will be the first to take the moral from Tunisia’s story to determine the rules of their own political game.

Emadeddin Badi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

What to watch for next?

In the past few months, Tunisians have taken to the streets to protest the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Angered by the increasing death rates caused by the pandemic as well as the deadlock of the main political parties to solve the crisis, Tunisians have reached a tipping point. The frustration caused by the recent surge of cases has exacerbated a difficult economic situation caused by years of economic stagnation. Although it is still too soon to tell whether President Saied has the support of a majority of Tunisians, many protestors who took to the streets on July 25 after the president’s actions cheered his decision to dissolve parliament—reflecting their deep dissatisfaction with the current political deadlock.

We are witnessing many young Tunisians reacting to the inability of Tunisia’s ruling parties to govern the country. Soaring unemployment, corruption, and a growing number of COVID-19 cases have caused a wave of unrest which President Saied is using to secure more power for himself through new elections. To know whether Tunisia’s democratic institutions are at risk, it will be vital to monitor the following political scenarios:

  • Will Saied go as far as arresting opposition leaders after he revoked the immunity enjoyed by members of parliament?
  • Will clashes between the protestors and police turn violent and how will security services respond?
  • How soon will Saied nominate a new prime minister as he promised?
  • Will there be further restrictions on the press after the July 26 storming at Al Jazeera’s Tunis bureau and the expulsion of its journalists?
Interviews, News, Perspectives 0 comments on No Breakthrough in Biden-Erdogan meeting

No Breakthrough in Biden-Erdogan meeting

Neither US President nor Turkish counterpart provide any details on how exactly they will mend the relationship or lay out steps that will help ease tensions between the NATO allies.

US President Joe Biden and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sounded upbeat after their first face-to-face talks on Monday, although they did not announce major breakthroughs in the relationship between the two allies, at odds over Russian weapons, Syria, Libya and other issues.

“We had a positive and productive meeting, much of it one-on-one,” Biden told a news conference after their meeting in Brussels.

“Our teams are going to continue our discussions and I’m confident we’ll make real progress with Turkey and the United States,” he added.

Erdogan characterised his talks with Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit as “productive and sincere.”

“We think that there are no issues between US and Turkey relationship that are unsolvable and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems,” he said.

Despite their publicly optimistic tone, neither provided any details on how exactly they would mend the relationship or lay out steps that would help ease tensions between the NATO allies.

Turkey, with NATO’s second-largest military, has angered its allies in the Western military alliance by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in wars in Syria and Libya. It is also in a standoff with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As president, Biden has adopted a cooler tone than predecessor Donald Trump towards Erdogan. Biden quickly recognised the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide – a position that angers Turkey – and stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record.

Washington has already removed Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program and imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

One area where Erdogan hoped to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport after US and NATO forces withdraw in coming weeks. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey would play a key role but that no decision was made at the Monday summit.

At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.

Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.

Erdogan also met French President Emmanuel Macron. Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.

“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterwards.

Interviews, News, Perspectives 0 comments on United States ramps up Libyan engagement .. By Mustafa Fetouri

United States ramps up Libyan engagement .. By Mustafa Fetouri

The Biden administration has just appointed its first special envoy for Libya and sent Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood to visit the North African nation.

The Biden administration just appointed its first special envoy for Libya. Ambassador Richard Norland, who has been the United States’ ambassador to the North African country since August 2019. He will now double as a special envoy.

Out of the US Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, Libya’s western neighbor, Norland has been vocal on Libyan affairs, regularly visiting the country and tweeting, almost daily, about its politics. At one point he seemed to be the only American diplomat closely following the Libyan conflict while the Trump administration appeared to be distancing itself.

The United States has some moral responsibility toward Libya because it was under Barack Obama that it took part in the 2011 military intervention in support of the armed rebellion, dubbed the Libyan Revolution, that toppled former leader Moammar Gadhafi, and which ended up sending Libya into chaos, conflict and lawlessness.

In what is seen as an emerging new US active approach to Libya, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood visited Tripoli May 18 where he met his counterpart Najala al-Mangoush, Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh and Presidency Council chief Mohamed al-Menfi. Hood is the highest US official to visit the country since 2014 when the US Embassy staff relocated to Tunisia because of the deteriorating security in the country.

In a joint press conference with Manghoush in Tripoli, Hood said, “The goal of the United States is a sovereign, stable, unified Libya with no foreign interference and a state that is capable of combating terrorism.” He added, “We [United States] oppose foreign fighters; we oppose proxy forces.” His host echoed him by saying, “Foreign interference [in Libya] must end.” She also called on the United States to reopen its embassy and consulate in Tripoli, which have been closed for the last seven years.

Foreign troops and mercenaries are a contentious issue in Libya and abroad. Many fear their presence might derail the entire political process including the promised Dec. 24 elections.

Back in December, the United Nations acting envoy to Libya, Stephanie Williams, estimated the number of foreign fighters to be around 20,000 stationed in at least 10 different bases. None of these bases are under any kind of Libyan control.

Williams, who left the UN job in March, told Al-Monitor she thinks the Biden administration is more serious about Libya in both policy and strategy, adding that she noticed this “new tone” during her last briefing to the UN Security Council Jan. 28. She also said that the appointment of Norland as envoy for Libya is a “good signal” indicating the return of the United States to Libya.

She thinks the United States is going through a “comprehensive process in policy” that aims to return to multilateralism in tackling global affairs including conflicts. This starkly contrasts with the former administration that followed a more unilateralist policy under the banner of “America First.”

Prior to his appointment as envoy, Norland, known for his regular tweets about Libya, had warned “of the Russia dangers in Libya.”

President Joe Biden has repeatedly warned Russia that it can expect tough US competition on global issues — and Libya is likely no exception. Antony Blinken, the top US diplomat, just wrapped up his Middle East tour that took him to Egypt, among other countries. The Libyan developments must have been discussed in Cairo since Egypt is military strongman Khalifa Hifter’s ally, and it has security and economic interest in its eastern neighbor. Hood’s visit to Tripoli signals an important message to all those involved in the Libyan conflict, both locally and regionally. The US’ potentials to “convene internationally” compel and encourage others to follow, Williams said.

She also draws a certain parallel with the situation in Iraq after the invasion of 2003 and the military intervention in Libya in 2011, noting that in Libya “the lessons of Iraq were not learned.”

Read more: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/united-states-ramps-libyan-engagement#ixzz6wccIOnJ0

Interviews, News, Perspectives 0 comments on American politics are getting more European .. By Ishaan Tharoor

American politics are getting more European .. By Ishaan Tharoor

President Biden is trying to turn the page on four decades of American economic orthodoxy. “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked,” he declared Wednesday, during a speech marking his first 100 days in office, in which he championed bills for trillions of dollars in government spending. “It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and middle out.” A figure bound up in half a century of Washington establishment politics is now positioning himself to be the most consequential president since Ronald Reagan, and perhaps the most transformative one since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Biden is presiding over a generational transition in economic thinking. It’s a shift that may also shake up the country’s political coordinates: Democrats are more aggressively seeking to build the kind of social democracy that exists in many European countries, where access to health care and education is more equitable and the safety net far deeper. Growing ranks of Republicans, meanwhile, are flirting with a brand of nativist populism already prevalent among the European far right and illiberal nationalists in power in countries such as Hungary and Poland.

“Exiting the stage after a long run in power is a group of accomplished centrist economists who came of age during an inflation spiral in the 1970s and governed from the 1990s to the 2010s, with a mixed record of success and failure,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath. The “new economic guard on the left” that’s entering the fray, he added, “hasn’t seen inflation in 50 years and doesn’t worry much about it. With interest rates low, it doesn’t worry much about budget deficits either.”

Now they want to see action. “Reagan’s small-government philosophy resulted in a decades-long squeeze on the federal government, especially domestic spending, and on tax policies that mainly benefited the wealthiest Americans,” wrote my colleague Dan Balz. “If Biden ultimately gets his way legislatively, and that is a big question mark, those policies would be replaced with ones that would directly address long-standing economic, racial and gender inequities that have only become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic.”

To a certain extent, Biden simply reflects the emerging political zeitgeist in the West. Multiple polls show significant majorities of Americans back his coronavirus relief package and proposed infrastructure and social welfare spending bills. A Pew survey published last week found that pluralities in France, Germany and the United States all believed their country’s economic systems need “major changes.” Pew noted that “when asked about various economic interventions the government could undertake” — from building more public housing to providing universal basic income to raising taxes on the wealthy — “publics generally voice high levels of support for each potential program.”

“The model of pre-coronavirus capitalism, with high levels of inequality, is losing popular support, suggesting the need for a post-Covid world with more support for the vulnerable and higher taxes, especially on extreme levels of income, wealth and profits,” wrote Chris Giles of the Financial Times.

There are, of course, likely limits to how much Biden will be able (or may actually want) to implement. His proposed legislation faces steep fights in Congress, where Republicans are only narrowly in the minority. But the more penny-pinching Republican counterproposals to Biden’s plans — $618 billion for coronavirus relief a couple of months ago and $568 billion for infrastructure more recently — already reflect a considerable change from a previous era of deficit hawkishness. (Trump, as Balz noted, disbursed some $4 trillion in tax cuts and coronavirus spending.)

“Compared with the line that Republicans took for most of the Obama presidency,” observed conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “they represent a dramatic shift, with a combined price tag far beyond Obama’s $787 billion in stimulus spending, which Republicans back then denounced as profligacy or socialism.”

Culture, not economics, is the terrain where Republicans seem keener to fight. They are far more animated about the apparent “wokeness” of corporations that make statements in defense of voting rights than they are about Democratic aims to raise corporate taxes. In a process that began under President Donald Trump, growing numbers of Republicans are embracing a kind of politics more familiar to far-right parties like France’s National Rally or Italy’s League — a creed that’s not tethered to free market dogmatism, wholly opposed to immigration, and rooted in an appeal to “working class,” nativist interests.

Oren Cass, a public policy expert and one of the intellectuals of the “new right,” sees Trumpism as the first flush of an anti-liberal political creed that’s arguably taken clearer shape in Europe. “The backlash can be seen in the United Kingdom, where Brexit rejected an antidemocratic globalism; in Eastern Europe, where the success of Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz has revitalized a Christian traditionalism; and in Spain, where the rise of Vox has given the world a rare right-wing party with a labor union,” Cass wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. “The politics and circumstances of course vary by country, but tremors from the same tectonic shifts that set off the United States’ earthquake can be felt far and wide.”

Those tremors keep rippling through America as well. Tucker Carlson, probably the most influential right-wing pundit on U.S. cable news, now explicitly touts the “great replacement” theory that immigrants, and especially undocumented ones, are somehow “replacing” native-born Americans. It’s language that is also proliferating within the GOP — never mind that the 2020 Census charted the slowest population growth in the United States in almost a century and lagging immigration.

The rhetoric of “replacement” has for years existed on the fringes of Europe’s far right, seen more often in the manifestos of white supremacist gunmen than on prime-time American television. But as Biden and his allies push for social democratic transformation, this too has gone mainstream.

There are plenty of ways that the American scene is hardly aping Europe, not least in rolling conflicts over race and its role at the heart of American history. The Democrats, still dominated by establishment centrists, could scale back their ambitions. The Republicans could resume their opportunism over the deficit should the economic winds turn. But the showdown between the two very different political passions currently unleashed — one animated by left-wing economics, the other by right-wing nationalism — could be a defining struggle of a new era of politics in the United States and beyond.

Interviews, News, Perspectives 0 comments on The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist raises the stakes for Biden .. By Ishaan Tharoor

The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist raises the stakes for Biden .. By Ishaan Tharoor

We don’t know who exactly gunned down a prominent Iranian nuclear scientist on Friday. But there’s already an expert consensus — confirmed by a senior U.S. official to my colleagues — that Israel was behind the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, slain in a roadside ambush outside the Iranian capital Tehran. If true, it adds to a long record of alleged clandestine Israeli activity within Iran, including previous assassinations and recent sabotage attempts on the country’s nuclear program.

Iranian authorities view Fakhrizadeh’s killing as an act of terrorism and have vowed retaliation at the “right time,” potentially through proxies elsewhere in the Middle East. A statement from the European Union labeled the incident a “criminal act” and urged all parties in the region to “exercise maximum restraint in order to avoid escalation which cannot be in anyone’s interest.” The Trump administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained circumspect in their silence through the weekend.

“Fakhrizadeh was widely regarded as the brains behind Iran’s nuclear program, including Tehran’s clandestine efforts to develop a nuclear bomb in the early 2000s,” my colleagues reported. “The physics professor, believed to be about 60 years old, has been identified by intelligence officials as the head of the Amad Plan, the secret nuclear weapons research program that sought to develop as many as six nuclear bombs before Iranian leaders ordered a halt to the program in 2003.”

That Israel would want to target such an official is not surprising. Nor is — as critics of both Trump and Netanyahu’s hawkish approach to Iran quickly noted — the timing of this strike. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden hopes to restore the framework of the nuclear deal that Trump violated when he imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, which in turn compelled the Iranian regime to resume nuclear activities that had been curtailed under the terms of the deal.

Trump and his allies have made plain their desire to inflict greater pain on Iran in the final weeks of the presidency. And they seem keen to test Iran’s apparent willingness to soak up such targeted attacks while they wait for the winds to change in Washington. “The operation reflects thinking of those in the Netanyahu government — and/or the Trump administration — who see these next few weeks as their last chance to make relations with Iran as bad as possible, in an effort to spoil the Biden administration’s efforts to return to diplomacy with Tehran,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA official and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, to my colleagues.

Over the weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his government would wait out Trump’s waning “maximum pressure” campaign, which was backed by Israel and a handful of Arab monarchies that found common cause over their antipathy to the Iranian regime. “Their pressure era is coming to an end and the global conditions are changing,” Rouhani said.

But within Iran, hard line pressure is also mounting. Fakhrizadeh’s assassination comes in a year that began with the United States killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a leading Iranian commander, and then saw a series of unexplained explosions at sensitive Iranian sites, including a centrifuge research and development center at Natanz. The strikes have exposed the failures of Iran’s security apparatus and weakness at the heart of the regime.

“For Iran’s adversaries to pull off so many operations so quickly means there is a significant scale of local recruitment and management of cutouts,” wrote Kamran Bokhari of the Center for Global Policy. “In many ways growing public anger against the regime in the last decade or so—including last year’s protests and brutal crackdown—has provided a recruitment-rich environment for foreign intelligence services.”

That sense of humiliation and apprehension in Tehran may complicate Biden’s efforts to calm tensions. In remarks delivered last week, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s designated national security adviser and a former Obama-era negotiator with Iran, said the path forward was “really up to Iran” and seemed to suggest that Tehran may have to take the first concrete step. “If Iran returns to compliance, for its obligations that it has been violating, and is prepared to advance good-faith negotiations on these follow-on agreements,” then a Biden administration would follow suit, Sullivan said.

Both in Washington and Tehran, the room for maneuver won’t be particularly great. In that context, experts in Europe see an opportunity — perhaps, even a responsibility — to help shepherd the rapprochement along. “European countries must move fast to contain Iran’s expanding nuclear program, and to urge the incoming Biden administration to take advantage of the political momentum following his inauguration to actively engage Iran and reverse the current dangerous escalatory trajectory,” wrote a group of senior former European diplomats in an open letter shown to Today’s WorldView ahead of its Monday publication by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The letter outlined a number of ambitious steps that Britain, France and Germany — the “E3” countries directly involved in the brokering of the nuclear deal with Iran — ought to take in the coming weeks. That involves urging the incoming Biden administration to formally announce its intent to return to the deal, collaborating with the incoming administration on a wider road map for “regional de-escalation” that also includes Iran’s adversaries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and building up a direct European channel to Iran in order to set out a realistic path for diplomacy.

“This process should involve an extensive discussion with Iran on technical steps to roll back its nuclear program, the realistic contours of sanctions relief under a Biden administration, and European measures to support Iran’s economy,” stated the letter, whose signatories include former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, former German ambassador to the United States Wolfgang Ischinger and former NATO secretary general Javier Solana.

Without such steps, the coming weeks could prove dangerous. The killing of Fakhrizadeh “should be a wake up call for Europe and the incoming administration,” Ellie Geranmayeh, senior fellow at ECFR, told Today’s WorldView. “The longer Iran continues to expand its nuclear program absent political talks, the more likely such covert operations will take place and the higher the risk of broader regional military escalation.”

Interviews, News 0 comments on Tunisia Minister to Asharq Al-Awsat: Protests Can’t Overthrow Fakhfakh Govt.

Tunisia Minister to Asharq Al-Awsat: Protests Can’t Overthrow Fakhfakh Govt.

Tunis – Kamal Ben Younes
Protests, arson and some violent acts that have been recently reported in some Tunisian cities cannot overthrow the current coalition government, led by Elyes Fakhfakh, said Minister of Trade Mohamed Msilini.

 

He said the current government was the “last chance” to improve the investment climate and partnership with European, Arab and the Maghreb states and save the country from the economic and social difficulties that have accumulated for more than 10 years.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Msilini dismissed the impact of the large anti-government campaigns launched by some opposition parties and social media websites named “Youth of the Revolution.”

They had called for the organization of the so-called “departure sit-in 2” near the parliament and government buildings, similar to the 2013 rallies, to protest against the mounting unemployment and poverty, accumulation of economic and social hardships, especially in light of the coronavirus outbreak, and the political elite’s preoccupation with trivial disputes for nine years.

Msilini is a member of parliament’s Democratic bloc, which is the second largest after the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement.

He ruled out the possibility that the political parties, which are driving the anti- government and parliament campaigns, would succeed in overthrowing them through demonstrations and sit-ins.

On the fact that the protests coincided with the call by some opposition parties for a government change, Msilini acknowledged the “abnormal” competition taking place between the government and parliamentary majorities.

Msilini said the government majority relies on Ennahda, the Democratic bloc and independents, while the parliamentary majority relies on Ennahda, Nabil Karoui’s Qalb Tounes (Heart of Tunisia) and the al-Karama coalition, whose opponents accuse of including hardline and Salafist members.

The minister further acknowledged the differences among MPs on some local and external issues, including the Libyan conflict.

Interviews, News, Seminars and studies 0 comments on Can Islamist moderates remake the politics of the Muslim world ? By Taylor Luck

Can Islamist moderates remake the politics of the Muslim world ? By Taylor Luck

 

Alaa Faroukh insists he is the future. After nearly a decade in the Muslim Brotherhood, he says that he has finally found harmony between his faith and politics, not as a hardcore Islamist, but as a “Muslim democrat.”

“We respect and include minorities, we fight for women’s rights, we respect different points of view, we are democratic both in our homes and in our politics – that is how we honor our faith,” Mr. Faroukh says.

The jovial psychologist with a toothy smile, who can quote Freud as easily as he can recite the Quran, is speaking from his airy Amman clinic, located one floor below the headquarters of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, the very movement he left.

“The time of divisive politics of older Islamists is over, and everyone in my generation agrees,” says the 30-something Faroukh. “The era of political Islam is dead.”

Faroukh is symbolic of a shift sweeping through parts of the Arab world. From Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan, many Islamist activists and some established Islamic organizations are adopting a more progressive and moderate tone in their approach to politics and governing. They are reaching out to minorities and secular Muslims while doing away with decades-old political goals to impose their interpretation of Islam on society.

“The time of divisive politics of older Islamists is over, and everyone in my generation agrees. The era of political Islam is dead,” says Alaa Faroukh, a young Jordanian who left the Muslim Brotherhood for a moderate political party.

Part of the move is simple pragmatism. After watching the Muslim Brotherhood – with its call for sharia (Islamic law) and failure to reach out to minorities and secular Muslims – get routed in Egypt, and the defeat of other political Islamic groups across the Arab world, many Islamic activists believe taking a more moderate stance is the only way to gain and hold power. Yet others, including many young Muslims, believe a deeper ideological shift is under way in which Islamist organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of religious tolerance and political pluralism in modern societies. 

While Islamist movements remain the largest and most potent political movement in the region, a widespread adoption of democratic principles by their followers could transform the discourse in a region where politics are often bound to identity and are bitterly polarized.

“We believe that young Jordanians and young Arabs in general see that the future is not in partisan politics, but in cooperation, understanding, and putting the country above petty party politics,” says Rheil Gharaibeh, the moderate former head of the Jordanian Brotherhood’s politburo who has formed his own political party.

Is this the beginning of a fundamental shift in the politics of the Middle East or just an expedient move by a few activists?

***

Many Islamist groups say their move to the center is a natural step in multiparty politics, but this obscures how far their positions have truly shifted in a short time.

Some 20 years ago, the manifesto of the Muslim Brotherhood – the Sunni Islamic political group with affiliates across the Arab world – called for the implementation of sharia and gender segregation at universities, and commonly employed slogans such as “Islam is the solution.”

In 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings swept these Islamist movements into power or installed them as the leading political force from the Arab Gulf to Morocco, sparking fears of an Islamization of Arab societies.

But instead of rolling back women’s rights, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda pushed through gender equality laws and helped write the most progressive, gender-equal constitution in the Arab world. The Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD) has played down its Islamic rhetoric, abandoning talk of Islamic identity and sharia and instead speaking about democratic reform and human rights. And the Brotherhood in Jordan traded in its slogan “Islam is the solution” for “the people demand reform” and “popular sovereignty for all.”

The past few years have seen an even more dramatic shift to the center. Not only have Islamist movements dropped calls for using sharia as a main source of law, but they nearly all now advocate for a “civil state”­ – a secular nation where the law, rather than holy scriptures or the word of God, is sovereign.

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Supporters of the National Alliance for Reform rally in Amman, Jordan, in 2016. They have rebranded themselves as a national rather than an Islamic movement.

In Morocco and Jordan, Islamist groups separated their religious activities – preaching, charitable activities, and dawa (spreading the good word of God) – from their political branches. In 2016, Ennahda members in Tunisia went one step further and essentially eliminated their religious activities altogether, rebranding themselves as “Muslim democrats.”

Islamist moderates say this shift away from religious activities to a greater focus on party politics is a natural step in line with what President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done with his Justice and Development Party in Turkey, or even, they hope, with the Christian democrats in Europe: to become movements inspired by faith, not governing through faith.

“While we are a Muslim country, we are aware that we do not have one interpretation of religion and we will not impose one interpretation of faith over others,” says Mehrezia Labidi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament and Ennahda party leader. “As Muslim democrats we are guided by Islamic values, but we are bound by the Constitution, the will of the people, and the rule of law for all.”

Experts say this shift is a natural evolution for movements that are taking part in the decisionmaking process for the first time after decades in the opposition.

“As the opposition, you can refuse, you can criticize, you can obstruct,” says Rachid Mouqtadir, professor of political science at Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco, and an expert in Islamist movements. “But when you are in a coalition with other parties and trying to govern, the parameters change, your approach changes, and as a result your ideology changes.”

The trend has even gone beyond the borders of the Arab world. The Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM), founded in 1971 by Malaysian university students inspired by the Brotherhood and now one of the strongest civil society groups in the country, is also shedding the “Islamist” label.

In addition to running schools and hospitals, ABIM now hosts interfaith concerts, partners on projects with Christians and Buddhists, and even reaches out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists in its campaign for social justice.

“We are in the age of post-political Islam,” says Ahmad Fahmi Mohd Samsudin, ABIM vice president, from the movement’s headquarters in a leafy Kuala Lumpur suburb. “That means when we say we stand for Islam, we stand for social justice and equality for all – no matter their faith or background.”

***

Experts say this evolution in political thought is as much a survival strategy as it is a political shift – an attempt by Islamists to secure their footing on the shifting sands of the Arab world.

Islamists are all haunted by the specter of Egypt, where what was supposed to be the crowning achievement of a century of political Islam turned into a disaster. By 2013, the Egyptian Brotherhood – the original, mother organization – had won both a majority in parliament and the presidency in the Arab world’s most populous state.

Yet only one year into Mohamed Morsi’s tenure, the movement had done little to calm the fears of secular or minority Egyptians, show transparency in its decisionmaking process, or overcome claims of mismanagement. A large portion of Egypt’s 100 million people came out to protest and supported a military overthrow of the democratically elected Mr. Morsi.

Following his ouster, Arab Gulf states led by the United Arab Emirates banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist movement, while Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, mercilessly cracked down on Brotherhood activists, killing hundreds and arresting thousands.

This dramatic fall from power looms large over nearly every decision Islamists make today. In Tunisia, faced with popular protests following the assassination of a leftist politician and Ennahda critic a few weeks after Morsi’s ouster, Ennahda relinquished power. The party later entered into a governing coalition with the secular Nidaa Tounes party as a junior member of the government. In Morocco, the PJD appealed more openly to the monarchy, conceding the king religious legitimacy.

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood leader Salem Falahat speaks in Amman in 2011. It was during these Arab Spring protests that the hardline Islamist began to soften his views.

“This is not an ideological shift underway; this [moderation trend] comes from these groups’ survival instinct,” says Shadi Hamid, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and author of multiple books on Islamist movements. “Islamist movements prioritize survival and self-preservation at any cost. After the experience in Egypt and pressures from the Gulf and regimes, these groups had no choice but to move in this direction.”

Whether the shift is ideological or pragmatic, Islamists agree that the move to the center has been a recipe for electoral success. In May’s Tunisian municipal elections, the first since Ennahda became the Muslim Democrat party, the movement came away with the largest number of votes of any party at 29 percent, and snagged 2,135 out of 7,000 municipal seats across the country.

In 2016, Morocco’s PJD gained an additional 18 seats in parliament in its second parliamentary election, cementing its hold on power. The successes have won over even hard-line supporters who demand party “purity” and are drawn to these movements solely for their Islamic identity.

“As long as people see these movements rack up victories, studies and recent history have shown supporters will stick with them no matter how less Islamic they become,” says Hassan Abu Haniya, a Jordanian expert on Islamist movements.

*** 

With his traditional red-and-white checkered headscarf, sharply trimmed beard, and no-nonsense demeanor, Salem Falahat was widely known as a hard-liner – a conservative with a capital “C.” It was his religious zeal and trademark unwillingness to compromise that helped propel Mr. Falahat through the ranks from a teenage recruit in 1968 to become overall leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan in 2006.

Salem Falahat holds a copy of his book criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood at his office in Amman, Jordan.

His views were that of a “true believer”: Christians had no place in the Brotherhood, universities should be segregated, Western culture was corrupting Jordan from within. People who disagreed with the Brotherhood were not just foes. For him, they were unbelievers, infidels.

“I was very, very conservative,” Falahat says, shaking his head. “So conservative that you could call me an extremist.”

It was while serving as the Jordanian Brotherhood’s coordinator for the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that Falahat says he began to have a change of heart. Each day, he would be on the phone, arranging protests and statements with leftists, communists, Baathists, nationalists, and seculars – the very people Falahat believed were his enemies.

As they linked arms one Friday to march in protest for greater political freedoms, he made a startling discovery: He realized he had much more in common with them than he did differences.

“It turned out that these people who I thought were our enemies had the very morals, ethics, and kindness that Islam calls for,” Falahat says. “I realized then that you don’t have to be a devout Muslim to have Islamic values – and you certainly don’t have to be an Islamist.”

Falahat tried to take his new political gospel back to the Brotherhood, urging the movement to open up and work with nonmembers. Yet while Tunisia’s Ennahda thrived in post-revolution elections and the PJD formed a government under the monarchical system in Morocco, the Jordanian Brotherhood, which is more closely aligned with hard-line Hamas and the Egyptian Brotherhood, resisted change.

Falahat and others watched in dismay as the Jordanian Brotherhood boycotted Jordan’s post-Arab Spring elections in 2013 and invitations from the king to take part in the reform process. After four years of being met with stiff resistance, Falahat left the Brotherhood in 2016 to join with nationalists, leftists, and tribalists to form a “third-way,” unity party devoted to constitutional reform and rooting out corruption. The Partnership and Rescue Party was licensed last December.

Its followers claim to practice what they preach. The party’s secretary-general is a nationalist, the assistant secretary-general is a woman, and the head of the politburo is a leftist woman. Former Islamists who followed Falahat make up around 10 percent of members. They openly support a Christian or a woman becoming prime minister.

This is more than a strategic shift, Falahat insists. It is a recognition of political reality: If Islamist movements do not moderate enough, their followers will – with or without them.

“Either you keep up with the times or you are left behind,” Falahat says. “Sooner or later even conservatives will realize that this is the future and will change their tune. Until then, we are offering a third way.”

Third-way political movements that prioritize political reform over ideology have become a refuge for disenchanted young Islamists. Several hundred of them have left the Jordanian Brotherhood over the conservative old guard’s stranglehold on the movement’s leadership.

Some, like Faroukh, the young psychologist, have flocked to Zamzam, another third-way political movement formed by Mr. Gharaibeh, the moderate former head of the Jordanian Brotherhood politburo who was excommunicated from the group for his pragmatic views in 2012.

“The failure of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the success of Ennahda in Tunisia proves that cooperation and moderation is the future,” Gharaibeh says from his party office in west Amman.

The more open and democratic tone was on display during a meeting of Zamzam deputies at the party office in late August. Voices and passions rose as party leaders took turns vigorously debating the new government, the income tax law, social media messaging, and preparations for a potential early election. Religion did not come up once.

“When we focus on national issues rather than identity politics, we have solutions, we have a strategy, and we have support,” says Gharaibeh.

***

But questions remain: Will rank-and-file Islamists support watered-down Islamism? And what is an Islamist movement without Islam?

In Tunisia, Ennahda’s core supporters – working class Tunisians and those from marginalized rural communities – remain divided over the group’s new direction.

Many gravitated to the movement for its calls for social justice and an Islamic state, not for technocrats talking about “power-sharing” and “democratic transitions.”

“While we are a Muslim country, we are aware that we do not have one interpretation of religion and we will not impose one interpretation of faith over others,” says Mehrezia Labidi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament and Ennahda party leader.

“Ennahda decided that they will worship the seats of power they sit on and not God,” says Mounira Ben Salem, a resident of the marginalized Tunis suburb of Douar Hicher, fresh off a 12-hour shift cleaning rooms in a downtown four-star hotel. “When they turned their backs on Islam, they turned their backs on us.”

Yet the movement also retains a solid base of committed supporters who believe in the more moderate approach.

“We need patience, wisdom, and vision to navigate our transition to a democracy at a time counterrevolutionary forces are waiting for us to fall,” says physician Ahmed Ali, near his office in the upscale Tunis neighborhood of Les Berges du Lac earlier this year. “Maybe in 10 or 20 years we will have passed these challenges and be free to fully implement our agenda.”

These contrasting views symbolize a wider division within Islamist movements over their future identity. Underneath the veneer of pragmatism and rebranding, experts say, Islamist groups are “battling for their soul.”

“You sit down with the conservatives in the movement and you agree with them, and then you sit down with the moderates and liberals and you agree with them,” says Hussein Khalil, a lawyer who has been a member of the Jordanian Brotherhood for more than 20 years. “But you put them in the same room together and no one can find the middle ground.”

One question is whether those who have moderated their views will continue to do so even if the political calculus changes. Some experts remain skeptical, claiming that the very pressures and crackdowns on Islamists from regimes and outside powers pushed them toward moderation. In a free democracy, they say, these movements may be tempted to drift back toward hard-line positions to appease their base.

“If you have full-on democracy, you will see Islamist parties feeling more pressure from the right and veering rightward to maintain electoral constituencies tempted by the competitors who will emerge,” says Mr. Hamid, the Brookings expert. “In the 21st century, the lesson is if you want to win elections, it doesn’t pay to reach out to a mythical center where voters are moderate.”

Although violent extremists such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda grab headlines, the true rivals of the moderates are hard-line Salafists. They preach an austere interpretation of Islam that has spread rapidly from the Arab Gulf through the Levant and North Africa the past two decades. Their vision, promoted by autocratic Arab Gulf monarchies as a rival to the Brotherhood, is strict, requiring long beards and obeying rulers unconditionally. They also ban music, Western dress, and politics.

The spread of Salafism has been achieved through the Gulf-funded construction of mosques as well as through aid. Hundreds of Salafi charity groups provide food, build homes, offer scholarships, and donate laptops to vulnerable families across the Muslim world in return for fealty to certain sheikhs and their Gulf backers.

“We believe that young Jordanians and young Arabs in general see that the future isn’t in partisan politics, but in cooperation, understanding, and putting the country above petty party politics,” says Rheil Gharaibeh (r.), a former member of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood who has formed his own moderate political party.

Salafists have exploited the same openings created by the Arab Spring that gave rise to the Islamists: With Arab strongmen weakened or toppled, Salafi groups have filled the void left behind – offering citizens social services, education, security, and an identity.

All this poses stiff competition to the moderates, and in many areas the hard-liners continue to prevail. Both Salafists and the Justice and Charity movement have outflanked the moderate Moroccan PJD by openly calling for implementation of sharia in Morocco. Salafists and their Al Nour Party have taken up the Brotherhood’s mantle as the “Islamic party” in Egypt.

Brotherhood-affiliated preachers are all but banned in Jordan, giving Salafists control over many pulpits. The Madkhalis, a Salafi group, control territory in Libya and have made pacts with various militias and warlords. Even in Malaysia, ABIM has come under fire from its own Muslim Malay constituency, particularly the ultraconservative Malaysian Islamic Party. Hard-liners consider the moderates sellouts.

“Whether it be Salafist movements or extremist jihadist movements, there will always be groups further to the right of political Islamists,” says Abu Haniya, the Jordanian analyst. 

Still, Islamist moderates insist that they will not be cowed into changing their views. “Arab nationalism has failed, communism has failed, Islamism has failed,” says Faroukh, the Jordanian psychologist, counting on his fingers the political trends that shook the Arab world over the past century. “We are demanding a new approach. We have been fooled by politicians too many times.”