Crossposted on Foreign Policy: Transitions.
What has changed in Tunisia since opposition leader Chokri Belaid was assassinated? I’ve asked many Tunisian friends that question. Most remained silent for a few seconds, smiled sadly, and whispered, “not much.” One, a well-known activist, noted bitterly that what was clear was that Belaid didn’t die “for that incompetent man (Laarayadh) to become prime minister”.
It was one month ago that the left-wing leader was assassinated at his home in the Tunisian capital. The following day, February 7, the country’s largest trade union, the UGTT, called a national strike, bringing the country to a halt for the day. According to the Ministry of Interior, an estimated 1.4 million Tunisians attended Belaid’s funeral in Tunis, 13.2 percent of the population. In the United States, that would be the equivalent of 41.4 million people. The number is probably inflated, but whatever the accurate figure was, it’s a crowd that Tunisia hasn’t seen since the revolution in 2011. Not to be outdone, the Islamist ruling party, Ennahda, rallied its supporters and staged two mass meetings in the following days. For a moment it seemed as though politics had returned to the streets.
But now it all seems to have fizzled out.
Graffiti artists have stenciled Belaid’s mustache and mole, his most visible facial attributes, all over Tunisia’s walls — both physical and digital. His widow, Basma Khalfaoui, and their 8-year old daughter Nayrouz, have become the symbol of a defiant and dignified Tunisia, a nation that’s capable of getting back on its feet no matter how hard the blow, one that can still see clearly through the tears.
Belaid was one of the most vocal oppositionists in Tunisia, though he was not the most popular. He was not a candidate for prime minister. The party he headed, the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party, did not lead the opposition.
He was, however, a vociferous critic of the ruling Islamists and their political project, which has so far failed to answer popular demands and, more importantly, has proven incapable of creating the national unity the country so badly needs. He was also particularly critical of Ennahda’s leniencytoward the more extreme elements in their own party as well as within the Salafist movements, which often threaten violence and, indeed, have resorted to it on several occasions. Belaid himself was the target of such threats, both in private (as his family has attested) and in public. It is only one of the many ironies of this story, however, that Belaid has served time in prison, under former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, for his work as an activist lawyer – defending (Ar.), among others, many Salafis, who were unjustly accused according to anti-terrorism legislation.
Many voices (including members of Belaid’s family) have accused Ennahda of orchestrating the murder, especially party leader Rached Ghannouchi, who was often the target of Belaid’s criticisms. Basma Khalfaoui’s stated unequivocally: “Ennahda’s political leadership is involved.” Zohra Abid, editor-in-chief of the leading news portal Kapitalis, pointed the finger (Fr.) at the Revolution Protection League (LPR), which she called “the armed and terrorist wing of Ennahda.” Read more…
It turns out that the Harlem Shake fad has one redeeming quality: It seems to annoy Islamists to no end.
The kids in the Pères Blancs high school in Tunis who filmed their version of the dance certainly didn’t plan it that way. But once the clip went viral, they found themselves under attack by the minister of education himself, who went out of his way on a day off to accuse the students of immorality and “lack of respect for the institution of education. He ended his radio diatribe by threatening an “investigation” and “punishment for those responsible.”
And that, really, was the epiphany for a new generation of protesters. Upon discovering that shakin’ it for 30 seconds to an obscure remix of a Colombian Spanish tune (and bearing no resemblance to the actual Harlem Shake) drives Islamist-led government officials and their supporters absolutely nuts, young people in Tunisia knew what they had to do. The dance became a strange mark of political resistance. (Sigh.)
That was probably the day when the dance went from being a fad to a political statement — in furry costumes and boxer shorts.
Various incidents occurred around the performances, most with little political significance — students clashing with their school principals and so on. A more noteworthy clash occurred over a planned Harlem Shake gathering at the Bourguiba Language Institute, Tunis’ best-known language school, which is located in one of the city’s most conservative neighborhoods. But this time the malcontents were not the authorities but a dozen Salafi men and women who attempted to prevent students at the institute from indulging in the dance. One of the men, wearing military gear and carrying a Molotov cocktail he never used, told the dancers that he wanted to prevent them “from sinning, as you are dancing while the Israelis are killing our brothers in Palestine.” The students responded with shouts of “dégage!” (“go away”), a bit of fisticuffs ensued, and then the Salafis departed, leaving the students to film their video.
In a similar fashion, Egyptian activists also somehow figured out that their government seriously disliked the dance — and proceeded to milk that knowledge for all that it’s worth. After the first “Shakers” were arrested for dancing in their underwear late last month, activists upped the ante and organized a Harlem Shake of their own in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. MB officials tried to put a good face on things, at least at first. “Any peaceful form of demonstration is welcomed,” said spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. He then qualified his remark by adding that he doubted that the event would remain peaceful: “These matters always lead to violence which is unacceptable.” The event went ahead anyway, and ended without event. There were as many journalists on the scene as dancers.
The choice of location is quite interesting in itself. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood has no official governmental affiliation. The dance could have been organized near any of the government ministries, the presidential palace, or even the headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm. But the dancers chose to go to what many view as the real source of political power in Egypt: the opaque and unregistered organization that is the Muslim Brotherhood. “The event is in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters because we know their office is ruling the country,” stated one of the organizers.
In retaliation, a handful of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in an attempt to mock the opposition, also recorded their own clip, wearing homemade masks that depicted various opposition leaders. Sadly for them, one of them was promptly identified and mercilessly mocked on social media. The lead character in the video was ultimately compelled to apologize [in Arabic] to his fellow Muslim Brothers, admitting the video might have been “shocking and inappropriate for many.”
Now, what sort of real political change is likely to come from a Harlem Shake protest? Zero. Imagining that dancing for 30 seconds could produce any sort of serious result is naïve at best. Unlike a genuine protest, a quick Shake barely sends any message to the state and the public: The number of people involved is a few dozen at best, and the people who watch the Youtube clips are hardly the general public.
It is, however, an effective way of telling off The (Islamist) Man and making a statement. In this sense, the overreaction authorities played right into the hands of the dancers.
And if we factor in the age of most of the Harlem Shakers in transition countries, we realize that this is probably, for a large number of them, their first act of political rebellion. Even if it was in costume and underwear.
Live from Rabat, Morocco! I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to attend a protest (naturally). I wrote this. [Thanks to RB for being a gracious guide to Morocco's protest movement].
Cross-posted on Foreign Policy Transitions.
RABAT, Morocco – Yegor Talikov, a street musician, was playing his saxophone on the Hotel Balima plaza in Rabat. Some passersby slowed down without stopping, but a few did gather around, occasionally making song requests that the musician was happy to oblige.
The only thing out of the ordinary in this scene was that the audience had to stand a little closer to the musician than usual: A protest was taking place across the street next to parliament, and the music was overshadowed by the loudness of the slogans being chanted: “Dignity, Freedom, Social Justice.” “Revolt, revolt against dictatorship.”
February 20th commemorates the birth of the eponymous protest movement, which saw tens of thousands of Moroccans first take to the streets weeks after demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt had successfully deposed their dictators. The Moroccans, like their counterparts in other North African countries, demanded more democratic participation, freedom, and social justice.
With a broad, loose coalition of parties and organisations, the movement was alarming enough for the Moroccan government to react. Less than three weeks later, on March 9, 2011, King Mohammed VI gave an address in which he pledged constitutional reforms and “expanded” civil and human rights. These, in turn, gave way to a constitutional amendment referendum that was passed with a large majority.
But this wasn’t enough and the 20 February movement continued. Sort of.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for the anniversary protest. But I did not expect it to be so…small. It consisted of no more than 1,500 people altogether. The protest materialized and dissipated within an hour, when the bulk of protesters left the vicinity of the parliament, leaving only a nucleus of speakers and a slim audience. They, too, didn’t stay on very long.
How did the movement lose so much momentum over the past two years? In effect, it was the outcome of a remarkably intelligent policy by the state to split off the main partners in that loose coalition.
The Islamist Justice and Development Party, unofficially a part of the movement, pulled out as it deemed itself satisfied with the reforms suggested by the King and voted in favor of the constitutional amendment referendum. The Amazigh Cultural Movement pulled out when Tamazight, the Amazigh national language, was recognized as an official language in the July 2011 constitutional reform. (The Amazigh, meaning “Free Man”, are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa.) And Al adl wal Ihsane, an Islamic organization, also pulled out when the Justice and Development party rose to power in the November 2011 elections. Their election signaled a sign of real and gradual change, prompting many supporters of the protest movement to withdraw from the streets.
The bulk of what remains is, in effect, the Socialist Coalition, composed a few leftist parties with limited popular appear on the ground, as well as a variety of independent activists.
Two other factors might have contributed to the weak turnout on February 20. The first is that the date also marks the anniversary of the death of the previous monarch, King Hassan II. As a result, as the protesters set off to parliament, King Mohammed VI was paying tribute to his father at the nearby mausoleum, thereby drawing away much of the public and media attention. The second is the state of disarray in which many post-Arab-Spring countries find themselves — hardly a motivating model for Moroccans or forging a path they might want to follow.
In any event, the February 20th movement is vowing to carry on, denouncing the minimal reforms enacted in 2011 as largely insufficient. As the movement shrinks to a core of like-minded supporters, it is able to formulate increasingly focused and antagonistic attitudes toward the “Makhzen,” a term that refers to the presumptive “Deep State,” centered around the King and his entourage, that controls the ruling apparatus beyond the elected government.
But perhaps such points are irrelevant. The February 20th protest was below expectations, and it correspondingly weakened the movement. But it remains an important opposition force, if only in the eyes of the government: activists are still being arrested and tortured by the Moroccan police.
If the protest movement wants those passersby to join in rather than requesting their favorite songs, it will have to do a significantly better job of rebranding itself and reaching out to the public as an inclusive movement as opposed to a niche one.
How i spent my February 11th.
Crossposted on FP Transitions.
There is one tradition that Muslims and Jews in the West agree on: They both like to eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve. It’s a way of marking a day that both acknowledge to be special and joyful, but without the big family dinner and all the attendant hoopla. It’s a gesture that contains just the right hint of detachment: “I’m happy, but it’s not really my day to celebrate.”
As I drove home in Cairo on February 11th, the second anniversary of Mubarak’s abdication, I thought about that day when we embraced strangers, danced in the streets, raised flags higher than we ever did before, and quipped that “eight million protesters have now swapped phone numbers, and if anyone else tries to pull a dictatorial regime on us, the revolution would be just a text message away.”
And then it occurred to me that I had just eaten Chinese food.
Now, I wasn’t the one who had decided what we were having for dinner, but it couldn’t have been more appropriate. February 11 is supposed to be, at the very least, a day where every Egyptian, and particularly those who took to the streets two years prior, can sit back and raise a toast to themselves. We wanted it, we took it, and by god we deserve it.
But instead of pride, I felt an odd sense of distance.
Despite a heroic uphill battle that seemed — erroneously — to find its victorious pinnacle in February 2011, many of us feel that we have emerged from one circle of hell to fall into another, all the way into the ninth. Treachery. That leaves nothing but a bad taste.
Don’t misinterpret this as a lack of admiration for those events two years ago. Nor should anyone take this as evidence that we all thought our transition to democracy was going to be effortlessly easy.
Consider this: It’s two years after D-Day, and unknown bodies are still surfacing Warning: Graphic Image at the morgue with bullet wounds after clashes with the police. Activists are disappearing, snatched from protests and from their homes. And this embarrassing rag of a president, when nothumiliating himself globally, is favoring the business interests of his political friends (whom hetakes by the dozens on his foreign trips at my expense while building walls atop the walls of the presidential palace). All this tells me that we should not accept “being in a transitional phase.” We are not even on the road towards one.
Though I chose not to join the protests and marches on this anniversary, I followed them closely and the news and images I received did nothing but add to the bitterness. A handful of people have sealed off the Mogamma, Egypt’s palace of government bureaucracy, from February 10th till today. A few young people, we saw on TV, attempted to cut through the gate’s hinges with the help of a welder — yes, a welder.
These are no revolutionaries. Hardly protesters. They use this denomination as a cover for petty crime; sadly enough, opposition leaders fail to dissociate themselves from such actions.
I am not an opponent of escalation per se; 2011 wasn’t won by the sheer force of tweets after all. But all of this reflects a lack of both strategic planning and simple reasoning, which is even more costly in the face of a vicious and immoral adversary who’s cowering behind the newly reinforced wall of his presidential palace.
This is not how February 11 was supposed to be spent. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. And I, and many others with me, have no intention to forgive those who ruined it.
When the time comes — and it will be soon — we will bootstrap ourselves and get back to the street, whether campaigning or protesting, whichever becomes necessary.
The Chinese food, however, was excellent, thank you for asking.
Sorry I haven’t written in a while! Been hectic, work, travels, which I promise to write more about.
In the meantime: my latest post for Foreign Policy Transitions can be summed up as follows:
Hamada Saber’s fear is proof that the revolution is yet to succeed;
His daughter Randa’s courage is the reason it undoubtedly will.
What happens when you are the head of a poor household — so poor that there is only a single room for you, your spouse, and your three children, ages 15 to 20 — and suddenly, as you protest near the presidential palace, you become the victim of an abhorrent injustice that thrusts you into the national limelight? Or, to be precise, your naked body is being kicked by the police, hit with batons, and dragged from the limbs across the cold asphalt, all caught by a television camera and broadcast live to millions of homes.
The minister of interior expresses his regrets, promises an investigation, and you are transferred to a police hospital where you get arguably the best medical care you ever had. The police also promise, somehow, that they will help you find a job.
At the same time, senior officers hover above your head like malevolent angels of death, gently or not so gently pressuring you and your family to be quiescent. When your wife calls in on a widely-viewed TV-show, it’s because she is “encouraged” by a police officer who works in the ministry’s PR department. (When the show’s producers try to call her back, they find the real owner of the phone to be a police officer.) Now it’s your turn. From your Police Hospital bed, in presence of the same insignia that you saw, in a daze, when they pulled your trousers down the previous night and kicked you to the curb.
When they put a mic under your nose and stick a camera in your face, asking you to look at the blinking red light, what will you say?
And how will you be judged?
Hamada originally denied he had been assaulted by the police. He blamed protesters, saying that they attacked him in the belief (!!) that he was a policeman because he was dressed in black. His clothes were torn off, he said, as the police attempted to rescue him from the protesters. His wife, also interviewed at the hospital, spoke of the good care her husband had received in the police’s care.
But the evidence was undeniable: After all, the video is clear. Those are policemen beating up the naked form crouching on the asphalt, right beside their armored vehicles.
It was so undeniable, in fact, that the police itself stopped issuing statements about the matter — after having clumsily admitted guilt by expressing regret and promising to investigate the actions of some of their own — and just let the victim read off their script.
Unfortunately, Hamada was mercilessly attacked by many protesters and members of the opposition, who accused him of selling out and urging him to stand for his rights. He nevertheless stood by his position — and was soon followed by a prosecutor telling the same story.
More importantly, somebody else disagreed: Hamada’s own daughter, Randa. 18-year old Randa decided to disagree with her father’s position — and very publicly. In a televised interview (Ar.), father and daughter argued violently, with his daughter denying his claims, accusing him of being under pressure, and exhorting him to say the truth. “Don’t be afraid!” she repeated. “Say the truth! Who was beating you up, the government [i.e., the police] or the people? Isn’t it the government?”
The next day it was the turn of his son Ahmed to contradict his father (Ar.), stressing that the family lived in dire conditions but ending on a different note: “My father is poorer than anyone could imagine… If you want him to tell the truth, get him out of the hands of the police.”
Can we understand Hamada’s fear? Undoubtedly, yes. Decades of instilled and deadly dread of uniforms, followed by such a traumatic event, are enough to make anyone compliant. It’s important to remember that we do not know the extent of the threats or promises made to the man. We don’t like it, but we should understand it.
The ray of hope in the story is that the next generation in his own family views things very differently. They do not fear the media, they do not fear pressure, and they do not fear the police. They’ve probably been bitten — beaten? — before. Perhaps they were close enough to the revolutionary burst of hopefulness that, like a nuclear explosion, it altered their citizen DNA, changing them into proactive, fearless people willing to stand up for their rights.
Hamada’s fear of the police is proof that the revolution has not yet succeeded. Randa’s courage is the reason it will.
As I finalize this post, I see on the news that Hamada Saber decided to retract his original testimony. Now he’s going to accuse the police of beating him.
In preparation for the World Economic Forum in Davos which I attended last week, I was asked to share some thoughts on transparency and growth. This is my blog post on the subject.
In the 1990s, Uganda suffered from a problem of corruption so severe that, for every 100 dollars the government would disburse to schools across the country, only 20 would reach the destination; 80 dollars would somehow disappear, siphoned along the way. So, the Ministry of Finance decided to try a novel approach: it informed the local media, and placed posters in schools detailing the sums to be released. This time, 90% of the money reached its destination.
There are two main lessons here. One, that the problem was not resolved by a top-down decision to outlaw the practice, but really by informing, thus empowering citizens. And two, that this could have gone unresolved if it weren’t for a courageous senior government official, Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, who decided to face the problem, risking a political scandal for disclosing corruption, rather than sweeping it under the rug.
Making transparency work for development, particularly in the developing world, will not come from signing such agreements as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, or the WTO’s Agreement on Government Procurement. It will come from empowering citizens: informing the greater public of its rights and duties and those of the public servants, and disclosing government documents and proceedings to allow for public oversight.
There is a shorthand term for this: Open Government.
Open Government initiatives are not the exclusive domain of developed countries – in fact, some of the most interesting come from the global South. Take the charter of the Tunisian OpenGov initiative, which defines its goal as being to “push for full transparency and citizen participation in the management of public affairs, in order to guarantee the right to a fair, democratic and prosperous society”. It is a citizen initiative that has attracted the support of a number of members of the Constitutional Assembly, and has launched a series of public campaigns and initiatives already changing the public perception vis-à-vis transparency.
Achieving such a vision will allow for a larger popular base, including specialized bodies that will emerge, to better scrutinize the work of the state, praising or criticizing, but ultimately contributing solutions and ideas. It will also allow the government itself to spot its own weak links – which departments are hampering the work of others.
Achieving such a vision, however, will not come easily. Not every country has its Tumusiime-Mutebile, and many civil servants benefit from the opacity of government transactions. Some are trying to legalize this opacity – in my home country, Egypt, for instance, the government has recently forcibly passed a constitution which allows the president to appoint the heads of supervisory and regulatory agencies, thereby undermining their very raison d’être by keeping them beholden to the executive they should supervise.
If we are to support transparency for development around the world, we need to foster an environment in which people understand their role as citizens supervising the government, as well as understand the information they will have access to and learn how to sort it. Only then will we be able to rein in corruption and pressure governments into improving the living conditions of the people – not a small subset thereof.
Back to writing! My latest for Foreign Policy: Transitions.
It’s been two years since Ben Ali packed his suitcase along with the passwords to his foreign bank accounts and fled, in extremis, the wrath of the courageous people of Tunisia, leaving behind some incredibly tacky trinkets and a country in need of fundamental rebuilding — but which first had to discover the full extent of the damage done.
And until now, Tunisia still has not finished this process of “discovering.”
Last week, the revolutionary flag-bearer blog Nawaat published a long investigation [Fr, Ar] regarding a possible paramilitary apparatus connected to the ruling Ennahda party. The week prior, two teenagers were arrested for (gasp!) kissing in public. On the evening of January 13, unknown criminals set fire to the famous mausoleum of religious cleric Sidi Bou Said in the historic and touristic city of the same name, burning it to the ground. Shortly thereafter, a group of extremists were arrested in another Tunisian suburb for setting fire to a similar mausoleum.
The government reaction to the criminal vandalism was delayed more than 24 hours. When President Marzouki finally made his way to the bereft town — on the eve of the January 14 anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power — he was met by a small and angry crowdchanting ”Dégage!” (“Go Away!”) — the same chant from 2011.
Another debate raging in Tunis concerns the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, an umbrella organization borrowing its name and legitimacy from the neighborhood protection committees that citizens had set up to guard their neighborhoods during the high time of the upheaval two years ago. Now a large segment of the population suspects the Leagues of acting as the Ennahda party’s enforcers. After earlier calling for the dissolution of the Leagues, President Marzouki met with them on Saturday, reiterating, as he did in an interview Monday night, that “violence is a red line” not to be crossed.
These are but a few examples of the societal and political schisms Tunisians are grappling with. Religious extremists are not a good thing to have in a country where the state no longer has a monopoly to exercise violence (an essential precondition for government).
Tunisia today is not where it hoped to be in January of 2011. This is what happens, however, when high expectations meet the cold reality of politics. Nothing changes that quickly.
The mood on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis is, according to friends, less festive than it was a year ago. This year’s celebrations were dominated by political parties, and seemed more like people trying to convince themselves and others that celebration was justified.
And yet justified it is. Tunisia is unequivocally better off. Freedom of expression is the obvious example, but even the political transition is advancing steadily. Negotiations on the new constitution are well under way and the Constitutional Assembly will soon deliver a draft. This week marked a new step in internet liberalization, with a new amendment no longer requiring internet providers to operate through the governmental Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), the regulatory body once in charge of internet censorship.
Perhaps, as Marc Lynch wrote for FP, difficulties and disappointments are inevitable in the transition phase. A reality check is needed — in respect to expectations as well as to the political process. The nation that seemed so united two years ago is now divided by a deep political gulf; so perhaps co-habitation is the most likely prospect, not seamless unity. Writing from Cairo, I am sending the warmest wishes to all my friends in Tunis. And I can tell them that, if anything, they are doing much, much better than we are here.