A forum devoted to current political, economic trends, and news of the Maghreb region.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Morocco’s Islamist Party Has Just Made Another Major Breakthrough

*This article was published in the Washington Post's Monkey Cage on September 16, 2015.

The Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) was undoubtedly the biggest winner in Morocco’s recent local elections. The party with the lantern logo lit up the urban polls in its first major electoral test since winning a slight plurality of votes in the legislative elections of 2011.
In a region where other Islamists have failed to capture state and society, either by choice or by coercion, Moroccan Islamists of the PJD have achieved yet another electoral breakthrough, while operating within a system limited by a shadow government of royal advisers and vast royal discretionary powers. Unlike other Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa, and perhaps learning from the experiences of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia, the PJD does not seek a change in the configuration of the regime; instead, its members are focused on exerting a new practical and inclusive style of governance predicated on gradual “passive” revolutionary societal and state change.
The September 4 local elections featured a high voter turnout, with 53 percent of the 14.5 million registered voters casting their ballots for some 31,503 seats in urban and rural municipalities across Morocco . More than 30 political parties fielded candidates, but the main contest was among the Islamist PJD, which has lead the coalition government since 2011, the pro-palace Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), and the historic independence party of al-Istiqlal. The PAM fielded more candidates than any other party, especially in rural areas that account for more than 76 percent of all electoral districts in Morocco. However, the pro-palace party, created by a close adviser to king Mohammed VI, managed to only win 21 percent municipal seats in the kingdom, ahead of al-Istiqlal’s 16 percent of seats and the PJD’s 15 percent.
Overall, the PAM won 5 of the 12 regional councils (a regional council is comprised of city councils) compared with the two councils won by the PJD. However, inside these regional councils, the PJD successfully challenged incumbents in most of the big cities in Morocco: Casablanca, Marrakech, the capital city of Rabat, Kenitra, Meknes, Safi, the northern cities of Tangiers and Tetouan, the southern port city of Agadir, and notably Mohammedia, where a PJD candidate defeated PAM secretary general Mustapha al-Bakouri and Fes, where the PJD also unseated mercurial mayor and head of al-Istiqlal Hamid Chabat.
In total, the PJD won 25 percent of the urban municipal seats, to PAM’s 19 percent, and al-Istiqlal’s 17 percent. Most of the major gains for the PAM and al-Istiqlal were in rural districts, highlighting the sharp urban-rural divide in Morocco. The former is generally more educated and arguably less corruptible, while the latter is predominantly illiterate and possibly more susceptible to venal electoral tactics.
The magnitude of the PJD’s electoral breakthrough is best illustrated in contrast to its performance in the 2009 elections, during which it won a meager 5.5 percent of seats. In six years, the party of the lantern has tripled its electoral tally of communal and municipal seats. The PJD victory is particularly symbolic in Fes, a city long synonymous with the ruling political elite in Morocco. Such electoral victories mark a clear departure from key pillars of the ancien regime with its nepotistic and corrupt practices.
The PJD’s electoral gain was due largely to its formidable campaign machine and organization in urban centers. The party ran a clean and orderly grassroots campaign, with a vast mass mobilization network of supporters. In contrast, reports of fraudulent electoral practices plagued PAM and al-Istiqlal, reportedly exchanged money and gifts for vote pledges. The campaigns were especially fierce on social media where each party attempted to cast a positive image of its electoral promises.
As an incumbent of sorts, the PJD campaigned on a record of socio-economic stability, justice, and transparency under the campaign slogan “Our vote is our chance to continue with the reforms.” The party was extremely effective at using elaborate memes,  YouTube videos, Facebook posts and tweets of nifty infographics to illustrate its alleged successes, notably decreasing inflation, reducing the state budget deficit, and working to combat poverty and unemployment. In the days leading up to the elections, the PJD generated significant buzz. Wherever its candidates campaigned, the party commanded huge crowds: PJD leader and president of the coalition government Abdelilah Benkirane delivered his stump speeches to tens of thousands of enraptured supporters.
The PJD has decisively changed the political calculus in Morocco, presenting a governance alternative unparalleled in its style and substance in post-independence Morocco. PJD’s long-term strategy is indeed a Gramscian passive revolution, operating within the political system and rules of the political game set by the monarchy in order to mitigate the authoritarian features of the state, while working on the major socio-economic issues plaguing the country. Many Moroccans now speak of a discourse of honesty and transparency and are increasingly less cynical about the political scene.
In a July 2015 interview I conducted with Abdelilah Benkirane, the rather jovial statesman showed great confidence in his party’s track record and their chances in local elections. Benkirane framed his leadership and that of the party within the contours of a pragmatic strategy that accepts its lower status within the political system. According to Benkirane, the alternative options of “rejection and isolation,” perhaps in a reference to the banned Islamist Justice and Charity party (al-‘Adl wal Ihsane), failed to yield meaningful results. Instead, Benkirane is assertive that the PJD made the right choice as early as 1992 when the party decided to join the political scene.
The Islamist leader is content working within the confines of the constitutional rules of the Moroccan political system, featuring a two-level executive branch, “one at the level of his majesty, and the other at my level as the head of the government. I am obligated to take his view on everything, but the king isn’t obliged to take my opinion since he is the head of the state, commander of the faithful, in charge of the military, and the justice system.”
The PJD’s approach is positively pragmatic and is primarily geared to maintain state stability, while targeting socio-economic problems. For instance, Benkirane claims that, since leading the coalition government in 2011, his party has helped marginalized segments of society including widows, university students, retirees and people with disabilities.
The PJD functions within a circumscribed public and constitutional sphere. However, its long-term goals highlight what Asef Bayat terms “refolutions,” incremental societal change through reforms within the institutions of the current regime, rather than the insurrectionist attacks on state and society favored by Islamists elsewhere. The PJD’s strategy involves not just winning some measure of state power, but also influencing society through institutional, intellectual and moral means. The PJD has taken part in elections within an authoritarian context in order to position the party within the political system, contest the rules of the game, control some parts of the government and adopt meaningful socio-economic reforms. In this regard, the PJD’s strategy is a product of playing “games in multiple arenas,” as it is simultaneously working within the rules and seeking to change them.
Although Morocco remains a carefully engineered political edifice, there has been a palpable change in the political scene and discourse. The PJD is restoring some popular confidence in the ability of political parties to provide real solutions to societal problems, especially among the marginalized and alienated segments of the population in Morocco. The regime is firmly entrenched and shows no signs of deep democratic reforms, but Moroccans, at least those who voted in the 2011 legislative elections and the recent local elections, seem to favor good governance, transparency and social justice discourse over deep democratic institutional reforms. For now, the PJD has to capitalize on its recent gains ahead of the legislative elections in 2016, which will undoubtedly prove to be a bigger test than the local polls.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tunisia's "Will of Life"

** This is my latest piece for the Huffington Post's World Post (after a long hiatus)

Since the publication of the article, Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi declared a state of emergency in the country for 30 days. In a televised speech Essebsi cited reasons of national security and stated his concern that the government "would collapse" if there is another terrorist attack. Tunisia is a nascent democratic experiment, and such premature state of exception and the vast autocratic measures contained in the emergency powers could be detrimental to greater institutional development, individual freedom, and press liberty.

Article in the Huffington Post

Early twentieth century Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasem al-Shabbi’s magnum opus poem “the Will of Life” is a passionate call to his countrymen to embrace life in their fight against French colonialism and oppression. Parts of al-Shabbi’s poem are also found in the Tunisian national anthem, and the first stanza reads as follows:

“If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fail
For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air
At least that is what all creation has told me, and what its hidden spirits declare..”

 A century after al-Shabbi’s poem, a minority of radical Tunisians have instead embraced death and have sought devastation in their quest to establish a murderous fictitious Islamic state. The whole world seems to be firmly in the crosshairs of radical Islamists inspired by the extremist ideology of the Islamic State. The attacks on a beach resort in Sousse that killed 38 people were part of three terrorist attacks in three continents. The first was a suicide bombing inside a Shi’a mosque in Kuwait as worshippers were gathering for the Jumu’a prayer, killing 27 people, while the other attack took place at a gas company in France where a seemingly disgruntled employee decapitated his employer, and injured two others. These acts are not the work of lone wolves, or isolated acts of madness. The radicalism of the ISIS’ death cult has been the unifying ideology in all three acts. Despite the air strikes and active fighting in Iraq and Syria, ISIS murderous strategy to wreak “havoc” in the region through preaching and inspiration constitute a real threat for much of the MENA, and the Mediterranean region.

Tunisia could have tightened security measures after the March 18 attacks on the Bardo museum that killed 21 people, but it is difficult to prevent such attacks on soft targets. The government has reportedly beefed up security protocols around hotels and tourist complexes, and some tourists have even complained of heavy security presence around the same resort that witnessed the attacks. However, recent reports also raise serious questions about Tunisian security readiness and response. Tunisian government and security forces have been criticized increasingly for their failure to adopt a comprehensive security strategy.

A comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy would have to start at the borders with Libya. The neighboring Maghreb state has for the last year descended in utter chaos with more than a thousand active armed militias are fighting in an endless war of attrition. Libya has also been a major hub for terrorist training. The Bardo museum gunmen received training in Libya, and early reports suggest that the Sousse terrorist may have traveled illegally to Libya where he trained on the use of assault rifles.

More importantly, there is a malaise inside the Tunisian society, a nascent democratic state, with deep societal cleavages and an identity battle between secular and religious trends within the country. Tunisia is at once a ray of hope in the menu of Arab uprisings failures, but a society that has contributed more than 3000 foreign fighters to the Islamic State. The legacy of secular policies, the repression of the religious impulse in the country in post-independence Tunisia, and the fragile security situation in the post-Arab spring have produced deep struggles between forces of secularism, religion, and radicalism. The electoral victory of secular Nida’ Tounes in October 2014 may have also served to radicalize more young Tunisian inspired by takfirist ideologies of the IS and al-Qaeda. These struggles are apparent in the complex identity profile of an increasingly violent minority of radical Tunisian youth. Seif-Eddine Rezgui, the gunman responsible for the Sousse attacks, is a case in point. The 24-year old electrical engineering graduate student, was an avid break-dancer, a member of a breakdancing club, and was arrested once for consuming hashish. However, reports also sketch another side of the gunman, who frequented radical mosques in Qairouan, made a number of public statements of commitment to Jihad, support for the Islamic State, and his favorite soccer team Real Madrid on his Facebook page.

The complex profiles of these young terrorists further complicate the task of security forces to combat these types of attacks. The profile of the gunmen also reflects the underlying socio-economic factors for radicalism among the youth. Unemployment and bleak economic prospects are key causes for joining the call of violent extremism as one alternative to clandestine migration to Europe. Alienation, and hopelessness of the youth explain the large number of North African fighters in Syria and Iraq. A “noble” cause in the extremist minds of these “soldiers of despair” is worth dying for, when there is nothing else to live for. 

The threat of radical Islamism is a scourge amongst all Muslim majority, and increasingly minority, societies. The rather successful nefarious use of social media by ISIS and extremist Islamists makes is difficult to prevent such attacks on soft targets. While these are the acts of isolated individuals, the fact that they are inspired by an ideology and a mode of violent thinking do not make them lone wolves as some argued. This radical ideology is in fact a cancer that has been metastasizing far too long, and is arguably the greatest and most pernicious threat facing the religion and people in the Muslim world. An effective strategy against radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world would be to confront head on these ideologies not only in terms of security protocols, and economic reforms, but also discursively. A discursive strategy that embraces peace, not war and devastation, and seeks life, not death, as al-Shabbi rhymed a century ago in Tunisia.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Wahhabism is Islam's Greatest Threat

**(This article appeared on Muftah on January 10, 2015)

The attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has heightened debate and acrimony about Islam, Islamic theology, and the seeming propensity Muslims have to violence -  a perception that sometimes seems universally shared by non-Muslims, but which is belied by empirical studies.

It has also fostered the view that Muslims should somehow take to the streets and condemn, or worse, apologize for the actions of the few extremists in their midst. This expectation   emanates from deep frustration with the turbulent acts of violence in the last two days, which have confused and angered so many people around the world.

Logic dictates, however, that Muslims should no more apologize for radical Islamism, than Christians for radical Christian views or  acts of violence. Nor should Buddhists apologize and make amends for the action of Buddhist Rakhine extremists in Myanmar, who have engaged in ethnic cleansing against minority Rohingya Muslims. Nevertheless, Muslims must engage in a deep introspective look at the sources of radicalism in their midst. Like any other religious text, the Quran contains passages of war and violence. Without proper contextualization, however, these passages can become dangerous in the violent hands of radical Islamists, applying their fossilized religious interpretations.

Admittedly, Muslim majority countries face challenges that go beyond religion, and include political and socio-economic problems. The authoritarian edifice of most Middle Eastern states and the lack of appropriate venues for dissent have radicalized a generation of young Muslims in a quest to fight what many of them view as  unjust, and  un-Islamic governments. The deep sense of alienation and marginalization of the young generation of European Muslims is also of deep concern.

All this notwithstanding, however, the greatest threat to Islam is the relatively modern phenomenon of Wahhabism. A  cancer that has been allowed to fester and metastasize within Islam for several a couple of centuries.

Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-91) advocated a return to the example of the Prophet and the salaf (companions of the Prophet,) as a way to reform what he perceived at the time as a schism in Islam. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab especially abhorred the popular cult of saints and  idolatrous rituals at their tombs, which he believed cast divinity on humans and threatened  Islam's monotheism. He opposed Sufism and Shi’sm as heretical innovations (bid’a). Most dangerously, Ibn Abd al-Wahab called on Muslims to reject the scholarly exegesis developed over the centuries by successive madhahib (schools of jurisprudence). This call undermined the religious authority wielded by scholars in Muslim world, and would ultimately enable generations of self-proclaimed religious experts to interpret scriptures at will to fit their own political or individual interests.

For all of its reformist puritanical zeal, Wahhabism would have been relegated to a mere footnote in the history of the region, if it were not for a literal pact signed with the future founders of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Saudi Arabia has systematically financed and globalized Wahhabi, literalist interpretations of Islamic texts.  

Wahhabism's globalization has had profound effects on the rise of radical interpretations of Islam, outside the realm of learned theological hermeneutics.  It has fueled extremists from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden to ISIS, who have variously claimed the mantle of radical Islamic reform and engaged in an extremist takfirist war (a war against so-called apostates). This misguided and nefarious battle has, in turn, effectively bastardized the noble concept of greater jihad, as an inner struggle, and transformed it into a call for acts of terrorism.

Wahhabi thought bifurcates the world into two antithetical parts: the House of Islam and the House of Unbelief.  The former rests on a dogmatic, rigid understanding of Islamic theology. The latter is the enemy of Islam and consists of dictatorial Arab regimes, as well as moderate Muslims, among others. Wahhabi extremists prescribe violence against those in the realm of the unbelief,  in accordance with their  radical interpretations of Islamic texts.

Muslims today must reject this radical bifurcation and tackle head on those literalist, radical interpretations of Islamic  texts. Unlike what Ibn Abd al-Wahhab may argue, this task is not the responsibility of average Muslims. Rather it is  the work of honest, brave, and learned scholars of Islam and Islamic theology. In particular, passages in the Qur’an and Hadith, on war, apostasy, and violence are in need of new, unequivocal interpretations to fit the modern social and political realities of Muslim-majority states.

In their own ways, many Muslims have engaged in every day acts of resistance against these assaults on their faith. These include education, outreach, interfaith dialogue, and rejection of those amongst us who hold extremist Islamist views.  But we must also  tolerate positions that attack the holy in our religion. Unless we, as Muslims, develop tolerance, not necessarily acceptance, of negative discourses on  Islam, we will continue to cede ground to  radicals who seek to dictate the limits of the tolerable for Islam and all Muslims.

Acts of violence, faux rage, and self-victimization serve only to foster a negative image of our ability to solve the challenges facing our faith.  Islam has lasted and largely flourished for the last fourteen centuries. Surely, Allah, the Quran, and the Prophet do not need protection from anyone, let alone the most heinous and criminal of extremists and radicals.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Tunisia's Latest Political Success

Tunisia has passed yet another test on the long road to democratic consolidation. The election on Baji Caid Essebsi as the first freely elected president of Tunisia comes at the heels of his party’s legislative victory last month. Indeed, these have been two glorious months for Essebsi’s Nida’ Tounes, and for Tunisians’ path towards setting democratic, peaceful transition of power amidst the abysmal failure of the Arab uprisings. In purely democratic fashion, The 88 year-old Essebsi received a concession from former interim president Moncef Marzouki, and pledged to be inclusionary of the different political movements in Tunisia.

Essebsi’s majoritarian victory is not one of democracy against Islamism as some may suggest. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and such dichotomy is reductionist and essentialist. Islamists are not monolithic and most of them are committed to democratic principles. Essebsi and Nida’ Tounes’s electoral triumph (Essebsi's 55.68% to, interim president, Moncef Marzouki’s 44.32%) is simply a statement of whom the Tunisians electorate entrust at this particular juncture with the colossal task of economic and political development in the country.

Nida’ Tounes and Essebsi now control both the executive and legislative branches of government. This presents tremendous challenges for the secular octogenarian Essebsi, and his secular party to deliver where the defeated Islamist Ennahda failed. In particular, Tunisia’s new leadership has now a complete mandate to tackle security issues and reinvigorate the flailing economy. Furthermore, Essebsi, a former interior minister in the repressive Bourguiba era, and speaker of the parliament during Ben Ali’s autocratic state, is now a legitimate custodian of this transition, and has to work to further entrench democratic political practices and governance.

While free, fair, and competitive, last week’s elections do not signal that democracy is the “only game in town” in Tunisia yet. Tunisia’s institutions must be imbued with mechanisms for inter-institutional accountability, especially when it comes to building an independent judiciary. Without such strong foundations for horizontal accountability and rule of law, Tunisia’s nascent political experiment will never fully succeed as a truly democratic state, and could risk devolving into more of a Latin American model of delegative democracies, whereby electorally-chosen presidents ushered in a tradition strong presidentialist systems, and wielding greater power than other branches of government, amidst absent patterns of representation. Tunisia must steer away from South American presidencialismo, and institute a genuine system of institutional checks and balances.

Tunisia has so far shown great attitudinal and constitutional proclivity towards the democratic process. Tunisians increasingly believe that political change must be performed within democratic parameters. Government and non-government forces have shown, even with the Islamists of Ennahda, that the resolution of political conflicts is negotiated through pacts, democratic laws, and institutions. It behooves Tunisia’s new political elite to further consolidate legal and political institutions, and to strive to keep Tunisia as the only ray of hope in the maelstrom of the post-Arab uprisings.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The King's Speech on Green March Day

King Mohammed VI delivered his toughest, and strongly-worded speech yet on the Western Sahara. In his annual televised Green March Day speech, Mohammed VI reiterated Morocco’s stance on the conflict that has pitted Morocco, against the Polisario Front, and Algeria for almost four decades. Much like previous speeches, Mohammed VI advanced Morocco’s position for an autonomy arrangement for the Sahrawis under Moroccan sovereignty. This stance has been Morocco’s unwavering offer since 2006, and it is difficult to foresee a different path to conflict resolution in the Western Sahara. The king reiterated in the strongest terms that the Sahara is "an existential issue, not a border issue" for Morocco. This discourse is in line with previous speeches where Morocco has maintained consistency in its policy towards the conflict. Mohammed VI affirmed his commitment to a negotiated solution that takes into consideration the Moroccan autonomy plan, confessing that as a crown prince he negotiated in the Polisario camps in Tindouf. 

The king’s speech on the Western Sahara would not be complete without criticism of Algeria’s role in the conflict as an integral party to the hostilities in the region. The speech echoed the tone and tenor of previous discourse on the Western Sahara where the monarch appeared stern towards the neighboring north-African country: "Without holding Algeria responsible, as a key party to the conflict, there will not be a solution."

Unlike previous speeches though, the monarch lamented what he perceives as the ambiguity of the US position towards the Western Sahara, especially as the US continues to herald the kingdom as a “model for democratic development”, and “a partner in combatting terrorism in the region.” The royal comments towards the US are not expected to force any change in the American recalcitrant stance towards the issue, as any clear penchant towards Morocco could negatively affect US-Algeria relations, itself a key partner against terrorism in the Sahel.

The sovereign also cautioned Moroccans against “conspiring with the enemy” stating that "those that continue to betray the country, are considered traitors by national and international laws,” and that “a person can either be a patriot or a traitor” This dichotomous, zero-sum position indicates that the monarch is increasingly annoyed with the demands for reforms, and demonstrations against Moroccan human rights violations in the Western Sahara. Mohammed VI concluded that Morocco's stance is unchanged and that "the autonomy initiative is the maximum Morocco can offer in terms of negotiations to achieve a final solution to this regional conflict."

The king's speech is the latest pronouncement on Morocco's intransigent position in a conflict that has been in quagmire since the UN-brokered cease fire in 1991. Historical and identity issues, in addition to regional realpolitik tensions between Morocco and Algeria have virtually made it impossible to find a comprehensive solution to the conflict. The lack of will on the part of the international community, and regional security issues also favor the status-quo. Any solution to the stalemate will have to address all of these factors, and the plight of the Sahrawi people in the Tindouf camps in Algeria.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Elections and Democratic Gains in Tunisia

The latest elections in Tunisia have firmly set the country on a solid path towards full democratic transition. In a region rife with ideological and doctrinal conflicts, and amidst the failure of the Arab uprisings to bring about meaningful regime change, Tunisia stands as the only ray of hope. The electoral defeat of the Islamists of Ennahda and subsequent concession to Nida' Tounes (Tunisia's Call) party show how far the democratic values have been entrenched in Tunisia’s political culture. Contrary to confrontationist views on political Islam, these elections are not an indictment against radical anachronistic Islamists, nor have the Islamists engaged in electoral dissimulation, or attempted an abrogation of the electoral processes. 

Nida' Tounes's victory is not a blow to political Islam as much as it is a momentous event highlighting the success of the democratic political process in Tunisia. The results of the elections and the vast plurality of the votes that the Bourguibist-secular Nida' Tounes accumulated on Sunday are a reaction to societal disappointment with Ennahda’s governance and inability to tackle the many socio-economic problems and security challenges that Tunisia is facing prior to their forced retreat from power a year ago.

Nida' Tounes faces a monumental task to deliver now that they are set to rule over a coalition government. Concerns over the membership of Nida' Tounes, however, could overshadow their mandate over the next few years. Nida' Tounes is made up of former regime functionaries and politicians. The party has worked diligently to distance itself from ties to deposed president Zine al-‘Abidine Ben 'Ali and his former party of power the RCD (French Acronym for Democratic Constitutional Rally). For now the plurality of Tunisians have accepted the narrative of Nida'. But as the new government tackles some of the pressing socio-economic issues of the country, and in the case of under-performance or  potential setbacks, old skeletons may resurface again tying the party to the tejma’a of former RCD-ist members. Nida' Tounes’s octogenarian leader Beji Caid Essebsi’s decision to seek the election in the presidential elections set for November 23rd is also causing much consternation from Tunisians concerned about a total Nida' dominance of both the executive and legislative branches of government. 

In the spirit of the democratic and civil constitution, however, political actors from Nida' Tounes and Ennahda expressed their renewed commitment to a peaceful political transition. Beji Caid Essebsi, himself a relic from both Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, has so far channeled the right message in victory stating that Nida' will not govern alone, even if it means a coalition with Ennahda. That is unlikely, however, for Nida' will probably court its own family of leftist parties to join in the new government. Leftist secular UPL (French acronym for Free Patriotic Union) of Slim Riahi, sometimes dubbed as the Tunisian Berlusconi, is already setting conditions to join Nida' in the new government with demands for meaningful cabinet portfolios.  

Ennahda Islamist party is reeling after its failure to capitalize on the popularity and momentum it garnered after the fall of Ben 'Ali's dictatorship in the initial stages of the Arab spring. The party suffered from lack of experience in governance, false perceptions of association to radical Islamists, and marred by two high profile political assassinations of leading secular politicians under its watch. These fed into the general sense of insecurity Tunisians have felt under Ennahda, especially as the rest of the Middle East and North Africa is rife with radical Islamist extremism. Ennahda has also paid the price for its inability to deal effectively with the economic challenges, and general political reforms that Tunisia still needs especially in the area of the judiciary. Its leader Ghannouchi perhaps spent more time making the case for the compatibility between democracy and political Islam abroad than at home.

Tunisia is steadily inching towards democratic consolidation where fair, free, and competitive elections, rule of law, and respect for civil liberties become the “only game in town.” Tunisians are undergoing vast behavioral and attitudinal changes. While Tunisians’ confidence in democracy is waning as the latest pre-elections Pew survey shows, belief in further political change through democratic means is still strong. Democratic consolidation, however, can only be further advanced if government forces in Tunisia continue to resort to constitutional means to resolve conflicts, and build areas of compromise within the boundaries of state institutions.  

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Status of Human Rights in the Polisario Front Camps

Human Rights Watch has released a recent report on the status of human rights in the Polisario-run comps in Tindouf, Algeria. In the report, the human rights vanguard organization lists a series of human rights violations by the Polisario Front in the areas of judicial rights, freedom of speech, and some cases of slavery-like practices:
"While the Polisario tolerates some speech and demonstrations critical of its governance, Human Rights Watch heard credible allegations that authorities harassed some critics for speaking out. In addition, the rights of some civilians tried before military courts have been abridged, and slavery-like practices continue to exist in isolated cases."
The Human Rights organization issued some recommendations both to the Polisario Front and the Algerian government:
"The Polisario Front should end military court jurisdiction over civilians and redouble its efforts to eradicate all vestiges of slavery, Human Rights Watch said. The Front should ensure that camp residents are free to challenge its policies and leadership peacefully and to advocate options other than independence for Western Sahara. Algeria should publicly acknowledge its legal responsibility for ensuring respect for the rights of everyone on its territory, including residents of the Polisario-run refugee camps."
The 94-page report, "Off the Radar: Human Rights in the Tindouf Refugee Camps,"comes out amidst mounting pressure, especially on Morocco for human rights violations in the Western Sahara. In a previous article, I was, and remain, critical of the narrow approach to the conflict solely in terms of the authoritarian nature of the Moroccan state and its human rights violations in the territory. Then and now, the issue is one of self-determination and an identity conflict that should take in to consideration the historical claims to the territory by Morocco.

In the absence of UN human rights monitoring, the report by Human Rights Watch is one of the few reliable source the internal community has about the status of human rights in the disputed territory. It provides a much needed look at the conditions of the Sahrawis living under Polisario rule, and offers some balance to the one-sided focus on Moroccan autocratic violations.