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

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.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Firebrand Rapper Arrested in Morocco...Again.


Morocco’s revolutionary rapper, Mou’ad Belghouat, is arrested again. After a year in jail for fictitious charges, El Haqed (the Indignant) was arrested Sunday outside Mohammed V Stadium where his favorite Raja de Casablanca football club was to play arguably one of its important matches of the season. Like any football fan in Casablanca, El Haqed, with his brother and friends, was strolling into the stadium when he was arrested by police officers for scalping tickets in the black market. This is hardly an offense in any world stadiums, and is a vindictive trumped-up charge to settle scores with a virulent critic of the regime and state.

The circumstances of his arrest are not still fully clear. Moroccan activist Zineb Belmkaddem provides one of the best accounts thus far on this latest episode of state brutality against the Kingdom’s fiercest rapper. Belmkaddem spoke with El Haqed’s brother, Hamza Belghouat, who was arrested as well, taken to the police station, allegedly beaten, and released Sunday night. Belmkaddem writes:

“As soon as he [El Haqed] got to the gates with his brother and his friends, police approached them and immediately targeted Mouad [ElHaqed]. One officer made it clear that he needed to settle something with him. Police then accused him of buying tickets from the black market, and proceeded to beat him and his brother into submission when he objected and denied their allegations. They cuffed him shortly after and took both brothers, while allowing their other friends with the same regular tickets to run. “It looked as though it was premeditated, they acted as if they’d already planned to brutally assault us both at first, arrest us, take our belongings, beat us some more, then keep Mouad in custody”. Hamza continued to describe the situation as an appalling and humiliating experience: “They hurt him badly in his hands, I saw the marks… they dragged us into one of those blue police vans and beat us even more. The aftertaste is always horrible. They insulted us and attacked us for five hours during the interrogation. It was so humiliating. They took my smartphone, then took us to the 15th (name of one of the police stations in Casablanca). They then kept my things, let me go, and kept Mouad locked up”.
El Haqed released his second album a couple of months ago, entitled “Walou” (nothing), in which he decries a state of despair and futility living under current political and economic conditions in Morocco. In the Album, El Haqed criticizes in familiar themes to his past songs, notably his incendiary “Klab ad-Dawla” (Dogs of the State), the state of social injustice, corruption, and hopelessness rampant among the youth.  In the song “Walou”, El Haqed advances an almost nihilistic view of Morocco where there is larger state of worthlessness of all existing political and social structures:

“Walou...(nothing)..No culture, no art, no creativity, no writers, no society, no associations, no parties..dumb down, dumb down the people”

Since the release of his album, El Haqed is said to have been waiting for the state’s retaliation, and it is hardly a surprise that the forces of order would seek the most repugnant ways to silence an artist in his quest to express the frustrations of many of his generation.

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said: “Censorship is advertising paid for by the government.”  Harassment of El Haqed will certainly further highlight his songs and lyrics. His latest album “Walou”, available in its entirety on YouTube, will garner much wider appeal and viewership now that he is prosecuted by the state. Authoritarian states still do not fathom that muzzling dissident voices only amplify their message in the most poignant manner. It also provides a focal point for increased protests and opposition to state authority. The latest arrest of El Haqed further highlights the setbacks that Morocco has undergone since the passage of the much-heralded new constitution of July 2011. A constitution that was promulgated after the initial sparks of the Arab uprisings, and supposedly guarantee freedom of speech, including artistic expression, and journalistic independence.

The Moroccan authorities have effectively lost the compass in recent months clamping down on all vestiges of individual freedom, especially those that are critical of its structures and policies. Journalist and fierce critic of the state, Ali Anouzla, is still in prison waiting for trial for ludicrous charges of supporting terrorist groups. The state is flexing its muscles after the failure of the protest movement to mount a significant challenge to the regime. Increased state confidence is palpable in its unjust and shameful treatment of dissident voices. The State ought to tackle real issues of concern to Moroccans, the same issues that are treated in El Haqed’s lyrical diatribes, and Anouzla’s incisive columns. Instead, the authorities seek to silence, the bearers of those messages.