Tunisia and Al Nahda movement

This is the second article of a series on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) movement in the Middle East and North Africa region (http://cafethawra.blogspot.com/2012/03/muslim-brotherhoods-force-of-change-and.html). Please check the first article to understand the context in which this paper is written. Again I would like to precise before starting this article that this analysis is focusing on a political party and/or movement, and not on a religion or a community. The MBs represent a movement and political parties and not the whole community of Muslims;
This made clear let’s start!
The victory in elections

Al Nahda won over 40 percent of the seats in the Constituent Assembly and has ultimate control over decision-making in the new Tunisian government, which includes the Congress for the Republic (CPR) of President Moncef Marzhouki, and Ettakatol of the The President of the Assembly Mustapaha Ben Jaafar. Turnout was officially estimated at 54% of eligible voters.

The party was forbidden during a large period under the previous regime. In May 1992, the government accused Al Nahda of plotting to kill President Ben Ali and establish an Islamic state. 170 Al Nahda members were charged in August with “attempting to overthrow the regime”, including the current Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali who was sentenced to 17 years in prison by a military court. He spent ten of those in solitary confinement. He was released in 2006.

Al Nahda has since the fall of Ben Ali tried to stop or to control the deepening of the revolution.
The Al-Nahda Party was successful for different reasons. Just as the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt, Al Nahda draw significant support from the poor and working class sector of the society, despite the fact that the leadership is mostly upper and middle-class.

Firstly it was perceived by many Tunisians as one of the main parties that opposed the Ben Ali regime and which suffered from its repression.

The movement presents itself also to the people as a modern and reformist party close to the AKP’s Turkish model, which is perceived by many Tunisian as a success. In the same time, the party has been able to develop a popular image as a victimized and moralistic movement which nevertheless reassures and promises a new age of prosperity for the country.

In taking a look to the geography of Al Nahda voters are mostly located in marginalized regions located in the center, south and west of the country and mainly include the lower-middle class. It includes those living in poor neighborhoods of big cities who are mainly unemployed youth occupying the bottom echelons of the middle class.

Various secular groups suffered as well from their image of parties detached of the problem of the people, the parties of “France” and “bad” Muslims, if not atheists.

In addition to this, Al Nahda has a strong organization with a large number of members and established very rapidly a strong network of institutions in the country. They were therefore considered as a party which could manage the transitory period after the Ben Ali era in the eyes of many Tunisians and as a guaranty for stability in a near future. In comparison its opponents were considered to be fragmented and divided.

Al Nahda has also benefited from important sources of funding of Gulf countries, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These funding provided the party with generous financial resources that have mostly been used to distribute money and food aid to families in need, while helping them as well to establish a strong network of members and institutions. This allowed also Al Nahda to build a network based on clientelist relations with some of its constituencies, to pay for Ramadan meals and wedding ceremonies in attempts to garner votes, while operating out of a gleaming high-rise in downtown Tunis, giving away professionally published paperbacks in several languages to lay out its platform, distributing wireless headsets for simultaneous translation at its news conferences, and handing out bottled water to the crowds at rallies.

Al Nahda was accused as well during the elections and on the polling day to hand out money and gifts to voters. Al Nahda also used mosques for campaign and political propaganda purposes, just as the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt in total violation of electoral laws which forbid the use of worship places.

Finally Al Nahda benefited from the negative campaign launched by some “secularists groups” demonizing the movement Al Nahda or putting the debate on the cultural and identity field opposing secularists and islamists, while there was a strong feeling among many Tunisians to reconcile the democratic participation with what they view as their Arab/Muslim identity. Conversely, voters appeared to reward secularist parties that signaled a willingness to work with Al Nahda, such as the CPR and Ettakatol.

Democratic process
Al Nahda led government is being criticized on various subjects and on undemocratic decisions made without large consultation.

In relation to media, the government Hamadi Jebali has appointed managers and directors for all the state-owned media organizations without any consultation with syndicates, while most of the figures appointed are affiliated with Ben Ali’s banned Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR) to official posts in state-owned media organizations.

The president of the Center for Press Freedom, Mahmoud Dhaouadi, and Nejiba Hamrouni, the president of the Tunisian National Press Syndicate, complained that the government’s decision came without “any consultation with the concerned professional organizations, especially the National Syndicate which is the officially elected representative of Tunisian journalists and that willing servants of the former dictatorial regime, some of whom are also linked to cases of corruption.”

The statement listed some names such as Mohammad Nejib Ouerghi, the new president of La Presse, who is also “the former manager of the deposed party’s newspaper and well-known for his intense loyalty to the dictatorial regime.”,  Sadek Bouabene, the new director of National Television 1, who was explicitly trusted by the former regime for years and was personally appointed by Ben Ali to the post of director of the Tunis 7 channel and Adnene Khedr, the “architect of Ben Ali’s 2009 election campaign,” who was appointed as general manager of all the state-owned television channels by the new government.

In addition to Ben Ali’s old guard, the syndicate criticized the way Said Khezami was appointed the News Director for state television. The press group condemned government interference in the selection of chief editors and news directors across state-owned media, something that had not happened even during Ben Ali’s reign, according to the syndicate.

These appointments raised concerns about press freedom in light of campaigns calling for the prosecution of NessmaTV and Soumaya al-Ghanoushi’s (daughter of al-Nahda party leader) attack on theMaghreb newspaper. The newspaper was forced to close in the 1980s for 8 years after it came under a similar attack from the family of deposed dictator Ben Ali.

On socio economic issues, El Nahda has been trying to limit as much as possible any step forward to improve the situation by opposing strikes and social demands of the people.

On February 25, more than 4,000 members of Tunisia’s main trade union UGTT marched through the center of the capital to denounce the Islamist-led government. The UGTT demonstrated against the government to denounce several attacks on its offices around the country and the dumping of rubbish outside the headquarters of the Union heardquarters in Tunis, which it blamed on members of El Nahda. Police fired tear gas to disperse the protest after it exceeded its time limit.

This followed weeks of unprecedented escalation in statements and governmental initiatives, which El Nahda is leading, aiming to demonize the opposition as well as attempts to criminalize protest movements.

Trade unionists members of the Union of Communist Youth who have been leading strikes and protests were attacked by Salafis according to different sources in late December, while parties present in the government joined as well the attacks on trade unionists.

Al-Nahda MP in the Constituent Assembly, Sheikh Sadek Chourou, for example called to apply the punishment for Hirabah against protesters under the pretext that they are “spreading disorder in the land.” Sheikh Chourou actually copied the religious edict issued by Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Abdul Aziz al ash-Shaikh in which he called for killing those who take part in the popular protest movement in al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia and “amputating their hands and feet from opposite sides.”

President Moncef Marzhouki did not condemn Sheikh Chourou’s edict, on the opposite he even justified it during a TV interview in February by referring to a “left-wing conspiracy” aimed at paralyzing the economy and overturning the regime. He declared that he had intelligence reports with names of leftist activists who have taken part in this conspiracy.

Neoliberal policies

Al Nahda has repeatedly declared its will to follow the path of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey in its policies, particularly its neo liberal policies. Rachid Ghannouchi actually assisted to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year to attend a conference focusing on Tunisia’s economic challenges and opportunities that could drive investment, especially on the part of the European Union (EU).

Al Nahda favors and encourages also a capitalist system; it does not challenge the Tunisian debt and the current economic system. They have declared their intentions to respect the various agreements with international financial and EU institutions, while the leader of the party, Rached Ghannouchi, repeatedly stated these past few months that demands for higher salaries are counter-revolutionary at this point in time. Hamadi Jebali, Prime Minister of the transition Tunisian government and secretary general of Al Nahda, reiterated also such statements recently on Al Jazeera channel, attributing the economic decline of Tunisia “to the phenomena of occupations, blocking roads and wild strikes.” He added that these mass demonstrations have prevented the implementation of new investment projects that would have provided “thousands” of jobs.

In the months before the election vote, Al Nahda officials held talks with hundreds of Tunisian investors. One of Ghannouchi’s first post-election engagements was to reassure investors and to organize a meeting with executives and brokers at the stock exchange.

Al Nahda declared that Tunisia will need about $118 billion in financing to boost economic growth to 7 percent a year, and expects the majority of the money to come through domestic savings, foreign direct investment and tools such as Islamic bonds. In its manifesto they party says it will encourage mergers among Tunisia’s 26 banks to help them “access markets abroad, develop exports and bring in foreign financing.”

Al-Nahda has declared its commitment to liberalizing the domestic and international economy, strengthening economic relations with the European Union and other trading partners (including Turkey and China). They believe that the fight against corruption should enable the country to retrieve financial resources for investment.

Imperialism and Israel

Rachid Ghannouchi met Israelis discreetly in Washington during his trip and said that Tunisia’s constitution would not ban further contacts between Tunisia and Israel. Ghannouchi confirmed this information to a US magazine, The Weekly Standard, that the new Tunisian constitution will not entail a clause that condemns Israel, while assuring the magazine that the document signed by several parties and associations – as well as political, civil society, and civil rights figures –  demanding to include in the constitution the interdiction of normalization with Israel is a meaningless document.

Rachid Ghannouchi, also made a statement to the Voice of Israel radio at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, beginning of the year causing a media uproar in Tunisia.

The Al Nahda party is also not hostile to western powers, developing meetings and contacts with the US and UK these past few months. They held meetings in the US with well known Zionist Senators and House Members (McCain, Liberman, Ackerman, etc..). A representative of Al Nahda in a meeting with US representative cited religious parties in Israel as example of religious and democratic parties. Some of its most important figures and spokesmen were actually engaged in ‘dialogue’ with the Americans on its behalf for several years before the overthrow of Ben Ali, according to cables from the US embassy in Tunis obtained by WikiLeaks.

Just as the MB in Egypt, the party has very good relationships with counter-revolutionary Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have also been financing the party massively during the campaign as we observed above. Rachid Ghannouchi’s first foreign trip after the October elections was to Qatar.

Societal issues

Al Nahda have for example denounced the projection of the Iranian movie Persepolis, in which Allah is pictured, on a Tunisian channel considered “as a flagrant attack on the Divine” and “an attack on people’s beliefs and sacred symbols”, while leading “to threatening civil peace and the people’s unity and historical harmony, just as they threaten the democratic political process”. In addition to this, it did not condemn clearly the attacks made by salafists groups against members of the Television channel and their buildings, but only dissociating itself from them.

Al Nahda’s position towards women’s rights is also ambiguous. In a radio interview, Abderrahim Souad, a leading representative of Al-Nahda, said that “single mothers would not have the right to exist”. And that she felt “ashamed” of Arab Muslims who show compassion for women who commit “abominable acts outside of marriage”.  

Conclusion

The transition government led by Al Nahda neglects the social and democratic aspects of the revolution.  The Tunisian people did not struggle for a minimum change in their country and they will certainly not stop with the transition government or the Constituent Assembly. The Tunisian people need to continue their ongoing revolutionary process to achieve all their rights and see a democratic, social and anti-imperialist Tunisia. The role of the left, the unions, the students and progressist actors in the civil society are primordial in this struggle.

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