Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi on Islamic democracy

Qantara.de, a Germany-based publication promoting Western-Islamic dialogue, yesterday published an interview by Daniel Bax and Tsafrir Cohen (translated by Katy Derbyshire) with Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahda. That party, which initially led the country’s transition government after the December 2010 revolution, recently lost the first regular legislative and parliamentary elections, and it is now the largest opposition party in the Assembly.

Below are some excerpts from the interview that I found particularly interesting.

On the new constitution (background) and on Islamic democrats:

…we’re very proud of this constitution. We not only supported it; we also helped develop it. I don’t regard it as a secular constitution, but as one that unites Islam, democracy and modernity. We don’t see any conflict between moderate secularism and moderate Islam. There are Christian democratic parties in many European countries, such as Germany; elsewhere, there are democratic parties with Buddhist or Hindu backgrounds. Why should there not be Islamic democratic parties?

On the right to non-belief and secularism in an Islamic society:

…Islam guarantees freedom of religion and conscience, and that this applies in both directions: for adopting and rejecting the faith.

On the internal diversity and divisions of Islam (background):

There have always been different schools of thought throughout the history of Islam. But for 14 centuries of Islamic history, Islamic societies have always been pluralist and accepted people who followed other religions or none at all, and guaranteed this freedom and diversity. This acceptance of diversity is not something we had to import from the West either. When we look at Western countries, acceptance of diversity only evolved there after the Renaissance. Before that, there were religious wars that lasted for decades.

On universal rights:

Q: The French Revolution is regarded as the birth of enlightenment, democracy and human rights. What’s your position on these values?

Ghannouchi: The Tunisian constitution is founded on two pillars: the principles of Islam and the principles of modern society and human rights, which are a product of the Enlightenment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights [in 1948] was drawn up by people of many different cultural origins.

Q: There is also an “Islamic Declaration of Human Rights”, which was drawn up in 1990 by several Muslim states and which deviates from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a number of points, for instance on equal rights for women and men or rights for minorities. What do you think of it?

Ghannouchi: It represents an attempt to combine the principles of Islam with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But for me, there’s no contradiction between human rights and Islamic values. We accept that in our constitution, and that’s also part of the foundations of my thinking.

He also addressed the country’s severe terrorism recruitment problem, but he mainly attributed that to the decades of misery under repressive rule, which only began to end four years ago.


Libya high court scuttles any governmental legitimacy

In the literal battle between two rival legislatures — a Western Libyan “Congress” controlled by the Islamist parties elected previously to lead the transition and an Eastern Libyan “Parliament” controlled by anti-Islamist parties elected in this year’s elections — the country’s Supreme Court has poured gasoline on the fire by invalidating the parliament on an apparent technicality and without explanation…or any followup plan for what should happen now that the only currently elected and internationally-accepted legislative body in Libya is no longer constitutional.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday on the ruling:

Libya’s Supreme Court on Thursday ruled the nation’s isolated but internationally recognized parliament is unconstitutional, a decision that threatens to plunge the oil-rich nation into further political chaos.
The defiant statement [from Tobruk parliamentarians, rejecting the ruling] is likely to heighten tensions in Libya, where the Supreme Court has been seen as one of the few remaining institutions that hadn’t fallen under direct political influence.

The Supreme Court sits in Tripoli and supporters of the Tobruk parliament said it has operated under intimidation by a coalition of armed groups there known as Operation Dawn, raising questions about its ability to rule independently. The court hasn’t responded to any of the accusations.

Late Thursday, the reasoning behind the decision and whether it would result in the dissolution of the parliament, remained unclear. The judges who issued the ruling didn’t offer a public explanation and couldn’t be reached for comment.
The case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by 30 elected members of the House of Representatives who have Islamist leanings and have boycotted the sessions. They argued the legislature is in violation of the constitution because it doesn’t convene in Tripoli or Benghazi.

This ruling just seems like it’s needlessly inflammatory and based on an unreasonable geographic technicality — the emergency evacuation of the parliament to Tobruk from the captured capital of Tripoli and avoidance of the besieged “second city” of Benghazi — a point which they unhelpfully didn’t even confirm or deny.

I predict the international community will ultimately ignore the decision, on the grounds that the parliament is still the (more or less) legitimately elected representative of the people, regardless of its location or any constitutional technicalities about its location. But it will hand a crucial legal victory to all opponents of the parliament and supporters (domestically or abroad) of that opposing camp and its rival government.

Either way, it can only expand the casus belli justifying armed “resolution” to the political crisis, because when neither side wields legal legitimacy for assuming and retaining power, only the use of force remains.

Despite a rising war, Libya’s oil keeps flowing

There are now two rival governments in Libya, an unrecognized one in the western capital and an internationally recognized (and elected) one in the eastern city of Tobruk. From physical infrastructure to virtual infrastructure, everything is a target for the rivals. Politically and militarily, the western faction seems to have gained the upper hand for the moment, but on the economic front, the eastern faction is still maintaining competitive dominance in the battle for control and influence.

Libya is a country with one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and unsurprisingly one of the biggest political struggles between the rival governments is over effective control of the oil production, sales, and revenues — as explained by Jason Pack and Rhiannon Smith:

This battle for legitimacy and power is being played out within Libya’s two most influential institutions: the Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation (NOC). The HoR voted in September to dismiss Sadiq al-Kabir from his position as Central Bank governor, however Kabir appears to still be running the bank. Through him, the Islamist-aligned government has at least some control over Libya’s finances.

Last week, the Central Bank transferred Hassi’s [unrecognized] government enough funds to cover three months of family allowance payments, while a GNC-controlled public spending authority [allied with it] has managed to impose a payment limit of 200,000 Libyan Dinar across the public sector.

Meanwhile, Hassi’s Oil Minister Mashallah al-Zwey has physically taken over the NOC headquarters in Tripoli along with the NOC website. As such, officials are reportedly taking direction from him. Indeed, the official Libyan government website has been taken over by Hassi’s National Salvation government. Those cyberspace realities go a long way to validating the Tripoli government’s claim to sovereignty and legitimacy.

Based on this, one might expect a total breakdown in cooperation on oil between the rival factions. Instead, production is up and revenues are continuing to be distributed across the country. It’s a bit haphazard, to be sure, but they haven’t stopped.

Why? The realities of the complex setup of pre-Gaddafi oil royalty systems and citizen salaries, crossed with the international oversight of the country’s oil sector following the 2011 civil war, have resulted in a bizarre and almost amusing level of cooperation, even as the two factions send wave after wave of militias and soldiers and jets at each other.

Here’s the basic setup according to Reuters:

  1. Oil comes out of the ground all over the country.
  2. Oil is largely shipped to export terminals in eastern Libya controlled by the recognized government.
  3. Oil is sold legally on the international market by brokers.
  4. Money from these sales is deposited directly into an overseas account established by the international community.
  5. The only entity able to access the money overseas to bring it back to Libya is controlled by supporters of the unrecognized government and the western rebels.
  6. Most of the oil money brought back into Libya is paid to average citizens, fighters, soldiers, police, etc. in all areas of the country under a system established by Gaddafi. All beneficiaries nominally “work” for the government (either one) in jobs that may or may not exist.

If you detected a bit of a mutually assured destruction or prisoner’s dilemma-style roadblock in there, so did pretty much everybody involved, which is apparently why the two rival forces haven’t stopped the oil party.

When everyone in Libya is employed in a no-show government job funded by oil revenues, everyone in Libya is committed to keeping the oil flowing and being sold legally, despite their differences, even in the middle of what has clearly become a new civil war. Since Western rebels control the payouts and the Eastern government controls the exports, it’s important for everyone to work together even as they’re at war — or else nobody gets salaries. Without salaries, and barring substantially more proxy aid from the Persian Gulf, both sides would collapse as their hired combatants suddenly exit the war.

Unilaterally halting the exports automatically halts the revenue stream, while unilaterally halting the revenue payouts would trigger retaliatory cancellation of the oil exports. The only self-preserving and logical course, therefore, is for neither side to try to hold the other hostage on the oil cycle, at least until both the revenue transfers and exports are controlled by the same side, whether by force or by the international community intervening on the funds repatriation process.


Tunisia’s paradox

Flag-of-TunisiaTunisia — by comparison to the rest of the Arab Spring revolutions in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, or Syria — is essentially still the gold standard by leaps and bounds. There’s a moderate government, a fairly liberal constitution, elections were held and are about to be held again, there hasn’t been a coup d’état, there’s no major insurgency, and there’s no civil war.

But on the ground, in non-comparative terms, the picture is a little darker. The irony of the situation in Tunisia, in sum, is that they’ve gotten just enough freedom to be able to recruit for extremism but not enough freedom (and jobs, etc.) to stop a lot of people from being so angry that they want to join extremist causes.

The economic prospects remain about as dire as they were when a popular uprising over joblessness in December 2010 set the rest of the chain in motion, and the new government still hasn’t really managed to rein in the old regime’s extremely abusive police force (whose actions toward one street vendor sparked that uprising in the first place). Resentment is still very high, but the exploitative recruiters from fanatical ideologies now have the ability to recruit more openly than they did under the previous system.

And so it is, as the New York Times reports this week, that Tunisia has become a major source of fighters (and administrators) for the so-called “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and western Iraq, even as most Tunisians disapprove of the extremists.

While religious zealotry is certainly involved, the bigger factor still appears to be a deep-seated anger at the fundamentally unequal economic system of Tunisia, at the cruel security forces maintaining street-level control of people’s lives despite the revolution, and at everyone in the West who helped prop up the regime for decades. They hope to establish an economically fairer, utopian settler state and make new lives for themselves there, and they won’t be dissuaded by inconvenient truths about the realities of ISIS, because their own realities at home are bleak too.

Here’s a snippet from the Times report:

Mourad, 28, who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice,” because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said.
Imen Triki, a lawyer at a nonprofit that has represented more than 70 returning Tunisians, described the thinking of many young ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis: “If I am going to get arrested and beaten here anyway, I might as well go where I can have an impact.”
Indeed, in dozens of conversations with young Tunisians, almost no one, whether sympathizers or critics, believed the news reports of the Islamic State’s mass killings or beheadings. “It is made up,” echoed Amar Msalmi, 28, a taxi driver. “All of this is manufactured in the West.”

The ruling party, which is moderate Islamist, has pledged to take a harder line against extremist recruitment but argues that the problem will only really be solved by turning the economy around and making serious progress in improving the lives of average citizens.

Confusion in Libya as Egyptian jets bomb Benghazi

It’s pretty hard to tell what’s going on in Libya right now, even for the people there…

First, a quick recap of the year to present before today’s big event:

Earlier this year, an anti-Islamist former Army general, Khalifa Hifter, attempted to seize power in western Libya unsuccessfully. That effort having failed, Hifter regrouped and launched a rogue “security operation” to try to unilaterally clear eastern Libya of pro-Islamist militias in the city of Benghazi. This appeared to work for a time, and he tried to seize power in western Libya again, also without much effect. That was probably the high point of his efforts, in hindsight.

In August, the newly elected anti-Islamist government fled to Tobruk (in the east, in the coastal district next to Egypt) from Tripoli (the capital, in the west) as the latter city fell to pro-Islamist militia forces who supported the previous government. I speculated that this geographical repositioning — to the safest possible area away from Islamist factions — might signal either an imminent coup or an impending request for intervention from the anti-Islamist military government of President Sisi next door in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, mysterious fighter jets appeared over Tripoli and bombed rebel positions. The United States government announced after several days that it believed the airstrikes had been from the United Arab Emirates Air Force with support from Egyptian air bases, a claim Egypt denied officially and loudly.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Map of three coastal cities in Libya. Adapted from Wikimedia.

Instead of those airstrikes beating back the pro-Islamist militias in western Libya, the militias simply gathered themselves up and launched a concerted offensive on eastern Libya. They entered the city of Benghazi in recent weeks, leaving many Hifter sympathizers to flee to places like Tobruk (though he himself is reportedly still in Benghazi). Military barracks and other key sites of the anti-Islamist renegades and the official armed forces rapidly fell.

So what happened today?

Well, nobody is sure exactly, but we do know that mystery jets appeared again and bombed Islamist positions, this time in Benghazi (AP).

So who’s behind it?

The Associated Press got anonymous sources inside the Egyptian military to say that this was an Egyptian Air Force operation:

Egypt deepened its involvement in the fight against Islamist militias who have taken over key parts of Libya on Wednesday, with officials saying Egyptian warplanes have bombed their positions in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The two officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led campaign against the militiamen that will eventually involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces.

Publicly, and at the highest levels, Egypt again denied this had occurred.

The official line either way seems to be that the anti-Islamist government internally exiled to Tobruk, not far from the border with Egypt, authorized whatever happened:

The operation, they said, was requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

A prominent Libyan legislator, whose father heads the Libyan Air Force, also denied that Egypt itself had bombed Benghazi, claiming to the AP instead that they were loaner planes:

Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian warplanes were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but said that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. He says the planes were “rented” by the Libyan administration from Egypt. Al-Jorushi is awaiting confirmation of his appointment on the Tobruk-based parliament’s national security committee, which is responsible for such issues. He is also the son of the head of Libya’s air force, Gen. Saqr al-Jorushi. He said he learned that the planes are Egyptian from the new chief of staff

A Benghazi militia commander opposing the militarists and the Tobruk government offered this intelligence to the media:

Earlier on Wednesday, a top Islamic militia commander based in Benghazi said Egypt sent its warplanes to hit his group’s positions.

“We have photographs of the Egyptian warplanes and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities,” he told the AP. He said the planes were taking off from an airport in Libya’s eastern city of Bayda.

Bayda is a coastal city about halfway between Benghazi and Tobruk.
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Destined to fail? The hardline-Sharia breakaway states of history

Since the 19th century, various leaders and groups across North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East have attempted to establish brand new states with Islamist theocratic and expansionist governments. This tradition merely continues today with organizations acting in the vein of ISIS and several others today as well as a few rapidly derailed others in recent years. These efforts have fallen apart pretty easily every time, as discussed in a New York Times op-ed by David Motadel, a University of Cambridge historian, who has studied these movements.

They are formed in response to crisis, civil war, state failure, anti-colonialism, or some combination. They progress from rebel force seizing territory to seeking to establish states to expand their military capacities (via revenue collection and such), but then they make themselves into highly visible (and attackable) fixed targets, and they inevitably prove inept at governance, resulting in a rapid loss of popular support. Here’s one of several examples provided:

Equally short lived was the Mahdist state in Sudan, lasting from the early 1880s to the late 1890s. Led by the self-proclaimed Mahdi (“redeemer”) Muhammad Ahmad, the movement called for jihad against their Egyptian-Ottoman rulers and their British overlords, and it established state structures, including a telegraph network, weapon factories and a propaganda apparatus. The rebels banned smoking, alcohol and dancing and persecuted religious minorities.

But the state was unable to provide stable institutions, and the economy collapsed; half of the population died from famine, disease and violence before the British Army, supported by Egyptians, crushed the regime in a bloody campaign, events chronicled in “The River War” by the young Winston Churchill, who served as an officer in Sudan.

I think probably the only example of a surviving anti-colonial Islamist theocracy is Iran after 1979, which isn’t discussed in the article. But that’s because there’s not much similarity, despite the apparent end game. The Iranian radicals seized complete political power in a defined, pre-existing country with an existing and functioning state. There wasn’t a huge external crisis or war happening at the time, and they didn’t have to fight their way into power with a full-scale rebellion or insurgency. Moreover, the Iranian revolutionaries immediately turned the engine of the state (albeit with heavy purging of old regime loyalists) toward populist provision of services. And then they were soon invaded by Saddam Hussein, which helped mobilize the population for a patriotic defense against him, thus further securing the continuance of the new government in the state. In other words, the Iranians came to power very differently from how groups in the mold ISIS have tried to establish state authority, and they did everything they needed to so that they would be on a durable footing.

ISIS may be more tech-savvy and one of the best armed of these groups over the course of more than a century — though they’re also facing modern armed forces and not 19th century French infantry — but they have already shown themselves to be repeating the same patterns that led to the collapse of the prior efforts. You can alienate the people some of the time, if you provide food and services, but you can’t provide that without risking external attacks (like we’ve been seeing) or else a demonstration of gross incompetence in governing…and you can’t stop providing those things and continue alienating the people, without falling from power.

As Motadel observes near the end of his column: Read more

US suddenly surprised to find Mideast states acting unilaterally

A couple weeks ago, the United Arab Emirates Air Force struck targets in Libya’s capital in a surprise attack. According to the Pentagon, this secret operation attacked Islamist militias opposing the Zintan Brigade, which the UAE supports, and it was launched from Egyptian air bases. Both the UAE and Egyptian air forces — which are currently strongly opposed to political Islam and Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa regions — are trained and armed with American help, but the United States was not expecting or endorsing such an operation.

An Al Jazeera America headline blared an ominous warning: “UAE strikes on Libya stir US fears of a free-for-all in the Middle East”.

American unilateralism in the Middle East (particularly Iraq) combined with our arming and training these military forces to be self-sufficient was pretty much asking for that outcome. We provided the means and the model. They seized the opportunity. Why should we be surprised?

And as former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman is quoted in there as saying, Israel’s been doing the same thing for years (unilateral force actions, against US wishes, with US military aid) in its immediate sphere, so why should these other countries restrain themselves against targets that can’t hit back?

“Gulf states and Egypt have seen many instances of Israel doing whatever it wants without us,” Freeman said. “They’re saying, if Israel can use U.S. weapons to defy the U.S. and pursue its own foreign policy objectives, why can’t they?”

Moreover, the US seems to have managed to systematically take out all the restraints and countermeasures that had been delicately balancing the Middle East/North Africa and Southwest Asia regions, without then having a plan for what to replace it with, except more weapons to even more diffused points. And then we’re shocked — just shocked! — to see the house of cards start to fold in on itself in slow-motion. Which is not to say the US should have continued supporting most of those status quo regimes — they are the reason we’re in such a mess of rampant radicalism — but the handling of it from 2001 to present has been catastrophic. There had to have been a better plan to unravel the system than figuratively and sometimes literally carpet-bombing it without a roadmap toward any sort of objective.
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