Turmoil in Tunisia brings Ennahda’s moment of truth closer

A Tunisian protester lifts a national flag at an anti-government rally as security forces block off the road in front of the Parliament in the capital Tunis on July 25, 2021. (AFP)
A Tunisian protester lifts a national flag at an anti-government rally as security forces block off the road in front of the Parliament in the capital Tunis on July 25, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 02 August 2021

Turmoil in Tunisia brings Ennahda’s moment of truth closer

A Tunisian protester lifts a national flag at an anti-government rally as security forces block off the road in front of the Parliament in the capital Tunis on July 25, 2021. (AFP)
  • Tunisians no longer see governance failure and Ennahda’s presence in government as mere coincidence
  • The Islamist party has become the face of mismanagement of COVID-19 outbreak and the economy

DUBAI: On the face of it, the political crisis unfolding in Tunisia could be viewed as fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, an unforeseeable event that does not look to have run its course.

The president has dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament, declared a curfew and is ruling by decree after protests erupted on Sunday over economic hardship and soaring COVID-19 fatalities.

But such an explanation barely scratches the surface of the problems confronting the country, problems that many Tunisians now regard as almost intractable.

How did the situation reach this point in a nation that was hailed as the Arab Spring’s only success?

Judging by the images coming out of Tunisia, it seems clear that the people who blame the political class for the deteriorating economic, social and health conditions represent not some small pocket of opposition but a broad swath of public opinion. Equally, it is important to recognize that they have singled out a particular political party for criticism despite its leaders’ uncanny knack of dodging democratic accountability.

The offices of Islamist party Ennahda have become the common target of protesters’ ire in the towns of Sfax, Monastir, El-Kef, Sousse and Touzeur in recent days, as surging COVID-19 cases have overwhelmed the health system and aggravated economic problems.

Given Tunisia’s fractured polity and fractious politics, no rival of Ennahda could have manipulated public opinion on such a massive scale. The stark truth is that the biggest party in the Tunisian parliament is facing a trust crisis of its own making.

“Until a few years ago, Tunisia used to enjoy good public-health infrastructure,” Ammar Aziz, an associate editor at news channel Al Arabiya and a Tunisian citizen, told Arab News. “But everything has collapsed, especially during the last two years, owing to mismanagement and corruption, compounded by lack of equipment. This has prompted thousands of doctors to emigrate to Europe.”

Aziz said that Tunisian authorities initially had succeeded in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, registering zero infections in May 2020.

“However, Ennahda, which made a grand entry into power in 2019, had the government of Elyes Fakhfakh, who had been appointed prime minister by President Kais Saied in February 2020, dismissed in September,” he added.

“The new government that took over did not arrange for adequate vaccine purchases and, to make matters worse, opened the country’s borders without the needed restrictions. This caused the spread of COVID-19.”




A member of the Tunisian Islamist Ennahda party flashes the victory sign following a plenary session at the parliament in the capital Tunis on July 30, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

By mid-July, Tunisia had the highest per-capita COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and was also recording one of the continent’s highest infection rates. The health ministry acknowledged that the situation was dire. “The current situation is catastrophic,” ministry spokeswoman Nissaf Ben Alya told a local radio station. “The number of cases has risen dramatically. Unfortunately, the health system has collapsed.”

Many Tunisians consider political instability as the biggest impediment to progress in the fight against the deadly coronavirus. Tunisia has had three health ministers since the start of the pandemic. In September, it got its third government in under a year — and the ninth since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings ended the 24-year rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisians were not without friends in their hour of need. Saudi Arabia sent an aid package consisting of 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, 190 artificial respirators, 319 oxygen tanks, 150 medical beds and 50 vital signs monitoring devices with trolleys. The UAE donated 500,000 vaccine doses. France provided the same number of vaccines, along with medical equipment and supplies.

“Ennahda was seen as wanting to take advantage of President Saied’s success in obtaining aid from Saudi Arabia and France,” Aziz said. “The party tried and succeeded in getting the minister of health (Faouzi Mehdi) replaced, making him the scapegoat for the government’s mishandling of the situation. When these revelations came out, many Tunisians concluded that Ennahda was using the pandemic to reap political profit.”

The parlous state of affairs since April might also have stirred in many Tunisians bitter memories of a time when an Ennahda-led coalition government was slow to tackle one of the deadliest extremist mobilizations in the Arab world, following the 2011 uprisings.




Supporters of the Islamist Ennahdha party wave flags during a demonstration in support of the Tunisian government on February 27, 2021 in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia made the most of the post-2011 prisoner amnesties to grow its ranks. Ennahda, originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and an advocate of an overtly Islamic identity and society for Tunisia, appeared not to be up to the task of fighting militancy. The assassinations in 2013 of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two leaders of the leftist Popular Front electoral alliance, further polarized Tunisian public opinion.

By the time the government designated Ansar Al-Sharia as a terrorist organization in August 2013, many saw it as a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. Five years later, a group of lawyers and politicians accused Ennahda of being behind the killings of Belaid and Brahmi, and of forming a secret organization to infiltrate the security forces and judiciary, charges the party rejected.

The government’s reluctance to take off the kid gloves and smash militancy during this formative period of Tunisian democracy has haunted Ennahda ever since. As Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted in a Wilson Center research paper: “Between 2013 and 2019, thousands joined jihadi movements abroad. … From Libya, Tunisians planned three large-scale attacks in 2015 and 2016 — at the Bardo Museum, a beach resort in Sousse, and the attempted takeover of Ben Gardane, a city along the Tunisian-Libyan border.”

As recently as 2018 the Washington Post reported that a study published by Mobdiun, an organization that works with youths in Kram West, a poor suburb of Tunis, found that nearly 40 percent of young men there said they knew someone who had joined a terrorist organization. A further 16 percent said they had been approached about adopting violent extremist ideology.




Tunisian President Kais Saied gesturing as he enters a vehicle in Tunis's central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, after he ousted the prime minister and ordered parliament closed for 30 days. (AFP/Tunisian Presidency)

Those not drawn to militancy look for other, perilous ways to fulfill their dreams and ambitions. Consequently, every month large numbers of young Tunisians risk their lives in search of a better life in Europe. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2020 alone 13,000 Tunisians made the sea crossing, many of them probably aware of the dangers they would face on the journey.

“If you compare the short periods in which Beji Caid Essebsi, for example, or the prime minister of Ben Ali ruled Tunisia after the departure of Ben Ali himself in 2011, and the periods in which Ennahda ruled, you will notice a big difference: terrorism appeared with Ennahda,” Aziz said.

“More recently, with Ennahda controlling parliament and also the government, everything has simply collapsed — from security to the economy. The same is true for the country’s transport system and public-health institutions. All Tunisians have noticed the deterioration and it is for this reason we saw the protests in different towns on July 25.”

In an attempt to disarm critics in the West and win over secularists at home, Ennahda announced with much fanfare in 2016 that it was moving away from its religious roots to focus more on politics. But this claimed exit from political Islam and entry into “Muslim democracy” has remained just that, a claim, critics say. As some scholars of political Islam have noted, Ennahda has yet to clarify exactly what the “Muslim democracy” to which it has committed itself actually means in practice.




Supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied chant slogans denouncing the country's main Islamist Ennahda (Ennahdha) party in front of the Parliament which was cordoned-off by the military in the capital Tunis on July 26, 2021. (AFP)

Now, even as it faces growing public anger over a perfect storm of crises battering Tunisia, Ennahda knows it cannot afford to alienate its core constituency. Open admission of failure could result in loss of support from traditional Islamists.

It is also concerned that working with secular parties and making political compromises could open up ideological fissures and expose vulnerabilities. Over the years, Ennahda must have surely realized that the rhetoric of human rights and democratic politics cannot be a substitute for genuine reforms. But the jury is still out on its ability or willingness to undertake such an exercise.

“Ennahda has governed or taken part in governing Tunisia for an entire decade now. It has been the worst decade in Tunisia’s modern history, according to many people,” Aziz said, adding that the latest protests offer some indication of a widespread public sentiment.

“These Tunisians hold Ennahda responsible for all the country’s problems. They see the party as the main reason behind the ineffective governments, the widespread corruption, the lack of jobs, the unprecedented migration movements toward Italy and France and, at present, the country’s high COVID-19 death rates relative to other African and Arab countries.”


Algeria closes airspace to Moroccan aviation as dispute deepens

Algeria closes airspace to Moroccan aviation as dispute deepens
Updated 7 sec ago

Algeria closes airspace to Moroccan aviation as dispute deepens

Algeria closes airspace to Moroccan aviation as dispute deepens
  • Algeria late last month decided to cut diplomatic ties with Morocco

ALGIERS/CAIRO: Algeria’s supreme security council decided on Wednesday to close the country’s airspace to all Moroccan civil and military aircraft, the Algerian presidency said, less than a month after it cut diplomatic relations with the kingdom.
The decision came “in view of the continued provocations and hostile practices on the Moroccan side,” it said in a statement.
The closure also includes any aircraft carrying a Moroccan registration number, the presidency said after a meeting of the council.
There was no immediate Moroccan official response. A source at Royal Air Maroc said the closure would only affect 15 flights weekly linking Morocco with Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt.
The source described the closure as insignificant and said the relevant flights could reroute over the Mediterranean.
The airline gave no official comment on the Algerian decision.
Algeria late last month decided to cut diplomatic ties with Morocco, citing “hostile actions” from the Kingdom, referring mainly to comments made by Morocco’s envoy in New York in favor of the self-determination of the Kabylie region in Algeria.
Algiers also accused Rabat of backing MAK, a separatist group that the government has declared a terrorist organization. Authorities blame the group for devastating wildfires, mainly in Kabylie, that killed at least 65 people. MAK has denied the accusations.
Morocco said in response that Algeria was unjustified in cutting ties and its arguments were “fallacious and even absurd.”
The border between Morocco and Algeria has been closed since 1994 and Algeria has indicated it will divert gas exports from a pipeline running through Morocco, which was due to be renewed later this year.
Relations have deteriorated since last year, when the Western Sahara issue flared up after years of comparative quiet. Morocco sees Western Sahara as its own, but the territory’s sovereignty has been disputed by the Polisario Front, an Algeria-backed independence movement.


Sudan’s military strikes out at civilian politicians after coup attempt

Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Burhan Abdelrahman
Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Burhan Abdelrahman
Updated 23 September 2021

Sudan’s military strikes out at civilian politicians after coup attempt

Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Burhan Abdelrahman
  • Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan said the military was the group most interested in the transition to democracy and elections, scheduled for early 2024

KHARTOUM: Sudanese military leaders said on Wednesday the civilian politicians they share power with had opened the door to a coup attempt by neglecting public welfare while they were consumed by internal squabbles.
A body known as the Sovereign Council has ruled Sudan under a fragile power-sharing deal between the military and civilians since the overthrow of Omar Bashir in 2019 but their relationship has remained fractious since then.
Military authorities said on Monday they had detained 21 officers who had attempted to take power in the early hours of the day. The threat appeared to have escalated the tensions between the partners.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia condemned the coup attempt Al-Arabiya TV reported on Wednesday, citing the country’s Foreign Ministry.
Egypt also condemned the coup attempt and stressed its support for its neighbor’s transitional government.
In a statement on its official Facebook page, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry affirmed its support for efforts by Sudan’s government to meet the aspirations of its people at this important stage in the country’s history.
Cairo stressed its keenness to see stability and security in Sudan, and condemned any attempt to obstruct development efforts there.
Speaking at a military graduation in Omdurman, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, head of the Sovereign Council, and his deputy General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, accused the civilian politicians of seeking personal gains and forgetting the aims of the revolution.
“The politicians gave an opportunity for the coup because they neglected the citizen and his livelihood and basic services and were occupied with fighting over seats and divvying up positions,” Dagalo said, in unusually strong criticism of the civilian team.
After the coup attempt, civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok reiterated calls to restructure the military and bring its business interests under civilian oversight, a key source of dispute, in a speech that did not emphasize military-civilian unity as he has done previously.
Political parties called on citizens to reject military rule and protect the revolution. Burhan called such statements “unacceptable.”
“Who should they rise to protect the revolution against? From us, the military? We are the ones who are protecting it from them, the ones who want to steal it.”
Burhan said the military was the group most interested in the transition to democracy and elections, scheduled for early 2024.
“They are occupied with fighting and yelling and are directing all their arrows at us,” he said.
Both men said they felt their forces were unappreciated.
“The military is met with humiliation and insults day and night, so how can there not be coups,” said Dagalo.


EU says Tehran ready to resume nuclear talks at ‘early date’

Protesters wearing costumes depicting Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, denounce Raisi near UN headquarters. (Reuters)
Protesters wearing costumes depicting Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, denounce Raisi near UN headquarters. (Reuters)
Updated 22 September 2021

EU says Tehran ready to resume nuclear talks at ‘early date’

Protesters wearing costumes depicting Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi, denounce Raisi near UN headquarters. (Reuters)
  • 400 Iranian-American scholars urge Biden to call for Raisi to stand trial for his role in mass executions
  • Borrell ‘underlined once again the great importance of a quick resumption of the Vienna talks’ at a meeting with Iran’s top diplomat

BRUSSELS: The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Wednesday Iran’s top diplomat had assured him at their first meeting that Tehran was ready to restart talks on the nuclear deal soon.

EU-mediated negotiations began in Vienna in April aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers — an accord left hanging by a thread after former US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and ramped up sanctions.
The discussions, which involve the remaining parties seeking to persuade Washington to rejoin the deal and Iran to return to its nuclear commitments, have been stalled since June, when ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran’s president.
An EU statement said Borrell “underlined once again the great importance of a quick resumption of the Vienna talks” at a meeting on Tuesday with Iran’s new top diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
“The Iranian Foreign Minister assured of the willingness to resume negotiations at an early date,” the statement said.
Raisi voiced support on Tuesday in his international debut for reviving the nuclear accord, even as he berated the US.
“The Islamic Republic considers useful talks whose ultimate outcome is the lifting of all oppressive sanctions,” Raisi said in a recorded speech to the UN.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said he expected a resumption of the talks “in the coming weeks,” without giving an exact date.
The 2015 nuclear agreement offered Iran a reduction of UN sanctions in return for strict limits on its nuclear program, but Tehran has progressively stepped away from its commitments in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal and imposition of sanctions.
Trump’s successor Joe Biden has signaled a willingness to return to the deal, which was negotiated when he was Barack Obama’s vice president and under Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani.
In a letter to President Biden, ahead of his speech at the UN General Assembly, more than 400 Iranian-American scholars urged the president to call for Raisi to stand trial before an international tribunal for his role in the 1988 mass execution of dissidents. Dissidents have zeroed in on his role in a “death commission” that ordered the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.
Iran’s new president slammed US sanctions imposed on his nation as a mechanism of war, using his first UN address since his swearing-in to forcefully call out Washington’s policies in the region and the growing political schism within America.
President Ebrahim Raisi delivered a far more critical and blunt take on American foreign policy than his moderate predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, had done in previous speeches to the UN General Assembly.
“Sanctions are the US’ new way of war with the nations of the world,” Raisi said, adding that such economic punishment during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic amounts to “crimes against humanity.”
In taking aim at the US, Raisi also referenced the shocking Jan. 6th insurrection on Capitol Hill by supporters of then-President Donald Trump, and the horrific scenes at Kabul airport last month as desperate Afghans plunged to their deaths after clinging to a US aircraft evacuating people.
“From the Capitol to Kabul, one clear message was sent to the world: The US’ hegemonic system has no credibility, whether inside or outside the country,” Raisi said.
He said “the project of imposing Westernized identity” had failed, and added erroneously that “today, the US does not get to exit Iraq and Afghanistan but is expelled.”


Yemeni woman turns home into school

Yemeni teacher Amina Mahdi (L) gives a lesson to children sprawled across the floor of her home in the rural area of Muhib, in the southern province of Hodeida, on September 1, 2021. (AFP)
Yemeni teacher Amina Mahdi (L) gives a lesson to children sprawled across the floor of her home in the rural area of Muhib, in the southern province of Hodeida, on September 1, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 22 September 2021

Yemeni woman turns home into school

Yemeni teacher Amina Mahdi (L) gives a lesson to children sprawled across the floor of her home in the rural area of Muhib, in the southern province of Hodeida, on September 1, 2021. (AFP)
  • Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis

AL-TUHAYTA, Yemen: Yemeni teacher Amina Mahdi gives a science lesson to children sprawled across the ground at her home in a remote village in the southern province of Hodeidah.
For these boys and girls, learning at Mahdi’s sun-scorched compound is their only opportunity for an education in the small rural area of Muhib in the Al-Tuhayta district.
She had already been teaching children to read and write before the outbreak of the impoverished country’s devastating war in 2014.
“What pushed me toward teaching was the high rate of ignorance in the village and that children were deprived of an education,” Mahdi told AFP.
With dozens of children to tend to, Mahdi has divided them into three groups based on age, teaching each class for two hours a day.
Other than learning how to read and write, the children also get lessons in maths and science.
But Mahdi said her house, with hundreds of books piled on a single shelf, is not really equipped for teaching. “There is lots of damage from the sun and heat,” she said, wearing an all-black niqab.
Yemen’s war pits the government against the Iran-allied Houthi rebels.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed and millions displaced in what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 2,500 schools in the country are unfit for use, with some destroyed and others turned into refugee camps or military facilities.
UNICEF has estimated that 2 million children were without school even before the coronavirus pandemic, a further systemic shock which it warns has likely propelled the number even higher.
“We wouldn’t have been able to read, write or learn if it weren’t for Miss Amina,” one of the pupils, Ibrahim Mohib, told AFP.
His father, Mohammed, said he had no regrets sending his three children to learn at Mahdi’s home.
“They were taught there from the first until the fourth grades, and thank God for (Mahdi) striving to teach them,” he said.
Mahdi said she hopes to get some form of help to teach the children.
“I ask all those who are charitable to bring joy to these children ... and offer aid to establish a real school,” she said. “My small home is not good enough, and it has become a public place where I am no longer comfortable.”


Saudi Arabia, US, EU, others announce $600m in additional aid for Yemen 

Saudi Arabia, US, EU, others announce $600m in additional aid for Yemen 
Updated 22 September 2021

Saudi Arabia, US, EU, others announce $600m in additional aid for Yemen 

Saudi Arabia, US, EU, others announce $600m in additional aid for Yemen 
  • Saudi Arabia remains the top donor of humanitarian aid to its war-torn neighbor
  • Saudi, Yemeni govts call for pressure on Houthis to choose UN-led political solution to conflict

NEW YORK:  Saudi Arabia, the US, the EU and other nations announced hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of additional humanitarian and development aid for Yemen at a high-level meeting at the UN on Wednesday. 

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Rabeeah, supervisor-general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, announced that Saudi Arabia will provide an additional $90 million in humanitarian aid for war-torn Yemen.

“Over the last six years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has provided more than $18 billion to support Yemen,” he said. “This year alone, Saudi Arabia has supported Yemen with more than $848 million.” 

The latest pledge means Saudi Arabia is once again the largest donor of aid to Yemen. But “monetary donations alone won’t alleviate the crisis in Yemen,” Al-Rabeeah warned. 

“Unless we work together to end the conflict and minimize the obstructions of aid delivery, the situation will continue to worsen,” he added.

“Ongoing aggression by the Houthi militias against the UN and international NGOs only adds more misery to the Yemeni people.”

Al-Rabeeah expressed the Kingdom’s desire that the international community support its political plan “to put an end to the conflict and bring long-lasting peace to all Yemenis.”

The US promised an additional $290 million in donations for 2021, while the EU announced that it will donate a further €119 million ($139.65 million), which the bloc’s Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen said is a “joint humanitarian and development aid pledge.”

She added that “in the immediate term, our support will help families access food and basic commodities,” and that “in the long term, the EU seeks to help Yemen build a bridge from crisis to recover.” In this, she said, “investing in youth and women will play a critical role.”

Canada, Qatar, Sweden and Brazil together pledged additional donations worth over $120 million, some of which will be provided to UN bodies such as the World Food Programme to assist their operations in Yemen.

In total, around $600 million in additional humanitarian funding was announced at the UN meeting.

That money will be used to ensure that food security, sanitation, healthcare and education continues to be delivered to as many Yemenis as possible.

But while the aid provided by the international community will alleviate some of the hardship facing the country’s 29 million people, world leaders repeatedly made clear that a political solution to the conflict is the only way to truly end the humanitarian crisis.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and it was plunged into civil war when the Iran-backed Houthis overthrew the UN-recognized government in 2015. Since then, famine and conflict have caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.

Yemen’s Minister of Foreign and Expatriate Affairs Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak warned on Wednesday that “despite the generous contributions of the international community, including the UN-led Humanitarian Response Plan, the humanitarian crisis witnessed by Yemen is still the largest and most urgent in the world.” 

He blamed the Houthis for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, citing their assault on the city of Marib as an example of how they perpetuate the suffering of Yemenis — in this case by preventing the supply of household fuel to people across the country.

“Marib is the main source of household gas in Yemen … The continued brutal attacks by the Houthi militias on Marib exacerbate human suffering,” Bin Mubarak said.

He warned that a continuation of the Marib offensive could force thousands of internally displaced Yemenis who had sought safety in the city to seek refuge overseas.

“All humanitarian efforts provided by the different (UN) agencies won’t end the suffering of the Yemenis unless this war stops,” he said.

“Therefore, I’d like to call upon the international community to exert more effort on the Houthi militias and their supporters to give up the option of war and engage in a peace process that’s led by the UN.”