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.”

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon
Updated 18 min 19 sec ago

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday France would continue to support Lebanon, adding the country's new government needed to take urgent reform measures.
"Lebanon can count on France," Macron said during a news conference held after a meeting with Lebanese new Prime Minister Najib Mikati. 

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks
Updated 9 sec ago

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks

TEHRAN: Iran does not want to abandon talks aimed at reviving a nuclear deal with major powers, its foreign minister said Friday, after Western powers expressed frustration over the slow pace.
"We are not seeking to quit the negotiating table," Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told the official IRNA news agency.
"We will certainly pursue a negotiation that serves the rights and interests of our nation."
A senior US official this week made clear Washington's frustration with Tehran over the absence of any "positive indication" it is prepared to return to the talks to "close down the remaining issues".
European governments said they heard nothing concrete from Amir-Abdollahian during their meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Speaking to IRNA from New York, the Iranian foreign minister said: "We are looking at avenues on the question of a return to negotiations, and, God willing, we will return to the negotiating table at the first opportunity."
Concluded in 2015, the nuclear deal offered Tehran relief from Western and UN sanctions in exchange for Tehran's commitment to never acquire nuclear weapons and to drastically reduce its nuclear activities, under the strict control of the UN.
But then US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew his country from the deal in 2018 and ramped up sanctions, provoking Iran into suspending most of its nuclear commitments.
Talks between Iran and the remaining five parties aimed at reviving the deal began in Vienna in April but have been suspended since June, when ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected president.
The US -- under Trump's successor President Joe Biden -- has participated indirectly in those talks, which seek to bring Washington back inside the agreement and lift the sanctions on Iran.
Hopes of reviving the deal were kept alive earlier this month when Iran agreed to a new compromise with the UN nuclear agency on the monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said the move would provide "time" for "diplomacy".

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability
Updated 24 September 2021

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability
  • Mohammed Al-Menfi revealed that security, military, and economic issues would top the agenda of the meeting that would also shore up support for the upcoming national elections

WASHINGTON: The chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya on Thursday said he would be staging an international conference next month to gain backing for efforts to bring stability and security to the country.

Mohammed Al-Menfi revealed that security, military, and economic issues would top the agenda of the meeting that would also shore up support for the upcoming national elections.

Al-Menfi, who is attending the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, added that the conference would host Libyan groups eager for reconciliation along with regional and international parties to push for the stability and security that has eluded Libya since the 2011 fall of Muammar Qaddafi who ruled the country for 40 years.

The Libyan leader said despite working on reconciliation efforts among Libyan groups, challenges still lay ahead on the road to achieving democracy.

He noted that Libya had made “significant strides” in implementing solutions that were mandated through agreements between the different Libyan groups and UN resolutions.

However, despite the progress, Al-Menfi pointed out that the country was still “faced with serious challenges and fast-paced developments” that could stall the ongoing political process.

On the ground, Libya remains confronted by many daunting challenges toward achieving political unity among its entrenched warring parties. Conflict still persists between the Tripoli-based Presidential Council and Gen. Khalifa Haftar who controls the eastern half of the country as well as the Libyan armed forces.

A transitional government was formed earlier this year to move the country forward toward elections on Dec. 24.

“Libya has the choice to either succeed toward becoming a democracy through free and transparent elections or go back to square one of infighting and military conflict,” Al-Menfi said.

He called on the international community to assist Libya in removing foreign militaries and mercenaries from the country as a way to build a “conducive environment for safe and transparent elections.”

Al-Menfi also demanded that European countries share their responsibilities in addressing the issue of illegal African migrants who pass through Libya on the way north to Europe, adding that his country had carried the burden alone and deserved support from the international community.

On the issues of human rights abuses that plagued Libya during its decade-long civil war, and the presence of terrorist groups on Libyan soil, he said his government was committed to safeguarding the human rights of the Libyan people and had worked toward bringing meaningful reconciliation through detainees and prisoners exchange, reparation, and addressing the fate of missing people.

Al-Menfi reiterated Libyan support for the Palestinian people and said his country was committed to the establishment of the Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure
Updated 24 September 2021

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure

Oman’s mosques reopen for Friday prayers today, after a closure that lasted more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, national daily Times of Oman reported.

The decision came after a “noticeable decrease in the curve of COVID-19 cases,” the report added.

Oman’s coronavirus supreme committee issued the decision on Sept. 19 to reopen mosques for Friday prayers from Sept. 24 for those who have been vaccinated.

The committee has requested a commitment to social distancing, the use of special carpets in mosques, the wearing of masks, and permitting only 50 percent of the mosque's capacity to enter.

Meanwhile, wedding halls and hotels have been requested by Oman’s Government Communication Centre to notify concerned municipalities at least 72 hours before an event.

Venues will only be allowed to operate at a 50 percent capacity and non-vaccinated employees and visitors will not be permitted to enter.

Venues will also be required to keep a record of employees’ entry and exit time and document the cleaning and disinfection operations.

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future
Updated 24 September 2021

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future
  • CCE is a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources instead of wasting them
  • Governments urged to consider adopting inclusive, flexible pathways offered by the CCE platform

DUBAI: Floods, storms and other extreme weather events have grown in frequency and intensity in many parts of the world over the past two decades, primarily as a result of global warming. To prevent temperatures rising any further, scientists are urging nations to drastically reduce their carbon emissions.

Governments in the Middle East have accelerated action toward reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November, including the adoption of renewables and methods for the removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

One innovative strategy embraced by Saudi Arabia is the circular carbon economy (CCE), a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources that would otherwise have been wasted or discarded.

The Middle East region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Several of its nations regularly experience temperatures in excess of 50C, leading to droughts, the destruction of delicate ecosystems and the loss of livelihoods, particularly among poor farming communities.

In Iraq, Syria and Turkey, for instance, once mighty rivers are beginning to run dry, destroying fragile fishing communities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates and allowing the desert to consume lands once considered a breadbasket.

The knock-on effects of climate change have resulted in the mass displacement of rural populations and the exacerbation of conflicts — trends that experts warn will only get worse if immediate and radical action is not taken at a global level.

“These events have not been directly caused by climate change, but they will be exacerbating the more frequent occurrence in the coming decades if action on climate is not taken,” said Saudi Arabia’s Princess Noura bint Turki Al-Saud, speaking virtually at the 9th World Sustainability Forum (WSF 2021) earlier this month.

Princess Noura is a founding partner at AEON Strategy and an advisory board member of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Circular Carbon Initiative.

Reducing the world's reliance on fossil fuels is at the core of international strategies to prevent catastrophic climate change. (AFP/File Photo)

CCE is an energy strategy that advocates the reduction, reuse and recycling of carbon products and their removal in an effort to eliminate harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.

Energy ministers from the G20 group of leading economies endorsed Saudi Arabia’s CCE approach to managing greenhouse-gas emissions last year when the Kingdom held the G20 presidency.

In partnership with Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom has made energy efficiency and the minimization of flaring at its oilfields top priorities in mitigating climate change, alongside fossil-fuel reduction through substitution with low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, hydropower, nuclear and bioenergy.

Using innovative technologies, carbon dioxide can be captured from the air and reused for useful products, such as fuels, bioenergy, chemicals, building materials, food and beverages. It can also be chemically transformed into new products such as fertilizer and cement, or other forms of energy such as synthetic fuels.

Technologies can also be used to capture and store CO2 to achieve a large-scale reduction of emissions. Countries can also increase the process of photosynthesis by planting more trees — a strategy that is key to the Kingdom’s Saudi Green initiative.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions to halt global warming is now widely accepted, Princess Noura cautioned that the reduction is currently happening too slowly to prevent global temperatures climbing 1.5 to 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

“Despite three decades of continued efforts in climate diplomacy and policy making, there has been little impact on curbing emissions,” she told the WSF panel. “Five years into the Paris Agreement, global CO2 concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere, driven by unabated global emissions.”

In fact, by the end of 2020, CO2 emissions were 2 percent higher than they were at the same time the previous year. Now global CO2 emissions are creeping ever closer to their pre-pandemic peak due to an increasing demand for coal, oil and gas as economic life resumes.

An innovative strategy embraced by Saudi Arabia is the circular carbon economy (CCE), a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources. (Supplied)

The International Energy Agency estimates that in the absence of further policy changes, global oil demand could reach 100.6 million barrels a day by the end of 2020. “This recent and historic trend underscores the challenge of curbing emissions and decarbonizing the global energy system,” Princess Noura said.

In a world that remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels — both as a source of energy and, for many countries, a source of revenue — Princess Noura says there is a critical need to scale up adaptation and mitigation efforts globally and to focus on the humanitarian response in those countries most vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change.

She urged governments to consider adopting the inclusive and flexible pathways offered by the CCE platform, which aggregates all mitigation and carbon management options into a single framework.

“It is allowing nations to collaborate in mutual areas of benefit and collectively address emissions in a coordinated manner,” she said.

Ambitious action can avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, but only if all nations act together, says Alok Sharma (pictured), the president of UN Climate Change Conference COP26. (AFP/File Photo)

“The CCE framework highlights the importance of renewable energy technologies and enhanced energy efficiency, which will be crucial to decarbonizing our energy system, but it also stresses the value of the best carbon management technologies.

“These remove carbon already in the atmosphere or from a point source before it enters the atmosphere, to either store or to utilize through recycling into other products, or using directly for specific purposes.”

The CCE platform also emphasizes nature-based solutions, requiring a whole ecosystem for innovation, deployment and scale, underpinned by strong commitment from governments, Princess Noura said.

“(There is a) need to scale up solutions and drive innovation at a rate that is faster than the rates of changing climates. Much of the policies, regulations and support that brought modern renewables to the market over the past decades are necessary to deploy the technologies that are needed today to reduce carbon emissions.”

An employee connects a Volkswagen (VW) ID.3 electric car to a loading station of German carmaker Volkswagen, at the 'Glassy Manufactory' (Glaeserne Manufaktur) production site in Dresden. (AFP/File Photo)

In its latest report published in August this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without the widespread adoption of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technologies, long-term global climate goals may be unobtainable.

According to the IEA, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to about $4 trillion to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“CCUS is one of the few technologies available that can decarbonize both power generation and heavy industries, such as cement, steel and chemical production with verifiable emissions reductions,” it said.

Although the international community has been discussing the adoption of such technologies for some time, implementation has been slow.

“Any further delay in CCUS implementation will make it even harder to achieve the climate goals,” said Aqil Jamal, chief technologist leading the carbon management research division of Aramco’s R&D Center in Dhahran, speaking on the same WSF 2021 panel.

Palestinians work at Al-Hattab charcoal production facility, east of Gaza City, on January 28, 2021, the largest producer in the Gaza Strip. (AFP/File Photo)

Trouble is, CCUS technologies are more readily available to rich countries, and energy access remains a problem for many developing countries.

“There is a huge portion of the global population that doesn’t have electricity nor clean cooking fuels,” Adam Sieminski, senior adviser to the board of trustees of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, told the panel.

“We have to find a way to do that — cleanly. The idea is gaining political traction, which means the ability to craft policies to put real pragmatic approaches in place is increasing.”

Sieminski added: “The CCE framework is something that’s being taken very seriously in Saudi Arabia.

“Many people seem to look at the whole concept of managing carbon as (costly), and the most important thing is that we have to move toward looking at this as value creation and how carbon can create value in the global economy.”