Staff at two Tunisian newspapers held strikes on Tuesday protesting a government clampdown on freedom of expression, as the country’s media accuses authorities of tightening their grip on the press.
French-language daily Le Temps and Arabic-language Essabah held a day-long strike after talks broke down between unions and the government, led by the Islamist al-Nahda party.
“We are striking to defend our right to freedom of expression and the right of the Tunisian people to receiving reliable information,” unionist and journalist Sana Farhat told AFP.
Newspaper unions pushed the strike after suspending negotiations with the government on Monday, during which there had been a lack of progress on the media crisis.
“The government showed no willingness to go back on its recent appointment of controversial figures at the top of some media establishments,” said Nejiba Hamrouni, president of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT).
Journalists have protested the government’s appointment of a new director, Lotfi Touati, to the Dar Assabah press group, which owns Le Temps and Essabah, considering him too close to al-Nahda.
AFP tried to reach Touati by telephone, but was told he was out of his office.
International NGOs have criticized the Tunis government for seeking to manipulate the media, including by appointing new directors to head public media groups without consulting their staff.
The government wants to “bring editorials in line with its propaganda ahead of the next elections,” said Farhat, referring to general elections due in 2013.
Elections in 2011 which followed the ouster of former western-backed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising propelled the Islamists to power.
- Tunisia: Al-Nahda’s Failures Lead Sidi Bouzid to Rise Again (alethonews.wordpress.com)
A Tunisian man who died on Monday in hospital in Tunis was tortured in a police station, his lawyer said, while the government confirmed he had died of a concussion.
The death of Abd Raouf Kammassi was the first of its kind to be reported in the North African country since the overthrow of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his dictatorial regime last year.
“Abd Raouf Kammassi died today at Charles Nicole Hospital due to being hit with a sharp object on his head by security forces during his interrogation in a police station,” lawyer Abd Elhak Triki told Reuters.
The Interior Ministry confirmed in a statement that Kammassi had died of a concussion. It said an investigating judge had ordered four security agents to stop interrogating him.
“Abd Raouf Kammassi died under torture in Sidi Hussein police station after his arrest on charges of theft,” Radhia Nasroui, President of the Association Against Torture, told Reuters.
The previous government had long faced criticism of torturing prisoners, but the first such death after the revolution could embarrass the new government led by the Islamist party Al-Nahda, which has pledged to respect human rights and ensure proper treatment of prisoners.
Al-Nahda’s democratic credentials have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, with the Islamists accused of censoring free press, using violence against protesters, and curtailing women’s rights.
- Tunisia: Al-Nahda’s Failures Lead Sidi Bouzid to Rise Again (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Mossad in the Maghreb: Stepping Up its Game (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Tunisia – For the past three months, the Arab Maghreb countries have been witnessing a growing number of controversies and scandals concerning cells linked to Israeli espionage activities.
It began when an informants network was dismantled in Mauritania early this year. Then Mossad made the headlines in Algeria and Morocco in a string of reports, rumors, and hoaxes.
Finally, a new scandal reverberated across Tunisia last week involving a wide network of Mossad operations, including espionage centers using the country as a base to spy across the Maghreb region.
Abderraouf al-Ayadi, head of the Wafa Movement which split from the Rally for the Republic (RPR), caused a huge stir last week when he revealed that Mossad has stepped up its activities in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
He said that these activities were being conducted under the “cover of European and US NGOs that claim to be charitable, humanitarian, or cultural.”
This echoes earlier statements by the head of the Tunisian Workers Party (formerly POCT), Hamma al-Hammami, about “Israeli spy networks operating in post-revolution Tunisia that took advantage of the state of chaos and lawlessness that swept the country following president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s escape.”
The information revealed by Ayadi and Hammami coincided with a February report by the Yafa Center for Studies and Research focusing on Mossad activities in the Maghreb. The report said that the agency began concentrating its operations in Tunisia following the PLO’s exit from Beirut and relocation to Tunis in 1982.
Interest in the region declined after the signing of the Oslo accords, until the Tunisian revolution brought it back.
The report spoke about the post-Oslo Tunisian-Israeli rapprochement which became public with the establishment of a bureau for economic cooperation in 1996.
The relationship included a secret item about the “establishment of a system for security coordination between the Mossad and Tunisia by Shalom Cohen, a Tunisian Jew working in the North Africa section of the Israeli Mossad. In the same year, he became the director of the Israeli interest bureau in Tunisia.”
According to the report, Cohen used his diplomatic cover to build a “Mossad network” based in the capital Tunis, with branches in Sousse and Djerba.
The Yafa center information is consistent with that which Ayadi said he had received from a high-ranking Tunisian security source who reported the surveillance of a secret Mossad network “of around 300 agents” distributed over the three spying bases.
The first base was in the capital and run by a certain Nachman Jalboagh. It focused on Algeria by collecting information, monitoring targets, and recruiting agents.
The second is in Sousse and run by Doron Pierre. Its operations were primarily inside Tunisia, especially the monitoring the remaining Palestinians in Tunisia, Salafi movements, and groups opposing peace with Israel.
The third is in Djerba, run by Nurit Tsur, and focuses on Libya. It also acts to protect the Jewish sect in Tunisia, which is concentrated on the island, and collects information about Jewish archaeological sites and landmarks in Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya.
Tunisian authorities have remained silent despite the uproar caused by the revelations. The government has yet to take any public action concerning the issue.
Speaking to al-Maghreb newspaper, interior minister Ali al-Arid said “the statements concerning 300 Mossad spies in Tunisia, working under the cover of cultural NGOs and travel agencies, are unfounded and completely irresponsible.”
“They are intended to disturb the work of security agencies that toil night and day to protect Tunisia. Anyone who has information about the issue should contact the security agencies so they can confirm it,” he added.
Tunisian anti-normalization activists believe that the interior minister’s statements contradict information broadcast on official Israeli television in the first days of the Tunisian revolution.
Mossad had boasted about “a special operation in Tunisia, under the cover of European companies, to evacuate a group of Israelis who were visiting Djerba, the site of the oldest synagogue in the world, al-Ghariba temple.”
Tunisian activists suggest that “Mossad activities and crimes are not new in Tunisia. The most famous was the bombing of the Hammam al-Shat suburb in the autumn of 1985. It targeted the offices of late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. The Mossad also carried out numerous assassinations in Tunisia, including that of the mastermind behind the first intifada, Abu Jihad, in 1988.”
Following the Oslo agreement, nationalist and leftist currents, as well as anti-normalization associations accused Ben Ali of “facilitating Mossad operations and activities in Tunisia.”
This was highlighted in a documentary broadcast by Tunisian television following the revolution called “The State of Corruption.” The film exposed the significant role that Ben Ali played in setting the scene for the accords.
Following Oslo, the former dictator opened an Israeli economic cooperation bureau in Tunis. The office initiated its activities by contacting several Tunisian intellectuals and journalists to lure them into normalization activities. The majority refused to be involved.
The bureau was later closed due to popular pressure following the 2002 Israeli assault on the West Bank and the consequent siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.
The alarm sounded by Ayadi and Hammami is based on evidence and information corroborated by rights activist Ahmed al-Kahlawi, president of the Tunisian Association for Fighting Normalization and Supporting the Arab Resistance (TAFNSAR).
Kahlawi said that “several foreign organizations active in post-revolution Tunisia, such as Freedom House, play a major role in propagating the culture of normalization under the pretext of defending human rights.”
He also laid bare the schemes of an organization called “AMIDEAST, which teaches English under the supervision of the US embassy. It entices students to give up their animosity towards Israel and promotes programs that claim to call for peace and dialogue between cultures, but in reality it aims to foster normalization.”
“With the fall of Ben Ali, Israel lost a strong strategic ally in North Africa,” Kahlawi explained. He indicated that most Zionist leaders admit this openly, including Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom, who is of Tunisian origins (born in the city of Qabis).
Ben Ali had officially welcomed Shalom in 2005 in a meeting that was not covered by the Tunisian media, coinciding with the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis.
Kahlawi said the latest revelations about Mossad’s role in Tunisia should be further grounds for the constituent assembly to ratify chapter 27 of the proposed constitution, related to crimes of normalization and prosecuting collaboration with the Zionist state.
He added that “al-Nahda had rejected the criminalization of normalization, with a demagogic argument contending that the Tunisian constitution will last longer than the Israeli state, which will inevitably perish!”
Most Tunisian anti-normalization activists suspect the real reason behind al-Nahda eschewing the criminalization of normalization to be “pressure from the US on the ruling troika, and specifically on the movement, to prevent the ratification of chapter 27, which had been proposed by anti-normalization associations.”
- Tunisia: Al-Nahda’s Failures Lead Sidi Bouzid to Rise Again (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- “Arab Spring” back to the beginning? (english.ruvr.ru)
On Tuesday August 14, the central Tunisian governorate of Sidi Bouzid held a general strike to call for the release of several protesters detained during the demonstrations held over the preceding weeks and to demand concrete plans for development in the region.
Tuesday’s events come after a series of city-wide general strikes which, from the month of May, have swept through Tataouine, Monastir, Kasserine and Kairouan. The recent events in Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, should be considered the culmination of an extended standoff, not only between the al-Nahda-led ruling coalition and Tunisia’s main trade union federation, the UGTT, but also between those in power and those who are yet to see the revolutionary demands of “work, freedom, and national dignity” realized.
Tensions in Sidi Bouzid have been mounting over a period of months. However, the origins of this most recent wave of unrest can be linked to July 26 when a large number of day workers in the region attacked the al-Nahda party offices in protest at a two-month delay in their wages being paid. The Interior Ministry estimated the numbers involved at 150 while union officials claimed more than 1,000 took part.
The response of al-Nahda to these events was typical. Refusing to recognise the genuine demands of the chronically unemployed and disenfranchised in the southern regions of Tunisia, party officials claimed that those demonstrating had been manipulated by rival political parties, seeking to sow instability and dissent for their own ends. The police fired warning shots and tear gas canisters to disperse the protest.
Tensions have been further exacerbated in recent months by ongoing water shortages in the region. Over the past six months, drinking water has commonly only been available in the evenings and has occasionally been cut off for the entire day. Mohamed Najib Mansouri, the governor of Sidi Bouzid, claimed that one of the reasons for these shortages was the failure of residents to pay their bills. It is more likely that the local infrastructure has been unable to sustain the increased consumption of water during an especially hot and dry summer.
On Thursday August 9, a protest was organised by the December 17th Progressive Forces Front in conjunction with the December 17th Committee for the Protection of the Revolution, the UGTT and a number of opposition parties.
As well as demands for a guaranteed supply of water to the region, the protesters’ demands included the settlement of the status of workers, the resignation of the regional commander of the National Guard, the resignation of Governor Mohamed Najib Mansouri and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, in view of its failure to respond to the legitimate demands of the residents of Sidi Bouzid.
In response to the protests, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds. One man was hospitalised having been struck in the stomach by a rubber bullet and four others were taken to hospital after inhaling tear gas.
Following these events, al-Nahda once again ignored the grievances of those protesting, this time claiming that rival party Nidaa Tunis was behind the protests. Indeed, a spokesperson from the ruling Islamist movement went so far as to claim that Nidaa Tunis, created in June of this year by former interim prime minister Beji Essebsi, represented the political arm of Ben Ali’s defunct Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party and that they had “proof that some figures within the region known to be close to Nidaa Tunis sided with criminals, thieves and alcohol vendors to spread anarchy in Sidi Bouzid”.
Despite President Moncef Marzouki’s efforts to quell the the growing tension in the region, the general strike went ahead on Tuesday with over 1,000 protesters assembling outside the court house.
The events of recent weeks mark a significant development in the mounting levels of anger at the failures of the majority Islamist party. More than the ruling coalition as a whole, it is now al-Nahda which is perceived to be behind the lack of real progress in Tunisia. What’s more, one should not be surprised at the police’s violent handling of these protests. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Interior Minister Ali Larayedh have previously made it clear that they are willing to use force in order to maintain order in the country. Sadok Chourou, a prominent figure within the al-Nahda ranks claimed in January that strikers were “enemies of God” and that they should suffer the same fate as apostates.
It is the protesters themselves who are blamed for the ongoing instability within Tunisia and not the failures of the ruling coalition and, specifically, al-Nahda. And yet, one need only look at actions of the ruling parties in order to see the falsity of such a claim. Negotiations up until now have been dogged by political outbidding and brinkmanship which has severely hindered the transitional process, as seen in al-Nahda’s attempts to prevent the transition to an independent judiciary, its decision to level a sentence of up to two years for attacks on “sacred values” or its recent rewording of the draft constitution to define the status of women as “complementary to men.”
Furthermore, the economic alternatives being proposed will likely do little to alleviate the situation of many in the southern regions of Tunisia which have traditionally suffered from high levels of unemployment and a lack of investment. Relying principally on foreign and private investment, the government aims to to provide 100,000 more jobs in Tunisia and predicts a level of 3.5 percent GDP growth for 2012. The latter of these two predictions seems increasingly unlikely considering that Tunisia has, to date, experienced four consecutive quarters of negative growth. With levels of unemployment at 18.1 percent, the aim to create 100,000 jobs will also do little to abate social unrest in a country which counts over 709,000 (of an active workforce of 3.9 million) unemployed.
With Minister for Investment Riadh Bettaib announcing last Friday that Tunisia can expect to receive a further $1 billion in World Bank loans alongside his continued insistence on boosting foreign direct investment (FDI) and tourism revenues, it is clear that the proposed model for economic development differs very little from the neoliberal agenda of the former regime.
Of course, alongside the social context of these protests, one must also take into account the political dimension of what is occurring. Tuesday’s general strike was called by the UGTT and the protests of the past week have found support among a broad range of opposition political parties, including the centrist Republican Party, al-Watan (The Nation), and several leftist parties, including the Workers’ Party. While it is important not to discount the role played by opposition political forces in these mobilisations, it remains the case that the principal drivers of this spell of popular contestation have been the young and unemployed in the region whose demands, as has commonly been the case, are channeled through the UGTT. Malek Khadraoui, a writer and activist who has been present throughout the latest wave of strikes and protests in Sidi Bouzid, further comments that, while some opposition parties may be seeking to capitalize on recent events, “the youth in the region harbour a deep distrust towards political parties” and the real cause of these events is the inability of the ruling coalition, and particularly al-Nahda, to respond to their demands.
It is difficult to predict where this latest spell of social upheaval is headed. An International Crisis Group report published this June remarked that it would be an exaggeration to “raise the spectre of a second insurrection,” but that the continued political instability within Tunisia alongside sustained levels of socioeconomic insecurity could “negatively feed on each other and risk snowballing into a legitimacy crisis for the newly elected government.”
In the same report, economist Lotfi Bouzaiane comments that one of the principal demands of the revolution was “the right to work.” Prior to the revolution, he says, it was Ben Ali who insisted that “to find work you just had to wait for the economy to grow!”
Following this latest wave of strikes and demonstrations, it is becoming ever more difficult to distinguish between the rhetoric of the former regime and Tunisia’s new ruling coalition, so committed is it to denouncing any expression of popular dissent in the name of national stability and economic growth. In the absence of any real answers to the demands of those in Sidi Bouzid and elsewhere, the government is increasingly having recourse to violent means of repression. It appears that Tunisia’s uncommonly hot summer may precede an even hotter Autumn.
Christopher Barrie is a student and journalist currently working in Tunisia at Nawaat.
14.2 million Egyptians live on less than one US dollar a day
A new Egypt demands a new constitution and president. Many pressing questions also need to be addressed, including the religious-secular divide, the value of Sharia in the making of law, citizenship, minority rights, the rule of civil society, foreign policy, and much more.
One issue that requires urgent attention in the current discussion is that of Egypt’s shattered economy. In the first round of elections on May 23, Egypt’s presidential candidates appeared to hold vastly different ideas regarding their vision for the future. With the elimination of independent candidate Hamdeen Sabahy before the final round on June 16-17, the economic program for the two remaining candidates seemed oddly similar and suspiciously familiar.
The oddity stems from the fact that the two contenders – Freedom and Justice Party candidate Mohamed Mursi and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq – are supposed to represent the two extremes defining Egypt after the 2011 revolution. Mursi is a Muslim Brotherhood figure, long oppressed by the very regime that Shafiq dutifully served.
The “run-off in Egypt’s presidential elections between the two most polarizing candidates has escalated investor concerns of renewed unrest,” claimed Arabia Monitor, a market research company. However, both candidates are united by their advocacy of the same free market economy, the guiding model for the discredited Mubarak regime. The news is hardly shocking in the case of Shafiq, an establishment man who would not be expected to challenge Egypt’s chronic inequality; Mursi’s position is bewildering.
While “rivals portray the Brotherhood as a nebulous organization obsessed with religion,” according to Patrick Werr, “its wide-ranging plan, details of which were revealed during the buildup to last month’s first-round presidential vote, projects a pragmatism that puts rapid economic growth ahead of ideology.” The Brotherhood ‘pragmatism’ is only commended here because it promotes “a strongly free-market economic plan” and a pledge to move quickly to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Some estimates put Egypt’s current debt at close to $190 billion. The Egyptian revolution, which in part sought economic justice and equitable distribution of wealth, is yet to produce a new economic reality. Under Mubarak, the economy operated through a selective interpretation of free market economy marred by extreme corruption in favor of the ruling elite. Over 15 months of haggling between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), angry masses, a new elected parliament and other forces have now wreaked havoc on an already struggling economy. The Egyptian pound is facing the prospect of ‘disorderly devaluation.’ The IMF’s original loan offer of $3.2 billion, rejected by Egypt at the time, would not be enough to rectify the damage. Per Egyptian government and IMF estimates, the country requires $10-12 billion to secure the pound.
Currency devaluation is only a small aspect of Egypt’s current economic woes. The Economist (May 19-25) reported that Egypt’s foreign exchange reserve is now down to third of its value of 15 months ago and the budget deficit has surged to 10 percent of GDP. “The budget shortfall could be resolved by a stroke of scrapping energy subsidies, but in a country where 40% of people live in poverty; this is a sizzling political potato.”
It is actually much more than a ‘sizzling political potato’. The handling of the economy will ultimately make or break the relationship between Egypt’s new rulers and its people – most of whom are not only politically disfranchised, but economically marginalized as well.
Although most Egyptians now frown at Mubarak’s legacy, the country’s economic indicators were for years perceived favorably by Western financial institutions. After all Egypt recorded steady growth. Its ‘economic reforms’ post 1991 were largely celebrated for further liberalizing trade and investment, cutting subsidies (thus forcing the poor to continue teetering at the edge of poverty and utter desolation) and dismantling the public sector. The IMF and other Western lending institutions do not settle for anything but more austerity measures – regardless of whether Egypt’s new president is a bearded Muslim or an avowed liberal. The only ideology that matters for the IMF is the free market economy.
So what must be done for the almost 14.2 million people who live on less than one US dollar a day? 1.5 million Egyptian currently live in a large graveyard at the outskirts of Cairo. Austerity and further cuts could only lead to the kind of misery that instigated last year’s revolution.
Egypt’s remaining candidates promise to revive the economy while keeping social justice on the agenda. While Shafiq has promised an abundance of perks to various sectors of society, the Brotherhood has been promoting a detailed program called Al-Nahda, or The Renaissance. Enlisting the help of internationally renowned economists such as Peru’s Hernando de Soto Polar, Al-Nahda is reportedly a study of many economic models around the world, including Turkey, Malaysia and South Africa.
The Brotherhood’s initial presidential candidate, Khairat al-Shater was the “driving force behind the project,” according to the Daily Beast (June 7). In an interview last April, he laid down the basic premise of his plan: “The Egyptian economy must rely to a very, very large degree on the private sector. The priority is for Egyptian investors, then Arab then foreign.”
It is expected that Egypt’s intense public discussions in the current phase will be fixed on foundational issues such as the formation of a constitutional assembly and a redefinition of the rule of SCAF. But Egypt’s economy is deeply flawed. An IMF-style free market economy is of no use to millions of Egyptians when they lack proper education and the most basic rights and opportunities. For an Egyptian day laborer to have a better life in a country with a huge and growing income gap between rich and poor, something fundamental needs to take place.
Referencing ‘social justice’ while negotiating IMF loans suggests a precarious start for any truly fundamental economic reforms. While Hamdeen Sabahy is no longer in the race to challenge the free market wisdom of his contenders, the debate must not end here.
- Sacrificing Mubarak to Save His Regime (alethonews.wordpress.com)