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Archives for Tunisia

Rise and Struggles of the Islamist Movements in North Africa

The popular movements that have toppled dictatorial regimes in North Africa have unwillingly paved the way for Islamists and conservative factions to take over governance. With the Islamists front and center, divisions and differences in ideas have emerged among them, dominated by four distinct factions:  those in governments tend to be moderate Islamists. But they are surrounded by factions that are pushing for more conservative policies through constitutional reforms.  Outside of these two groups are the Salafists who have shown willingness to use violent methods to reach their goals. Outside of these three, are the extremists terrorist groups that may be or not coordinated at the regional or international level to inflict greater damage to existing governments and Western interests. In this context, those who took part to the Arab Spring, from students and youth to labor unions and rights organizations, although initially felt sidelined, they continue to work hard to insure that their voices are not drowned.

The following is a series of articles focusing on the rise of the Islamists and the issues they currently face among themselves and in relations to the secular movement

With the Rise of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and Tunisia, Al Qaeda Starts New Offensive in North Africa

The assassination of American diplomats in Libya has brought to the forefront a new Salafist group with Jihadist tendencies called Ansar al-Sharia. Although the attack against the American consular office was seemingly carried out as a retaliation for an amateur movie insulting to Islam and its Prophet Mohamed, all fingers point to Ansar al-Sharia as being behind the killings for reasons that are not necessarily related to the film in question.

 

The War Within: Salafists vs. Moderates

In the aftermath of the toppling of many Arab dictators, Islamist politicians have come into the forefront of governance and are now seemingly in control. But as they move into halls of power in Tunis, Cairo, Rabat and elsewhere, we discover that Political Islam is not as homogenous as many thought. Philosophical differences and ideological gaps exist between the various stakeholders that are likely to make the transition to a stable region a difficult and bumpy road.

 

 Tunisia and the Salafist Threat

The general security climate in Tunisia has deteriorated and government response has been timid and inefficient. Given the Islamist offensive appears well organized, it is likely part of an effort to destabilize Tunisia and derail its efforts to recover from a disastrous 2011. The recent call made by Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri for the Tunisian people to rise up against the Ennahda Islamist ruling party was followed immediately by a series of actions that took place in Tunisia, demonstrating that Al-Qaeda and its remaining leaders have the ability to strike. Relaying Al-Zawahiri’s call, young clerics in Tunisia followed up with their own local calls for action. Among them is the extremist figure Abu Ayoub Ettounsi who called on the Tunisians to revolt after the prayer session of June 15, 2012. The same man called for the destruction of the studios of the TV channels Nessma. And so Tunisia may now very well be in the eye of the storm.

How to Secure the Sahel

Thursday night, the northern Mali region of Kidal witnessed the first wave of serious clashes between the Touaregs and so-called Islamist group Ansar Dine, a group under the influence of Al-Qaeda. The event is critically important in that it confirms that the two groups, the Touaregs organized under the independence movement of the MNLA and the Al-Qaeda operatives in the region (Ansar Dine) have different agendas. As their key leaders have often stated, the Touaregs have not pledged allegiance to foreign Jihadist influences and will not do any time soon. That in itself is not only encouraging, but a major opportunity for those fighting the Jihadists and seeking to root them out. A fresh approach to the Sahel is needed and without an active participation of the Touaregs, the Sahel will remain a dangerous zone. Here’s why.

Debt Crisis in the Moroccan Subsidy System: Undesirable Gift for Islamist PM

There is a bumpy road ahead for the new government leader in Rabat. As he enters his offices, both excited and energized by a fresh electoral victory with the prospect of governing a nation, Prime Minister Benkirane has to deal with the country’s accounting books, and what he sees does not please him. The ledger looks dangerous and could force him to chose between making unpopular decisions or maintain a financially unsustainable status quo.

 

 

 

 

 

Tunisia and the Salafist Threat

The general security climate in Tunisia has deteriorated and government response has been timid and inefficient.  Given the Islamist offensive appears well organized, it is likely part of an effort to destabilize Tunisia and derail its efforts to recover from a disastrous 2011.

The recent call made by Al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri for the Tunisian people to rise up against the Ennahda Islamist ruling party was followed immediately by a series of actions that took place in Tunisia, demonstrating that Al-Qaeda and its remaining leaders have the ability to strike. Relaying Al-Zawahiri’s call, young clerics in Tunisia followed up with their own local calls for action. Among them is the extremist figure Abu Ayoub Ettounsi who called on the Tunisians to revolt after the prayer session of June 15, 2012. The same man called for the destruction of the studios of the TV channels Nessma. And so Tunisia may now very well be in the eye of the storm.

Salafists youth in Tunisia responding to Zawahiri's call for actionAfter labor unions somewhat eased tension following their earlier confrontations with the business sector and the government, now Islamist militants have come to the forefront, making the security issue Tunisia’s number one problem today.

Cases of extremist Salafists spreading fear across Tunisia have accelerated over the past week, courtesy of Al-Zawahiri and his followers. The purpose is essentially to scare the interim government and the administration headed by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda in an effort to imposed Sharia style law.

Confrontations between police and Salafists have taken place this week in the western suburbs of the capital Tunis.  The neighborhoods of Cité Intilaka, M’nihla, and Ennogra were invaded by black flags and large crowds of young Islamist militants taking over local cafes. Similar confrontations took place in areas like Carthage, Kram and La Marsa, where militants attacked the arts house Abdellia Palace. A police station in Carthage Byrsa was also targeted.  In Sousse, the Fine Arts Institute was attacked with a cocktail Molotov. Arts and culture are prime targets for the Salafists, so much so that calls for the killing of politicians who support arts were made and posted on social networks.

The situation has gotten so bad that the military has expanded security around the Presidential palace in Carthage.

In this confrontation between the Salafists and the fragile interim government, criminals are playing a significant role in spreading terror. Indeed police have arrested some 90 perpetrators of attacks against a variety of establishments, including liquor stores, who are confirmed to already have criminal records.

This escalation of events does not bode well for Tunisia in the short and mid term. This is likely to distract the central government from dealing with real structural issues and focus on enforcement.

The Salafist movement is often driven by inexperience and highly emotional youth that are often manipulated by outside forces, including Iran. Their insistence on making unrealistic changes based on the Sharia law in countries like Tunisia where the population has always been liberal, often leads to a protracted period of confrontation with the military, with the silent support of the majority as we have seen that in neighboring Algeria. If such insistence continues, the intervention of the military will be inevitable and Tunisia will become another red dot in Al-Zawahiri’s theater of operations’ map.

France’s New President: Foreign Policy and Where North Africa Stands

President-elect François Hollande of France has his work cut out on the foreign policy front. His predecessor is leaving office with a sense of missed achievements and a series of policies blunders that need urgent fixing. In a five-year period, Sarkozy failed to leverage appropriately and responsibly his country’s global leadership position as a major economic and military power. That started with his failure to impose a more assertive France on the burning issues of the Euro-zone and the serious topic of the future of Europe. Instead, Sarkozy went along with Chancellor Angela Merkel and toed the line to the Germans who insisted on a miserable austerity approach to exorcize the mentality of excessive spending in the EU, not giving economic growth a chance. Hollande is likely to compensate for Sarkozy’s excesses but it remains to be seen how he will be able to convince the Germans to loosen up a bit.

Outside Europe, as Hollande takes office, there is no shortage of crises to dissolve and fires to put out. Problems for the new Hollande administration abound and they are everywhere. They are about reducing France’s involvement in Afghanistan and reclaiming its image in Africa. They are about dealing with the crisis in Syria and the never-ending Israeli-Arab conflict. Relevant to France’s stance in the Maghreb and Sub-Sahara Africa, Hollande will have to work on neutralizing the effects of Sarkozy’s disdain of minorities and immigrants, issues that have reduced France’s image in the southern Mediterranean region. They are about fixing the aggressive negative policies of a divisive President who heightened the divisions among the French people at a time when they needed shared objectives and common purposes. Sarkozy, just like his Italian friend Silvio Berlusconi, will not be missed. Both share common traits, including a complete abandonment of the Mediterranean zone of common interests.

On the foreign policy front, Afghanistan may very well be one of Hollande’s first points of concern, a problem he will have to deal with immediately upon the beginning of his 5-year term. Although the French involvement at first took on the narrative of liberating a people, it has progressively shifted into an unsustainable anti-insurrection campaign, amid a war that most French consider lost anyway. Both Sarkozy and Hollande generally agreed that French troops must be withdrawn; the only difference between them on this issue has been on timing.

François Hollande’s approach to Afghanistan is reminiscent of US President Barak Obama’s own campaign promises of a speedy troop withdrawal from Iraq. Hollande’s campaign position on this issue has been to bring the French troops back before the end of 2012. This may be an aggressive schedule, but one that he plans to inform France’s partners during the upcoming NATO summit schedules to take place in Chicago, on May 21, 2012.

France’s relations with the world’s superpowers will likely evolve on the American front, with Hollande expected to be less accommodating that Sarkozy. And while Holland will certainly use a less aggressive tone than his predecessor vis-a-vis China and Russia, he will likely continue to uphold current French policies vis-à-vis these two nations, in particular on human rights and economic issues.

On the Persian front, while Hollande will keep France in the camps of those who worry about a nuclear Iran, he is expected to lessen the excessive anti-Iranian rhetoric that his predecessor has displayed over the past years. Sarkozy’s pronouncements on Iran made him even more radical than those lobbyists and media commentators who speak of a gloom-and-doom scenario of a nuclear Iran. Hollande is expected to move much closer to the position of most of his European counterparts, acknowledging the Iranian nuclear problem, yet without having to fall victim of the excessive anti-Iranian fear mongering.

On the crisis in Syria, Hollande and Sarkozy generally saw eye to eye on the need to solve the problem within a multilateral context, ruling out the use of force. Getting Russia to pressure the Assad regime is what the two men see as a desirable course of action.

On the Mediterranean front, a unified Mediterranean zone as proposed in his early years by Sarkozy is unlikely to be a priority for Hollande as long as the Israeli-Arab conflict persists. In contrast, Sarkozy’s anti-Islamic and anti-immigration proclamations and policies have degraded France’s stance in the Maghreb and in the countries that France used to exhort enormous influence. Yet, François Hollande is likely to leverage his predecessor’s disastrous record to attempt to recover lost ground, even as Islamists in North Africa gain more political power.

Interestingly, Nicolas Sarkozy’s own shining moment, his contribution to the “liberation” of Libya was a muted topic during the Presidential debate and his own campaigning. This is because Sarkozy’s gung-ho interventionist stance has been perceived by many Europeans as a bullying tactic from a man who was planning his own election campaign. Instead, the Libyan crisis has divided Europe, forcing a state of freeze in the subsequent handling of the Syria crisis today. In Libya itself, a sense of an unfinished business is felt by many observers, a situation essentially caused by the hasty jump to the gun of Sarkozy and his allies, including the British. What should have been a “popular revolution,” in the eyes of many Libyans, it turned into a hasty Western intervention instead and Sarkozy being in the middle of it.

Sarkozy and his foreign policy team have done a poor job understanding African issues in general and failed to anticipate what’s to come. The crisis in Mali, bringing that country of massive French influence into chaos is one example of such mismanagement of French foreign policy in Africa. So much so that French interests are the prime target of Al Qaeda in North and West Africa and the Sahel. Meanwhile, African governments remain suspicious of the French agenda as Sarkozy showed eagerness to intervene quickly as was the case in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire. In their mind, they could be next.

What about North Africa? In Rabat, the Moroccan government showed no significant worries as François Hollande was declared the winner of the Presidential race. However, we picked up some signs of concerns as usually Morocco finds a more open-door policy among France’s right wing leaders and lot less accommodating Socialists. The Moroccans of a certain age remember vividly the cozy and personal relations that existed between the late Hassan II and former rightist President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Then in 1981, Giscard d’Estaing was swept away from office by Socialist rival François Mitterrand. The Mitterrand tenure was characterized by lack of trust between him and Hassan II, a period which saw France increased its criticism of the Moroccan monarchy over allegations of human rights abuses. With Jacques Chirac replacing Mitterrand, the honeymoon period between Rabat and Paris returned, and went on during the Sarkozy tenure.

Within the French Socialist world, Morocco initially hoped for a Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) victory. DSK was also a good friend of Morocco, even owning a luxury 19th century villa in Marrakech purchased more than a decade ago for a half million Euros. But Morocco’s lobbying efforts had to quickly refocus on other politicians as DSK faced a legal battle of his own.

With the Socialists back into the Élysée Palace, the Moroccans are minimizing any negative impact such political change could bring, supported by positive comments by Martine Aubry, a friend of Morocco and the current Secretary General of the French Socialist Party. A charm offensive was launched early this year by the Moroccans to seduce François Hollande to insure that France does not open up to the pro-Western Sahara independence movement. Seeking to appease the Moroccans, Martine Aubry held a press conference in Rabat during which she welcomed Morocco’s position on a so-called “reinforced autonomy” for the Sahara. But there is no certainty that France’s position on the Western Sahara front will remain rock solid. The Moroccans remember 2007 when the then Presidential Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal made pronouncements that were constantly in opposition to the Moroccan monarchy.

François Hollande will not only have to deal with various leftist currents that supported him and have more affinity to the aspirations of the independence movement, but he is also looking to fix the battered relations between France and Algeria, a country that is critical to France on both the security front and as an energy supplier amid a reduction of the nuclear power source in France. The French diplomacy will have to walk a fine line to keep both of these feuding nations from thinking that France is against them. But Rabat is bracing for a shift in French policy toward them anyway. Indeed, not only Hollande has extremely limited interaction with Morocco, he has been much closer to Algeria, having worked there for 8 months. Also a point of concern for the Moroccans is the people who surround François Hollande, in particular his high-powered political adviser Faouzi Lamdaoui, a native of the eastern Algerian city of Constantine. Read this associated analysis on the “Rise of North Africans in French Politics.”  Another person to watch in the Hollande circles is Kader Arif, a Member of the European Parliament for the south-west of France. He is a member of the Holland’s Socialist Party and sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade. A third source of influence is the young Razzy Hammadi who presided over the Movement of Socialist Youth, before becoming a national secretary of the Socialist Party in November 2008. Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius is also an “Algerianist” who is likely to direct the new administration in favor of Algeria. The Moroccans are not left without their strong cards too. In addition to leveraging their friendship with Martine Aubry, the Moroccans will count on a bi-national, French Socialist militant Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to play a counter weight to the Algerianists.

With Algeria, as issues abound, the Franco-Algerian relations are expected to undergo some corrective measures from Team Hollande. It is worth noting that the emergence of François Hollande in the Presidential race was not anticipated by the Algerians. As in Rabat, all eyes in Algiers focused on DSK. So much so that during a 2010 trip to Algiers, François Hollande was not even received by President Bouteflika, who was said to have had a light schedule and a free calendar that time. Yet, Algiers tried to play catch up during the most recent campaign, dispatching lobbyists in an effort to meet with the likes of Faouzi Lamdaoui. This last minute effort failed as the Hollande team was required to avoid such contacts for the obvious reasons.

Yet, Algeria wants to be recognized as a key regional player, a position that Sarkozy refused to recognize. But with an Algeria increasingly positioned as a critical player in regional affairs, Hollande will likely reduce the tension that exists between Paris and Algiers under the Sarkozy regime, starting with the possibility of the new French government recognizing, to a limited extent, its colonial past and role during the Algerian war of liberation. Hollande is said to be willing to make a gesture, albeit symbolic toward Algeria, but may not go as far as a full recognition.

In addition, Sarkozy has been lobbying hard to re-negotiate the Franco-Algerian 1968 treaty, creating heightened tension with Algiers. The treaty provided greater rights to Algerians in France compared to other nationals, a situation that Sarkozy insisted on reducing. Under his watch, Hollande is not likely to rush to revisit France’s political and human framework deal with Algeria.

But what France is facing in North Africa in a more dramatic way is the political upheaval that has occurred in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the security problems extending into Mali, Niger and the rest of the Sahel. This is while there is a certain constancy in France’s relations with Algeria and Morocco. In the Tunisian case, outgoing President Sarkozy failed to anticipate the outcome of the crisis that has led to the ousting of Ben Ali. The same could be said about Egypt and the inability of Sarkozy to project. On Tunisia, some creative strategy has to be adopted with the stabilization of that nation and a bit of touch-and-go process dominating the approach. Hollande’s pronouncements regarding Tunisia and all other countries that had a revolution of sort focus largely on insuring that democracy is the chosen political path. In an interview, Hollande was clear that France’s views and policies will not change because of changes in regimes in the Élysée.

During a visit to Tunis in May 2011, Hollande suggested that the international community should transform Tunisia’s debt into donation so as to not burden Tunisia with financial liabilities. The Tunisians have been ecstatic that Hollande won, in part because Sarkozy was “booted out like his friend Ben Ali,” as commentators there noted.

But some contentions are likely to take place on ideological grounds. As a Westerner, Hollande has been insistent on democracy as the only ideology to adopt in nations that underwent their own popular revolts. While this sort of pronouncement might have been welcomed a while ago by the Islamists, it is possible that they have a different views now that they have a grab over governance in the region. Equally a point of difference between Hollande and the Islamists is the role of women and gender equality as conservative groups in North Africa are pushing for a dangerous reduction in women’s rights. But Hollande remains more conciliatory when he speaks of the right of Muslims in France to live in peace and without any fear of government.

Specific to Libya, Hollande recognizes that he approved of the French intervention to oust Muamar Gaddafi, but he says he regrets the lack of follow up that would have stabilized that nation. He also regretted the impact the Libyan crisis has had on the deterioration of security in the Sahel region, further heightened by a proliferation of weapons and fighters previously active in Libya and spreading into Mali and Niger. There in the Sahel, Hollande believes that stabilization will require foreign support on economic growth. Within the Sahel, Hollande appears to be concerned by an increase targeting of French interests there, in particular with nuclear giant Areva active in Niger.

As France engineered a smooth transition from Sarkozy to Hollande, we should expect also foreign policies to evolve, and hopefully this time, a Hollande pragmatism will supersede provocative Sarkozy rhetoric.

The Rise of North Africans in French Politics

New generation of French of North African origin impacting French politics
New generation of French of North African origin impacting French politics

Seeking to discredit his opponent during the Presidential race in France, outgoing President Nicholas Sarkozy stated on April 27, 2012 that François Hollande has received support from 700 Muslim clerics operating in France. Blinded by a bad attitude vis-a-vis North Africans and Sub-Sahara Africans in general, bordering xenophobia, Sarkozy may have lost precisely because he alienated a substantial minority block that is becoming key to French politics, somewhat akin to the Hispanic vote in US elections.

Sarkozy statements on the matter and his dirty politics eventually backfired. Largely because French of North Africans origin have been energized to place a Socialist in the Élysée Palace. Yet, North Africans come in various political persuasions. They can even be on the extreme as was the case of Farid Smahi, a politician of Algerian parents who was a member of the rightist radical extremist party of the National Front. Indeed there are many French of North African origin who are standing against a certain culture in their country of origin that force them to take extreme positions. Arabization, the dangerous rise of conservatism, the prominence of Islamic politics, lack of rights for the Berbers and other minorities, gender inequality and bad governments are among the factors that led to these extreme positions. Many of them also happen to be the children of what is known here as “Harkis,” Algerians who have fought alongside with the French against the independence of Algeria. During his campaign to regain his seat, Sarkozy went on a charm offensive to lure the Harki vote. He stated in many occasions that the Harkis have not been treated fairly for their services to France, a situation that needed to be corrected. It is unclear how the Harkis voted, but they represent a half million votes worth of a charm offensive from the right.

But most French of North African decent tend to support the Socialist Party. This is largely due to the fact that most of them tend to live in working class neighborhoods outside of the big cities that lean to the left. A media commentator suggested that it is the case in particular in the Paris region, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in southern France, and in the Rhône-Alpes in the east. These are regions that are heavily invested by labor unions, natural allies of the Socialists. And so over the years, the Socialist Party in France has become a sort of safe heaven for French-North Africans seeking political office or leadership positions in politics. The Moroccan Najet Vallaud-Belkacem has been François Hollande’s spokesperson. The Algerian Malek Boutih is another person to watch. He has held a senior-level position at the Socialist Party making him a key player in the Hollande offensive. Moroccan Mohamed Oussedik is also a rising star, starting as a laborer and now well positioned to lead the formidable CGT labor union.

While Sarkozy continued to divide the French on religious and ethnic grounds, vilifying the North Africans in particular, he worked hard to muddy the water precisely to combat any allegation of racism. His cabinet has a handful of very vocal and media-savvy North Africans including former Justice Minister Rachida Dati, today a member of the European Parliament representing Sarkozy’s party the UMP. Another Sarkozy protégé was Fadela Amara, an Algerian who held the position of State Secretary (Junior Minister) in charge of urban issues. But many in France say that such appointments were simply meant to confuse and shield Sarkozy against accusations of ethnic and religious divisiveness. Such strategy continues even as Sarkozy is defeated. His party is fielding the daughter of an Algerian Harki, Salima Saa as a candidate for the legislative elections of June 2012. Ms. Saa is competing for a seat to represent Roubaix, a region in total control by the Socialists. Ms. Saa was almost hired as Sarkozy’s campaign spokesperson.

As Francois Hollande takes over the reign of power in France, he has surrounded himself with a number of politically aggressive French of North African origin. Generally young, being born in the 1960s and 70s, this group of political operatives are worth watching because they could become what will reignite France’s relations to North Africa. But just like Salima Saa, Rachida Dati, Fadela Amara and the flamboyant Farid Smahi, North Africans in France are given the chance to belong to whatever political persuasion they endorse, and that shows that diversity in France, a country often criticized precisely because of a perceived lack of diversity is on the right track.

Here are some of them:

Influencing Francois Hollande on the Socialist Front

Operatives on the right:

Salaries in the Maghreb: The Land of Equality?

While no one expects their government leaders to earn the same wage as the average guy, North Africa governments tend to pay generous salaries to ministers and the likes. However, compared to corporate executive jobs, or even mid-level managers in the West, the salaries in question are not that great. They generally do not exceed the $150,000 ceiling, but that does not inlcude the perks and bonuses that most of these officials benefit from. That includes allowances for housing, travel, cars, gasoline, etc. If you include all of that and more, government people in North Africa are rich.

In the region, the most humble officials are those of Tunisia. The Prime Minister there does not get more than $48,000 per year, when his Algerian and Moroccan colleagues get almost triple that amount. Interestingly, in the spirit of good governance, the Interim President of Tunisia, who was entitled to a wage equivalent of $240,000 per year, has downgraded his pay to a symbolic $20,000 per year instead. We salute Mr. Marzouki for doing so as the Tunisian people continue to struggle with their evolving Jasmine Revolution.

What do the others make compared to minimum or median wages? Judge by yourself.

Top Algerian Leaders' Salaries

Top Algerian Leaders' Salaries

 

Moroccan Ministers' Wages

Moroccan Ministers' Wages

 

Wages in Tunisia

Wages in Tunisia