Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Cairo to Carthage

Cairo to Carthage
Cairo to Carthage
Al-Ahram Weekly

To whom should the peoples of the nations of the Arab Spring look for guidance, in their toils for instituting pluralistic democracy? Do they look to Tunisia the trendsetter? Or do they seek redemption elsewhere? These are some of the numerous questions that Arab pundits grappled with this week.

There are good and not so good aspects of the Arab Spring, the commentators concurred. On the one hand, the Arab tyrants and dictators of yesteryear were ousted and a semblance of democracy ushered in. On the other hand, economic malaise, social insecurity and political upheavals prevail.

Tunisia hit the headlines, even though Syria continues to preoccupy the pundits. The assassination of Tunisian leftist leader Shokri Belaid and its political ramifications was sharply felt by commentators who contemplated the ripple effects of Belaid’s brutal assassination. “Not all those who have taken to the streets are supporters of leftist opposition figure Shokri Belaid. Among these demonstrators are in fact many of those who had voted for the candidates of the Islamist Al-Nahda [Renaissance] movement,” observed Abdullah Iskandar in the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.

“They have taken to the streets following Belaid’s assassination and on the occasion of his funeral to declare their opposition to the direction taken by the country towards reproducing the former regime, whether in terms of hegemony over political life or in terms of dealing with members of the opposition,” Iskandar extrapolates in Al-Hayat.

Shouldn’t the obstinately violent record of human rights violations and assassinations of the militant Islamists in Tunisia and elsewhere give pause when parties of secularist political persuasions do business with them? Well, Iskandar excuses the moderate Islamist Al-Nahda and points an accusing finger at the more militant and ruthless Salafis. He does not, however, totally exonerate the ruling Al-Nahda stalwarts from turning a blind eye to the Salafis’ crimes.

“Al-Nahda does not bear criminal and legal responsibility for Belaid’s assassination, however it does bear responsibility for creating the climate of incitement, the formation of Islamist militias and leniency towards violent practices and providing cover for unlawful practices,” Iskandar explicates.

The writer warns against Al-Nahda’s determination to officially turn Islamist militias into “revolutionary guards” and he points out that the leadership of Tunisia’s ruling party has not hesitated to flirt with Salafist movements of various strands of Islamist militancy.

Moreover, he points to the leader of Al-Nahda’s televised infamous interview in which he complained to Salafi cadres that Tunisia is still “infested” with secularists who dominate the media and certain key sectors of the state. The writer is most concerned that the leader of Al-Nahda seems to be flirting politically with motley Salafist groups.

“Thus, instead of seeking to find common ground with civil society groups across the political spectrum, Al-Nahda has clung to what it considers to be its electoral gains, relying primarily on its militia,” concludes Iskandar in Al-Hayat.

Also in the same paper the question of a possible rapprochement between Egypt and Iran was tackled in a most intriguing fashion by Hazem Saghieh in an enthralling article entitled ‘Ahmadinejad, Morsi and Saddam’s heinous legacy’. The writer notes that there are compelling factors that mitigate against a meaningful reconciliation between Egypt and Iran given inherent differences in political perspectives between the two regional powers. “Saddam Hussein lost all his wars though Iran shared his defeat in one of them. But Saddam Hussein, despite this series of defeats, won the most important he ever fought, namely poisoning the political climate in the region,” Saghieh notes in Al-Hayat.

“Some might say that Iran is in dire need of Egypt in order to break its isolation, and that Egypt is in dire need of Iran to balance other relations in the Middle East and the Gulf. But what was possible between the shah of Iran and Anwar Al-Sadat in the 1970s, that is to say, between Iran and Egypt as two states with interests, is no longer possible today,” Saghieh postulates.

The writer’s vision is unremittingly cynical and bleak. “Saddam’s legacy is manifested most starkly, with the sick joke of Ahmadinejad offering to the Egyptians a loan to help them overcome their dismal economic situation,” jests Saghieh tongue-in-cheek.

“Meanwhile, Mohamed Morsi symbolises how quick the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to rule Egypt has unravelled. This is without even adducing the assassination of Tunisian opposition leader Shokri Belaid, as an argument against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood everywhere,” concludes Saghieh.

In much the same vein, George Semaan also writing in Al-Hayat penned a poignant piece entitled ‘Will Tunisia save the Arab Spring or will it trigger the era of violence?’ The writer points out that the ruling Al-Nahda Party is caught between the secularist liberals, leftists, trade unions and civil society associations on the one hand and the militant Islamist Salafis on the other and that Tunisia has become, like other Arab Spring nations, extremely politically polarised.

Semaan, therefore, considers Belaid’s assassination as a wake-up call for Tunisians to decide their political priorities and chart a future free of the atrocities and pitfalls of the past. “The deposed regimes that practised all sorts of tyranny knew how to annul political life, whether by striking, obstructing or restricting all partisan, unionist, journalistic and cultural structures. As for the remaining ones, they were directly linked to the state apparatuses,” Semaan notes.

“Tunisia launched the revolutions in the region. So will it trigger the era of revolution against the newborn governments of the Islamic movements, or will the latter be able to correct their course instead of setting the foundations for an era of bloody intellectual terrorism? Is it too late for Tunisia, which spearheaded the Arab Spring, to initiate a new experience that would spread in other countries? So far, the Arab revolutions have failed to introduce security, stability, democracy, diversity and well-being,” Semaan sums up aptly in Al-Hayat.

The Tunisian newspaper Al-Sabah picked up the tragic theme of Belaid’s brutal assassination. In ‘About the prime minister’s staying power and the change in his government’, Tunisian legal expert Ibrahim Al-Bertagui notes that “we must distinguish between the appointment of the first prime minister in the aftermath of the 23 October 2011 elections [the first after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution] and the appointment of a head of government afterwards. The first is appointed by the president according to chapter 15 of the temporary [constitutional] arrangements. In this case, the prime minister in question must be among the members of the political party that gained the most votes in the National Constituent Assembly,” the writer explained.

Al-Bertagui sounded apologetic as far as Al-Nahda and the current prime minister are concerned. He stressed that it is the prerogative of the prime minister to choose his minister and determine their various portfolios. “The temporary arrangements have managed to get Tunisia to withstand this difficult time and it contains legal and constitutional solutions for any eventuality. In short, this ‘little constitution’ of ours is more flexible and practical than many other constitutions. I do hope that the new constitution will be equally malleable, but it is a difficult task,” he concluded.

On an entirely different note, relations between oil-rich Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on the one hand and Iran on the other hand were scrutinised in the media especially in the context of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit held in Cairo last week. The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held the commentators enthralled. There were Sunni (read Gulf Arab) fears of Shia (read Iranian) encroachments into Egyptian domestic affairs.

The palpable uneasiness of Gulf Arab states with the possible rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran was reflected in an article entitled ‘Greetings from the Gulf to Al-Azhar’s free sheikh’ by General Manager of Al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based Saudi-owned television satellite broadcast and former editor-in-chief of the London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat Tarek Al-Homayed. “The above title is taken from a tweet sent by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, in recognition of the stance adopted by Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb towards the Iranian president, during the latter’s recent visit to Egypt. During the visit, Al-Azhar and its grand sheikh, adopted a critical attitude towards Iran’s policies in the region,” Al-Homayed trumpeted in Asharq Al-Awsat.

“Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed’s sentiments reflect the position of the entire Arabian Gulf. The Arab world rejects Iran’s interference in the countries of the region,” Al-Homayed stressed. “It is not an exaggeration to say that Al-Azhar’s grand sheikh’s sharp and clear statement, after meeting with President Ahmadinejad, was a historic speech that will live long in memory. It was a speech displaying the conscience and responsibility required from the leader of Sunni moderation in Egypt.”

In yet another article in Asharq Al-Awsat on the same subject entitled ‘Ahmadinejad in Al-Azhar’ by Saudi pundit Hamad Al-Majid, the writer wondered whether Al-Azhar’s stance was at odds with the political orientation of President Mohamed Morsi or in line with the Egyptian president’s ideology. “The truth is that Al-Azhar’s tough stance could be interpreted either way, but this is not important. It was a stance independent of the Egyptian government,” noted Al-Majid. “Al-Azhar has abandoned the courtesies that used to characterise its relationship with the Iranian religious authorities,” he gloated.

But, back to Belaid of Tunisia. The Saudi daily Okaz published an article by Hashim Abdu Hashim entitled ‘The honourable adventures of Jebali’ in which he praised what he perceived to be the “pragmatic” approach of Al-Nahda to the handling of the political crisis that ensued following Belaid’s assassination.

“Ever since I was introduced to the leader of Tunisia’s ruling Al-Nahda Party Rachid Al-Ghannoushi, some 30 years ago in the home of a mutual friend in Jeddah, and I have been following closely his ideas and his political activities. He is Tunisia’s chief Islamist ideologue, but he has also been the leader of a well-disciplined and organised hitherto underground social and political movement. He is at once a populist leader in the Tunisian street and a mentor of political cadres in his party,” Hashim paid homage to Al-Ghannoushi. “From the first moment I set eyes on him it struck me that he was a pragmatic thinker.”

Hashim went on to praise unabashedly Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. “I applaud Al-Ghannoushi in the context of the gallant performance of Jebali in the wake of the assassination of Belaid. Not only did Jebali insist on forming a new government of technocrats, but he did not hesitate to sack the ministers of justice, the interior and foreign affairs — three ministerial portfolios that were occupied by prominent members of Al-Nahda Party.

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