Islam, politics and academia

Sitting on a curb outside the college where she was recently expelled, Eman is defiant.

"I did it for the sake of God," the 21-year-old Tunisian history student—who asked to be identified only by her first name—said of her insistence on wearing the niqab, the full-face veil. Such a display of piety is banned in the classrooms of the University of Manouba's Faculty of Arts and Letters, and she has been forced to leave. "He will reward me in other ways."

Eman is covered head to toe in flowing brown-and-beige polyester. She wears gloves and shields her light-brown eyes from view with a second, transparent veil. Depending on whom you talk to in Tunisia, her attire, and the militant strain of Islamism it is associated with, represents either the future of the Arab Spring—or the greatest threat to it.

To her supporters, Eman is staking a righteous claim for a greater role for religion on campus. To her opponents, she embodies a threat to the university's liberal values and to academic freedom itself.

Fundamentalists like Eman, says Habib Kaz­daghli, a dean at the university, believe that the primary purpose of the university is "not to deliver knowledge but to serve as a place for spreading religion."

This is from a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education (it is behind a pay wall but this link gives temporary access) looking at the fights that have erupted, after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, over the role of religionon campus. I visited Manouba University in Tunisia, where Dean Habib Kazdaghli has taken a hard line against allowing women in niqab to attend class (and is now facing what he says are trumped up charges of slapping a munaqaba student). I also visited the ancient Islamic university of Al Azhar here in Cairo, to look at how a historical model of Muslim learning has evolved into the 21st century. 

Ghannouchi on HardTalk

The Ennahda leader on the BBC's interview show. A critique of the interview is here. Ghannouchi makes some controversial comments about Chokri Belaid's accusations of Ennahda tolerating violence, made shortly before his assassination.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

de Bellaigue on Tunisia: room for compromise

Tunisia: ‘Did We Make the Revolution For This?’ by Christopher de Bellaigue | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books

Amusing anecdote on Rachid Ghannouchi:

Even now, after the bruising experience of holding power, the principles championed by Ennahda remain the likeliest blueprint for the country’s future. And this brings us back to the movement’s founder, Ghannouchi himself. Depending on your perspective, his moderate, incremental Islamism can seem virtuous or sinister; equally, it can be read as a pragmatic reaction to events, an acknowledgement of the impossibility of attaining every goal.

I had found myself sitting near him on my flight from London to Tunis (he had been picking up a prize from the British think tank Chatham House) and, speaking the English he had learned over long years in exile in Britain, he told me that he feared the initial spirit of solidarity that the revolution had engendered seemed to be seeping away. He was dispirited by the mauling the government had received at the hands a newly empowered (and mainly secular) media, and the unrealistic expectations of the people. But his vision, of a variegated world with room for competing visions, seemed intact. “There is more than one interpretation in Islam,” he said—a view that the Salafists hate.

He had, I discovered, been urging pragmatism on the Tunis Air flight attendants. Behind a curtain on the drinks trolley, he told me, were hidden different sorts of alcoholic beverage. You only needed to ask, and you would be served. “The flight attendants are unhappy,” Ghannouchi went on.

“They tell me they are good Muslims—they pray and fast and so on—and yet here they are: obliged to serve alcohol. And I say to them that this is the way things are. We live in a society where a lot of people drink alcohol. And so, we must accept the logic of this reality.”

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

On Tunisia's Salafis

Last week, before the war in Gaza broke out, I wrote an op-ed on Tunisia's Salafis for The National. It looks at how the Islamist perception of the legacy of Habib Bourguiba's authoritarian secularism fuels much of the rage of the Salafi movement, and explains why they attract so much attention in the media. 

In conversations with Tunisian Islamists over the last two years, I came to understand their view of the history of their country. Their problem was not just with the former Ben Ali regime, but with the legacy of Bourguiba: not just the repression, torture and prohibition from political life, but a disdain for religion in public life.

For Bourguiba, this went beyond bans of veiled women on state television and other measures to curtail visible appearances of religiosity. It was also state intimidation of religious people, the domestication of traditional religious authorities, and sometimes gratuitous insults on religious sentiment. Bourguiba, for instance, was in the habit of appearing on state television during Ramadan drinking during daytime, and urged others to do the same.

The capital crime of the Bourguiba regime in the Islamists' eyes was to estrange people from their religion, drive them away from their traditions and usurp their identity for something borrowed from Europe.

A lot of this, in other words, is about a sentiment that Bourguiba and his successor uprooted Tunisian society from its roots, as well as all the other causes: the spread of fundamentalism, foreign funding, etc. I think that this is a special aspect of Tunisian Salafism, and more generally Islamism, that is worth taking note of in understanding Tunisia's culture wars. Read the rest here.

Also, here are a few links on this subject to stories from the past month or so.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

What Tunisia Did Right

What Tunisia Did Right - By M. Steven Fish and Katherine E. Michel | Foreign Policy

I missed this piece a couple of weeks ago:

Yet a fact of great weight remains: Tunisia has made remarkable progress toward democracy. To a greater extent than any other country, it has shaken the perception that Arabs are destined to suffer the tutelage of monarchs, militaries, or mullahs. Why is Tunisia leading the way? Institutions -- and especially the constitutional order -- are a big part of the story. Much press coverage has focused on whether Tunisia's new constitution will contain a blasphemy clause. Of far greater import will be how the new fundamental law distributes power between the executive and the legislature. On this vital matter, Tunisia is getting it right. According to a recent empirical study we conducted, Tunisia's decision to create a system with a strong parliament and a constrained president is a recipe for robust democracy. Other countries in the Arab world can learn from Tunisia's example.

I think they've got half the story. The other half is a far more reasonable political class that steered the country wisely through the first six months or so after the fall of Ben Ali, a secular-Islamist divide where at least some people had the sense to build bridges across, and a transitional administration led by an elderly man, Beji Caid Essebsi, who was much more on the ball than the awful leadership provided by Hussein Tantawy's SCAF in Egypt. No wonder they can say "Tunisians are uprooting dictatorship, not merely expelling the dictator." 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Meet a Tunisian who doesn't think the revolution started in Tunisia

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, speaking at the Islamist love-in recently held in Khartoum:

"In truth, the mother of the revolutions was the blessed Palestinian revolution."

What is he referring to? The 2006 takeover of Gaza by Hamas?

Tunisian journalist run over by ex-cop media boss

Kamel Labidi writes:

Dear Friend,

The war on independent journalists in Tunisia suddenly intensified on Thursday when Journalist Khalil Hannachi of the daily Assabah  became the victim of a "murder attempt" perpetrated by the CEO of Dar Assabah media group Lotfi Touati, said journalists and two media unions.

Hannachi stood in front of Lotfi Touati's car earlier today, in an attempt to argue with the controversial and former police officer, whose appointment in August as CEO of the country's oldest media group spurred an unprecedented wave of protests among journalists and civil society advocates. But Touati started his car and moved ahead at full speed throwing Hannachi hundreds of meters away and inflicting on him severe injuries currently treated at Charles Nicole Hospital in Tunis, said the same sources.

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Ghannouchi vs Fisk

Head of Islamist Ennahdha Party to File Suit Against “The Independent”

Sana Ajmi in Tunisialive:

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahdha party, stated yesterday that he intends to sue the British newspaper The Independent for publishing false information about his party.

In his article entitled, “We believe that the USA is the major player against Syria and the rest are its instruments,” Robert Fisk quoted Walid Muallem, foreign minister to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as saying that the Emir of Qatar, Hamad ben Khalifa Al Thani, issued orders to pay Ennahdha $150 million to help Ghannouchi’s party in the elections.

Ghannouchi denied the news during a press conference held yesterday and announced that he plans to sue The Independent for publishing inaccurate information.

“Robert Fisk is a respectable man, but in his article he published false news. These are serious accusations, and we are going to sue the newspaper for publishing that,” said the Ennahdha leader.

One thing Ghannouchi learned in his long years of London exile, apparently, is that the UK is a good place to get litigious. Even if, as in this case, it was not Fisk saying he received money from Qatar (something many Tunisians seem to believe) but Muallem saying it. Can you really sue a paper because an official quoted gave an maliciously inaccurate statement? 

Libya: What's happening to Al-Mahmoudi?

From POMED: Ex Libya PM Claims Tunisian Authorities Tortured Him

In a report released by Human Rights Watch on Friday, former Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, recently extradited back to Libya from Tunisia, claimed that he is being treated well in Libya, but that Tunisian authorities regularly tortured him prior to his extradition. Mahmoudi said guards beat him with “sticks, boots, and a plastic whip,” and alleged that he went on a hunger strike when authorities denied him access to his lawyer. Returning to Libya has been a marked improvement, Mahmoudi said, in contrast to statements by his lawyer last week, who alleged his client suffered broken ribs and a perforated lung at the hands of Libyan authorities. Human Rights Watch, however, could not verify that Mahmoudi was able to speak freely.

Should HRW perhaps confirm this before releasing highly inflamatory information? Or at least give an indication of which story it believes is more likely to be true?

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Tunis envy

I have a confession to make.

After three days in Istanbul to attend the World Economic Forum’s summit for the Middle East, North Africa and Eurasia, I have become unhealthily and obsessively jealous of the Tunisian revolution.

Maybe it’s just a “grass is always greener on the other side” human nature sort of a thing. But I simply can’t shake the feeling that my Arab brethren to the west are handling their post-revolutionary transition about 1000 times better than we are in Egypt.

The final turning in my descent into full-blown chronic Tunis Envy was meeting and serving on a panel with Rafik Ben Abdessalem, Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He’s impressive, articulate and passionate. And he’s YOUNG—43 years old with no prior experience in government. Prior to accepting the role of foreign minister, he was working as a senior researcher at the Jazeera Center for Studies, a Qatari thinktank.

Bottom line: the Egyptian equivalent of Abdessalem is still no closer to real power than he was two years ago. The ongoing presidential election has proven a triumph for the country’s two old guard machines: the Muslim Brotherhood and the retrograde remnants of Hosni Mubarak’s military/security regime.

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One year ago today

This is still my favorite pic of the Arab Spring (more pics in this post).

What I wrote a year ago: Where Tunisia is now: exhilarating limbo. And a few days later what I wrote for the Guardian on the impact of Tunisia on the region (I was guarded.)

We all owe the Tunisians such an immense debt of gratitude. And admiration. Tahia Tunes

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Marzouki on transitional justice

From an interview with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki (how many times I will I write these words with wonder before the effect wears off?) in Mediapart:

N'oubliez pas que je suis l'élève de Mandela: j'ai rencontré le leader sud-africain dans les années 1990 à Oslo, lors d'une réunion du comité Nobel; je suis allé deux fois en Afrique du Sud dans les années 1990. L'expérience sud-africaine avec les comités de réconciliation nous servira dans la mise en place de cette justice transitionnelle. D'ailleurs nous avons organisé ici, il y a à peine un mois, une réunion sur le thème de la justice transitionnelle; aujourd'hui des associations travaillent sur cette idée, le gouvernement a sa propre mission, et on va organiser cette justice transitionnelle, ouvrir les archives, former les juges, repérer ceux qui ont été coupables de très grands crimes et qui devront passer devant les tribunaux normaux, et faire passer les autres devant des tribunaux particuliers où ils devront demander pardon, ce qui leur sera accordé. Nous ne sommes pas du tout dans l'esprit d'une justice de vengeance, parce que cette révolution a été pacifique, démocratique et elle doit avoir une justice à son image.

My quick translation:

Don't forget I'm a student of Nelson Mandela: I met the South African leader in the 1990s in Oslo, during a meeting of the Nobel Committee; and went twice to South Africa in the 1990s. The South African experience of reconciliation committees will be useful to implement transitional justice. In fact we organized, just a month ago, a meeting on the theme of transitional justice. Today associations are working on this dea, the government has its own mission, and we will organize this transitional justice, open the archives, train judges, identify those who are guilty of great crimes and who will have to appear in front of normal tribunals, a right they will have. We are not at all in the logic of revenge, because this revolution was peaceful, democratic, and it must have a similar type of justice.

Egypt was not Tunisia after all

Remember how, in early January, Egyptian officials and many a pundit warned that "Egypt is not Tunisia," suggesting an uprising against Mubarak was unlikely? I wrote about this in one of my first long pieces on the uprisings in the LRB, before Mubarak was toppled, and have thought about it a lot since. I take to task the centrality of the Egyptian uprising in a new piece in The National (part of a series of three looking at the Arab uprisings), and argue that Tunisia must be given its due. To me, the Tunisian revolution (because it is that, a revolution) was the most remarkable event of 2011, and I'm glad I got a chance to witness key parts of it.

It has often been written in the past year that the beating heart of the Arab uprisings is Cairo's Tahrir Square. In this view, the events that took place the month before in Tunisia were a mere precursor to the real deal - the Egyptian revolution - as if the Tunisians were simply the warm-up act for the star of the show.

The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after all, was the most unexpected and counterintuitive of events: Ben Ali's Tunisia had been a well-run, orderly little place with its share of social problems and a pervasive police state, but no real political fissure on the horizon. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, on the other hand, was a disaster waiting to happen, in which an elderly president, his ineffectual son and a divided regime were gearing for battle as a leadership succession loomed.

In other words - from this perspective - tiny Tunisia was an uprising that could have easily ended differently if, during a few hours of panic on January 14, the president had not caved into the advice of his security chief and decided to leave the country. In expansive Egypt, long a gravity well of the Arab world, the spark of Ben Ali's downfall found ready kindle to unleash a much larger revolt that spread like wildfire.

I beg to differ with this analysis, which puts the horse before the cart. It is true that few saw the Tunisian uprising coming, despite waves of social unrest in the country's poor hinterlands in 2008 and the unceasing and dull brutality of Ben Ali's security forces. And it is true that the Tunisian revolt was less filled with tension and drama than the Egyptian one, which had the world's cameras perched above Tahrir Square and a people given to dramatic performances to enchant them. But we should not confuse the spectacular nature of the "Arab Spring", as brought to you by CNN and Al Jazeera, with its reality.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Post-uprising: what to do with secret police files?

This year’s uprisings have, in several countries, defeated the domestic spying apparatus, but there is yet little idea of how not only to reform these agencies, but what to do with all the data they collected (or indeed reveal the extent of this data collection).

In Libya, the chaos and sudden fall of Tripoli allowed, temporarily, access to files that revealed not only surveillance but collaboration with Western intelligence on various issues. The state of the intelligence apparatus in unknown, but it is likely that much of it collapsed alongside the Qadhafi state.

In Egypt, the very first days of the uprisings saw security agencies move to destroy many documents and recordings (this was seen in safehouses in different parts of Cairo, as well as in the offices of State Security), some capture of documents by protestors during the (possibly manipulated) break-in into State Security HQ in Nasr City, but no fundamental reform — indeed it appears that not only State Security is still operating as National Security (and lately returning to the streets), but General Intelligence is now at the peak of its powers, even without Omar Suleiman.

In Tunisia, in-depth police reform has yet to begin but the surveillance state has been partly dismantled already. They are now beginning to deal with the many years of work full accountability will take, as this fascinating post at Unredacted on the Tunisian debate of what to do with the former regime’s secret police files shows:

Operating out of the Interior Ministry and other federal agencies, the intelligence and security forces known collectively as the secret police, or political police, excelled in spying on citizens, infiltrating civil society groups, trolling emails and social media sites for information, and harassing, intimidating and torturing suspected opponents of Ben Ali’s regime. Conference participants agreed that no space, public or private, was safe from the surveillance state. As Farah Hachad, a lawyer and president of Le Labo’, recalled at the start of the conference, “Since I was born, even conversations inside our house would be silenced because of the fear inside our hearts that we would be heard and punished.”

Presenters at the conference and audience members had their own memories of the repressive power wielded by the political police. One man recounted how an agent showed up at his door to detain him, “And when I asked, do you have an arrest warrant?, he pulled twenty blank arrest warrants from his pocket, all signed by the Interior Minister, and said, I can have as many as I want.” Taieb Baccouche, the interim Minister of Education and president of the Arab Institute of Human Rights, remembered signing his name to a petition for democracy in the late 1960s along with dozens of other activists, artists and scholars. “That was the beginning of surveillance: they controlled my phone, my mail and all my movements from then on.” Everyone agreed that the political police still existed and still posed a danger to democratic change, despite the advances of the revolution.

More than the issue of disbanding the secret police, however, the conference was focused on how to seize their archives as a way of preserving collective memory and permitting informed public debate about the repressive past. There were strong differences of opinion about how to manage the archives. Some feared the impact on people’s lives of the release of personal information, whether true or invented by the regime. Others felt that Tunisia’s democratic transition could not be complete without access to the archives. As artist and activist Zeyneb Farhat put it, “These political archives were designed to devalue and damage the credibility of activists by spreading lies about them… They have to be opened now in order to create a justice-based relationship between police and citizens and to build trust, so that people understand the police are for protecting security, not for undermining change.”

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Tunisia's Ghannouchi at WINEP

 From a transcript [PDF] of WINEP's rountable with Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi — the commentary says much:

Q: You said that a majority of Palestinians accept the idea of a two-state solution with Israel. What about you and your party? Do you accept that concept?

A: Tunisia will never try to take the place of either of the two Palestinian organizations in deciding about these issues.

[Comment: Ghannouchi not only equates Hamas with the Palestinian Authority, but also clearly refuses to explicitly accept a two-state solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is in line with his published interview in February 2011, on the occasion of his most recent visit to Qatar's pro-Hamas Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, whom he cited later in the Q&A as his superior in the International Organization of Muslim Ulama [scholars]. In that interview, Ghannouchi declares that while Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin prophesied that Israel would be eliminated by 2027, his own view is that Israel could be eliminated even before that date. See http://www.alarab.com.qa/details.php?docId=185944&issueNo=1181&secId=28 and http://www.rightsidenews.com/2011112014978/world/terrorism/tunisian-pledges-a-new-caliphate.html.]

**********

Q: There is a record of your referring to the Hamas government in Gaza as a model of democracy. Do you still believe that?

A: I do not remember making such comments about Hamas. But what cannot be denied is that Hamas was democratically elected, and so it is a legitimate government.

[Comment: For Ghannouchi's praise of Hamas "democracy" in Gaza, see http://www.militantislammonitor.org/article/id/5107 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJ4_pNibf3.]

**********

There's more of the same in the document, notably over the question of Ghannouchi's past support for violent resistance in Israel/Palestine. WINEP doesn't like that — but I don't remember it condemning the violent treatment of Palestinians, the adoption of collective punishment war doctrines, a policy of assassinations or more generally the violence-enforced occupation. 

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The economies of the Arab Spring

Last month I took part in a conference entitled "The Economies of the Arab Spring" run by the Hollings Center in Istanbul. Present were a number of people from various countries, with a particular focus on Egypt, Tunisia and Syria (and for the latter on Turkey's relationshipw with Damascus. Below are links to the proceedings of the conference, in Arabic, Turkish and English:


Diyalog Raporu: Arap Baharı Ekonomileri

Dialogue Snapshot: The Economies of the Arab Spring

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Don't forget Tunisia

The very final results for Tunisia's elections are in, with Ennahda losing one seat from the expected 90 and, with the overturning of the cancellation of Aridha Chaabia's seats, it is the third party. The country is merrily going about its transition, it looks like Ennahda is getting the PM's seat, CPR's Marzouki will be the speaker of parliament, and Ettakatol's Ben Jaafar could be president. Maybe. Whoever gets what seats, they're starting to look at deep reforms — over the last few days top press people held meetings with party leaders to discuss media reform, for instance — and quietly making things happen. 

Sometimes I think all the money for post-uprising reforms should be put in Tunisia until Egypt gets its act together. Right now Tunisia is so promising while investing in Egypt looks like throwing good money after bad.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

The making of Ben Ali at La Goulette

Remember the great video I put up showing Tunisians' reactions to a giant Ben Ali poster appearing in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette? The makers of that stunt — the ad firm Ogilvy — sent me the making-of video above.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Podcast #16: %^&* the French!

We were away in Tunisia in late October and never got a chance to do the podcast we had promised from there — we were too busy enjoying the well-organized election, promising democratic prospects and excellent fish. We catch up and talk what we saw there, why Egypt is so much worse off with its own upcoming elections, and agree that the French need to grow up about Islamism.

Links for this week's episode:

Arabist Podcast #16: %^&* the French!

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.