Ben Ali in La Goulette

I've written before about Tunisia's great get-out-the-vote initiatives. But the above video shows the best of all. What they did is restore a giant poster of Ben Ali that used to be a landmark of La Goulette, a suburb of Tunis. Passersby are astounded as they see it in the morning, and their stupefaction shifts to anger. They are being filmed by hidden cameras and don't know what's happening. Watch what they do, it's really clever.

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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.

Succession in Tunisia

Mohammed Sakhr al-MeteriThis young man could be the successor to President Ben Ali, the dictator of Tunisia. As always in these cases, apart from being unbelievably corrupt it's not clear what his assets are for the job. From a US Embassy Tunis cable on Wikileaks:

Personally, El-Matri presented himself as self-confident, but low-key. This was in marked contrast to his reputation as a flamboyant and aggressive business mogul. His reputation derives in part from the fact that he drives an Austin Martin and a Hummer among other cars, and rumors that he owns a pet tiger. With the Ambassador, he was equally comfortable talking about political issues and personal issues. He indicated his awareness of his relative youth vis-a-vis his position in the RCD and his business success, but did not seem uncomfortable with that reality. He also discussed his wife Nesrine's commitment to using only organic products from the food they eat to the paint and varnish in their new mansion.

A spoilt brat, then. Tip of the hat to Brian Whitaker, who found another cable on Libyan sibling rivalry and succession, which he discussed here.

Links for 10.24.09 to 10.25.09

Power play - The National Newspaper | M. Bazzi on Saudi-Syrian relations. Weirdly makes no mention of Lebanon. ✪ Bikya Masr (BikyaMasr) on Twitter | Report: Ayman Nour attacked by security and NDP thugs in Hurghada. ✪ Algérie-Maroc | Blog on Algerian-Moroccan relations. ✪ Un propagandiste intéressé du régime tunisien - Les blogs du Diplo | Alain Gresh takes down Antoine Sfeir over his apologia for the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. ✪ “The State is an ostrich”: Algerian riots in the shadow of Power « The Moor Next Door | On the recent turmoil, and more generally the absence of a well-managed state in Algeria. ✪ Arms Smugglers Into Gaza Face a New Foe: Egypt – Forward.com | To Egypt's eternal shame! ✪ «الإخوان المسلمون» ينتصبون ضدّ بيونسي | جريدة الأخبار | The Muslim Brothers take on Beyoncé. ✪ Daily News Egypt -No Egyptian Films At The Cairo International Film Festival, Says Ciff President | er.... what? ✪ Reporters Sans Frontières | Tunisia: Election campaign impossible for opposition media ✪ Daily News Egypt - ‘Spinsters’ By Choice: Egypt’s Single Ladies Speak Out | About the Facebook group "Spinsters for Change". ✪ Michael Gerson - Michael Gerson on Egypt's Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa - washingtonpost.com | Rather lame column about the Mufti of Egypt makes no mention of his civil servant status. ✪ The Empire Lovers Strike Back « P U L S E | Fantastic text by Gore Vidal from the 1980s, about the Podhoretzes and the Israel lobby in the US. ✪ Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism « P U L S E | Excerpt from new book by M. Shahuid Alam.
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Tunisia's election

Screen shot 2009-10-13 at 11.20.20 AM.png Tunisia is gearing up for another one of its farcical elections on October 25, in which Count Dracula Ben Ali is set to win something between 95% and 99% of the vote yet again. Above is Ben Ali's program, which begins with the now 22-year-old promise for political reform:
We have established the Change as a continuous process of reform through which we have established the rule of law and individual and public freedoms. We invariably rely, now and in the future, on our people’s maturity and worthiness of an advanced political life. Our choices have always reflected the aspirations and determination of the men and women of our people. We have benefited from the experiences of other countries, so as to ensure the continued progress of Tunisia on the path of democracy, pluralism, and human rights, away from any regression or setbacks. All those principles and choices are now a concrete reality protected by the Constitution and the laws which we have amended so that they reach the level of the most advanced countries. We are promoting this reality at each stage, by enhancing the values of citizenship and participation, and by further consolidating pluralism in public life, in constitutional institutions, in consultative bodies and structures, and in the media. We are determined, during the coming stage, to further promote this reality, so as to lay a propitious ground for the future we seek for Tunisia, as a consecration of the aspirations of our people and its young generations.
Yet you will almost never hear about Tunisia's creepy dictatorship in most of the Western media, and in France where they do talk about it, half the press has either been paid to support the regime, or appears to buy its anti-Islamist justifications for what is essentially a mafia state. FA5FAAC3-4D1A-4E0E-969C-81F535A494F2.jpgI'm looking forward in this regard to reading shock-journalists Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet's "La Regente De Carthage", about how former hair stylist Leila Trabelsi married Ben Ali and established a business and crime empire. And, ultimately, may very well decide who will succeed her husband. Update: I think I linked to it before, but it's worth reading Hamadi Redissi's ARB article on the elections to provide some context:
Regarding the presidential race, a constitutional amendment approved in July 2008 stipulates that the head of any political party who has been in his position at least two years may run. (Before 2008, the constitution required any candidate to obtain endorsements from 30 members of the Chamber of Deputies or mayors, a goal that was practically unattainable for opposition candidates.) For this year’s election, the two-year stipulation rules out all but three candidates aside from Ben Ali. The most important is Ahmed Brahim, Secretary General of the Movement for Renewal, who is trying to run a serious campaign. The other two candidates--Mohamed Bouchiha of the Popular Unity Party and Ahmed Inoubli of the Unionist Democratic Union--are only in the elections to show (according to them) their support for the democratic course. The Constitutional Court rejected the candidacy of Mustafa Ben Jaafar of the Democratic Forum for Freedoms and Labor on September 27 because it ruled that he did not meet the two year rule. The current electoral model, which has been in place since the electoral code was issued in 1969, is now in the spotlight. This system transforms political competition into an administrative process wherein the Interior Ministry pulls all the strings throughout all stages of the elections, from registering voters to announcing the results. Unlike in liberal electoral systems, the legal code does not even explicitly outlaw electoral fraud. The ruling party candidate also is free to exploit the government monopoly over the audio-visual media, although a recent change in law requires the Supreme Council for Communications to preview all campaign ads. An opposition proposal to create an independent electoral commission fell on deaf ears. Ben Ali created a commission during his 1999 run for re-election, but its neutrality is compromised by the fact that its members are presidential appointees and its mandate limited to making observations rather than decisions.
Redissi concludes:
Thus it is inevitable that Ben Ali will win another term, but that does not mean the elections are without significance. First, a strong desire for greater freedom and for real rather than cosmetic change might allow the opposition to push back red lines and expand the margins of freedom. Second, as is the case in other Arab republics, Tunisia is running up against complications with succession at the top of the power pyramid. The Tunisian constitution does not allow the 73-year-old Ben Ali to run again for the presidency after this term, the maximum age being 75 years. This obstacle will be pivotal in reshuffling the political deck in Tunisia, raising the question of whether the regime will succeed once again in reinventing itself.
Since Redissi is a professor at the University of Tunis and presumably has to pull his punches, reading between the lines it appears obvious that Ben Ali would once again change the constitution to be able to run again if necessary. But the article illustrates very well the general model of neo-authoritarianism that dominates among the Arab republics, in which elections are valued as a token form of democracy largely devoid of any real meaning (even if at times they can provide traction for genuine democrats and opposition forces).
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Links for 09.11.09 to 09.12.09

ANALYSIS / Clock is ticking for Iran as Israel appears ready for strike - Haaretz - Israel News | Amos Harel sees an Israeli strike in late 2009 / early 2010, with the goal being setting back the Iranian nuclear program. ✪ Middle East Report Online: Dismantling the Matrix of Control by Jeff Halper | "Until the majority of Palestinians, and not merely political leaders, declare that the conflict is over, the conflict is not over. Until most Palestinians believe it is time to normalize relations with Israel, there will be no normalization. Israel cannot “win” -- though it believes it can, which is why it presses ahead to complete the matrix and foreclose the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. The failure of yet another peace initiative will only galvanize international efforts to achieve justice for the Palestinians. Only this time the demand is likely to be for a single binational state, the only alternative that fits the single-state, binational reality that Israel itself has forged in its futile attempt to impose an apartheid regime. " ✪ Chakchouka tunisienne / Bakchich : informations, enquêtes et mauvais esprit blogs | Cool French language blog from Bakchich.com on Tunisia. Note recent post had Ben-Ali's brother-in-law bill people for attending their wedding. ✪ Who is Travis Randall: the lies from Egypt « Bikya Masr | Bikya Misr on Fahmy Howeidy's fabrications about Travis Randall. ✪ MIT Press Journals - World Policy Journal | "Egypt’s Looming Succession Struggle" by Michael Hanna. [PDF]
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Boutef's re-election: how does he compare?

Jacob Mundy provides a richly detailed background of Abdel Aziz Bouteflika's consolidation of power in the last decade in this fine MERIP article:
Given the outcome of the 1999 elections, it was important for Bouteflika to establish an independent base of support, one that would free him from the whims of the generals who put him in power. Though Algeria’s 2002 elections recorded what was then the lowest turnout since independence, the outcome indicated the growing power of Bouteflika’s electoral machine. The FLN -- a party that had seemed moribund in the 1990s -- took 51 percent of the seats in Parliament. This surprising show of strength was repeated in October at the local level. Though Bouteflika has been officially independent from the FLN since 1999, the reconstituted FLN provided him with the foot soldiers to bring people to the ballot box. The formation of the “presidential alliance” -- a three-party coalition led by the FLN -- would later guarantee the Bouteflika camp’s total electoral hegemony. Still, Islamist parties performed well in 2002, despite severe restrictions on many candidates; the largely secular-left Berber opposition stayed true to an electoral boycott stemming from the 2001 unrest in Kabylia. As the April 2004 presidential contest approached, there were indications that elements of the security-military-intelligence apparatus were starting to see Bouteflika as a threat. Bouteflika’s Brutus stepped forward in 2003, when Prime Minister and FLN Secretary-General Ali Benflis -- none other than Bouteflika’s 1999 campaign manager -- declared his intent to run. Yet even with the FLN divided and Benflis’ candidacy supported by powerful figures in the security oligarchy, Bouteflika sailed to an impressive 85 percent margin of victory, on turnout of nearly 60 percent. Benflis, who quickly disappeared from the political scene, managed to pull in 6 percent. With his 2004 reelection, it was clear that Bouteflika had established the independent base. A growing ensemble of stakeholders, from traditionalist elements of Algerian Islam to veterans’ and war martyrs’ groups, provided Bouteflika with his own means of reaching down to the grassroots. An Algerian sociologist has provisionally termed this coalition Bouteflika’s makhzan, in reference to the patron-client networks that have allowed the Moroccan monarchy to rule for centuries. There was perhaps no greater indication of Bouteflika’s triumph than the June 2004 “retirement” of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammed Lamari, architect of the dirty war in the 1990s, and the 2005 posting of retired Gen. Larbi Belkhir to the embassy in Morocco. Belkhir, a key player for decades, had reportedly championed Bouteflika in 1999 in the face of the skepticism of others and subsequently ran the president’s office. Bouteflika’s new chief of staff and deputy defense minister were trusted allies. With Khaled Nezzar (mastermind of the 1992 coup) sulking in his villa, there appears to be little left of the cadre of “deciders” who allegedly manipulated events behind the scenes in the 1990s, except for long-time intelligence head Mohamed “Tewfik” Medienne, who, like the Wizard of Oz, seems to instill fear simply by staying out of the public eye. It was only after his 2004 reelection that Bouteflika fulfilled his end of the bargain with those who had put him into office. On February 27, 2006, the presidential cabinet, chaired by Bouteflika himself, used a special rule to ratify the National Peace and Reconciliation Charter while the parliament was in recess. Though the Charter had ostensibly passed a national referendum in September 2005, there were doubts as to the authenticity of turnout figures. In its final form, the law amnestied insurgents who surrendered after January 2000, including those facing criminal proceedings or held in prison, while at the same time opening a new six-month window for more insurgents to surrender. At the same time, the Charter kept the same restrictions on amnesty as the 1999 Civil Concord, but those found guilty of unprotected offenses could receive reduced sentences. For the families of the “disappeared” or those abducted by armed opposition groups, death certificates could be issued once all investigations had been completed. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Charter was that, for the first time, the government extended full immunity to the security and military forces, including civilian militias. Merely to criticize the actions of the government or its agents during the “national tragedy” of the 1990s was made a criminal act.
Mundy ends declaring:
Bouteflika’s victory is now almost total. He has conquered the generals, kept the FIS from returning in any form, staved off democratic challenges from his own party and the Kabyle Citizens’ Movement, and won the right to a third, or even fourth, term. The challenges he faces now seem almost quaint by comparison: residual political violence, high unemployment, widespread disillusionment with government and the state’s near total dependence on hydrocarbons.
Well perhaps Algeria has not made this transition from military oligarchy to dictatorship, it's successfully used an old-generation figure to pass control over to a new generation of oligarchs. And the problem with such coalitions around a transitional figure is that they might very easily collapse with his passing. In the meantime this Algerian election was profoundly depressing when you consider what a regression it constitutes. I am inspired by the Moroccan blogger Larbi to tally up the top five most "popular" Arab presidents: - At number one, like his father unrivaled, Bashar al-Assad at 97% but only in power for a mere nine years (re-elected 29 May 2007). - At number two, the indefatigable Zein al-Abideen Ben Ali with 94.49%, still going strong after 22 years. Like Bouteflika, he had to amend the constititution to be able to run again (re-elected 24 October 2004). - Slipping in at third position, the hero of the hour, Abdel Aziz Bouteflika who managed an impressive 90.24% and quite a strong show for an election many were boycotting. Thus he singlehandedly reestablishes Boumediennism. - Our very own Hosni Mubarak wins for longevity (28 years!) but has been slipping in the ranks lately, only achieving 88.5% in the last election (which, mind you, was the first to include other candidates) on 9 September 2005. Better luck in 2012 ya Hosni! - Finally it's Yemen's Ali Abdullah Salah with a measly 77.2% (re-elected 22 September 2006). Let's hope he tries harder next time. There's been a lot of movement in this race since the uncontested champion for most of the 1980s and 1990s, the late lamented Saddam Hussein, gave up his presidency. Will there ever be another like him, who against all odds is perhaps the world's only politician to win 100% of the vote in a presidential election?
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Links for 5-6 December

Automatically posted links for December 5th through December 6th:
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