Tunis: "Things are bad, but that's normal"

Last month I was in Tunis for a conference on Arab intellectuals and historical transformations in the region.  I wrote up something about it for the LRB blog:

On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. ‘He’s been there ten days,’ a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. ‘He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.’ The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.

I was in Tunis last month for a conference entitled Intellectuals and the Historic Transformations in the Arab World. The first speaker was the historian Hichem Djait. He gave a brief history of Arab intellectuals and their persecution by authoritarian regimes, before concluding that they have lost influence across the region. ‘The Arab world took a step towards democracy, but one has the painful impression that it is not ready,’ he said. Instead, the uprisings have ‘exacerbated very strong and very violent tensions’. In countries that are tearing themselves apart, what role is there for intellectuals?

'Sexual Jihad' in Syria

Sana Saeed tries to trace the "Tunisian women are going on sex jihad in Syria" story to its roots -- which turn out to be tangled and possibly non-existent. As Saeed notes, any story with the words "sex" and "jihad" in the title is going to be catnip to the international press. And making an accusation like this (which Tunisia's Minister of Interior did recently) may be an easy way to embarrass/discredit Islamists. 

Despite the story having gained traction of the viral variety, and despite the concerns and facts expressed by Tunisian officials, there seems to be actually very little evidence to suggest that the so-called sexual Jihad is actually a thing (and Jihad al-Nikkah is not a thing in Islamic jurisprudence).

The story of Tunisian women returning from waging sex on holy warriors (thanks RT) in Syria impregnated with future warrior babies itself is, at best, just incredibly questionable and many, from the onset of the story’s break into the English press, expressed deep skepticism. In a civil war that has had many ideological fronts, the most pernicious in is salience has perhaps been that of information. Syria has been a cluster of misinformation, misattribution and propaganda. O’Bagygate and Mint Press-gate are two of the most recent headlines to highlight the problems in not only reporting on the conflict but also how easily questionable, untrue, unverified information is gobbled up to serve ideological biases and wishful thinking.

 

Meanwhile in Tunisia

Allegations of a deal between the country's two top political leaders: 

Not much reliable information about the meeting in Paris between former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi has been leaked. However, it is known that the two have reached an agreement in principle, which foreign partners — namely the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans — have imposed. The two enemy brothers need to agree in order to achieve a democratic transition in Tunisia and to avoid an Egyptian-style bloody scenario, even if that would anger the popular bases of the two camps.
The deal includes keeping Ali Laarayedh at the head of the government and Mustapha Ben Jaafar at the head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), while replacing Moncef Marzouki with Essebsi as president of the republic. As for the government, it will consist of technocrats and politicians with the addition of two new posts of deputy prime minister; one for security affairs and the other for economic affairs. These two posts will be “offered” to the democratic opposition.

If true, it's exactly the kind of elite back-room dealing that appears to be the key to fragile political transitions. 

Tunisia's Ennahda won't contest presidency

Le Monde reports on the crisis in Tunisia, after the murder of Mohammed Brahmi and eight soldiers at the Algerian border, now compounded by the Egyptian June 30. As rumored for a few weeks, this suggests Ennahda has officially taken a decision not to present a presidential candidate in elections next year:  

Devant l'urgence de la situation, les débats internes sont mis en sourdine. "Le courant dur chez nous est mis à la retraite", assure ce responsable. Des décisions devraient sous peu être annoncées, comme celle, prise depuis un moment mais encore jamais rendue publique, qu'Ennahda ne présentera pas de candidat à la prochaine élection présidentielle.

Of course, circumstances can change (as they did for the Brothers in Egypt, although they must regret that choice) and a new decision on the presidency can be made next year. Or they can choose to back a third-party candidate (or indeed even President Moncef Marzouki, the incumbent, for re-election as he has been fairly loyal to the Troika alliance). But it shows the events in Egypt have had their impact.