The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts in Commentary
On the politics behind Tunisia's protests

I wrote the piece below with my colleague Michael Ayari, to touch on the politics behind the scenes of the ongoing protests in Tunisia, which are examined at length in a new Crisis Group report, Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift. (Update: Michael and I also have a different piece in Le Monde: En Tunisie, « le risque d’une dérive autoritaire ».)

The protests and rioting that have raged in parts of Tunisia since last week are sometimes branded, both inside the country and abroad, as signs of a new revolutionary moment similar to the 2010-2011 uprising that launched the Arab Spring. The images circulating, after all, give a sense of déjà-vu: young men burning tires at impromptu barricades, throwing stones at police; the army deploying to secure public institutions and banks, etc. This is indeed familiar: it has taken place at regular intervals, especially in winter months, for the last few years. As before, it will most likely die down: protestors are largely driven by specific socio-economic grievances, not a desire to overthrow the regime. Even if there is some continuity -- frustration with social injustice and corruption -- today’s Tunisia is not ruled by a dictator.

The immediate trigger for the current protests was the new state budget for 2018, whose implementation began on 1 January. It introduces tax hikes on a number of consumer goods (especially imports) and services, as well as a one-percent increase in value-added tax, contributing to a pre-existing rise in the cost of living that, in a gloomy economic context for most Tunisians, is understandably unpopular. The government says it needs to raise income to balance its finances, and especially to pay for public sector salaries (which account for over half of expenditures). This budget, passed in December 2017, received the support of the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), the main trade union federation. In most respects it is more protectionist than liberal, and was opposed by business lobbies.

The government has not been deft in selling its policies: claims that the increases won’t affect the poor have fallen on deaf ears (perceptions of cost-of-living increases are much higher than the 6-percent official inflation rate), and the minister of finance sounded rather Marie-Antoinette-ish when he impatiently suggested in a recent interview that mobile-phone recharge cards, whose prices have increased, were not a basic necessity.

At its core, anger against the government’s austerity policies is driven by an overwhelmingly young population with few prospects, especially in the long-neglected interior part of the country. Successive governments have had little success in changing this since 2011, and the current one must reconcile pressure from the street with that coming from its international partners, including the IMF, which has called for accelerated reforms and greater fiscal responsibility.

The protests are mostly non-violent -- the large protests during the day have been well-organized and peaceful, expressing the general frustration of the population about the meager returns of the 2011 revolution when it comes to living standards. At night, however, a different crowd comes out, often engaging in looting and attacks on public buildings, stealing from stores or taking advantage of localised chaos for criminal purposes. The rage against the system that periodically erupts in the most deprived areas of the country -- and has done so before, during and since the 2011 uprising (indeed there have been similar protests every January for the last three years) -- often targets security forces, as the arson of police stations attests.

The police, which must address the rioting, is showing signs of panic and over-reach: among the over 700 persons arrested since the unrest began are left-wing bloggers and activists who have conducted no illegal acts. This reversion to bad old habits of the era of dictatorship is dangerous, as it may encourage further escalation and shift the framing of current unrest in a more anti-state direction. It is also yet another sign of the lack of reform and capacity-building that has plagued the ministry of interior.

There are subtler political dimensions to the unrest. The protest movement is, unsurprisingly, being encouraged by the opposition, especially the far-left, some of whose activists have been arrested. Tunisia is entering a two-year electoral cycle (local in May 2018, parliamentary and presidential by the end of 2019) and the opposition has an interest in positioning itself against the current governing coalition, led by the secular nationalist Nida Tounes and Islamist An-Nahda parties. It is also supported by elements of civil society and activist groups such as the “Fech Nestannew?” (”What are we waiting for?”) campaign, which is expressing a widely-felt resentment against austerity policies.

Somewhat paradoxically, the anti-government protests are convenient for Nida Tounes and An-Nahda, perennial rivals who nonetheless share a common foe: Youssef Chahed, the prime minister appointed in August 2016 who must now deal with the unrest. Originally seen as subservient to Béji Caid Essebsi, the Nida Tounes leader who was elected as Tunisia’s president in 2014, Chahed has grown in stature and popularity, especially after he launched an anti-corruption campaign in summer 2017. In recent weeks, Chahed is said to have threatened to arrest senior members of both parties and their allies in the public administration -- but has been blocked from doing so. More generally, he has begun to build political alliances in anticipation of 2019’s presidential election, especially with the powerful UGTT. His relationship with Essebsi and An-Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi has now significantly soured, and they may hope to use the unrest as a pretext to justify his removal or at least dent his appeal.

Previous protests died down after political leaders mobilized to calm the situation or the government granted concessions; this may yet still happen. If not, they carry a risk of amplifying the increasingly prevalent idea that Tunisia’s democratic transition is failing, particularly if security forces over-react and political bickering allows the situation to fester, providing an opening for a wider crackdown in the name of public order. The diffuse sense that the freedoms gained since 2011 are weakening the state and an authoritarian restoration of some sort is necessary is spreading. As Crisis Group argues in its latest report, the danger is that this will encourage political adventurism by would-be saviours on horseback; the resistance any such attempt would engender would likely create far greater unrest, violence and economic misery than the ongoing, often plodding and frustrating, democratic transition.

Tunisia’s leaders, in other words, has little choice but to move forward and work harder to strike a compromise on the social contract -- and especially address the historic neglect of parts of the population -- as they did on their political transition. Nostalgia for the era of dictatorship or the revolutionary fervor of early 2011 will bring only problems, not solutions.

Issandr El Amrani and Michael Ayari are respectively North Africa Project Director and Senior Tunisia Analyst at International Crisis Group.

On the deep state

I have – alongside Steven Cook, Philip Giraldi and Gonul Tol - a short piece out in the NYT's Room for Debate on the subject of deep states. The other articles are largely Turkey-focused (because of one interpretation of the AKP's recent electoral victory an inversion of the deep state as experienced in Turkey in the 1980s). I take a slightly contrarian view on deep states, pointing out that shadowy networks of interests are not always bad and arguing that in Tunisia, these worked to avert a wider crisis that could have easily gone in the direction of what happened in Egypt. Generally, though, when you hear about the deep state, it's not good news - and when you don't hear about it, it does not mean it's not there.

Penalty card for Qatar
Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange /

Construction of a new stadium near Lusail in the desert of Qatar. December 16 2013 in Lusail, Qatar. Philip Lange /

A "plot to buy the World Cup" comes to light, but will raking FIFA over the coals make a difference for Qatar's overheating guest workers?

During the Cold War, Taiwan and the People's of Republic of China routinely threw money at smaller countries in order to get them to switch their recognition from one China to the other at the UN. It was the most blatantly bullion-based diplomacy one could observe then, in a world of it. The World Cup bid involves some dynamics, except - since it is the World Cup - the stakes are even higher than the Two Chinas Policy. Brazil is hosting the next one; then Russia will do so in 2018, and to Qatar goes the 2022 honor. Some football officials have complained about the poor climatic prospects for players in the Gulf's summer heat on that date - yet the heat is even worse for the guest workers barred from organizing unions to protest the policies Qatar exercises over them. As the current controversy in Brazil shows, for the prestige of the World Cup, there are few prices that host countries politicians and their lobbyists won't pay to win that honor. 

So far, assertions that "football cannot tolerate a World Cup built on the back of workers’ abuse, misery and blood" have failed to derail the massive Qatari effort. Whether the latest round of scandal will make a difference is yet to be seen. And it is one whale of a scandal, even by FIFA's poor reputation. According to The Sunday Times, Qatar bought up votes from Confederation of African Football (CAF) member associations and important football executives worldwide ahead of the World Cup 2018/2022 vote with lavish junkets and "donations" cumulatively worth millions of dollars.† Potentially compromised parties in Asia, Europe, and Latin America have also been named in the Times, including the infamous (and now censured) Trinidadian ex-FIFA executive Jack Warner. Football associations in Somalia, Cameroon, Djibouti, Sudan, Burundi, the Gambia, Sao Tomé, Zambia, Liberia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Swaziland, Togo, and Nigeria were all specifically named in The Sunday Times' expose. 

So far, concrete proof of Qatari malfeasance in the run up to the 2010 bid for 2022 been hard to come by, though at least one associate of Qatari football supremo Mohammed bin Hammam was previously suspended and fined when he was caught bragging about the "millions" of pounds he was being offered by two unnamed countries to influence the vote. It is the sort of strategy straight out of the Soviet playbook for the non-aligned countries in the second twentieth century. But if the Times' allegations - drawn from a trove of emails leaked to the paper detailing all of this horse-trading - prove true, then that proof will finally exist. And none too soon for Qatar's competitors, since it is theoretically possible to redo the executive committee's vote or 2022, stripping Doha of its victory.

Bin Hammam, formerly the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation and owner of the Kemco construction company, is described as the point man for this effort, disbursing payments and promises here and there ahead of the voting - from personal kickbacks to weekend getaways to promises to back certain associations' pet projects in exchange for their support. Kemco allegedly helped pass some of the coney along, but much of it is said to have delivered personally to the recipients in cash payments of several thousands dollars a head, and via "10 slush funds" he set up for the campaign. Bin Hammam denies such charges, as do all of the people the Times says he wined and dined with in Kuala Lumpur (or elsewhere) to influence the bidding process several years ago. 

Once one of the most influential members of FIFA's executive committee, bin Hammam was banned for life from football in 2011 by FIFA after being convicted of bribing the Caribbean Football Union to support his campaign against Sepp Blatter, the incumbent President of FIFA. Mr. Blatter is no fiscal angel himself - the subject of past inquiries about his finances have gone in his favor, though - and even tried to make light of Qatar's human rights record by suggesting that LGBT fans "should refrain from any sexual activities" at FIFA 2022 in Doha. Like the rest of FIFA's executive committee, he now finds himself in hot water over the allegations that a disgraced official, acting behalf on the Government of Qatar, played FIFA like a flute. And strangely, despite his earlier support for the vote (and aforementioned flippancy) even before this scandal broke, Mr. Blatter conceded to persistent criticism that awarding the Cup to Qatar was actually a "mistake."

It goes without saying, but both FIFA and bin Hammam are denying The Sunday Times report, and further follow-up reporting. Qatar's own FIFA team denies any formal relationship with the blackballed bin Hammam. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce, though, said the body should re-vote if FIFA's top legal counsel, Michael Garcia, finds a paper trail for the alleged bribes in the coming months (Garcia was in fact the lawyer who signed off on the findings that torpedoed bin Hammam's FIFA career, so has a good reputation in this regard).

A second vote would be a PR disaster for Qatar, and if it did not win back the cup in the process, Doha will have sunk millions into the planned city of Lusail and other venues to little gain. One can imagine all of the other Gulf states laughing derisively at the sight of vacant lots and roads to nowhere should this come to pass (construction has not yet advanced very far). That, according to Australian football officials, the United States could secure the 2022 bid if Qatar loses it would be the final insult.

The charges do little to help Qatar's international image since reports began airing over a year ago that hundreds of guest workers, almost all of them from South and Southeast Asia, have died on the job since the bid was won. These have not been for FIFA-related worksites, but general totals: over the past decade, thousands of guest workers have perished in the wider Gulf region. The deaths are not so obvious as fatal falls and electrocutions from high towers, but a combination of long hours in difficult climatic conditions with inadequate housing and healthcare. And there is the matter (difficult to quantify) of a general malaise among workers resulting from their isolation and impoverishment relative to full Qatari citizens. Not to mention their anemic legal rights in-country. But given the amount of work the World Cup is set to generate for foreigner laborers, there has been no slowdown in applications (legal or not) to come and build up Lusail despite the risks.

Qatar has not been handed a red card by FIFA. At best, it's been handed a yellow card, if even that. So, for now, Doha gets to stay on the field.

†Much of the effort was apparently concentrated among CAF members, who control four of the 24 executive committee seats which vote on bids. At least 12 votes are needed to win, and there are unofficial backdoor campaigns going on throughout the process to prevent voters from switching their support (this was a bitter point of contestation between Qatar and the UK, apparently). The 2022 vote actually involved only 22 committee members: 2 had lost their voting rights due to corruption scandals and were not replaced during the process.
Judging Anonymous Tweets: The Case of @Mujtahidd

This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.

An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.

The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.

While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer --  a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.


Some of Mujtahidd’s tweets suggest access to clear insider sources. This occurred on 10 July, when he published a sting of negative information about the climate inside the Saudi Intelligence Agency. According to his sources, the Director did not understand the intel trade, employee morale was low, and the quality of the analysis being produced was frequently poor:



Shortly after, the Royal Court announced a change in leadership at the top. Whether his description of the situation inside the agency was accurate or not, the timing appeared to indicate advance knowledge of a major cabinet shift well before it happened. 

Moreover, Mujtahidd seems to have good sources inside King Abdullah’s entourage and frequently provides credible information about his health and travel schedule. For example, when Crown Prince Nayif died in early June of last year, Mujtahidd decisively predicted that the King would be too sick to attend the funeral, something that also proved true:




On the other hand, while Mujtahidd’s anonymity offers him a layer of protection from both the embarrassment of being wrong and lawsuits from the targets of his trash talk it also encourages at times sensationalism.

Take a series of tweets last Fall claiming that the Ministry of the Interior knew about certain planned terrorist attacks, yet did not stop them because Prince Mohamed bin Nayif, then Deputy Minister and responsible for counterterrorism, wanted to increase his influence within the Royal Family. When readers asked for supporting evidence, the all-too-convenient response was that doing so would put his sources in jeopardy:



Frequent exaggeration also undermines his credibility on certain issues.  One area where this occurs is on the issue of economic inequality. The gap between the super rich and average Saudis is in fact huge and no one disputes the stratospheric wealth of the most senior Royals but according to Mujtahidd’s “inside” information, the late Crown Prince Sultan left over $200 Billion to his heirs, which would have made him the richest person in the world: 



Another is the issue of land ownership. It is true that the accumulation of large chunks of land in the hand of a small group of elites over the last several decades is a factor in causing the lack of affording housing for average Saudis. Yet Mujtahidd’s tweets gives the impression that it is merely a few greedy Royals hoarding the best land and engaging in land speculation. The reality is that there are many factors causing the problem as the often highly nuanced discussions on Saudi television shows indicate.  

Overlook the Sensationalism and Understand the Agenda 

The key to analyzing the information in publicity-seeking Mujtahidd-style social media accounts is to put everything in the context of the broader political agenda. My guess is that Mujtahidd is a lawyer or perhaps a group of lawyers, who hope to push the Kingdom through their Twitter activity towards a more institutionalized, non-personality-centric system of government, in the form of a constitutional monarchy. 

This is probably the purpose of the constant broadcasting of detailed descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, a son of the late King Fahd and a minister without portfolio in the Saudi cabinet, covering everything from the size of his entourage to his Yachting schedule. Yet there are plenty of wealthy Saudis -- both Royals and commoners -- who live in similar luxury and are never the target of Mujtahidd’s wrath. Why the intense focus on one person?

Upon closer look, the point seems less about the travel per se, and more an indirect critique of the political system. What he really seems to be angry about is that the Prince is a member of the Saudi cabinet who (according to Mujtahidd) neglects his duties by spending so much time abroad. By focusing on the lifestyle details he is trying to get people to think more about what good governance entails. See this telling tweet where he basically says the scandal is more about a system where the King and Crown Prince are unable to remove an (allegedly) non-performing official:



The Ugly Truth about Saudi Political “Analysis”

It may be easy to dismiss Mujtahidd as a rumor-monger, but the simple fact is that nearly everything written about Saudi high politics is based on speculation.

Saudi Arabia does not have established institutions with centuries of precedent that provide rough guidelines for commentators to make reasonably accurate predictions about political trends. Instead its highest politics is effectively dictated by a small group of insiders who often have little interest in sharing their thoughts with outside academics or journalists. Unless one is part of that group, definitive statements about the Kingdom’s high politics are at best guesses.

Mujtahidd, however, seems to be close to members  of the Saudi elite and because he is willing to broadcast the information he obtains, is one of the best public sources on the Kingdom’s politics, even if everything he says has to be treated with extreme skepticism.

Also, the account’s analysis on less sensational topics often seems reasonable and can be a good window into the thought process of Saudi political insiders.  

An Insider or An Outsider? 

Nor should Mujtahidd automatically be viewed as a hard-core opponent of  “the system.” In some ways he even serves a useful purpose for the government.  

Most Saudi policymakers view the adoption of global standards of transparency and openness as critical to achieving the Kingdom’s ambitious long-term economic reforms. Certainly this is necessary for attracting the foreign partnerships and technology needed for large-scale projects like the Economic Cities or the development of manufacturing clusters. And on that basis, Mujtahidd’s is probably seen by many elites forces as helping foster a climate of an increased expectation of transparency and openness at the higher levels of business and politics.  

And Mujtahidd frequently encourages people to email him on an open Gmail account. If he were truly a rebel despised by the status quo, does anyone doubt that the authorities couldn’t shut him down?

Nathan Field is the co-founder of Industry Arabic.  Contact him at

Notes from the field on the presidential elections

Dr. Omar Ashour emails in with his notes from the field:

Dear all,

Some thoughts form the field:

  1. The general feeling among youth movements and many pro-change voters is that Shafiq is coming for revenge. This feeling intensified after the arrest of April 6th members and what the police officers told them (“revolution is dead” “we are back to hang you on lampposts” etc…)
  2. The major irregularity in this election is playing with the voters database. It is held only by the presidential elections committee (who refuse to give it up). After many complaints in the first round, the committee removed 115k names (including the name of my dead grandma, who apparently voted in the first round!). This number is based on their review and there is no other way to re-check it. The names of the dead, expats, police and army personnel can be much higher on the database than 115,000.
  3. The empowerment of the military intel and police personnel to arrest civilians on charges as minor as traffic disruption, dissolving the parliament, preventing MPs from entering it, forthcoming constitutional declaration (dividing authority/mandate between the SCAF and the president) currently being written by a committee headed by PM Ganzouri) are quite alarming. It looks like an undeclared coup, lacking communiqué no. 1 and with legal framing from constitutional court judges.
  4. There is some gearing up for a confrontation among all stakeholders. Islamist MPs are preparing for march to the parliament on Tuesday. It may be met by force.
  5. There is a strong local media attack on the MB, including accusations of sniping protestors in Tahrir during revolution, rigging elections and committing fraud, getting help of foreign militias (Hamas’ EQB). If any sort of political violence happened, there will be a severe crackdown on the organization.
  6. The Administrative Court will be deciding on the legality of the MB on Tuesday. If it ordered dissolution, the MB will be banned and its member can be prosecuted. This again can lead to a serious confrontation.
  7. Finally, from my meetings, a few leftist and liberal MPs seem to be happy with the dissolution of the parliament, mainly thinking that they will do better next time when Islamists are banned or in jail!

Sad days for Egypt’s democratic transition.



Omar Ashour is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and the director of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrOmarAshour.