UGTT provides vital counterweight to Tunisia’s Islamists

“‘Islamists don’t really do power-sharing,” says a regional analyst.

That’s one reason why the General Union of Tunisian Workers, or UGTT, which called today’s general strike in protest at the killing of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, has emerged as a vital ”counterbalance to Ennahda’s formidable grass roots network” and a rallying point for seculars opposed to the Islamists’ agenda:

The powerful union, which claims a membership of 500,000 and has a network of operations with 24 regional branches across the country, is capable of organizing large protests and strikes in response to social grievances. Analysts and historians say it has always been a highly politicized movement, even joining the ranks of the government after independence, before falling out with Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba.

Confronting their Islamist rivals in local communities, workplaces and the streets, grass-roots UGTT activists insist they have a more accurate picture of Ennahda than many expert analysts. 

“The internal struggle and conflict within Nahda was always known to us and many Tunisians, but Nahda members always did their best to deny and hide it,” said Redha Bourgiba, a UGTT official.

“Now it is obvious that the two factions within the movement are at loggerheads: the faction calling for the heavy involvement in politics and ruling Tunisia and the faction calling for more social responsibility and helping the country come through the transitional period without taking full control of politics afterwards.”

Islamist dual discourse

Although Ennahda has officially condemned Belaid’s murder, “many accuse the apparently moderate Islamic movement of engaging in double dealing,” notes one analyst.

“They argue that it tacitly tolerates the use of violence as a political tool, adding to the climate of fear,” says Berny Sebe, a lecturer in colonial and postcolonial studies at the University of Birmingham.

“Ennahda made deliberate efforts to portray itself, at least for foreign eyes, as a moderate, respectably conservative Islamic party,” he observes, but ….

The absence of a vigorous government reaction to acts of political violence, which have been expanding steadily since Ennahda was voted into power, seems to give covert encouragement to those who seek to impose their views through force rather than democratic dialogue.

By turning a blind eye towards the excesses of Salafism in a society marked by more than six decades of state-inspired secularism, Ennahda seems to be worryingly blurring the line between political Islam and Islamist violence.

“Behind this facade of respectability, is the party playing a very different game when it comes to internal politics?” Sebe asks.

‘Islamists don’t really do power-sharing’

Tunisia is no longer a revolutionary poster-child, writes analyst Rachel Sabi:

A report just released by Human Rights Watch cites attacks on activists, journalists, intellectual and political figures – all the incidents apparently “motivated by a religious agenda”.

Last month Amnesty warned that Tunisia’s latest draft constitution, albeit an improvement on previous versions, is still ambiguous on issues such as gender equality, freedom of expression and judicial independence.

“It’s possible that any post-revolutionary party, once in power, would face the same accusations over missed deadlines for political progress, lack of justice, and a surge in youth unemployment,” Sabi notes.

“But in Tunisia this is compounded by the fact that, while most accept the democratic process that created an Islamist-heavy government, there’s a worry that Islamists don’t really do the sort of power-sharing required in post-revolutionary periods.”

“Hope still exists in Tunisia,” said Fatma Saidan, a noted Tunisian actor. “We are ready to accept Islamists, but they don’t accept us,” she told Reuters.

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China intensifies crackdown on Tibetan self-immolations

Chinese authorities today detained 70 Tibetans in a crackdown on self-immolations in the largest single reported sweep of suspects to date, Reuters reports:

Nearly 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest against Chinese rule since 2009 across a large swathe of ethnically Tibetan regions, with most of them dying from their injuries.

In the past few months, the government has begun a new tactic to discourage the protests, detaining and jailing people it deems to have incited the burnings.The latest detentions took place in the northwestern province of Qinghai, where police detained 70 “criminal suspects”, 12 of whom were formally arrested, meaning they will be charged, the official Xinhua news agency said.

The Dalai Lama, who called on Beijing to investigate the self-immolations, insists he is not promoting them but called them “understandable”, a view echoed by his political successor at a recent Tibetan opposition rally.

“What is forcing these self-immolations?” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, asked in a New York Times interview. “There is no freedom of speech. There is no form of political protest allowed in Tibet.”

Billed as the Tibetan People’s Solidarity Campaign, the four-day gathering featured protests, marches, Buddhist prayer sessions and political speeches in an attempt to push Tibet back onto a crowded international agenda. If the Arab Spring has inspired hope among some Tibetans that political change is always possible, it has also offered a sobering reminder that no two situations are the same, nor will the international community respond in the same fashion.

“The world is paying attention, but not enough,” Mr. Sangay added. “There was a self-immolation in Tunisia which was labeled the catalyst for the Arab Spring. We’ve been committed to nonviolence for many decades. And how come we have been given less support than what we witnessed in the Arab world?”  

The Obama administration rejected allegations by Chinese state media that the U.S.-funded Voice of America had encouraged the self-immolations.

“We are deeply concerned about the overall deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas, including not only the tragic self-immolations, but also that criminal laws have been used to deal with people who have associated with those people,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“Our concern is that there are deep grievances within the Tibetan population which are not being addressed openly and through dialogue by the Chinese government,” she added.

China’s policies restricting religious and cultural rights of Tibetans have created a dire situation in the region and were responsible for triggering mass demonstrations in 2008 and the wave of 98 self-immolation protests since February 2009, Radio Free Asia reports.

“China’s attempt to deal with the self-immolations in the way they have so far—by use of force, by trying to threaten people, by trying to clamp down in Tibet, by making life for the people of Tibet more miserable—has not resolved the issue,” said Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Today, while in Chinese [populated] areas the Chinese people have comparatively more freedom than in the past, in Tibetan areas we see this increasing clampdown, and the entire Tibetan area is in fact turned into one big prison. There is a heavy security clampdown.”


Radio Free Asia is undertaking a search for a new Tibetan Service Director – a visionary, dynamic leader with a deep commitment to Tibetans and thorough knowledge of Tibetan culture and beliefs, who can motivate, inspire, and nurture our mission-driven journalists in their delivery of news and information to the people of Tibet. 


Job Posting

(This position is located in Radio Free Asia’s Washington DC office)

Ideal Candidate Profile: The ideal Tibetan Service Director would be inherently well-respected by the Tibetan community in his/her own right.  This person should bring his/her own gravitas and credibility to the service.  This person needs to be a visionary and a dynamic leader who has a deep commitment to Tibetans and thorough knowledge of Tibetan culture and beliefs.  The Director leads by example – motivates, inspires and nurtures mission-driven journalists to give the best they can, all the time, to Tibetans inside Tibet. The ideal candidate would have demonstrably good managerial judgment and professional integrity to work in a politically charged and difficult yet dynamic media environment.  He/she must be able to ensure the quality of journalism required at RFA.  He/she must be able to put the needs of the audience above all other considerations. He/she must have ties inside Tibet in order to have real-time knowledge and maintain a keen awareness of the political, economic, sociological and environmental situation affecting Tibetans. 



A Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university (degree in journalism, broadcasting or related field preferred) 

Essential knowledge and understanding of broadcast journalism or related field. 

Significant demonstrable success in supervisory/managerial/leadership capacity preferably in broadcast journalism, writing, media or a related field. 

Native fluency in spoken and written Tibetan language and fluency in spoken and written English; Chinese language knowledge a plus. 

Demonstrated knowledge and understanding of current political, economic, social and environmental conditions in and affecting Tibet. 

Strong writing skills, editing skills and demonstrated ability to exercise unbiased, timely, and principled news analysis and judgment. 

Demonstrated leadership to bring out the best in staff members, and ability to identify and nurture high performing and high potential talent. 

Demonstrated integrity and dedication to excellence, ability to solve problems , multi-task and deal with a variety of critical situations. 

Versatile, energetic and knowledgeable of current developments compatible with 21st century media trends.

Responsibilities Include

Planning, directing, and supervising the development of Tibetan broadcast/website programs and daily operations of the Tibetan language service. 

Providing strong editorial leadership and managing a staff of broadcast/webcast journalists. 

Monitoring and maintaining quality control of Tibetan service broadcasts/webcasts. 

Applying sound judgment and astutely flagging potential controversial and sensitive issues with upper management and peers. 

Directing the preparation of original material on news, current events, features, culture and history of particular relevance to the target audience.

Establishing and  maintaining contact with Tibet experts, specialists and sources to enhance program content and to ensure content relevance given the political, cultural, religious, social, economic and demographic developments. 

Handling Tibetan staff administrative, personnel, and staffing matters working with colleagues in other departments.

RFA is an equal opportunity employer committed to workforce diversity

RFA encourages all qualified individuals to apply. If hired, the candidate must provide proof of eligibility to work in the U.S. as an employee of RFA.

RFA reserves the right to reconsider or withdraw any offer of employment to any candidate whose authorization to work in the U.S. as an employee of RFA, or extension of such authorization, would require RFA to file or support a petition or related documentation.

How to apply

Send resume with cover letter (making reference to Tibetan Service Director position) via:

Fax to 202-530-7797; or

E-mail to:


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Pentagon backed selectively arming Syria’s opposition

Hat tip: Martin Kramer, Jerusalem’s Shalem College and Wexler-Fromer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Pentagon supported a joint State Department-CIA proposal to provide lethal assistance and training to the Syrian opposition, the Joint Chiefs chairman testified today.  

His testimony coincided with a call from a gathering of Muslim Nations for a “serious dialogue” between the Assad regime and the opposition coalition on a transition to end nearly two years of civil war.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Martin Dempsey said both he and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta endorsed a plan advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus to train and arm moderate and pro-democratic factions of the Syrian opposition.

Many Congressional leaders, reportedly briefed on the proposal at the time, were in support.

“It was going to be limited to groups that we were going to certify that were secular and more moderate in nature. The guys who are going to determine the future of Syria are the guys on the ground with the weaponry,” told The Cable’s Josh Rogin, who adds:

On Feb. 2, the New York Times reported that Clinton and Petraeus worked together on a plan last summer that would have seen the United States vet and train opposition groups and supply certain parts of the Syrian opposition with weapons. The White House rejected the Clinton-Petraeus plan, according to the paper.

“The plan had risks, but it also offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States could work, both during the conflict and after President Bashar al-Assad’s eventual removal,” the Times wrote.

The revelation follows reports that the US refuses to use humanitarian assistance to bolster moderate opposition factions and coincides with news that the opposition coalition, headed by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, is planning to open offices in Washington and New York, with the support of the American administration. But the group will not be moving into the Syrian embassy.

“We are in discussion with the Syrian Opposition Council about opening an office in Washington. With regard to an office in New York, we’re supportive of that too,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The move to the US indicates the opposition’s determination to assume Syria’s seat at the United Nations.

“The Assad regime has lost its legitimacy, so we have the goal of taking over the Syrian seat at the UN,” coalition envoy Najib Ghadbian told AFP, acknowledging that it faced a “long legal and political battle.”

“We understand that it will be a long and difficult process, but we want to start right away,” said Ghadbian, a politics professor at the University of Arkansas, who was recently appointed the coalition’s representative in the US.

“There is always the prospect that the regime could collapse and we want to be ready for that,” he said.

A two-day summit of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation backed an initiative by Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia to broker negotiations to stop the fighting in which at least 60,000 people have died, Reuters reports:

The statement called for talks between the opposition Syrian National Coalition and “representatives of the Syrian government who are committed to the political transformation of Syria and those who have not been involved directly in any form of oppression”.

The final communique, issued hours after the summit ended because of last-minute wrangling over the wording, said President Bashar al-Assad’s government was most to blame. It also urged all other opposition groups to join the SNC.

“We stress that the primary responsibility is on the Syrian government for the continuation of violence and destruction of property, and we express our deep concern at the deterioration of conditions and the spread of killings that led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and the Syrian authorities’ commission of massacres in cities and villages,” it said.

SNC leader Alkhatib this week made a surprise offer of dialogue with regime representatives on a transition that would provide Assad safe passage into exile.

Channeling assistance through the opposition would represent what former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter called “the happy medium between not committing us to a decades-long ground war and choosing not to do anything.” A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, she has been an eloquent advocate of US intervention in Syria. 

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Tunisian Islamists reject civil society call for unity government

A group of leading civil society figures, including lawyers, human rights activists, trade unionists and academics today called for a “national salvation government”, composed of independent experts and demanded that all parties “avoid falling into the spiral of violence, and exercise self-control and vigilance in a concerted effort to bring the country out of the crisis. ”

Political actors should also support the initiative of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) to identify a common national vision for a successful democratic transition, said the statement, whose signatories included journalist and rights activist Slaheddine Jourchi (right), labor unionist Mustapha Filali, and Mustapha Kamel Nabli, a former governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia. 

But Tunisia’s Islamists have rejected a plan by Ennahda’s party leader and prime minister to replace the government with a non-partisan cabinet of technocrats prior to fresh elections following the killing of a secular opposition leader, “deepening the worst crisis since the 2011 revolution,” Reuters reports:

A senior Ennahda official said Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali had not sought party approval, highlighting a split within the Islamist group.

“The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda’s vice-president. “We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government.”

Ennadha’s parliamentary leader, Sahbi Atig, said the party’s block of MPs also rejected the plans, AFP reports.

“We have rejected this proposal… The head of the government took the decision without consulting the (ruling) coalition or the Ennahda movement,” he said on national television.

Protesters set fire to the Tunis headquarters of Ennahda and demonstrations also broke out in Sidi Bouzid, where the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi proved to be the catalyst for the Jasmine Revolution that ousted dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

Leaders of the UGTT labor union called a general strike for Friday to coincide with the funeral of Chokri Belaid, the assassinated secular politician, which is “likely to be a highly emotive event in its own right,” The New York Times reports:

Belaid was one of Tunisia’s best-known human rights defenders and a fierce critic of the ruling Islamist party.  His killing placed dangerous new strains on a society struggling to reconcile its identity as a long-vaunted bastion of Arab secularism with its new role as a proving ground for one of the region’s ascendant Islamist parties.

The explosion of popular anger, which led to the death of a police officer in the capital, posed a severe challenge to Ennahda, which came to power promising a model government that blended Islamist principles with tolerant pluralism.

During the protests the “familiar ‘degage’ (get out) chants synonymous with the uprising against Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime were directed at Ennahda, and the party’s co-founder, Rached Ghannouchi,” the National Democratic Institute reports:

A member of the party’s governing Shura council confided to NDI staff that “the country is dangerously close to being drawn into a cultural war,” and expressed suspicion about the timing of the incident as the ruling coalition parties that make up the increasingly fragile “troika” — Ennahda, Ettakatol, and the Congress for Republic Party (CPR) — had been in the midst of intensive debate over a long-rumored government re-shuffle. ….Fears of a broadening conflict are shared by the leadership of Tunisia’s larger opposition parties, including Nidaa Tounes and Al Joumhouri, which met with NDI earlier in the week and recently announced the creation of an electoral front — along with three other opposition parties — for upcoming national polls.

Activists and analysts alike warn of “dark forces” seeking to undermine the transitions underway in Tunisia and Egypt.

“Confronting violence, radicalism and the forces of darkness is the main priorities for societies if they want freedom and democracy,” Amr Hamzawy, a member of Egypt’s main secular opposition coalition, wrote on Twitter. “Assassinating Chokri Belaid is warning bell in Tunisia, and in Egypt too.”

Tunisia’s main opposition parties also rejected any move to a government of experts and demanded they be consulted before any new cabinet is formed, Reuters notes:

Political analysts said protracted deadlock could aggravate the unrest, which has underscored the chasm between Islamists and secular groups who fear that freedoms of expression, cultural liberty and women’s rights are in jeopardy just two years after the Western-backed dictatorship crumbled.

Ennahda has failed to form a stabilizing partnership with key state institutions, as the Muslim Brotherhood has done with the Egyptian military, according to the Stratfor analysis group.

“This inability or unwillingness to rely on the state security apparatus as a regime backer has left Ennahda with few useful tools to address the strengthening political opposition and popular forces increasingly calling for significant changes in the makeup of the government,” Stratfor said.

The secular opposition wants to leverage the crisis to its own advantage and prolonged uncertainty could lead to more unrest, said analyst Salem Labyed.

“It seems that the opposition wants to secure the maximum possible political gains but the fear is that the … crisis will deepen if things remain unclear at the political level. That could increase the anger of supporters of the secular opposition, which may go back to the streets again,” he said.

Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Washington Post that the Islamist-secular divide that came with the Arab Spring’s nascent pluralism was predictable. “I don’t think it was possible to stop this divide from happening,” said Hamid, who was in Tunis on Wednesday.

“There is a fundamental ideological divide in the Arab world — let’s not pretend that it’s purely political,” he said. “There is a battle for the future of these countries and what they should look like.”

In a TV appearance on the evening before his death, Belaid criticized Ennahda’s tolerance of ultraconservative Salafists hostile to modern culture in one of the most broadly secular Arab states.

“The ruling Ennahda Party has yet to distance itself from the radicals,” notes one observer:

Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi even encouraged “our young Salafists” to patiently embark on a long march. “Why the hurry?” he said in a video of a meeting with Salafists. “The Islamists must fill the country with their organizations, establish Koran schools everywhere and invite religious imams.” The video was secretly recorded and posted online, but Ghannouchi claims his words were taken out of context.

Ennahdha has generally been portrayed as a ‘moderate’ and as a unified party, but internal divisions between relatively modernist and conservative factions “could carry major implications for the party’s integrity moving forward,” a recent analysis suggests.

“Disagreements have surfaced, for example, over the issues of political participation and the relationship between religious and secular law. Although the moderate strands of the party have won key debates in the past nine months, there are signs that the conservative branch of the party may be ascendant,” writes Sara J Feuer in Islam and Democracy in Practice: Tunisia’s Ennahdha Nine Months In, a report for Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies:

Such divisions are a liability for the party, which might explain why the opening lines of the recent party congress’s final declaration, as well as statements by Ennahdha members at press conferences that followed, asserted that the party remains unified around its “moderate” and “centrist” character. However, the results of the congress’s votes for party leadership and key concessions to the conservative wing in the final declaration belie such claims.

Though the movement re-elected [Rachid] Ghannouchi (above) as president, just over one-quarter of the party’s membership did not vote for him. Hearings at the congress were closed to outside observers, but reports later emerged of heated debates between an older, less confrontational generation of members molded by the experiences of exile and imprisonment and a younger, more conservative trend in the party insisting on a hard line toward the secular parties and greater cooperation with Salafist parties.


The National Democratic Institute is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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