Will Tunisia’s polls unleash Mediterranean tiger?

TUNISIA UGTTThe Call of Tunisia party, which emerged as the winner of Sunday’s parliamentary elections, would opt to form an alliance with “democratic” parties to secure a majority in the parliament, a senior group member has said.

“If we have to form an alliance, it would be with the democratic parties; the Popular Front, Afek Tounes and Social Democratic Path,” said Aymen Bejaoui, apparently rejecting the Islamist Ennahda’s call for a national unity government.

“In any other country I would say [the idea that they would cooperate or form a coalition] would be far fetched,” says Amy Hawthorne, a resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “However this is Tunisia, and there’s a process of consensus-building and a real desire for stability and stable government.”

Yet it will be a challenge for Nidaa to bring all three parties into coalition, Nouri Verghese reports for Middle East Eye:

Free Patriotic Union is led by Slim Riahi, a wealthy businessman whose lavish spend in his the 2011 electoral campaign, along that of the Progressive Democratic Party, led to the introduction of spending caps on advertising by political parties. Like Afek Tounes, founded in 2011, Riahi’s party supports a free-market economic policy, which would put it at loggerheads in any coalition with the Popular Front. A coalition of 12 leftist parties, made up of communists, Marxists as well as Arab nationalists, the Popular Front’s internal makeup is as diverse as that of Nidaa Tounes. 

tunisia ghannouchi“It’s too early to write Ennahda off,” said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. “It’s still the second largest party. It will lay a strong role in the parliament and in the outcome of the presidential elections because their support for a candidate will count for a lot in the bargaining process.”

“Building a coalition of such diverse interests [with the smaller parties] will be difficult,” hesaid. “I don’t think Nidaa can form a government without Ennahda.”

The victory of Nidaa Tounes “represents a resoundingly negative verdict on the Islamists’ two years at the head of the government, between 2012–2013,” The Economist notes:

Senior Nahda figures concede that the job of running the country, and especially the economy, was more challenging than they had anticipated. The leader, Rached Ghannouchi (above), told party supporters that five years out of power could be salutary…..

Despite its victory, Nidaa Tounes has not been able entirely to shake off the reputation that it represents an attempt by members of the previous ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), to regain influence. In what was in effect a single-party state, the RCD built clientelist relations running from taxi-drivers and corner-shop owners, to non-governmental organisations, lawyers, senior civil servants and—importantly for its funding—business people. 

tunisia_ugtt(1)Although Nida Tunis includes figures from the old regime, the changes in the country since the revolution preclude a return to former repressive practices, the FT’s Heba Saleh reports:

Civil society organisations empowered after the revolution helped Nahda and its secular opponents forge crucial compromises that enabled the democratic process to remain on track. Last year, two assassinations of leftwing politicians by Islamist militants provoked an explosion of popular anger, deepened the polarisation between Islamists and secular groups and brought calls for an unravelling of the process.

“A lot of people will see the results as a setback,” said Brahim Rouabah, a researcher at the Tunis-based American Institute for Maghreb Studies. “But one thing that is sure is that civil society, and more broadly Tunisians, in the last couple of years have [become] used to certain rights and freedoms [on which] it will be hard to backtrack.”

So what changed between this election and the last one? asks Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine:

First, Islamism in general, and the Brotherhood in particular, including analogous parties like Ennahda, are in sharp decline in popularity in mainstream Arab societies. The past year and a half or so has registered a significant downturn in the fortune of Brotherhood and other parliamentary-oriented Islamist groups in the Arab world seeking power through elections. ….Arabs have had the opportunity to watch Islamists in power, and to register the fact that they aren’t any cleaner, more honest, more competent or more effective than other groups. Indeed, in some cases, considerably less so.

Which brings us to the second big change between this Tunisian election and the last one: the rise of Nidaa Tounes. Last time around Ennahda got a much larger percentage of the vote than it did this time, but it still wasn’t a majority. The majority was secular, or at least non-Islamist, but it was spread among at least 20 parties. Ennahda faced virtually no significant Islamist opposition, so all of the votes accruing to that faction went to them….

The third big difference is that in the last election Ennahda campaigned on social and economic issues, presenting themselves as the authentic representatives of “the revolution.” Most of its secular and non-Islamist rivals focused on trying to spread fear of Ennahda. It was never going to work…..RTWT

Representatives from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), and Tunisian civil society watchdog Mourakiboun–all of which, combined, deployed over 4,000 independent observers to monitor polling stations around the country–presented their findings on a broadly positive note, TunisiaLive reports.

“To all those who pronounce the end of democracy in this region, I urge you to visit Tunisia,” said NDI President Kenneth Wollack.

An observer mission from the International Republican Institute described the electoral process as “credible, transparent and allowed for genuine political competition among political stakeholders”.

Polls have indicated that the economy is Tunisians’ highest priority, FT analyst Main Ridge reports:

A recent World Bank report describes how rigid red tape and misconceived policies – introduced by the ousted president but still in place – have stultified the economy, preventing investment and job creation. That report says that:

Tunisia presents an economic paradox. It has everything it needs to become a “Tiger of the Mediterranean”, yet this economic potential never seems to materialize.

Since Tunisia obtained a two-year, $1.78bn loan from the IMF on the understanding that it would pursue economic reforms last year, the country has cut fuel subsidies and more recently has imposed new taxes. It has also been allowing the dinar to depreciate in order to rebuild foreign reserves from low levels.

Capital Economics said in a note that the election was “another important step in Tunisia’s long and bumpy road to democracy” and that there were two obvious outcomes to Tunis’s win, Ridge adds:

The peaceful nature of the elections suggested that political stability was returning to the country which may prompt firms to resume investment projects as well as attract foreign investment. Moreover, an easing of security concerns would help to lift the tourism sector out of its recent slump. This should lay the foundations for a gradual acceleration in growth over the coming years – GDP growth has languished around 2.5% since 2011. Note that a return to political stability in Egypt has helped to support a sharp pick-up in growth there.

Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police, writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot, a member of the IRI delegation:

But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

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Rewarding the Cuban regime?

cuba7Conversations with the Cuban government, which have been maintained for decades by U.S. congressmen, lobbies, nongovernmental organizations, businessmen, journalists, religious leaders, intelligence and government officers, have hardly served democracy in Cuba, argues Rosa María Payáa member of the coordinating council of the Cuban Christian Liberation Movement.

Neither has the U.S. trade embargo, she writes to the Washington Post:

What Wayne S. Smith, Cuba project director for the Center for International Policy, said in an Oct. 26 letter [“Keep the trade embargo?”] is a Cuban move “toward liberalization,” my father, Oswaldo Payá, called “fraudulent change.” The Cuban dictatorship that is supposedly changing is the one responsible for taking the life of my father and Harold Cepero on July 22, 2012. They refuse to allow an investigation of these deaths.

The U.S. human rights and religious communities—and much of Cuban civil society—oppose the embargo, according to Marc Hanson, a Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. 

“The United States and the international community should play a coordinated and constructive role in pressing Cuba to resolve its human rights problems,” he contends. “Unfortunately, as long as the embargo remains in place, we are relegated to the sidelines.”  

But how can anyone claim to know what Cubans believe “if we have no access to mass media on the island and no citizen under the age of 80 has ever voted in free and pluralistic elections?” Payá asks:

Lifting the U.S. embargo is not the solution because it is not the cause of our lack of political and economic rights. I’m in favor of coherent communication, but engagement and dialogue should not be a reward for the military elite from Havana that imposes its monologic agenda on my people while fostering intolerance and hostility with absolute impunity.

The Post is absolutely right when it says “fully lifting the embargo now would reward and ratify [Havana’s] intransigence” over the detention of jailed American aid worker Alan Gross, writes Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

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Cyberattacks target dissidents, pro-democracy groups

CHINA CYBER ATTACKA coalition of security researchers has identified a Chinese cyberespionage group that appears to be the most sophisticated of any publicly known Chinese hacker unit and targets not only U.S. and Western government agencies but also dissidents inside and outside China, Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post:

In a report to be issued Tuesday, the researchers said Axiom is going after intelligence benefiting Chinese domestic and international policies — an across-the-waterfront approach that combines commercial cyberespionage, foreign intelligence and counterintelligence with the monitoring of dissidents.

Axiom’s work, the FBI said in an industry alert this month, is more sophisticated than that of Unit 61398, a People’s Liberation Army hacker unit that was highlighted in a report last year. Five of the unit’s members were indicted this year by a U.S. grand jury. The researchers concur with the FBI’s conclusion, noting that, unlike Unit 61398, Axiom is focused on spying on dissidents as well as on industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property.

“Axiom’s activities appear to be supported by a nation state to steal trade secrets and to target dissidents, pro-democracy organizations and governments,” said Peter LaMontagne, chief executive of Novetta Solutions, a Northern Virginia cybersecurity firm that heads the coalition. “These are the most sophisticated cyberespionage tactics we’ve seen out of China.”

China, the object of recent U.S. allegations of cyberspying, may hack more often, U.S. officials and researchers say. But Russia hacks better, according to a Wall Street Journal report:

A U.S. official said differentiating between Russian criminal hackers and government hackers is difficult because the government uses cybersurveillance tools created by criminal groups and criminals use tools developed by the government.

“I worry a lot more about the Russians” than China, America’s top spy, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said at a University of Texas forum this month, speaking of cyberattacks.

The hacking attacks have unnerved Chinese dissidents, said Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“There’s a paranoia that sets in,” he said. “That may be one of the functions of this surveillance.”

A non-governmental democracy assistance group was one of over 70 companies, governments and non-profit organizations targeted in a massive cyberspying offensive in 2011 that experts believe was likely conducted by China.

“The presence of political non-profits, such as the a private western organization focused on promotion of democracy around the globe or U.S. national security think tank is also quite illuminating,” said the report from the McAfee security firm. “Hacking the United Nations or the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Secretariat is also not likely a motivation of a group interested only in economic gains.”



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Human rights in Iran deteriorating, says U.N.

iran women rights

Credit: Tavaana

Executions have surged in Iran and oppressive conditions for women have worsened, a United Nations investigator said on Monday, drawing attention to rights abuses just as Iran’s president is pushing for a diplomatic breakthrough with the West, the New York Times reports:

The investigator, Ahmed Shaheed, a former diplomat from the Maldives and now special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, made the comments on the eve of presenting his latest findings to members of the United Nations General Assembly.

A spate of acid attacks against women and girls in Iran’s cultural capital of Isfahan has been met with street rallies and social media protests, seemingly alarming Iranian authorities who have promised to take steps to quell the disfiguring assaults, the Los Angeles Times reports (HT:FPI).  

Iranian officials are moving to muzzle media coverage of a string of recent acid attacks targeting young women in the central city of Isfahan, according to RFE/RL’s Persian Letters.   Shaheed expressed shock at Iran’s weekend execution of a 26-year-old woman convicted of murdering a man she accused of trying to rape her as a teenager, saying he had repeatedly voiced concerns to Tehran about her trial.

IRAN BOROUMAND LOGOIranians aspired to look past the scandal and violence of the 2009 presidential elections after President Hassan Rouhani’s ascent to office last year, says a prominent rights advocate. His campaign platform of “hope and prudence” led many citizens to believe that his election would be a first step to bring the long awaited changes necessary to improve the country’s troubling human rights situation, notes Roya Boroumand, executive director of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.

Why are Iranian hard-liners once again setting their sights on women? asks Haleh Esfandiari, who directs the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Some 2,000 Iranian women and men demonstrated last week  in the city of Isfahan, and others gathered before the parliament building in Tehran, to protest a series of acid attacks on women and to demand government action. The acid attacks, which have resulted in blindness, facial disfigurement and at least one death, coincided with the introduction of legislation that would protect people behind such atrocities, she writes for the Wall Street Journal blog:

What might explain hard-liners’ sudden refocus on women? Iranian women long ago abandoned strict observance of the Islamic dress code, and gender mixing in the workplace is widespread, including in government offices. The answer may lie in the agenda President Rouhani has pursued since his election. He has sought to open the public space for all Iranians, including women and the young, and has argued that morality cannot be imposed with the whip.

Conservatives and hard-liners, opposed to this approach and even more opposed to a political opening that might follow, have sought to undermine the president.

They seem to believe that by reviving the issue of women and their supposedly endangered morality, they have found a club with which to effectively bludgeon the president. The message they want to send to all Iranians? Your fate is in our hands and your popularly elected president is just an ineffective bystander.

The question now is whether President Rouhani will respond forcefully to this challenge. RTWT

iran sotoudehThe Iranian government should stop detaining and harassing prominent rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (right), and allow her the right to peaceful dissent and assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials should also end their interference in the internal affairs of Iran’s bar association; the government and the association should ensure that no lawyer is disciplined for defending clients, and that disciplinary hearings are fair and independent.

“The government’s well-documented harassment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, including her recent detention and previous unlawful conviction and imprisonment, suggests they are heavily invested in preventing her from doing her job as a lawyer,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Harassing a respected lawyer who peacefully defends human rights only adds insult to injury
after locking her up for defending her clients.”

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Hundreds mourn Tiananmen ‘Black Hand’ Chen Ziming



China Digital Times notes that hundreds of people attended the funeral for Chen Ziming, who played a key role in the 1989 protest movement and died last week of pancreatic cancer. Josh Chin and William Kazer report for the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog:

Police prevented China Real Time from attending the funeral of Chen Ziming, 62 years old, who died of pancreatic cancer last week. At least one other would-be attendee, a democracy activist, reported being stopped by authorities on his way to the funeral, which was held in Beijing’s northern Changping district on Saturday morning….Wang Ying, a well-known entrepreneur who was among the mourners, put the crowd at between 500 and 600 people.

The eulogy was delivered by retired Peking University sociologist Zheng Yefu, who described Mr. Chen as one of modern China’s leading figures in the fight against authoritarianism. In an essay written just after Mr. Chen’s death – large parts of which he repeated during his eulogy, according to those in attendance – Mr. Zheng listed the various pro-democracy movements leading up to 1989. “What’s especially astounding is that, at every step in China’s fight for freedom and rights, he played a central important role.”

From the Washington Post: Although Mr. Chen was a political moderate, authorities saw him as a threat, said Yang Jianli, a Chinese dissident who spent five years in prison on spying charges.

“We have a lot of intellectuals and some good organizers but rarely are they combined,” Yang told the Los Angeles Times this week from a human rights conference in Oslo, Norway. “Chen was among the very few who could think, devise strategy and organize.”

Yang, who heads a Washington group called Initiatives for China, said Mr. Chen exerted “a tremendous influence” among intellectuals.

A reform-minded intellectual, Mr. Chen had a history of challenging government orthodoxy, the New York Times adds:

He was first sent to prison in 1975 because of letters he had written criticizing the Gang of Four, the political faction surrounding Mao Zedong at the end of his life.

In the 1980s, he and [fellow dissident] Wang Juntao founded an independent think tank, the Beijing Social and Economics Research Institute. He also published an influential periodical, Economics Weekly, that reported on the effects of China’s limited forays into a free-market economy. Previously, during a brief period of liberalization in the late 1970s, he helped found a pro-democracy magazine, Beijing Spring.

Read more about Chen and his former partner Wang Juntao, and the 1989 protest movement that they participated in, via CDT. To learn more about Chen’s work in 1989, see Robin Munro and George Black’s book, Black Hands of Beijing.

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