Author Maktouf: Climate ripe for chaos in unstable Tunisia

There is mounting violence, with hate crimes and suicide bombings in Tunisia following the “Jasmine Revolution,” and if this trend continues, further price hikes, inflation and a political stalemate will lead to chaos in the country, according to our guest for Monday Talk this week.

“The political situation is in deadlock. The Muslim Brotherhood [MB], which controls the National Constituent Assembly and the interim government, enjoys legitimacy well beyond the very narrow mandate for which they were elected — namely for drafting the constitution,” says Lotfi Maktouf, author of the book, “Save Tunisia,” and founder and president of Almadanya, a Tunisian nongovernmental and non-political organization formed after the Tunisian revolution to empower citizens through development and cultural programs.

Three years ago on Dec. 17, 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official. Following his death on Jan. 4, 2011, anger and violence intensified in the country leading longtime President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down on Jan. 14. Protests against Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule inspired uprisings across the Arab world.

After that, Tunisia saw its first free elections in years, but the country has been having serious political and economic problems — it has been in crisis since the assassination of two opposition politicians earlier this year.

On Dec. 14, Tunisian politicians agreed on a new prime minister after talks between the ruling Islamist Ennahdha party and the opposition, and Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa will head a caretaker government until elections are held next year.

Maktouf, who kindly agreed to answer our questions online prior to his visit to İstanbul for his book’s launch in Turkish at a Turkish Policy Quarterly event on Jan. 16, elaborates on the issue.

Would you tell us about the nature of the current political crisis in Tunisia? What is going on?

The political situation is in deadlock. The Muslim Brotherhood, which controls the National Constituent Assembly and the interim government, enjoys legitimacy well beyond the very narrow mandate for which they were elected — namely for drafting the constitution. They were expected to finish off everything no later than Oct. 23, 2012. And here we are, still with no constitution, no framework for general elections but a systematic undertaking on their part to name people affiliated with the Islamists in all positions from ambassadors to local officials to heads of public enterprises to the security apparatus. People cannot understand the relevance of such focus other than positioning to consolidate the chances in case of elections that nobody now even trusts will ever take place. This is the nature of the crisis.

What can you tell us about the new caretaker government and its head Mr. Mehdi Jomaa? Does the transitional government seem to be up to the task of preparing the country for elections?

They have changed every other week since the launch of the “national dialogue.” After long and unclear negotiations, there appears to have been an agreement for Minister of Industry Mehdi Jomaa to head the transitional government. The civil society has been extremely disappointed. Several important factions of the dialogue, including leading parties such as Nidaa Tounes leading in the polls, did not even partake in the vote and selection of the future head of government. The argument seems to hover around the fact that the new government will not be neutral because its new prime minister is from the very government under which a prominent member of the National Constituent Assembly was assassinated and so many security personnel have been massacred by extremists without any arrests made. Under the same government to which Mr. Jomaa belonged, Tunisia has been downgraded and its economy is in a shambles.

Moreover, it would appear that although Mr. Jomma does not belong to the Islamist government, many detect significant and established affinities of him with the movement. I predict a very harsh task ahead for the new head of the executive. In addition, the ingredients of a true dialogue are not assembled. To start with, the so called “National Dialogue” is not open to youth or the unemployed. Also, the negotiation is focused on names and not on programs. Third, the Islamists pursue their plan of infiltrating the various components of the state and of passing laws in line with their ideology, taking advantage of a majority that was set for drafting the constitution and was not supposed to do anything else.

‘None of people’s demands met’

What were people’s expectations from the revolution and how much of those expectations have been met?

People’s expectations have been clearly voiced in an unusually clear way. The youth all over the country and in a consistent manner claimed: “Freedom, jobs, dignity.” It is quite regrettable that none of these demands have been met. The reason is that the politicians who ascended to power had a specific and precise mandate for drafting a democratic constitution within one year from Oct. 23, 2012, but they have used their position and power to embark on a totally different course.

What is that course? Would you elaborate?

They have been changing the very model of Tunisian society using what I call in my book the “Islamist protocol,” which is the ideology of the MB. So instead of focusing on the constitution in a scheme where even the government is a caretaker unit and temporary in nature, the Islamists controlled the government, along with the National Constituent Assembly, used their time and mandate to name affiliates in key positions in the administration and in public enterprises. None of these initiatives can be justified in the context of the transition period toward democracy and can be explained only in a context of taking control of the state ahead of any future elections.

What is the current situation of the economy in Tunisia?

By all accounts, it is in total collapse and the state is on the verge of bankruptcy. Our country has been downgraded by the S&P, Moody’s and Fitch five times in a little more than a year, with a negative perspective. Tourism, which is key to our economy and a source of income for a substantial portion of our families, is evaporating in the face of mounting violence, hate and suicide bombings. We are not accustomed to any of this. If this trend continues, I think we should expect further price hikes, inflation and, above all, the lack of vision and a solution to the political stalemate that will lead to chaos.

‘New uprisings are bound to occur’

The official unemployment rate in Tunisia is almost 16 percent, but among those under 30 years old it is almost double that. Do you expect new uprisings in Tunisia?

New uprisings are bound to occur. People blame politicians that little attention has been devoted to the fundamental reason for the initial uprisings: unemployment. Ever since the revolution took place, unemployment has been rising and nothing has been done in reversing the trend, let alone correcting the reasons for such a staggering situation. The inadequacy between the education system and the market demands stand as the chief reason for the outpouring of yet more youth on the job market with high qualifications but of no use. Added to all that are lack of vision, lack of performance, violence, political assassinations, lack of credit in the political establishment, and Ennahdha’s efforts to fill up key state positions with “their men” ahead of elections; so all ingredients seem to be there for a new explosion.

Foreign agencies are lowering Tunisia’s rating. This is probably making Tunisia an unattractive place to invest. Is Tunisia still able to get some needed credits from international agencies?

No. The only way is through the IMF and even the IMF has now refrained from paying the tranches waiting for a clearer political vision.

It is rare for the Arab world, but women hold more than 20 percent of seats in both chambers of parliament in Tunisia. Does it make a difference in politics and society?

Women are the backbone of the civil society and of the fight against extremism. I have dedicated my book to the women of my country for that very reason.

There has been a recent report on the BBC that three years after the Arab uprisings, Tunisian women are struggling to find work. What is the situation of women in regards to gender imbalance?

They are fighting against several attempts of the Ennahdha rule to limit all the rights acquired and enjoyed by women so far.

Do you see the ruling party Ennahdha as responsible for what goes wrong in Tunisia?

Yes, at the very least political responsibility, for a simple reason: They have been calling the shots ever since they ascended to power as a result of the Oct. 23, 2011 elections for the National Constituent Assembly. They are responsible for what is going wrong including violence, political assassinations, economic collapse and image failure on the international scene.

‘Ennahdha promotes image of moderate Islam’

In May last year, Yadh Ben Achour, president of the Authority to Achieve the Revolution’s Goals [an independent body tasked with giving advice to the government in post-Ben Ali Tunisia] told us in İstanbul, where he had come for a conference, that the Salafist movement in Tunisia could cause chaos in the country and threaten the revolution. Do you think Ben Achour’s prediction came true?

Yes. While the Salafists appear to advocate hard-line Islam, Ennahdha has been promoting the image of “moderate Islam.” The only difference between Ennahdha and the Salafists is that the latter adopt a fast-track version for full Islamist implementation with no intermediate steps — with not even the concept of democracy as a stepping stone. Indeed, it is often argued that while there is a natural harmony between Islam as a religion and democracy as a philosophy and type of governance, Islamist ideology is structurally and conceptually in conflict with democracy. Salafists recognize this contradiction and therefore they openly oppose democracy.

What do you see behind the success of Ennahdha following the revolution?

Ennahdha’s line was simple for people: Obey God, live with and promote integrity and fight corruption; welfare and material ease will automatically follow. Who in Tunisia, fresh from the nightmare of Ben Ali’s corrupt and violent years, would resist such an attractive, non-controversial message? Most of the electorate, composed of rural and poor people, would easily adhere to this project, even though no detailed program on how to get there was put forward. The secular opposition, mostly leftist, offered only fragmented blurbs, too fuzzy for the masses to understand. As a result, in the campaign for the election of the constitutional assembly, no one addressed the core subjects, but Ennahdha managed to attach integrity, purity, trust and even Islam to its own “brand.” A majority of voters, who, for the first time, found themselves in the freedom booth, picked Ennahdha, figuring that there is nothing to fear from those who fear God.

‘Ennahdha cannot sell Turkish success as natural outcome of voting for Islamists’

Some Ennahdha officials named Turkey a role model, regarding the relationship between state and religion; they even compare Ennahdha to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey. Do you find similarities between Ennahdha and AK Party?

It is, in my view, incorrect on the part of Ennahdha to present the Turkish economic exceptional success story as a showcase for Islamist economics. My analysis demonstrates that if Turkey has done so well economically until very recently, it is because of healthy economic decisions unrelated and not attributed to Islamist rules, but simple, prudent economics. And the amazing economic performance showed the world that this can only be explained by the power and cohesion of the Turkish machine including its captains of industry, its workers, its teachers, its army and security, its doctors and teachers. All components of the society deserve the credit for Turkey’s economic success. The prudent management principles followed do not owe to any particular ideology. In fact, as soon as the government decided to inject ideology into the economic model and the regulatory process, distortions erupted. Ennahdha therefore cannot sell the Turkish success as the natural outcome of voting for the Islamists. In fact, the best proof is that almost three years of Islamist governance led Tunisia to total collapse.

‘Turkish govt’s positions in Syria, Egypt conflicts leave Tunisians confused’

What are the perceptions of the general Tunisian public about Turkey?

Turkey has always enjoyed a bright and positive image in Tunisia. We all studied Kemal Atatürk at school and were inspired by his charisma, vision and leadership. Our own historic leader and the father of the modern Tunisia is a spiritual son of Atatürk in terms of betting on progress and modernity for his own country. For a while, the AK Party experience intrigued the Tunisians especially after our revolution and the sudden takeover by the Islamists who sold people the “Turkish Model” as their program. Many people in Tunisia looked at Turkey as indeed the model for the Arab Muslim societies.

The perception is no longer the same after the Gezi Park protests and their impact on the image of current governance in Turkey manifested by the perceived as violent and disproportionate handling of the uprisings. Reports on the reverse thrust of the economy, the weakening of the lira and the image of the so-called Turkish Model have put the Ennahdha in an awkward position. The Turkish government’s role and stance both in the Syrian conflict and the Egyptian power struggle leave Tunisians confused. While the Islamists support the Turkish choices, for non-Islamists, the majority, according to several observers, call attacks against the current rulers of Egypt as interference in domestic affairs, and the role played in the Syrian civil war as imprudent and unrewarding because the entire matter is now handled by Russia and the US. But all in all, the admiration, including mine, of the very idea of Turkey as a proud and deep-rooted nation with such a brave and generous people, of course, prevails in my country.


From Today’s Zaman – 15 December 2013