Tunisia’s Islamists to Resign, Pave Way for New Elections

Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party agreed on Saturday to step down and form a caretaker government with opposition secularists before new elections are called.

Emboldened by the Egyptian military’s removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, Tunisia’s seculars called on Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh Ennahda party to give up power in July. Their demands came after months of bickering about the North African country’s future political system. Ennahda favored a parliamentary structure while smaller parties preferred a powerful presidency to prevent the Islamists from dominating the government. The two sides agreed to a “mixed” system in May, the outlines of which remain unclear. Read more “Tunisia’s Islamists to Resign, Pave Way for New Elections”

After Egypt Coup, Tunisia’s Islamists Make Concessions

Apparently motivated by an army coup in nearby Egypt, two leaders of Tunisia’s main political factions reportedly came to a power-sharing agreement in Paris last week to stave off further unrest.

Former prime minister Béji Caïd Essebsi, now an opposition leader, and the ruling Islamist party’s Rachid al-Ghannouchi, agreed to keep Ali Laarayedh as premier while Essebsi would succeed Moncef Marzouki as president. Two new cabinet posts are also to be added and filled by members of the opposition.

The Paris talks, sponsored by American and European diplomats, came less than three weeks after Laarayedh had rejected opposition demands to step down. Read more “After Egypt Coup, Tunisia’s Islamists Make Concessions”

Tunisia’s Islamists Reject Opposition Demands to Step Down

Tunisia’s Islamist prime minister Ali Laarayedh on Monday rejected opposition demands to step down and vowed to complete its democratic transition with elections due in December.

Secular opposition parties, emboldened by the military’s intervention in nearby Egypt, where Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was deposed early this month, are not impressed by the government’s attempts at reconciliation, calling on both Laarayedh’s cabinet and the interim parliament to resign.

Seventy lawmakers have already left the Constituent Assembly which has been in session since November 2011 and is tasked to write a new constitution by August. The body was formed less than a year after Tunisia’s former president and strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced out of office in the first of what were described as “Arab Spring” uprisings across the Muslim world. Read more “Tunisia’s Islamists Reject Opposition Demands to Step Down”

Tunisian Parties End Stalemate, Agree to “Mixed” Regime

Tunisia’s politicians ended months of political stalemate with an agreement that could lead to the writing of a new constitution, one of the leaders of the North African country’s ruling Islamist party said on Friday.

“We have overcome the impasse, we are heading toward a mixed regime where neither the head of state nor the head of the government will have supreme control over the executive power,” Rached Ghannouchi, one of the founders of the Ennahda movement, told a national radio station. Read more “Tunisian Parties End Stalemate, Agree to “Mixed” Regime”

After Revolution, Tunisians Call for Dictator’s Return

Nearly two years after the start of the “Arab Spring,” Tunisians are openly calling for the return of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who resigned and fled the country in January of last year after a month of protests.

“Ben Ali put people in prison but he didn’t shoot at us,” a mother whose son was shot in the eye by police during a riot told a reporter for the Dutch Nieuwsuur program. “I regret the revolution and would give up freedom of speech for more jobs,” a student told the BBC in October.

Ben Ali was the first Arab dictator to fall in a wave of revolutions that swept the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011. He was also the most aggressively secular one. Although 98 percent of Tunisians is Muslim, Ben Ali’s government banned headscarfs, closed mosques and persecuted Islamists who were suspected of radicalism or ties with terrorist groups.

Since his regime’s downfall, attendance at prayer services is up and religious schools, where students are separated according to gender — something that would have been unthinkable while Ben Ali was president — are growing in number. Read more “After Revolution, Tunisians Call for Dictator’s Return”

Tunisians Vote Amid International Scrutiny

Tunisians headed to the polls on Sunday in what was the first free election in the Muslim world since their country ignited the Arab Spring last January.

Although many voters told foreign reporters that their priorities were boosting employment and cleaning up the corruption that they associate with the old regime, there is concern in Europe and the United States about the mounting popularity of political Islam.

Ennahda, the Renaissance Party, is expected to win a plurality of the votes if not a majority. The secular front, by contrast, is splintered with more than a hundred liberal and socialist parties contesting the election.

Ennahda‘s rise hasn’t just fueled anxiety in the West but in Tunisia as well where President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali imposed a secular regime for almost 25 years before he was ousted in a popular uprising this year.

Especially among the urban youth who played a key role in the revolt, the Islamist political presence is regarded warily, notwithstanding assurances from Ennahda‘s leaders that they do not seek to impose religious values on the entire nation. They say they draw inspiration from Turkey where a conservative Muslim government is less aggressively secular than were its predecessors although there, too, the opposition worries that an overtly religious sentiment among the political class could permeate Turkish society and make it less tolerant.

There is division within Ennahda about the party’s Muslim identity. Whereas the leadership claims to seek a pluralistic democracy and has promised to work with liberal parties before a proper government is formed, there are supporters who favor more space for traditional Islamic values, ranging from the freedom for woman to wear the veil to a ban on alcohol.

Secularists pushed back vehemently during election day when Ennahda representatives were called “terrorists” by some. The first free vote was universally heralded as a victory by Tunisians but their politics are almost certainly to become more polarized than they were during Ben Ali’s days when Muslims weren’t allowed to express their faith in public.

Tunisians elected an assembly on Sunday that will draft a new constitution to replace the one that allowed Ben Ali to cling to power for decades. It will also appoint an interim government and set elections for a new parliament and president.

If Ennahda fails to secure an outright majority, its influence will be diluted in a coalition with secular members of the assembly who champion modernization.

Obama: Trade Key to Middle East Engagement

President Barack Obama announced on Thursday that the United States would boost economic aid to those countries in the Middle East that recently ridded themselves of longtime dictatorships. In a speech that covered the wide range of Middle Eastern policy, the president recognized that economic growth was imperative to consolidating the political changes achieved by protesters in the streets.

According to Obama, a lack of economic freedom and opportunity fueled the protests in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year where a majority of the population is under the age of thirty yet youth unemployment rates are extremely high. “Too many in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day,” he said, “and perhaps the hope that their luck will change.” Read more “Obama: Trade Key to Middle East Engagement”

Arab Interim Governments Struggling in Power

Egypt’s and Tunisia’s interim governments are struggling to enact reforms while preserving stability within their borders mere weeks after two of the Middle East’s veteran rulers were forced out of power by popular revolts.

While the burst of euphoria that initially greeted demonstrations across the Arab world faded amid the bloodshed in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi managed to cling to power by deploying force against protesters, activists in Egypt and Tunisia continued to urge constitutional reforms and parliamentary elections.

Whereas in Egypt, the military claimed control of the government after President Hosni Mubarak resigned three weeks ago, in Tunisia, a civilian administration with some members of the old regime intends to run the country at least until the summer. Interim President Fouad Mebazaa announced on Thursday that elections for a council of representatives to rewrite the Constitution would be held in July.

Tunisia’s existing constitution prohibits caretaker governments from remaining in power for more than sixty days. Mebazaa has argued that the current framework lacks credibility and said that he would stay in office to shepherd the country during its transition to democracy.

Once elected, the Constitutional Council could either appoint a new government or ask the current executive to carry on until presidential or parliamentary elections are held.

In Egypt, the prime minister who was appointed by President Mubarak when protests still seemed containable resigned Thursday, clearing the way for the military council that now governs the country to elevate former transportation minister Essam Sharaf to the position. While Sharaf appears to be popular with longtime opponents of the former regime, he is also noted for opposing normalization of ties with Israel as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

Contrary to the Tunisian interim government, the generals in Egypt have simply suspended the Constitution but they are struggling in their new role as caretakers, prone to deploying force against lingering protests and ruling by decree. They have reached out to the public by appearing on television talk shows and issuing public apologies for the incidental but forceful crackdown of demonstrations.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for June to be followed by presidential elections in August. Aside from the ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, opposition parties are scarcely organized. Among secular Egyptians, there is discussion between leftists and liberals over whether to establish two separate parties which they fear might dilute the secular vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood is keen on early elections because it expects to do well but there have been signs of discord along generational lines with youngsters who actually protested in Cairo in recent weeks demanding a greater voice.

Economic Freedom and the Arab Revolts

The recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that successfully toppled decade-old dictatorships were largely inspired by a combination of rising food prices and persistent high unemployment among the youth, frustrating an entire educated generation that feared it had no future. The lower middle class, including small businessowners and shopkeepers, were struggling with rampant corruption meanwhile, favoring the members and allies of the ruling party at the expense of entrepreneurship and innovation.

If the lack of opportunity and economic freedom fueled these mass demonstrations, the rest of Arab world should brace for more.

The Tunisian economy is largely dependent on agriculture, including mining, as well as manufacturing and tourism.

Trade agreements with the European Union have helped the north African country create jobs but it continues to discriminate against foreign companies and investors. Foreigners cannot hold major ownership of Tunisian companies without state approval nor own agricultural land.

Bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome and inconsistent moreover while court rulings can be susceptible to political pull. Corruption is widespread and investment decisions are often subject to cronyism.

Some reforms were enacted by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the last decade, including the privatization of state-owned enterprises and the simplification of the tax code. Last year, Tunisia’s economy expanded by 3 percent but unemployment remained high at 14.7 percent, particularly among the young.

In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime also reformed trade and financial regulation, encouraging entrepreneurship. Egypt boasted a 4.7 percent growth rate last year but inflation exceeded 16 percent while nearly one of out ten Egyptians is out of work.

Egypt has been moving away from socialist central planning for decades but the government continues to subsidize food and fuel. It can be difficult to set up a business in the country because of excessive licensing requirements. People have often to bribe civil servants to file their necessary paperwork while in many sectors of the economy, military ownership of companies and corruption are pervasive.

In Jordan, where people also took to the streets last week and the king sacked his cabinet, economic freedom is high overall compared to the rest of the region but hampered by corruption and the judicial system’s vulnerability to political influence.

Jordan is open to international trade and taxes are low. Labor regulations are flexible but unemployment stands at nearly 17 percent.

Across the region, Bahrain is leading in economic freedom. The tiny Persian Gulf state’s openness to international commerce has produced a 5.9 percent five year compound annual growth rate and its economy isn’t much smaller than Jordan’s in terms of GDP. The government is still working with the private sector to streamline regulations but business is booming.

Bahrain has no income tax and except for oil companies, no corporate tax either. Corruption is significant however and it affects the judicial protection of property rights as well as the management of scarce water resources.

A constitutional monarchy since 2002, Bahrain has endeavored to improve public-sector transparency and reduce its dependence on oil by diversifying the economy. Unemployment has nevertheless remained high at 15 percent.

As in Yemen, the turmoil in Bahrain has more to do with politics than economics, reflective of a Sunni-Shiite divide and the dominance of the royal family in national politics. Nearly all cabinet members are related to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who is otherwise regarded as a modernist and a reformer.

The opening of politics in recent years has seen Islamist parties enter parliament to push a more traditionalist social agenda. Liberals, in the minority in the lower chamber, have criticized them for curtailing the personal and economic freedoms recently gained. The upper house, wholly appointed by the king, is composed of more moderate, though mostly Sunni members by contrast and includes women.

Demonstrations in Bahrain continued peacefully on Wednesday after two people were killed in clashes with security forces earlier in the week. The king publicly apologized for the deaths on television and vowed that the authorities would investigate the incidents. As some 3,000 gathered to commemorate the death of one protester in the capital of Manama, police where nowhere to be seen.

Bahrain’s Interior Ministry has stated that the country’s “constitution and laws guarantee the freedom of expression through peaceful means,” noting that “citizens can ask for rights and reforms through available legitimate channels.”

The country is a critical American ally in the region as it hosts the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.