The Tunisian Experience: An Example to the World or an explosion about to happen?

Once again, demonstrations have erupted across Tunisia against the government’s ineffective economic policies. Prices of basic goods are skyrocketing due to tax raises and austerity measures applied under the 2018 Finance Act, which took effect on 1 January 2018.

Among all the countries that went through the 2011 Arab upheavals, Tunisia is seen as the only country that has successfully sustained fair levels of democracy, peace and stability. On the economic and social development side, however, the country has witnessed continuous failure. Prices and taxes, poverty and unemployment, and inequality were, rather, in a rapid increase.

It is a success, in fact, for the Tunisian people to maintain peaceful protests this long; in spite of the chaos that have swept the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa. There is all of the hope in the world that Tunisia will continue its way in being an example for peace in the region and the world.

For the past six years, protests have become a norm at this time of the year in Tunisia, which marks the anniversary of toppling President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali as well as the death of Bouazizi. During this week’s protests, however, some people acted with violence, burning down the country’s national security building in Thala.

The government, ruled by coalition parties, led by Nahda and Nidaa, has decried the protests as “destructive” and “chaotic”. The police have retreated in some Tunisian cities and the army was deployed in several others. More than 300 protesters were arrested and at least one person’s life has been claimed during the demonstrations.

At this point, gloomy predictions on the outcomes of the protests usually start with the question: will the security apparatus turn to violence? Reassuringly, among the factors that made the 2011 Tunisian experience unique is that the security apparatus defied orders to suppress protesters.

Leaders of the opposition party, the Popular Front, called for the protests to continue until the new financial laws get dropped. Thus, the people plan to continue taking to the streets in the coming days. It is important too that everyone knows, the government and the people, and the international community as well, that there is still plenty of time to keep the peaceful momentum going.

  1. The people should continue to peacefully voice their demands; be it lowering prices, cutting taxes, reconsidering some of the privatization decisions, creating efficient welfare programs, or all of the above.
  2. The government has to be responsive to its own people and deliver effectively. Nine political transitions in only six years, although peaceful, does not necessarily indicate progressiveness and raises many questions about the sincerity and legitimacy of the ruling elites. What is required is a balanced response that takes into account immediate political and economic concessions and transparent long-term development plans for the country.
  3. The international community also has the responsibility to invest in the success of this unique situation, rather than pushing the country into the edge of chaos. This week’s unrest erupted in response to austerity policies that are being pushed for by foreign lenders, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is worth a reminder that the IMF and the World Bank have pushed for similar policies in the past, and, in fact, have had praised Ben Ali’s liberalizing policies since 1987. Preserving Tunisian democracy by safeguarding the country’s development and setting a progressive, stable and peaceful example for the world is in the interest of the international community.

#tunisia

A Recipe for a United Iraq?

‘Iraq is like a glass of water. Once you break the glass, how do you collect the water again?’ The words are those of a young girl from Mosul, a survivor of that city’s period under the control of so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS). For the past three decades, Iraq has experienced every form of armed conflict you could think of, leaving state institutions weak and dysfunctional and large areas of the country in ruins. Since the 2003 Iraq war, and the ensuing years of unrest culminating in the three-year struggle against ISIS, Iraq has not seen a moment of peace.

As ISIS is being driven out of Iraq’s towns and villages, the country still faces challenges not dissimilar to those that contributed to the creation of ISIS in the first place. These include:

  • The ethno-sectarian adversarial relationship between Iraq’s central government and Kurdistan’s regional government, and between that selfsame predominantly Shi’a government, with its ideologically motivated Shi’a militias, and the disenfranchised Sunni population.
  • The extreme lack of transparency that helps rank Iraq among the world’s top five for corruption.
  • Conflicting external pressures from the US and the various regional players, foremost amongst which is Iran.

These three lingering interconnected challenges have created fertile soil for terrorist groups to flourish, and remain an obstacle to any dream of a united Iraq.

Claims of victory over ISIS should not be exaggerated. The country has been here before. Triumphalist policies employed by then Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, from 2006 onward, in his attempt to defeat Al Qaeda (AQ) in Iraq, proved counterproductive and led to the rebirth of Al Qaeda as ISIS. Although the persistence of the challenge does not necessarily mean that history will repeat itself, in order to avoid another catastrophic situation, it is crucial to approach this challenge in a different and more constructive manner.

A high price was paid for the defeat of ISIS, particularly in majority Sunni areas, but this victory has also brought hope and has created a space in which the Iraqi people could yet unite. The challenges run deep, however. The 2018 national elections are approaching, the outcome of which depends on these interconnected challenges and will determine the stability of Iraq over the coming decade. The political landscape of Iraq today is dominated by two camps: those who support Iran, and the self-styled Iraqi nationalists.

Rival to the current Prime Minister in the upcoming elections is the former Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, who still retains strong support among Shi’a segments of society and most certainly falls into the pro-Iran camp. In Iraq, most of the blame for the destructive period that saw the creation and rapid growth of ISIS should be pinned on Al Maliki; whereas, much of the credit for the victory over ISIS should be given to Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. That said Al Abadi and his Iraq Army couldn’t have done it without the help of the Popular Mobilization Force and their allies the Iranian Quds Force, the US Air Force and the array of coalition warplanes that took to the skies at their side, and the Kurds.

The Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of some sixty predominantly Shi’a militias, many of whom are Iran backed, has become the dominant fighting force in the country, largely due to its role in the battle against ISIS. Some of the Shi’a militias are Iraqi nationalists, but most of the powerful ones are openly pro-Iran and have a documented record of sectarian violence, which was arguably one of the main elements fueling the rise of ISIS in the first place. Qasem Sulaimani, Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces, was the first to declare the defeat of ISIS and he did so in a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. This move underscores the hold Iran has over Iraq, and highlights Iran’s intention to maintain and to further this influence.

In an attempt to contain the PMF, Iraq’s parliament passed a law in late 2016 allowing the inclusion of the PMF as part of Iraq’s regular armed forces. However, the militias’ ethnosectarian base, their evident loyalty to Iran and their recent emboldening will arguably undermine the democratic process in Iraq.

The major Shi’a militias, including the Badr Organisation as well as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), have announced their intention to create a unified bloc in the coming elections. Although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has banned militia leaders from running for both parliamentary and provincial office, a number of PMF political affiliates have registered for the elections.

Prime Minister Al Abadi’s move to restrain the militias represents just one dimension in his struggle to tackle sectarianism, repression and corruption as well as Iraq’s vulnerability to external influence.

A new anti-corruption campaign has been launched which could arguably be as much of a challenge as the fight against ISIS. The Prime Minister had the backing of Iraq’s highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in his earlier attempt to tackle corruption in 2016.  Since the formation of the PMF was fuelled by a religious edict (Fatwa) from Ayatollah al-Sistani in 2014, perhaps another Fatwa could foster the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of militia members. That would be a strong step towards reestablishing national unity but would require the right circumstances.

Because of the commitment of Prime Minister Al Abadi to the union of the country, there may yet be hope to establish a strongly nationalist Iraq government that includes Shi’as, Sunnis, Kurds and other minority groups. The greatest counterweight to the challenges facing Iraq today is to enhance the Iraq national identity.

And there is every chance to do just that given the set of  circumstances that are now in place.

The Kurds have been forced to work for a fair power-sharing arrangement. Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) took control over much of the disputed territories after the 2003 US invasion, and subsequently during the battle against ISIS, they have now lost all of their gains in the aftermath of their abortive bid for independence. The KRG has had to fall back on a campaign to promote stronger and more effective federalism. This new approach is reflected in:

  1. Their effective acceptance of the court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the recent independence referendum and,
  2. Their retreat when faced with the PMF’s advance into the disputed territories after the referendum.

The Sunnis in Iraq are exhausted and every sectarian Sunni card has been exploited and played. After the 2003 US invasion, despite a promising start under Iyad Allawi’s premiership, the subsequent rise to power of Nouri Al Maliki heralded what became, from a Sunni perspective, a repressive Shi’a government. Ordinary Sunnis were ready to welcome anyone as a savior. So ISIS took control, then when the people learned of ISIS’s true intentions, it was too late for them to do anything about it.

The success of the Global Coalition against ISIS depended on a decisive force, destroying and killing everything that stood in its way. The fight against ISIS took the status of the Sunni majority areas from zero to negative, to a political no-man’s land. Sunnis in Iraq are moving toward what is called new Sunni realism. In this dire situation, Sunnis won’t give up their identity, but their hope is for a better future for themselves, their children and their country as a nation.

It is not only the Sunnis and the Kurds who want a united Iraq. The Shi’a population is also suffering from the lack of goods and services under the rule of  a supposedly Shi’a-dominated government. Rates of poverty and unemployment are at their highest in majority Shi’a provinces just as they are everywhere else. Between 2003 and 2013, mostly Nouri Al Maliki’s tenure, not a single new hospital or power plant was built despite the spending of $500 billion in public funds. A number of prominent Shi’a clerics have blamed the enduring failure of state institutions on corruption and the damaging influence of external powers, particularly Iran. Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr,  an Iraqi nationalist who opposes Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, inspired a number of protests by Shi’a groups in Baghdad last year.

So, back to the question; if you break the glass, how do you collect the water? Iraq needs a functional, transparent, and inclusive government.  And the international community, particularly the Global Coalition against ISIS, has to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq with the same enthusiasm as it did in the fight against ISIS. As Dr. William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation stated, it is a moral and honorable obligation to at least ‘divert Western aid money to post-conflict Iraq and to specifically use it to construct social housing in areas we [the West] have bombed in the past two to three years.’ A stable, prosperous, and, more importantly, united Iraq, is in the interest of the region and the world.

Change in Saudi Arabia

On a historic night in Saudi Arabia, while a Houthi missile was being intercepted over the capital, Riyadh, an anti-corruption crackdown was being launched. In an unprecedented scenario, on 4 Novermber 2017, eleven Saudi princes, along with a number of former and sitting ministers and high-ranking businessmen, were detained on the orders of the anti-corruption committee, headed by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For years, Saudis have been complaining about the corruption that has been wearing out the country’s business and developmental infrastructures. In previous anti-corruption attempts, only ministers and some lower-ranking businessmen have been held accountable. This move is unprecedented in sweeping up members of the royal family and prominent ministers and businessmen, putting them under ‘hotel’ arrest, freezing their assets, and preparing them for trial. The shape of the trial is a subject for another discussion, but this is certainly a bold move that shakes-up the entire country (particularly, the hit on the predominant concept in Saudi that certain individuals are untouchable).

Looking back two years from today, Saudi Arabia has been taking considerable steps towards reforming and developing the nation. Ever since the announcement of Vision 2030 in April 2016, a young, dynamic Saudi leadership has caught the world’s attention, and the entire country has been geared up toward the success of this vision. Despite the fact that the path toward reform is long and fraught with difficulties, the Kingdom we know today is different than the one we knew last year; or even, last week.

The plan is to modernise the Kingdom. Many issues that the country has been criticised for, for decades, are being addressed and acted upon, today. Economic diversification and women’s empowerment takes the lead among these issues.

To an extent, the aim of the Vision is to shift the country’s economy away from being oil-dependent and to boost investment in the private sector. The initial public offering for Saudi Aramco – the world’s largest oil company – is vital to the success of that aim, yet other sectors are also as vital. Tourism and entertainment industries retain a large portion of the economic segment of the plan. Magnificent tourist projects have attracted the global business community, such as Al Qidya Entertainment city, the Red Sea Islands, and Neom. Hence the recent anti-corruption movement boosts foreign investors’ confidence in the Saudi market.

Along with other social and cultural developments, many decisions which contribute toward preserving women’s rights in the kingdom have been taken: King Salman has ordered the issuance of women’s driving licenses; male guardian laws have been amended; female participation in sports has been acknowledged; and women are already encouraged to work.

Many are criticising the Crown Prince for making major changes in a rushed manner. It is true that he has set himself and the nation highly ambitious goals. But it is analytically false to say that the Saudi Arabia we know today, led by Mohammed Bin Salman, is reckless. In fact, this weekend’s events, both the immediate reaction to the Houthi missile and the unprecedented action against corruption, were representative of the Saudi cautious character. On one hand, Saudi Arabia did not respond recklessly to the attack on its capital and start shooting everywhere. On the other hand, the anti-corruption move was pre-planned.

It is important to understand the Crown Prince’s Vision strategy from a macro perspective. The plan is to redraw the Kingdom’s future with economic and social reforms, and eventually political reforms. Although many are understandably sceptical about the latter, the ultimate success of the vision depends on both social and political reforms.

Economic, social, and political levels do not operate separately, they simultaneously compliment each other. A sudden change in one of them will create a vacuum and disrupt the structures that comprise the other levels. Although analysing these levels separately is beneficial for short-term planning and constructive criticism, it runs the risk of overlooking long-term goals. We all know this and the Crown Prince certainly knows it too.

For instance, the ban on women driving has always been particularly pushed-for by the religious establishment and the conservative segment of Saudi society. But there has not been any backlash from those two crucial constituencies since the ban has been lifted. This is a point that has puzzled many analysts, inside and outside the country. A large part of the answer relates to the cautious steps that are being taken to maintain a balance between and within the economic, social and political spheres, while taking significant strides towards overall reform.

The strategy of the Vision is that the greater the ambition for economic reform, the lower the obstacles for social and political reform. The Crown Prince stated in his first TV interview that privatization will grant the people the ability to directly “monitor” the economy. That is only possible if done correctly. Nevertheless, realising the need for transparency is a step toward political reform.

Lastly, for starters, there is nothing particularly new about the goals of the Vision. Saudis have always been criticised and have blamed themselves for the oil addiction and poor gender equality. And there have been many attempts to overcome these conundrums. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al Jubeir, tellingly pointed out that if there is a historical trend that is observed from Saudi Arabia, it is that of a “constant change” and progress.

It is the perennial nature of the Vision’s goals which makes it bold and gives hope to the Saudi youth, who constitute 70 percent of the country’s population. Despite the challenges, the train of reform in Saudi Arabia is running and on track.