Season of discontent

Print edition : March 22, 2013

A demonstration against the ruling Ennahadha party in Tunis on February 23. Photo: Amine Landoulsi/AP

Shokir Belaid, Tunisian left-wing leader, who was shot dead outside his home. Photo: Hassene Dridi/AP

A Libyan woman at the grave of her son, who died during the revolution two years ago, in Benghazi on February 17. Photo: REUTERS

Two years after the “Arab Spring” revolutions, political turmoil and uncertainty prevail in Tunisia and Libya.

BOTH Tunisia and Libya celebrated the second anniversary of their Arab Spring revolutions this year amid increasing political turmoil and uncertainty. The Tunisian “Jasmine revolution” was the result of a genuine mass upsurge against an authoritarian ruler who had been in the seat of power for long. The political transition that took place in the country after the removal of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power was comparatively smooth. The Ennahda party won the October 2011 election, the first one held after the Arab Spring revolts, bagging 89 of the 211 seats in Parliament. The moderate Islamist party formed a coalition government with two smaller, secular parties. In the coalition, known as the “Troika”, Ennahda held most of the key ministerial positions.

Libyan-style democracy, on the other hand, has turned out to be farcical. Two years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan Parliament has yet to draft a new constitution. The once-united country is now divided by factionalism. Law and order remains a major problem as the government battles secessionist tendencies, increasing sectarianism and tribalism. The country has become a haven for terrorists and jehadists, as is evident from the killing of the United States Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stephens, in Benghazi by a terror group and the flow of weapons and terrorists from Libya to neighbouring countries such as Mali and Algeria. An Arab commentator called Libya an area of “absolute lawlessness”. Larbi Sadiki, an expert on the region, described Libya as “being caught in the midst of a tension between revolution and devolution”.

Now, political uncertainty seems to have gripped Tunisia too following the assassination of the popular left-wing leader Shokri Belaid on February 6 in the capital, Tunis. His killing occurred when tensions between secular forces and hard-line Islamists were on the boil. Previous months had seen many confrontations between the two sides. The opposition parties have blamed elements in the Ennahda for the serial targeting of opponents for assassination. Sufi shrines that ordinary Tunisians visit in large numbers have been targeted by radical Islamists.

Belaid was a fiery trade union activist who fought for democracy and workers’ rights during the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali. He was the leader of the Popular Front bloc, a coalition of leftist and secular parties. His murder is the first assassination of a leading political figure since colonial times in Tunisia.

Belaid’s outspoken criticism of the Islamists and his espousal of a socialist ideology had made him a marked man. Interestingly, Belaid, a trained lawyer, was part of Saddam Hussein’s defence team when the Iraqi leader faced a U.S.-supervised kangaroo court in Baghdad. He was also a poet. His last poem was dedicated to the Lebanese Marxist philosopher Hussein Mroueh, who was assassinated by radical Islamists in Lebanon in 1987.

Moncef Marzouki, the Tunisian President, who also comes from a socialist background, has warned that the country is being sucked into a vortex of religious bigotry, intolerance and terrorism. Belaid’s family has accused the leader of Ennahda, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, of involvement in the murder. The party has strongly denied the charge. Belaid was killed a day after he appeared on national television criticising the increasing political intolerance in the country.

Following Belaid’s assassination, Tunisia has seen a surge in violence and nationwide protests. More than 100,000 people marched on the streets of Tunis to protest against the killing and to demand the resignation of the government. The Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, reacting to the gravity of the situation, decided to dissolve his Cabinet and try to put in place a government of “national unity” comprising mainly of technocrats, irrespective of their party or ideological affiliations.

Problems worsened

The street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked the Jasmine revolution and then the wider upsurge in the region, had dramatically highlighted the problems afflicting Tunisia. Those problems have only worsened. Revenue from tourism, which is the mainstay of the economy, is declining because of the recession in Europe. Unemployment stands at 18 per cent today. Before the Jasmine revolution it was only 12 per cent. A third of the unemployed are college graduates.

High inflation has also sent prices of basic food items soaring. The government has not formulated any plan for solving the problems relating to chronic unemployment and poverty. The country’s credit ratings were downgraded in late February by the international ratings agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P).

In late February, Jebali, having failed in his efforts to form a Cabinet comprising technocrats, threw in the towel and announced his resignation. Hardliners in Jebali’s own party, led by Ghannouchi, had rejected his proposal. While announcing his resignation, the Prime Minister conceded that “there is great disappointment among the people and we must regain their trust, and this resignation is the first step”.

Jebali is also the secretary general of the Ennahda. Recent events, however, show that his importance in the party has diminished. In the last week of February, the Ennahda chief announced that the party’s candidate to replace Jebali was the Interior Minister, Ali Larayedh. Larayedh is identified with the hard-line wing of the party. There is speculation that the open rift between the Ennahda chief and the former Prime Minister could lead to a split in the party.

Muted celebrations in Libya

In Libya, the second anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led coup was marked by muted celebrations. Western governments have been issuing travel advisories warning their citizens on the dangers of travelling to Libya. Specific advisories against travelling to Benghazi, the city which NATO helped liberate, highlighted the gravity of the security situation in the country. According to reports, policemen cannot venture outside the limits of Benghazi city in uniform for fear of being shot. There has been a proliferation of militias. Many of these, besides fighting each other, also run their own private prisons.

Saif al-Islam al Qaddafi, the former leader’s son, is being held by militia leaders in Zintan. They refuse to release him to the central government; they even briefly arrested the representatives of the International Criminal Court (ICC) who had gone to question him. The Libyan government had consented to his trial in Libya under ICC supervision. The ICC wants the trial to be held outside Libya, claiming that the situation in the country will preclude a free and fair trial for Saif.

The Ansar al Shariah, which the Americans blame for the killing of their ambassador last year, remains the most powerful militia in Benghazi. The extremists in eastern Libya have been accused of having links with the terrorists involved in the January attack on an Algerian gas refinery across the border.

Meanwhile, plans are afoot to debar from public life all those associated with the previous government, including those working in the bureaucracy. A leading Islamist politician, Abdel Wahab Ahmed Qaid, has demanded the promulgation of a “Political Exclusion Law”, which, if passed, will purge the bureaucracy of government servants who had worked for the previous government, which had ruled Libya for more than 40 years.

The supporters of Qaddafi’s egalitarian and pan-African vision will be excluded from participating in the country’s politics. Already entire tribes such as the Warfala and towns such as Bani Walid and Sirte have been labelled anti-national by the new rulers and victimised. The two cities were the last to fall to the NATO-guided rebels who rule Libya today. Qaddafi himself was murdered in cold blood on the outskirts of Bani Walid.

The Misrata and the Warfala tribes are still at daggers drawn. Sections of the Libyan army have helped the Misrata militia in staging attacks on Bani Walid.

There are more than 60,000 internally displaced Libyans living in miserable refugee camps. More than half of them belong to the Tawergha tribe, victimised because of their support for the previous government and also because of the colour of their skin. The Tawerghas were displaced from their town by the Misrata militia. More than 1,300 Tawergha people were either killed or reported missing.

Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdelaziz, on a recent visit to Paris, called for help from NATO countries to safeguard the country’s borders. Libya’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ali Suleiman Aujali, admitted that the top priority for the government was internal security. “Without our security, we cannot build up our country,” he said. Christopher Chivvis of the Rand Corporation, a U.S. think tank known for its close links to the Pentagon, has suggested that the U.S. take the lead in doing more for Libya. Otherwise, Chivvis warned, NATO’s hard-won gains in Libya would be imperilled.

Corruption scandals

The Libyan government also finds itself enmeshed in corruption scandals. Progressive laws enacted during the Qaddafi era have been rescinded. Libyans are now allowed to take a second wife without the consent of the first wife. This reflects the influence of Islamists in the government.

The oil contracts that the Qaddafi government had painstakingly negotiated for the benefit of the Libyan people are being renegotiated in favour of Western and Gulf oil companies. The West and the Gulf emirates had midwifed the so-called Libyan revolution. Foreign companies are now granted many years of tax exemption and are allowed to retain 65 per cent of the project value of the contracts.

Nearly 80 per cent of Libya’s current oil production comes from the eastern region, where Benghazi is located. The central government in Tripoli has allowed the authorities in Benghazi a great deal of autonomy in striking oil deals. The eastern region is also keen to retain the lion’s share of the royalties. The other regions, bristling with well-armed militias, will not allow the east to dictate terms. Libya seems to be in for a long tryst with instability despite all its oil wealth and a small population.