Uprisings and downturn

The wave of Tahrir has crashed hard. Libya spins into chaos, Egypt into the vice of military power, while Tunisia voted in the social classes that had been overthrown in 2011.

Published : Nov 12, 2014 12:30 IST

Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old leader of Nida Tunis, the party of the old order. He was the Foreign Affairs Minister under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the 87-year-old leader of Nida Tunis, the party of the old order. He was the Foreign Affairs Minister under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

STRANGE TIDES RISE ACROSS NORTH AFRIca. The Arab Spring, which broke with such force in late 2010, produced great hope and then great despair. From across Tunisia came the cry Khubz wa-ma’ wa-Ben Ali la (“We can live on bread and water, but no more Ben Ali”). Inside Cairo’s Tahrir Square came the elaboration Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam (“The people want to bring down the regime”). Zine El Abidine Ben Ali hastened to exile in Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian army sent off Hosni Mubarak to his villa in the seaside town of Sharm al-Sheikh. Great anticipation swept across the Arab world. It was plain that the long-suppressed desires for greater participation in politics and a greater share of economic power would burst into the public squares across the region. The wave of Tahrir crashed hard on the public demonstrations, bringing chaos in its wake. Libya went into chaos and Egypt into the vice of military power, while Tunisia wrote a remarkable Constitution but voted in the old social classes that had been overthrown on the streets in 2011.

Of these three countries, Libya is by far the most dangerous—warfare continues in the eastern part of the country, where the demonstrations along the grain of the Tahrir dynamic took place in February 2011. The politics of Libya is bewildering, with designations of Right and Left, Islamist and secular far from meaningful. In Egypt, depression is the order of the day, as the new government uses the rise of the Islamic State (I.S., previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) to cement its own dominion. Space for discussion closes down slowly as the chilling wind of repression sends reporters indoors. Unlike Egypt and Libya, there is little violence in Tunisia. It seems to have made the transition to the post-Ben Ali period with grace. But even here, the present puzzles. Revolutions of consciousness ( thawra dhihniya ) made their appearance and then went into retirement.

Tunisia: Back to old order

A misleading headline: “Secular Party defeats Islamists in Tunisia”. Certainly, the party in power for two years—Ennahda (Renaissance), linked to the Muslim Brotherhood—lost the 2014 parliamentary election. The winner was Nida Tunis (Tunis Calls), the party of the old order, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old who had been Foreign Affairs Minister under Ben Ali (and Prime Minister in the tumultuous period after Ben Ali’s ouster). Grave economic news favoured Nida Tunis—unemployment is high, the enduring recession in Europe hurts Tunisia (80 per cent of its trade is across the Mediterranean) and chaos in Libya prevents oil from flowing easily and cheaply into the country. Nida Tunis ran against Islamism and took advantage of the social anxiety that sits on the surface of Tunisian life.

Tunisians are proud of their Constitution. It is the first such document produced through a democratic process. Despite its flaws, the Constitution has set down a process for the country’s political forces to manage their differences. But beneath the Constitution, other forces are at work. In the working-class slums of Tunis, such as Ettadhamen, Djebel Lahmar and Mellassine, one can run into young men who are proud of the large number of jehadis that have made their way to Syria, Iraq and nearby Libya. Said Ferjani of Ennahda worried that their form of Islamism has not been able to attract a youth impatient by the collapse of their ambitions. “Without social development,” he told The New York Times , “I don’t think the democracy could survive.” The emergence of the jehadis provides Nida Tunis with its fearmongering—its claim to be the shield against the collapse of the state into the kind of fratricide in next-door Libya. An economic agenda to integrate these young people is not the leading weapon; old habits of Ben Ali, such as police suppression, will return to the table. A preview of this reaction was already on display in the Mount Chaambi region, where the state forces are in direct military confrontation with Ansar al-Sharia (led by Afghan jehad veterans such as Saifullah bin Hassine and Tariq Maaroufi). More such attacks and more routine surveillance of ordinary Tunisians are on the cards. It is what Nida Tunis promised.

Alternative approaches to the new Tunisia came from the Left. A good reason, then, why the Left’s popular leaders, Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, were both assassinated over the course of the past two years. A million of Tunisia’s 10 million people flooded the streets of Tunis to bury Chokri Belaid on February 8, 2013. All is not lost for the Left and its Popular Front coalition. It did not win many seats, but one of its standard-bearers, Adnan Haji (the “Che Guevara of the South”), won a region that holds the restive mining town of Redeyef and the agricultural fields of Gafsa Governorate.

Libya: No end to chaos

Along Libya’s northern backbone, from Tobruq to Tripoli, lies evidence of its fragmentary and complex wars. Two parliaments remain in session—one in Tripoli and the other in Tobruq—with disagreements over who controls the state. Militias from the various major cities (Zintan, Misrata) battle it out in the west, while General Khalifa Hifter has ripped apart the east as his army fights against the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. Petitions for reconciliations fly around Libya. Most recently, 52 well-appointed Libyan politicians, including former Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and a former Minister of Health Dr Fatima Hamroush, called upon all forces to reconstruct a national dialogue led by the United Nations Special Representative Bernardino Leon. They suggest that this dialogue “is the only and perhaps last chance to rescue Libya from the spectre of sliding into all-out civil war, which will not be less worse and dangerous than other devastating civil wars”. That Libya is already there is beside the point. This was a gasp from those who know that things will only get worse.

Dr Hamroush, who is now in exile in Ireland, had signed another petition from members of Libya’s civil society. She joined human rights advocates such as Zahra’a Langhi (Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace) and Ayat Mneina and Ayman Grada (of the Libyan Youth Movement and Libyan Youth Voices) to bemoan the current situation. What is most striking about the petition is that it is not directed towards Libyans. The activists call upon the “international community”, namely the West, for help. “It is an undeniable fact that Libya’s revolution against the dictatorship would never have succeeded if not for the unfettered support of the international community,” they write in a remarkable admission. “After a three-year spiral into the current state of violence and chaos,” they acknowledge, “it is clear that neither will its transition.” Libya cannot solve its own problems, they concede.

Near Benghazi, in the city of Derna, the I.S. has set up shop. Derna is an old stronghold of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose fighters provided many of the on-the-ground warriors in the 2011 assault on the Libyan army. Near Ateeq Mosque one is likely to run into jehadis who will proudly tell you that their city has sent more fighters to Afghanistan in the 1980s, Iraq in the 2000s and now Syria, than any other city in the Arab world. Sufian al-Quma, an ex-prisoner from Guantanamo who was Osama bin Laden’s chauffer, is in charge of the new upsurge of Islamism in this city wedged between the sea and the mountains. The liberals relied upon these men to overthrow the Muammar Qaddafi regime. These men have now become a liability. Amongst them are people like Abdel Qader Azouz, an English teacher from a prominent family, who has no patience for the liberals. He would like Libya to have an Islamic Constitution and to become a “true Islamic state”.

Egypt: Security state

A short-circuited political process in Egypt has now been justified amply by the new government, which portrays itself as the saviour of Egypt against political Islam and terrorism. The chaos in Libya, Iraq and Syria as well as the rise of jehadi currents in the Sinai peninsula allowed Egypt’s strongman, Abdul Fateh El-Sisi, to use the willing force of the Egyptian state against any threats. These dangers include press freedoms and the right to protest. Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohammed have spent almost a year in prison.

Meanwhile, activists who organised a protest earlier this year have now been sentenced to three years in prison. They include the progressive siblings Alaa Abdel Fattah and Sanaa Seif. As if to snub these convictions, editors of major Egyptian media outlets agreed to muzzle themselves. They met, strikingly, in the office of the Al-Wafd newspaper (published by the liberal Al-Wafd Party) to declare that they would not publish anything “supportive of terrorism or that undermines state institutions directly or indirectly”. In other words, they would no longer criticise the state. The lack of reportage on the bulldozing of the homes of 10 thousand people in the Sinai peninsula is a test of this silence. Across Egypt, students have taken to the streets to remind their country of the Tahrir promises.

The Egyptian academic year began on October 11. Three days later, a protest in Alexandria University was met with massive police force. An engineering student, Omar Abdelwahab, was killed by the police action. Students at the celebrated Al-Azhar University and at Beni Suef University in central Egypt took up the call. Ahmed Nassif, the leader of Students Against the Coup, said that the “junta does not know the meaning of freedom or social justice”. The demonstrations led by this brave group are ongoing, despite the laws against protest. Suffocation of the ideals of freedom in the name of fighting terrorism sits poorly with the students. They have larger dreams, but these are no longer as widely shared in Egypt. Fears of the rise of the I.S. have afforded the security state a measure of popular support.

Boats on the Nile drift past Cairo’s busy streets, where conversations resemble those in Tunis’ cafes and in private homes in Tripoli. There is anxiety about the present—the genuinely fearful emergence of a force like the I.S. and the depressing sense that the security state is its antidote. These are middle-class discussions, with little sense of the frustration in the slums where the promises of political Islam resonate. People like Adnan Haji have other ambitions. If they can reach the slumlands, other futures might be anticipated for North Africa.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment