The Middle East Channel

Third day of clashes in Egypt bring elections into question

Third day of clashes in Egypt bring elections into question

What started as peaceful protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square on Friday have escalated to clashes with security forces spreading to at least seven other cities over the past three days. The protesters are calling for the end of military rule by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who have been in power since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. They are criticized for seeking "supra-constitutional" powers in the drafting of a new constitution and for their proposed timetable keeping them in power until 2013. In battles between the army attempting to clear the square of protesters and rock-throwing demonstrators, an estimated 24 people have been killed and over 1,700 wounded, some of whom were injured by live ammunition. Meanwhile, though the SCAF has said parlimentary elections would proceed as scheduled, some key political parties have stopped campaigning, including the Muslim Brotherhood. A State Information Service news conference scheduled for Monday to inform the public on final arrangements for election day has been postponed and has not been rescheduled. 

Headlines  

  • After the Arab League rejected Syrian amendments to their peace plan, the ruling Ba'ath party's headquarters was attacked, however the Free Syria Army denies responsibility.  
  • Syrian soldiers reportedly attacked a bus of Turkish pilgrims, increasing tensions and causing a condemnation by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
  • Jordan's King Abdullah showed support for the Palestinian Authority and statehood in his first visit to the West Bank in over a decade.
  • Qaddafi's spy chief Abdullah al-Sanussi was captured a day after the seizure of Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, both of whom are wanted for alleged war crimes in Libya.
  • U.S. officials acknowledged the suspension of some of its activities in Lebanon, including spying on Hezbollah, after being compromised by the arrest of several informants in the past year.

Daily Snapshot

An Egyptian protester cover his face from tear gas during clashes with riot police at Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on November 20, 2011. Several hundred Egyptians occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square with sporadic clashes between protesters and the police following a night of deadly violence, an AFP correspondent said (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images). 

Arguments & Analysis

'The hatred, and hope, for Arab Christians in Egypt' (Anthony Shadid, New York Times)

"Rare is the Arab politician today who would specifically endorse secularism; the word itself in Arabic is virtually a synonym for atheism. In an otherwise triumphant tour of North Africa, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey unleashed invective from all stripes of Islamists when he endorsed a rather tame take on secularism, namely that the state would treat all religions equally. Across the region, the climate seems to have grown more inhospitable, more dangerous. In places like Egypt and Syria, authorities have cynically fanned fears and biases to fortify their power. In the military's bloody response to a Christian protest in Cairo in October, Egyptian television referred to Copts as though they were foreign agitators bent on subversion, calling on "honorable citizens" to defend the army. Religious stalwarts often speak rightly of Islam's long tolerance of minorities. But these days, the talk feels condescending; minorities are asking for equality, not benevolent protection."

'Jordan starts to shake' (Nicholas Pelham, New York Review of Books)

"In its increasing subservience to reactionary Gulf emirates, the kingdom could increasingly come to resemble one. As elsewhere in the Gulf, a minority of Arab Bedouin clans would rule the roost, while the nonindigenous majority would find themselves relegated to second-class citizens or guest workers. Hopes of political and economic reform will be put on ice, and Gulf largesse will relieve pressure to hold to account those parts of the state budget that are currently outside parliamentary review, like military expenditure. Already the Central Bank looks increasingly powerless to investigate allegations of high-level corruption. When the Central Bank's governor tried last month to do just that, he was sacked and his office surrounded by the Mukhabarat to prevent him entering it. "When the state is working against those who are working against corruption, and sending thugs to attack them, where are we going?" says Leila Sharaf, the governor's mother and long-standing legislator, who tendered her resignation in protest." 

'Defining a culture in Doha's desert' (Hugh Eakin, New York Review of Books)

"To give shape to a more fully-fledged idea of national culture, Qatar's new museums will have to embark on the kind of research that gets beyond beautiful buildings and objects to connect with people and how they view themselves. For the moment, there is a risk that places like the Museum of Islamic Art-which still lacks a true curatorial department-will do far more to dazzle visitors than to bring new light on the country's traditions. But as Qatar increasingly seeks to address a world audience-whether through Al Jazeera, or sporting events, or high culture-maybe it doesn't ultimately matter...Qatar's leaders seem to have discovered that the cultural institutions of their cash-rich country can serve as a congenial series of screens, on which to project whatever images they find most suggestive of the nation they want to create." 

The Middle East Channel

Ennahda's tight rope act on religion

This past Sunday, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda -- fresh off its win in last month's elections -- came under fire following a rally in Sousse, Tunisia with Houda Naim, a member of Hamas. Besides Naim, Ennahda's general secretary, Hammadi Jebali, who has been proposed as the new Prime Minister of Tunisia, made some controversial remarks about the return of the Caliphate. Jebali stated: "My brothers, you are at a historic moment...in a new cycle of civilization, God willing...we are in sixth caliphate, God willing." This quickly raised alarm bells with Tunisia's secular and liberal elements who had been warning prior to the elections about Ennahada's purported double speak: saying one thing publicly while saying something more nefarious privately to its followers.

In response to Jebali's pronouncement, Ettakatol, a party that won the fourth largest bloc of seats in the recent election and is in coalition talks with Ennahda, said the party was suspending its participation in talks on a governing coalition in the forthcoming Tunisian Constituent Assembly. Khemais Ksila, a member of the executive committee of Ettakatol, stated: "We do not accept this statement. We thought we were going to build a second republic with our partner, not a sixth caliphate." While Lobna Jeribi, an Ettakatol Constituent Assembly member, proclaimed that Jebali's statements raised major concerns that needed to be clarified before any coalition talks resumed.

This is not the first controversy that Ennahda has been embroiled in since they won a little more than 40 percent of seats to draft the constitution in the new Constituent Assembly. A little more than a week ago, Souad Abderrahim, a prominent female member of Ennahda, talking to Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya stated that single mothers are a disgrace to Tunisia, "do not have the right to exist," there are limits on "full and absolute freedom," and that one should not "make excuses for people who have sinned." In both cases, Ennahda had to walk back the statements of both Jebali and Abderrahim, downplaying their significance.

Are these two recent examples a sign of double speak finally seeing the light of day in the aftermath of its election victory -- or is it a sign of Ennahda's political immaturity and lack of experience? The latter is more likely. Prior to and following the election there have been no signs of some type of hostile Islamist takeover by Ennahda that would then try and institute a radical interpretation of the shari‘ah.

A few days before the election, the president of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, emphasized the importance of reconciliation even if Ennahda did not win a plurality, stating: "We will congratulate the winner and will collaborate with them just as other parties should do the same if we end up winning; Tunisia is in need of everyone. The keyword is reconciliation, our foremost concern is reconciliation in composing the upcoming government without regard to ideological differences." Ghannouchi later stressed after the election that Ennahda did not plan to instrumentalize the new constitution as a blunt tool to force a certain interpretation of Islam at Tunisian citizens, arguing, "Egypt says shari‘ah is the main source of its law, but that didn't prevent (deposed President Hosni) Mubarak from being a dictator." Ghannouchi in the past has also pointed to Turkey as an example where one can balance both democratic and religious values without compromising either.

Further, Ennahda has been in talks over the past several weeks with two secular parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, to form a coalition government for the new Constituent Assembly. As one can see from the above comments by Ettakatol, the two secular parties will no doubt play a productive role and provide a check on any potential Ennahda overreach.

One should be cognizant, though, that the transition will not be perfect. Moreover, with every potential accommodation Ennahda makes now that they are in power, it could erode potential grassroots support. More radical youth elements may believe that after years of suffering under the yoke of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali it is time to finally implement the oft-quoted phrase "al-Islam huwa al-Hal"; or "Islam is the Solution." By not living up to these words one could foresee a scenario where some support is shifted to the less mainstream Salafi movement, fomenting a potential culture war in Tunisia in the medium future.

Ennahda's pledge to respect women's rights and not regulate social issues, such as wearing a bikini at the beach or the sale of alcohol, could become contentious issues in future elections that could pull Ennahda further to the right. Even if they do not, as more time passes since the fall of the Ben Ali regime and there are more freedoms and openness in Tunisian society, the contestation of the role of religion, its meaning, and interpretation will become a heated debate. In the near-term, though, with Ghannouchi stewarding Ennahda through the transition, such potential drift or confrontation is less likely.

Ennahda's transition from banned opposition party to a leading voice of reform for civic Islamism is still playing out. There will be ups and downs over the next year, but its political discipline and maturity will rise over time. If there is one political party in the Middle East and North Africa that can navigate the tough challenge ahead on debating the contentious issue of the role of religion in society, Tunisia's Ennahda party is best situated for the task. Although talk of the Caliphate is a head-turning event for many in Tunisia and in the West, since last January, Ennahda's actual actions to date should be speaking louder than some of their ill-conceived words.

Aaron Y. Zelin is a research associate in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University. He is a co-editor of the al-Wasat blog and maintains the website Jihadology.net.

AFP/Getty images