King is dead, long live the King’: Principle applicable in the MENA region. In effect, all countries of the area, be they republics or monarchies tend to abide by this principle. The consequences of such custom have had bearings throughout millennia. The recent advent of oil exports related revenues brought the limelight to shed a little light in the MENA sunny skies.
Libya’s battle for Tripoli alongside ongoing mass anti-government demonstrations that toppled autocratic leaders of Algeria and Sudan demonstrate that both popular Arab protests that in 2011 forced four presidents out of office and the counterrevolution it provoked are alive and kicking.
Protesters in Algeria and Sudan are determined to prevent a repeat of Egypt where a United Arab Emirates and Saudi-backed military officer rolled back the achievements of their revolt to install a brutal dictatorship or of Yemen, Libya and Syria that have suffered civil wars aggravated by interference of foreign powers.
In Libya, Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the UAE-Saudi-Egyptian-supported warlord, hopes that his assault on the capital Tripoli, the seat of the country’s United Nations-recognized government, will either end the conflict militarily or at the very least significantly increase his leverage in peace talks.
In all three countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two Gulf nations most determined to maintain the Middle East and North Africa’s autocratic structure at whatever cost, have sought to either bolster military resolve to remain a decisive political force or support the rise of forces that fit their agenda.
The aid package contributed to deepening divisions among the opposition that has vowed to continue street protests until full civilian rule has been achieved despite the ousting of president Omar al-Bashir, the resignation of senior military officers, including the intelligence chief, and the arrest of Mr. Al-Bashir’s brothers.
Mr. Al-Hussein returned to Khartoum this month from two years in exile in the kingdom, where he served as an African affairs advisor to the Saudi court, after having been unceremoniously sacked in 2017 on suspicion that he was a Saudi intelligence asset.
Moreover, the head of Sudan’s military council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan and his deputy, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a paramilitary commander known as Hemeti, developed close ties to the Gulf states in their former roles as commanders of the Sudan contingent fighting in Yemen in support of the Saudi-UAE alliance.
A commander of feared Arab militias accused of genocide in Darfur, General Dagalo is widely viewed as ambitious and power hungry. His Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are deployed across Khartoum.
Western officials privately describe General Dagalo as “potentially Sudan’s Sisi,” a reference to Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who came to power in 2013 in a UAE-Saudi-supported military coup.
Mr. Al-Sisi has introduced one of the most repressive systems in recent Egyptian history. Western diplomats said General Dagalo’s ambitions virtually guaranteed that the military would not fully surrender power in any negotiated transition.
The military’s role in deposing president Hosni Mubarak as a result of a popular revolt in 2011 and subsequently restoring the military’s grip on power coupled with concern about General Dagalo inspired one of the Sudanese protesters’ chants: “It’s either victory or Egypt.”
Saudi Arabia and the UAE together with Egypt and Bahrain have diplomatically and economically boycotted Qatar for the past 22 months in a bid to force the Gulf state to tow their geopolitical line.
For now, Mr. Haftar’s offensive has way laid a UN-sponsored peace conference that was expected to achieve an agreement that would have ensured that Islamists would continue to be part of the Libyan power structure.
Mr. Haftar, like his regional backers, accuses the Tripoli government of being dominated by Islamists, the bete noir of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
On a visit to Saudi Arabia days before launching his attack on Tripoli, Mr. Haftar reportedly was promised millions of dollars in support in talks with Saudi King Salman, and his powerful son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in defiance of a United Nations arms embargo.
The battle for Libya could prove to be Mr. Haftar’s most difficult military offensive. His Libyan National Army (LNA) already controls Libya’s second city of Benghazi and much of rest of the country where it met relatively little resistance.
The battle also serves as a warning to protesters in Sudan and Algeria whose demands for fundamental change risk upsetting the UAE, Saud Arabia and Egypt’s applecart.
With no swift victory in sight in the battle for Tripoli, Libya risks another round of protracted war that could be aggravated by the fact that it is as much a domestic fight as it is a multi-layered proxy war.
Unlike Sudan, Libya has passed the corner. Years of civil and proxy wars have devastated the country and laid the groundwork for further violence. Algeria and Sudan still have a chance of avoiding the fate of Libya, or for that matter Syria and Yemen.
As the battle in Tripoli unfolds, Libya looms large as a live example of what is at stake. Protesters are up against forces whose backers have proven that there is little they will shy away from to achieve their objectives. Libya is but the latest example.
The king’s fate is at stake in the fighting in streets of southern Tripoli. His fate hangs like a sword of Damocles in the balance in the streets of Algiers and Khartoum.
Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.
‘Get them all out!’: Algeria three years on after Panama Papers – and to mark World Press Freedom Day, Lyas Hallas, Algerian journalist – a member of ICIJ elaborates on the current situation of Algeria.
To celebrate the third anniversary of the Panama Papers – and to mark World Press Freedom Day – we’re speaking with reporters from around the world about the investigation each week.
Like many of our partners, Lyas’ work is still having an impact. Most recently, authorities arrested some wealthy Algerians named in the Panama Papers and street protesters calling for the president’s resignation and an end to corruption waved banners that featured the businessmen’s faces.
What was the biggest impact in Algeria after the Panama Papers’ revelations?
There was an immediate debate about assets held by Algerians overseas. The reaction shook the leaders of our country who had planned their retirements abroad. The Panama Papers also hit hard the businessmen who consort with politicians and who enjoy tax and banking advantages at home and yet who hide their money offshore. The revelations politically weakened ministers who were at the height of their power and others who were on the cusp of bouncing back.
One example was the then Industry Minister Abdesselam Bouchouareb, who was tipped to be the next prime minister before that became awkward due to the global firestorm in the wake of the investigation
Maybe my work contributed to bringing attention to the pillage of the country’s resources. – Lyas Hallas
What was your favorite moment of the Panama Papers investigation? What surprised you the most?
Favorite moment? A huge ‘catch’ when just one minute after I opened the Panama Papers database for the first time, I found Rym Sellal, the daughter of the then prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal. It was very motivating.
I also didn’t expect to find the owner of an offshore company linked to the entourage of former energy minister Chakib Khelil who is at the heart of the SONATRACH corruption scandal, our state-owned oil and gas company.
Italy and Algeria had opened court cases and Italian judges had identified this offshore company as one of 17 used to launder $216.92 million (€194 million) in bribes. Yet neither Italy nor Algeria had called on Khelil as a witness. Ditto for the son of the former SONATRACH CEO who received six years in prison for corruption.
What also stuck with me about the Panama Papers is the interest of Algerians in this kind of story. In two years, I published a dozen stories and there was a buzz every time. During the recent protests in Algeria, citizens took to the streets waving images of some of the people featured in his Panama Papers reporting. Lyas Hallas
What were the most significant reactions to your investigations?
The general public reacted well, which was satisfying… In Switzerland, a criminal court dismissed a case brought by an Algerian businessman based, in part, on my Panama Papers reporting.
I had to resign from the newspaper where I worked in order to get my investigation published. I had a story on the Minister of Industry at the time, Abdeslam Bouchouareb.
Bouchouareb put a bit of pressure on the editor – I don’t know what they said. Five days before the agreed publication date with ICIJ, I had to find another newspaper to publish my story… I found one easily, which was good.
I was harassed online by various digital players in the pay of government officials.
Some people said I was dancing to the tune of foreigners and others accused me of faking documents. Khelil wrote on Facebook, without naming me directly, that I was a “Zionist agent.” Obviously, I didn’t react to this kind of nonsense, which was mostly anonymous.
Some people even called me an “agent of Rebrab” [editor’s note: Issad Rebrab, Algeria’s richest man]. I had worked for 11 months in a newspaper where he is the majority shareholder and from which I resigned to publish my Panama Papers story. Yet Rebrab tried to sue me in France because of the Panama Papers.
For someone who has not followed anything, what has happened in Algeria now?
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s desire to seek a fifth term sparked massive demonstrations on February 22 that forced him to resign. Algerians have long lived through his power grab as a great collective humiliation. Bouteflika did leave, but the system that he built — even if it’s weakened — is still in place.
Every Friday during the protests, millions of people rallied in unity around the theme “Get them all out!” The term “all” referred to those widely-despised figures from the Bouteflika era who, in the eyes of the demonstrators, embodied mediocrity, injustice and corruption.
What’s the connection between your Panama Papers investigations and recent events?
It’s not my job to spark protests. Maybe my work contributed to bringing attention to the pillage of the country’s resources and to the lack of some people’s “tax patriotism.” Or maybe it accentuated the feeling of injustice among many Algerians given the impunity of some people I wrote about.
During the recent protests, one of the main slogans was “You have devoured the country, band of looters!” Some protest banners included photos of politicians and businessmen I exposed.
In response to the demonstrations, authorities jailed some of these businessmen, including Issab Rebrab, in order to calm protestors and temper the country’s anger. A few days ago, the Supreme Court reopened a case involving Khelil. They are not being investigated for what I wrote about, but for similar practices to the things I uncovered.
Can you give us a summary of your investigations around these recently arrested men?
Businessman Ali Haddad, and as I mentioned earlier Issad Rebrab, have been arrested.
My investigation of Haddad revealed the illicit transfer of foreign currency through a complex arrangement involving foreign partners in the group of companies that carries out infrastructure projects in Algeria. Anti-corruption investigations against Haddad have not yet been concluded, but he was arrested at the borders with Tunisia while trying to flee.
As for Issad Rebrab, he was detained on charges of “misrepresentation of illicit transfers of capital from and to foreign countries, overcharging of imported equipment and importation of second-hand equipment while he had benefited from customs, tax and banking benefits”. My investigation questioned his background and the origin of his fortune. Policy makers have always made it easy for businessmen close to them to access credit, import licenses and government contracts, while guaranteeing them impunity since for business in Algeria, political support is needed.
The Supreme Court has reopened the case of Chakib Khelil, who has fled the country. Khelil is accused of bribery in a case involving contracts awarded by the state-owned oil company. My investigation revealed that his wife and his son were beneficiaries of offshore companies linked to a money laundering machine worth $220 million (€197 million) in commissions.
You are a veteran of journalism in Algeria. In what state was investigative journalism in Algeria before these demonstrations?
Investigative journalism in Algeria is fragile. It’s difficult to access information and Algerian media remains fundamentally based on opinion.
Even if Algerian media has some freedom in what it says, it doesn’t invest enough in going after real information. It’s subject to the government’s agenda and corporations’ marketing strategies. I would even say that it’s in a pretty sick state because it hasn’t evolved independently of the political forces now being protested against.
Algerian media didn’t develop an economic model based on its relationship with the audience that would have allowed financial independence. Advertising revenue has made the media dependent on advertisers and policymakers.
In short, much of the press is completely discredited. Especially given that the media itself was not untouched by corruption.
Algerians today are demanding a new kind of information and the current media are having a hard time satisfying this demand. Of course, there are small islands of resistance that try to offer quality information. But, it’s necessary to completely rebuild the system.
What is your hope for Algerian journalism after these protests and regime change?
I remain optimistic. The entire community of Algerian journalists is aware of the stakes. I hope that we will have the collective intelligence to set new rules of the game; rules that will establish healthy competition and favor new editorial practices to properly inform Algerians.
I don’t dismiss the value of Algeria’s press in the past, which emerged from struggles that saw journalists sacrifice their lives from generation to generation to be able to freely exercise their profession, especially in the 1990s, a decade in which terrorism had wreaked havoc on Algeria. We lost a hundred journalists and others who were murdered because they were journalists.
But the media system as a whole requires a re-foundation to clarify the ground rules. The opacity that Algeria’s media has evolved into exposes it to arbitrariness.
Solar geoengineering (also known as solar radiation management) is a technology in its infancy – and it is controversial. It has the potential to reverse or mitigate some of the global warming caused by greenhouse gases by either releasing cooling particles (for instance sulphur) into the stratosphere, or by modifying clouds over the oceans so that they reflect more heat back into space.
But there are major concerns about how politics could influence research and development, and the deployment of solar geoengineering on a global scale. Last year’s special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global Warming of 1.5 ºC struck a cautionary note: ‘Although some [solar radiation modification] measures may be theoretically effective […], they face large uncertainties and knowledge gaps as well as substantial risks and institutional and social constraints to deployment related to governance, ethics, and impacts on sustainable development.’ One of these risks could be conflict, should a country use geoengineering without global agreement – an action that cause harm to others.
Here we use game theory to better understand these concerns and find out what could happen if countries were able to move the earth’s thermostat in either direction – by using geoengineering technologies to reduce the temperature and counter-geoengineering to turn it back up again.
Solar geoengineering technologies could be cheap. This creates a problem economists call the ‘free-driver effect’. If the cost is not prohibitive, a single nation (or even a single billionaire) could pay to press the button on a geoengineering action that affects the whole planet.
On first impressions it might sound good for a potential global warming fix to be inexpensive and accessible. But a country with an especially strong incentive to cool the planet – one that is suffering badly due to climate change – could go ahead and deploy a technology that will affect us all, effectively taking a unilateral decision on the optimal temperature for the Earth.
Some like it hot(ter)
One idea to counter this ‘free-driving’ effect is to develop counter-geoengineering. While solar geoengineering would cool temperatures, counter-geoengineering might use similar technology to heat the earth up – for example, by injecting short-lived heat-trapping aerosols into the atmosphere, or using a chemical to counteract a sulphate injection.
The possibility of being able to turn the temperature back up might act as a deterrent to free-drivers. Who would want to risk causing an escalation of opposing climate interventions that would only waste resources? The prospect of counter-geoengineering might reintroduce a willingness to collaborate. We tested this possibility using game theory.
The rules of the game
We set up a two-player game. Each player represents a country (or a bloc of countries) and each has a – potentially different – temperature preference for the planet.
It is a two round game. Round 1 is treaty-making. The players can choose to opt into a treaty and collaborate, or they can opt out. There are two treaty options available: the first is a deployment treaty, where countries jointly decide on the climate intervention that maximises the coalition’s overall payoff. The second treaty option is a moratorium treaty, under which the countries commit to abstain from any climate intervention. Whichever decision they make, they will only enter into a treaty if it is in their best interests – all the players are ‘selfish actors’.
Round 2 is deployment, i.e. modifying the global temperature with a climate intervention that is relatively cheap. If the countries entered into a treaty in Round 1, then they either abstain from a climate intervention (opting for the moratorium treaty) or undertake the intervention cooperatively. If no treaty was formed, the players choose their climate intervention levels non-cooperatively.
We played two versions of the game. In one version only solar geoengineering technology was available to the countries – so they could cool the global temperature but not increase it. In the second version they also had access to counter-geoengineering, so they could also turn the temperature up. Comparing the two versions then sheds light on how counter-geoengineering changes the strategic interaction surrounding climate interventions.
The results: arms race or abstinence
The results of the game reveal the importance of the level of agreement over what countries consider the ‘best’ temperature for the planet.
If countries have similar preferred temperatures but do not choose to enter into a treaty, there is a free-rider outcome – countries would benefit from the temperature reduction caused by another country’s geoengineering actions without themselves contributing much to the cost of deployment.
Where countries differ greatly in their preferred temperature, and if counter-geoengineering is not available (which could be because it has not yet been developed), the result is a free-driver outcome, as predicted. The country with the strongest preference for cooling (the free-driver) turns the temperature right down – even if the other prefers it warmer.
In both of these cases, incentives to cooperate are weak.
However, with counter-geoengineering technology on the table the strategic interaction changes, with two outcomes. A country that views the free-driver’s deployment of cooling as excessive now has a tool to counteract it – and will use it. Without the opportunity to cooperate, this results in a ‘climate clash’, an escalation of cooling by geoengineering and warming by counter-geoengineering that has no winners and is very harmful.
However, if cooperation is an option, this bleak outlook may be enough to encourage countries to work together. In particular, the free-driver may be ready to compromise on the amount of climate intervention it makes.
Cooperation is not guaranteed, though, and the outcome might still be a destructive climate clash. Even if countries do cooperate, they may take the moratorium route – and this could be worse than the free-driver outcome if it means the world misses the opportunity to potentially reduce the damage from climate change by using solar geoengineering.
How solar geoengineering and counter-measures could and should be used to adjust the planet’s temperature is subject to widely differing opinions and intense debate. Certainly our study emphasises the crucial need to focus on how any geoengineering interventions could be governed, with the welfare of the majority a central goal. Cooperative decisions including a broad set of actors typically are welcome, but our results also point to the importance of getting the content of a treaty right.
Of course, there are limitations to our analysis, not least the fact that the paper’s main analysis was undertaken in a two-player game, when in reality we could face complex negotiations between many countries. Countries may also want to modify aspects of the climate beyond temperature – especially rainfall patterns. And geoengineering could affect human and ecosystem health, by causing acid rain or ozone depletion – further effects that could cause tensions if one country forged ahead at the expense of others.
Daniel Heyen is a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich. He is an applied theorist working at the interface of decision theory and environmental economics. Daniel’s main research interest is in societal decision-making under uncertainty and learning. Key topics of his work are the description of scientific uncertainty, the design of decision rules, and the analysis of active learning and the value of information. Prior to his position at ETH Zurich, Daniel was a postdoctoral researcher at the Grantham Research Institute, funded through a Fellowship from the German Research Foundation. Daniel completed his PhD in economics at Heidelberg University. His background is in Mathematics and Physics.
Joshua Horton is research director of geoengineering at the Keith Group. Josh conducts research on geoengineering policy and governance issues, including the regulation of research, liability and compensation, and geopolitics. Josh previously worked as a clean energy consultant for a global energy consulting firm. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University.
Juan Moreno-Cruz is an associate professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and the Canada research chair in energy transitions at the University of Waterloo. He is also a CESifo research affiliate. He has a Ph.D. (2010) from the University of Calgary and a B.A. and M.S. in electrical engineering from the Universidad de Los Andes. Previously, he was an associate professor in the School of Economics at the Georgia Institute of Technology (2011-2017), were he remains as an adjunct professor. He is a visiting researcher in the department of global ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, an advisor for Carnegie Energy Innovation, and a research associate of Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research programme.
World trade will continue to face strong headwinds in 2019 and 2020 after growing more slowly than expected in 2018 due to rising trade tensions and increased economic uncertainty, said the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
WTO economists expect merchandise trade volume growth to fall to 2.6 per cent in 2019 — down from 3.0 per cent in 2018. Trade growth could then rebound to 3.0 per cent in 2020; however, this is dependent on an easing of trade tensions.
WTO director-general Roberto Azevêdo said: “With trade tensions running high, no one should be surprised by this outlook. Trade cannot play its full role in driving growth when we see such high levels of uncertainty.”
“It is increasingly urgent that we resolve tensions and focus on charting a positive path forward for global trade which responds to the real challenges in today’s economy – such as the technological revolution and the imperative of creating jobs and boosting development.
“WTO members are working to do this and are discussing ways to strengthen and safeguard the trading system. This is vital. If we forget the fundamental importance of the rules-based trading system we would risk weakening it, which would be an historic mistake with repercussions for jobs, growth and stability around the world,” he added.
Trade growth in 2018 was weighed down by several factors, including new tariffs and retaliatory measures affecting widely-traded goods, weaker global economic growth, volatility in financial markets and tighter monetary conditions in developed countries, among others. Consensus estimates have world GDP growth slowing from 2.9 per cent in 2018 to 2.6 per cent in both 2019 and 2020.
The preliminary estimate of 3.0 per cent for world trade growth in 2018 is below the WTO’s most recent forecast of 3.9 per cent issued last September. The shortfall is mostly explained by a worse-than-expected result in the fourth quarter, when world trade as measured by the average of exports and imports declined by 0.3 per cent. Until then, third quarter trade had been up 3.8 per cent, in line with WTO projections.
Trade expansion in the current year is most likely to fall within a range from 1.3 per cent to 4.0 per cent. It should be noted that trade growth could be below this range if trade tensions continue to build, or above it if they start to ease.
Nominal trade values also rose in 2018 due to a combination of volume and price changes. World merchandise exports totalled $19.48 trillion, up 10 per cent from the previous year. The rise was driven partly by higher oil prices, which increased by roughly 20 per cent between 2017 and 2018. – TradeArabia News Service
The announcement that Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seeking a fifth term has been met with a rising tide of nonviolent public protests – and possibly the beginning of a new era of resistance against the political regime that has held power since 1962.
In February, Algeria’s state news agency announced Bouteflika’s candidacy in the upcoming elections, to be held on April 18. While there had been little public opposition to Bouteflika’s continued reign since he first took office in 1999, this time Algerians have shown increasing resistence. Currently 81 and in poor health after a 2013 stroke, Bouteflika is perceived as an ineffective head of state in a country suffering from a deep economic and structural crisis.
Taking to the streets
In the weeks that followed, from Algiers to Oran, people young and old have taken to the streets and campuses to protest the continuing hold of Bouteflika and his inner circle on power, and the president’s inability to lead. Since 2013 his public appearances have been extremely rare, to the point where he failed to meet Saudi crown prince in December, supposedly because he had the flu.
Today’s protesters are of all ages and walks of life – students, working men and women, and journalists resisting state censorship. All are calling for a return to the rule of law and demanding that Bouteflika renounce running for a fifth term. As they march, protesters often sing popular football anthems with a political twist to express their demands. Songs ring out from Algeria’s 1962 independence movement and the social movements of the 1980s. In the balconies overhead, women sing out ululating “youyous” in support.
While there has also been anger and indignation, expressed through fiery speeches and unambiguous slogans, violence and clashes with the police have been relatively limited. A “million-man march on Friday, March 1, was reported to be “mostly peaceful”, with the state news agency claiming that 183 people were injured.
The street as public forum
In the absence of state institutions that allow a real political dialogue and without credible elections, the streets of Algeria have become the place where politics is practiced. The moving crowds, rallies and meetings have turned them into a public forum, with those present calling for an end to the rule of Bouteflika and his clan. This includes his brother Saïd and many members of his family or close acquaintances who have a controlling hand state affairs and the economy. In an effort to keep control, prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia has warned that a “Syrian scenario” is possible if Bouteflika isn’t returned to office. On Sunday, the TV station Ennahar reported that Bouteflika was officially a candidate for reelection.
In response, protesters have taken to the social networks to share messages of hope, filling the web with broad smiles and forceful slogans. Twitter posts have remained positive that this time things will be different.
Ongoing coverage shows streets and squares occupied by protestors, with police officers surrounded by demonstrators. Still, there’s a feeling that the regime’s grip on power may be slipping and that the balance of power could be shifting.
So far, the protesters’ strategy has been resolutely nonviolent: peaceful gestures toward the police and civic responsibility sometimes expressed in unexpected ways – including cleaning the streets after demonstrations. But will that be enough?
A fifth term for Bouteflika is unthinkable for many, yet the future is uncertain. Algeria stood aside during Arab Spring that brought down authoritarian governments in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, in part because of memories of the country’s brutal civil war of the 1990s. However, Algeria’s regime has plagued the country with a weak economy that has worsened as oil revenues have plunged. The unemployment rate is currently near 12%, with the youth rate at 29%. Given that half of the population is younger than 25, the continuity of the state is now facing a structural and social crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Despite the Algerians’ desire for emancipation from Bouteflika’s regime, they have a stark choice: the continuation or cancellation of elections. Cancellation is the most risky of the two because it could well trigger a the declaration of a state of emergency and the return of the military to power. Yet the if elections go forward, the regime still holds the keys to power.
Given what’s at stake, should Algerian citizens accept the April 18 elections in the hope that the regime will have received the message, or push for a general strike?
By resisting political pressure and fatalism through non-violence, Algeria’s civil society is seeking to change how power is exercised in Algeria. By peacefully yet insistently calling on the country’s government and ruling clique to let citizens express themselves and truly listen to what they have to say, Algerians are setting an example. Only peaceful political dialogue and real debate can change how power is practiced in Algeria, and restore the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people.
Translated from the original French by Clea Chakraverty and Leighton Kille.
In North Africa’s political spheres, Algeria’s Bouteflika reaching his mandate end by April, stepping down from rule looks more like a bet placed on his health condition than any constitutional arrangement.
In next door Tunisia, the president has a history of brain strokes that also placed him on a wheelchair.
Youssef Cherifwrote on January 9th, 2019 that Less
than a year before the next general election, scheduled for late 2019, Tunisia
is again in crisis. The Arab world’s most promising democratic experiment can
still avert a political meltdown, but it needs help.
TUNIS – When anti-government protests swept across
the Arab world in 2011, Tunisia seemed poised to emerge better off. Yet, by
2013, the democratic process was almost derailed by unfulfilled economic
promises, political and ideological disagreements, and foreign meddling.
Fortunately, local and international mediation then helped to avert catastrophe and
pave the way for elections.
But less than a year before the next general
election, scheduled for late 2019,
the country is again in crisis. This time, however, mediators are either
disinterested in solutions or part of the problem. In a world focused on the
war in Syria, instability in Libya, Russian assertiveness, European
uncertainty, and the tweets of an isolationist American president, Tunisia has
faded from the headlines. Tunisia’s democratic breakdown would, one assumes,
attract international attention; but by then, it will be too late.
The current stalemate began soon after the December
2014 presidential election. In February 2015, President Beji Caid Essebsi,
founder of the secular political party Nidaa Tounes, struck a deal with Rached
Ghannouchi, president of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, to form a coalition government.
But soon after, Nidaa Tounes was beset by infighting and, in January 2016,
dozens of the party’s MPs resigned in protest, giving Ennahda a parliamentary majority.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Essebsi’s
protégé and appointee, has been challenging the 92-year-old president’s inner
circle, throwing Nidaa Tounes further into chaos. By
mid-2018, as the party’s turmoil peaked, Ghannouchi was supporting Chahed
rather than the president’s son and groomed heir, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. The
president, reacting either to a sense of betrayal or out of fear for his
legacy, responded by renewing his criticism of Ennahda and
by launching an investigation into allegations that Ghannouchi’s party is tied to terrorism.
Moreover, Essebsi and his clan embraced populist
rhetoric and restarted courting the anti-Islamist
Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis. Essebsi even endorsed a law to give
men and women equal inheritance rights, a measure that is supported by many
secular Tunisians and praised by the international community, but loathed by
Ennahda’s conservative base.
In a well-functioning democracy, an early election
would have been called in September 2018, when the governing coalition felt apart,
and perhaps as early as 2016, when Nidaa Tounes lost its majority in
parliament. But most Tunisian political parties suffer too much dissension or
are too weak to run. And the current ructions are even jeopardizing the work of
High Authority for Elections.
Tunisia’s political crisis is occurring alongside
an economic one. As Tunisia has moved from a controlled economy under
dictatorship to a transitional one marked by austerity measures and structural
reforms dictated by the International
Monetary Fund, corruption has spread and investors have fled. Today,
with public debt, unemployment, and inflation growing, strikes and protests are
increasingly common, and support for democracy – frequently
portrayed as the cause of the current tumult – has dwindled.
Ennahda, an economically liberal party that draws
important support from informal economic circles and outside the public sector,
backed the IMF’s economic reforms; the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT),
which represents public-sector workers, did not. Leftists and many remnants of
the former regime were also opposed. Chahed, meanwhile, was aggressive in
implementing the IMF-backed reforms, in part to win support from abroad. But
his approach put the UGTT, alongside old-guard politicians and some key
socioeconomic groups, on the same side as Essebsi. In fact, the UGTT led the
mediations during the crisis of 2013.
Foreign influence is another destabilizing factor.
Today, Tunisia is a geopolitical battlefield
for regional powers like Egypt, Turkey, and the Gulf states, and Tunisian
politicians occasionally take sides to suit their suitors’ goals. Broadly
speaking, Saudi Arabia and the UAE demonize Tunisia’s democracy and Ennahda,
while Qatar and Turkey laud both. Both camps have their clients in the country.
These players amplify coup rumors and delegitimize Tunisia’s political
independence, which adds to the public’s distrust
of the government. Back in 2013, the US, Europe, and Algeria limited the reach
of these countries. Ironically, in 2018, it is the US, the EU, and Algeria that
are rattled by internal divisions and terrified of foreign interference.
History holds many lessons for those navigating
Tunisia’s tumult, with some particularly apt parallels to be found in Russia’s
post-Soviet transition. There, during his final years in power, a weakened
Boris Yeltsin sought to secure his presidential legacy and save his family from prosecution. Hence, the
so-called “father of Russian democracy”
appointed then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, to succeed
him. Russia’s democracy never recovered.
Tunisia’s infighting and nepotistic policies have a
similar feel. The Arab world’s most promising democratic experiment can still
avert a political meltdown, but it needs help. Local and international
mediators guided Tunisia from turmoil once before. They must do so again.