Cooperating modernities in Tunisia?

[This month’s post is being hosted by the Contending Modernities blog, a new project at the University of Notre Dame exploring modernity from Catholic, Muslim and Secular perspectives]

In April, Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan came out with an article in the Journal of Democracy on “Tunisia’s Transition and the Twin Tolerations.” If the article is right, Tunisia’s secularists and Islamists are participating in an encouraging pattern of political cooperation that bodes well for the country’s democratic development. There is good reason to be hopeful about the relevance of an emerging “Tunisian model” of secular-Islamist negotiation, not only for Tunisia’s future but for all those countries affected by the Arab Spring. Yet there is also reason for caution… read full entry here

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Elections in Algeria: Everybody Loses Again

Algerians voted for a new parliament last Thursday in the country’s first national elections since the beginning of the Arab Spring. The results of the vote are underwhelming and leave little hope that the aching democratic aspirations of Algeria will be met anytime soon. This did not have to be the case. Some months ago, in fact, the specter of these elections filled observers of Algerian politics with a gulp of fresh air, when it looked like something, finally, new, might happen and herald real political reform. Thanks to the vibes of change emanating from their Maghrebi neighbors, Algerian political parties appeared to muster new energies and poise themselves to respond to this desire for change. No party, perhaps, felt these tremors more than the MSP-HMS one of Algeria’s largest Islamist-oriented parties. In January of this year, the MSP broke from a 13-year-old coalition with Algeria’s ruling nationalist parties, formed a “Green Alliance” with two smaller Islamist parties and predicted the inevitable victory of Islamism in parliament. Such a scenario was not implausible. The MSP had made their declaration against a backdrop of steady social unease, evidenced not in the least by scores of public immolations, and their presence gave urgency to the Algerian ruling parties’ plea to the people to vote massively. It looked, therefore, like we might have a real election on our hands.

Whatever new energy had percolated, however, it was not enough to shake the deep sense of apathy that so many Algerians have assumed towards a political system they know is not theirs. Thus the nationalist ruling parties may have technically won the elections (together they claim 62% of the vote), but in doing so, they have failed to shore up any popular credibility for the regime.  In what was billed as a referendum on the regime’s legitimacy, therefore, the majority of Algerians who did not vote (officially 57% abstention, but quite possibly much higher) implicates a loss for the regime’s ruling parties. The Green Alliance, for their part, came nowhere near to taking over the parliament, gaining only 10% of the vote. They are calling fraud and organizing a protest, but even if we more than double their results to what the MSP claims to have won, that is, to 22%, they still failed to convincingly get out the Islamist vote.  This leaves Algerians stuck again with an unpopular, lackluster, illiberal political regime and political opposition at a moment when the frustrated desire for competent politics remains high.

There are several timely lessons to be learned in all of this for both Algeria and the rest of North Africa. First it clearly illustrates some of the limits for new political Islamism in the region. Algeria’s MSP, like Tunisia’s Ennahda, Turkey’s AKP and Morocco’s PJD, has dedicated itself to a milder blend of identity politics and pragmatic policy positions than its forebears. After having participated in Algerian elections for more than twenty years, what the experience of the MSP proves, however, is that combining compromises and religious identity politics is not enough to buy lasting political relevance. The MSP has not been capable of consistently coming up with competent political strategies or overcoming intra-Islamist competition (two of Algeria’s most famous Islamist personalities, Abdallah Djaballah and Abdelmadjid Menasra ran on separate tickets). Last week’s elections are an indicator of just how little the MSP has to show for its years of participation.

A second lesson is that while illiberal democracies still have some shelf-life in the region, their expiration dates seem to be nearing.  Thus, even though President Bouteflika’s regime ran an actual political campaign, invited in hundreds of foreign electoral observers and put on all the show of a real democracy in motion, it wasn’t enough to convince Algerians that the regime had not toyed with the process all along. By tinkering at the edges and hassling all the small guys in the opposition, the state made the veneer of democracy that much thinner in Algeria and the promise of reform that much more hollow-sounding.

And that brings us to a final lesson, which is that for all of the hopes raised, the Arab Spring is also partly to blame for these diminishing democratic prospects in Algeria. The persistent political uncertainty of the region, with Libya to the east and Mali to the south, puts the shadowy, crooked, disparate forces who make the decisions in the country on the defensive and stacks the cards against any more political liberalization in Algeria. Which is why even if Algerian voters had called the regime on their game and voted in mass protest for parties of the opposition last Thursday, it was that much more likely that Algeria’s next leader would come out wearing a uniform, as Rachid Tlemcani put it recently. The menace hanging around Algeria’s presidential palace had implied so much already, making it difficult for Algerians to vote for the opposition (because they knew what would happen then) or vote for the regime (which was going to go on ruling anyway). So nobody voted. No legitimacy was distributed. No new hope for change was kicked down the road. And everybody loses in Algeria again.

Elections and Algerian Islamisms

At the beginning of last year, when protests built some steam in Algeria, its public face was young, democratic and mostly secular. But Islamists understood that the times were changing as well. Bouguerra Soltani, captain of the MSP-HAMAS, an Islamist party with Muslim Brotherhood connections and a member of the ruling coalition in Algeria for a decade, challenged the ruling parties in interviews and projected that a full democratic course had become inevitable. Abdallah Djaballah, one of the few consistent Islamist opposition figures in Algeria, also made appeals for further democratization and drew up his own plans for political reform. In the few moments when Islamists and democracy advocates pushed Bouteflika last year, as in pressing him in the parliament to repeal a deeply unpopular Emergency State Rule law, they won substantive concessions.

One could have hoped that these concessions and the success of united protest movements elsewhere in the region might have given enough impetus for the secular and Islamist wings of the opposition to unite forces, dramatically alter the composition of the parliament, push Bouteflika even harder and make an effective call for a new constitution.

At this point in the game, all of that seems unlikely. Much of the reason has to do with the Islamist electoral sweep in Tunisia and Egypt, which has heightened Islamist expectations for the same in Algeria. So high, in fact, that Soltani, in a game-changing move, pulled his party out of the presidential alliance last month and announced that Islamists would win a majority in parliamentary elections this May. As I’ve posted before, Algerian Islamists possess a formidable electoral base in Algeria which scholars have too often dismissed, and it is probable that Islamist parties will see their electoral numbers go up thanks to the region’s mood. However, if Soltani wants Islamists to take over parliament, and then drive for reform, he has his work cut out for him.

One of the greatest roadblocks to Soltani’s aspirations is that contemporary Islamism in Algeria is cut up into sharp divisions. No less than four major Islamist-inspired parties, in fact, will be contesting the elections in May, including Djaballah’s Front pour la Justice et le Développement and Abdelmadjid Menasra’s Front du Changement. Djaballah’s opposition credentials are beyond doubt and Menasra, a former MSP leader who split from Soltani after the party’s founder, Mahfoud Nahnah, died, is as impeccable and politically astute as they come. While Soltani has said that negotiations are in the way for the formation of an united Islamic political front, it is hard to imagine either Menasra or Djaballah working for the MSP under Soltani. Djaballah has consistently rejected offers to join other Islamists for more than twenty years now, and Menasra and Soltani are locked in personal conflicts which are difficult to sort out.  Many Islamists, in fact, bitterly dislike Soltani, accusing him of too much compromise on the one hand and too much authoritarian party politics on the other. And Algerians, unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, have already had the time to experience buyer’s remorse when it comes to Islamist electoral gifts. After twenty years of elections and ten years in political positions of some import, Islamist parties have garnered only modest political achievements and their electoral shares have declined somewhat in recent years.

The Islamist push towards the parliament also signifies that little energy is being devoted to a political alliance between Islamist and secular parties. As it is, Algerian secular democrats already have bad memories of protests which they started and that finished with Islamists winning elections. It is doubtful, however, that Soltani can achieve real reform in Algeria without them right now. These divisions, naturally, play into Bouteflika’s hand, and make substantive political reform in Algeria an elusive task.

This does not imply that Islamists or secular parties will not be able to take advantage of elections in May to confront the regime and push for more political changes. But in order to do so, Algerian opposition parties cannot assume that the winds of the moment will be enough to get them there. Which means that Soltani and company will have to pound the pavement with some convincing mobilization strategies or the road to gradual reform in Algeria will be very gradual indeed.

E se i Fratelli fossero la Dc del Cairo?

[Excerpt from an interview by Lorenzo Biondi published with Europa, an Italian daily newspaper, on the November 28th, 2011 elections in Egypt. To read the whole interview online, click here]

Non c’è il rischio che l’affermazione elettorale degli islamisti li spinga verso il radicalismo?
Di certo la vittoria li inorgoglirà. Ma l’elettorato egiziano oggi è molto scettico nei confronti di chiunque cerchi di accentrare troppo potere nelle proprie mani. La Fratellanza cercherà di rassicurare quell’elettorato, come sta facendo anche Ennahda in Tunisia: mettendo in chiaro innanzitutto che non hanno intenzione di instaurare uno stato islamico, che non vogliono guastare i frutti della rivoluzione.
Un portavoce della Fratellanza ha detto a Der Spiegel: «Il “modello turco” non ci interessa. Loro consentono l’adulterio e l’omosessualità». Qual è il potenziale “democratico” dei movimenti a ispirazione islamista?
Se ci aspettiamo una laicizzazione completa della politica islamica, siamo fuori strada. Nel breve periodo si dovrebbero tenere sott’occhio alcuni criteri “minimi” come il rispetto della democrazia elettorale e delle opposizioni laiche. I Fratelli musulmani continueranno a perseguire valori che hanno un fondamento religioso, ma in una cornice diversa di regole. La retorica sulla loro agenda morale può rimanere invariata, anche se cambiano i mezzi con cui cercano di realizzarla.

The Ennahda Effect?

[This month’s post is being hosted by the Contending Modernities blog, a new project at the University of Notre Dame exploring modernity from Catholic, Muslim and Secular perspectives]

Tunisia’s Islamist-oriented political party, Ennahda, appears to have won slightly more than 40% of the popular vote in constitutional assembly elections on October 30th, the first elections since protests there ignited the Arab Spring last January. In December 2010 and January 2011, in the first days following popular revolutions in Tunisia and then Egypt, commentators emphasized their non-religious nature and the central role that ideologically neutral, social-media-toting youths played in toppling authoritarian governments. So the impressive, outright electoral victory of a major, religious political party in “secular” Tunisia should give pause for reflection.

Two questions seem particularly important: 1) Why did Ennahda do so well?, and 2) What does their success say about the future of Islamist-oriented parties elsewhere in the region?

Read full entry here

Ramadan in Qatar

It’s the last day of Ramadan in August in Qatar, my first in a Muslim country, and the quiet fasting daylight is quickening to be broken.

While perhaps not as much as many warned or feared in July, fresh violence marked this month, in Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, and in Palestine and Israel. But fresh political hopes as well, and rather than feed a lens of Ramadan-as-violence, I want to simply observe here the following Ramadan-hopes floating on the headlines this August in Qatar. Meager as these hopes may seem, they are signs of possibility. And they have just as much right as the violence to be associated in the press with the good works and almsgiving and communion with family and others and God that so many are seeking together in this moment (pursuits which have overwhelmed my green beginner reflections on Islam throughout the month).

1)      Libyan rebel fighters took Tripoli and despite continued fighting, throughout the week rebel leaders of the National Transition Council stressed restraint, promised reconciliation and pushed against purging. The government of Qatar, the first Arab government to really support the rebels’ struggle and the host of talks between Libyan political factions throughout the conflict, scrambled to layout a plan to help Libyan reconstruction efforts.

2)      Although Israel severed ties with them on account of it, Qatar has stepped up its efforts to help mediate the future of Palestine by providing political and legal aid to Palestinians as they submit a formal bid for statehood to the United Nations in September.

3)      Although Qatar broke with the league to protest Syria’s harsh crackdown last month, the rest of the Arab league joined Qatari diplomats’ chorus this week, condemned Assad’s violence and moved towards implementing consequential sanctions on the regime.

Democratization in the Land of Tibhirine

[This month’s post is being hosted by The Review of Faith and International Affairs]

Fifteen years ago, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria and assassinated in the mountains surrounding their home. In many ways, the story of these Catholic monks is an absurd entry point for a political reflection on contemporary Algeria. The Algerian Christian church is a tiny community in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, and the monks represent merely seven of the thousands of lives—perhaps as many as 200,000—that were extinguished during Algeria’s years of violence. Yet, with the recent release of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men in the United States, millions of Americans are being introduced to the monks’ story for the first time and, through their story, to Algerian politics. Given the film’s coincidence with political developments in the rest of North Africa, I would like to situate the film in its larger Algerian political context and consider what insights the spirit of Tibhirine might offer toward creating sustainable democracy in Algeria today…. read the rest of the article here