Islamist Party Wins Tunisia Elections

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Damien Gayle

2011-10-23T143139Z_975547807_GM1E7AN1QI901_RTRMADP_3_TUNISIA-ELECTION

Manoubia Bouazizi, the mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire, starting the Arab Spring.

REUTERS/Saidi

Tunisia’s main Islamist party is on its way to power after the first truly free and fair elections in the country’s history.

Early results from individual voting stations carried by local radio stations this morning put the Islamist Ennahda Party in the lead in many constituencies.

Tunisians voted yesterday to elect a constituent assembly in the first elections emerging from the so-called Arab Spring uprisings around the Middle East.

Electoral officials are still counting the votes and results are not expected until later today or tomorrow.

Boubker Bethabet, secretary general of Tunisia’s election commission, said that more than 90 per cent of the 4.1million registered voters cast their votes.

Radio Mosaique FM posted results from polling stations around the country with many showing a commanding lead for Ennahda.

Ennahdha (The Renaissance) is Tunisia’s main Islamist party. It was banned under the regime of ousted President Ben Ali.

Its leader, Rached Ghannouchi, 70, returned to his homeland earlier this year after more than two decades of exile in Britain. In a bid to counter fears of a fundamentalist-style crackdown, he has vowed that if an Islamic government comes to power, it will not ban alcohol or prevent women wearing bikinis.

He has also said his party will ‘respect democracy and modernity’ adding that his movement was one that could find ‘a balance between modernity and Islam.’

Tunisia is considered one of the Arab world’s most liberal states, with high levels of female participation in public and political life. Mr Ghannouchi has accordingly promised to show tolerance towards ‘women’s equality and liberal moral attitudes.’

Tunisia’s secular traditions go back to its first president after independence from France, who called the hijab an ‘odious rag’. When Mr Ghannouchi emerged after he cast his vote on Sunday, about a dozen secularists shouted at him: ‘Go away’ and ‘You are a terrorist and an assassin! Go back to London!’

Leaders insist the party has changed since its early years. First known as Islamic Action, then the Movement of the Islamic Tendency, it supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian capital. The group was also said to have been behind the bombing of tourist hotels in the Eighties, but since reforming has denounced violence.

An Ennahda victory would be the first Islamist success in the Arab world since Hamas won a 2006 Palestinian vote. Islamists won a 1991 election in Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbour, but the army annulled the result, provoking years of conflict.

In the more affluent Tunis suburb of al-Aouina, Zeinab Souayah, an 18-year-old language student and former protester said: ‘I’m going to grow up and think back on these days and tell my children about them.’

‘It feels great, it’s awesome,’ she added, in English.

The ballot was an extra-large piece of paper bearing the names and symbols of the parties fielding a candidate in each district.

The symbols are meant to aid the illiterate, estimated at about 25 per cent of the population in one of the most educated countries in the region.

Voters in each of the country’s 33 districts, six of which are abroad, had roughly 40 to 80 ballot choices.

It was a cacophony of options in a country effectively under one-party rule since independence from France in 1956.

The moderate Islamic movement Ennahda, or Renaissance, is expected to win the most seats in the assembly, although no one party is expected to win a majority.

An Ennahda victory, especially in a comparatively secular society like Tunisia, could have wide implications for similar religious parties in the region.

Retired engineer Bahri Mohamed Lebid, 73, said he voted ‘for my religion,’ a sentiment common among supporters of the Ennahda movement.

He said he last tried to vote in 1974, when polling officers forced him to cast a ballot for the ruling party despite his objections.

Ennahda believes that Islam should be the reference point for the country’s system and laws and believes that democracy is the best system to maintain people’s rights.

It has also said it supports Tunisia’s liberal laws promoting women’s equality – making it much more progressive than other Islamic movements in the Middle East.

After 23 years of dictatorial rule, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s despotic president, was overthrown on January 14 by a month-long uprising.

The revolution, sparked by a fruitseller who set himself on fire in protest of police harassment, was stirred by anger over unemployment, corruption and repression.

Ben Ali’s regime was among the Middle East’s most corrupt and repressive, and his long-calm country was shocked by the self-immolations at the start of the uprising and the ensuing outbursts of pent-up anger.

As protests spread across Tunisia, the police crackdown left more than 300 dead.

The uprising inspired similar rebellions across the Arab world.

The autocratic rulers of Egypt and Libya have fallen since, but Tunisia is the first country to hold free elections as a result of the upheaval.

Egypt’s parliamentary election is set for next month.

Some voters expressed concern that despite its moderate public line, Ennahda could reverse some of Tunisia’s progressive legislation for women.

‘I am looking for someone to protect the place of women in Tunisia,’ said 34-year-old Amina Helmi, who does not wear hijab. She said she was ‘afraid’ of Ennahda and voted for the center-left PDP party, the strongest legal opposition movement under Ben Ali.

A proportional representation system will likely mean that no political party will dominate the assembly, which is expected to be divided roughly among centrist parties, leftist parties and Ennahda.

They will need to form coalitions and make compromises to create a constitution.

But many ordinary Tunisians said they felt indifferent about the elections, out of frustration that life has not improved since January’s revolution.

Tunisia’s economy and employment, part of the reason for the uprising in the first place, have only got worse since Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, in part because tourists and foreign investors have stayed away.

Outside the school-turned-polling station in Hay al-Tadammon, a group of young men sat on the street, sipping tea and mocking journalists who were talking to people who had just voted.

Belhussein al-Maliki, 27, said he fought in the January uprising, which engulfed this downtrodden suburb, and lost a relative in the fighting.

‘We are jobless, we have nothing and we won’t vote,’ he said bitterly.

‘Everything is the same, the world is the way it is, and the world will stay the way it is.’

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The New Tunisian Democracy: Islamic or Secular?

October 6, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Geoffrey Cook, TMO

Washington–For the past several months since early summer, we have been examining Palestine’s bid for nationhood at the UN in New York City (NYC).  Last week their application went to the security council of the UN and, as was predicted by yours truly on these very pages a month and one-half ago, it was shunted to a committee of that august body on Manhattan.  As was predicted by Palestine’s diplomatic representative to the united states, he, also, foresaw that the proposal would be eventually forwarded to the general assembly (g.a.) Where, at the least, ramallah would be granted permanent observer status within the  g.a. Which would transform (the international) legal landscape for the fertile crescent.  The current move was meant to forestall the inevitable, and push Tel Aviv into more substantive negotiations.

President Barrack Hussein Obama is “caught between a rock and a hard place” with the American Zionist right-wing, led by the despicable AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee).  To oppose them is a death bell for any American politician.  The case of Cynthia Mckenna, the Afro-American congresswoman from a black Georgia district (likewise your author has written up a conversation with this former congressperson while in Sacramento a time back for this newspaper) was an “outspoken” advocate for both for the Palestinians and the Pakistanis within the house of representatives; and, thereby, she was twice “assassinated” politically by AIPAC’s filthy lucre.  It is rumored, for his proposals for a peace in the Levant the u.s. President is already targeted for his middle east policies by Jewish and Christian Zionists (the latter back the reactionary “tea party,” besides).  The Obama administration is trapped between his foreign initiatives to win over the Arab “spring” and his domestic enemies.

Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the only Muslim in in the American lower legislative chamber, has written a recent oft-quoted op-ed in the September 22nd new york times regarding the imbroglio within the holy land, “…direct negotiations have deteriorated to a dismally low point.”  My op-ed in the cyber and newsprint editions here last week may be a way out for the Obama government, and your commentator is circulating his ideas about to officials within the city of this article’s dateline – including in the form of a letter to Mr. Ellison.

Let us move on from Palestine, which has been alluded to as the source for the Arab “spring” to Tunisia, the first successful upheaval for Arab self-agency.

Before  the scheduled upcoming elections of October 23rd for the first “post-revolutionary” assembly, who will have the charge to draft a new constitution for this Maghreb countryside, your essayist hopes to compose several articles to present to American Muslims the realties on the ground in this modern punic territory which  is the most likely to make the transition to a contemporary Islamic democracy within that “spring” successfully.

Hamadi Jebali, the secretary-general of the al-Nahda party, who believes that Tunisia should be a fully Islamic society, also, reasons that its politics should not be locked in by the hadith along the lines of turkey, but the political landscape should be much less constitutionally radical than the nation that straddles the Bosporus.. The editor seems to be recommending a middle ground between the sacred and the secular – an Islamic modernism  if you will.

The engineer was quoted in an interview with The Italia News Webzine, “Our party is opposed to the introduction of the Sharia into the Constitution.  It is right for religion to play a role in society, but it should be separate from the State.  It is one thing to be inspired by the values and principles common to all the great monotheistic faiths, but the one source of the law should be the public will, and not the precepts of the Koran.”

He was in the District of Columbia last spring at the invitation of my Tunisian-born colleague, Radwan Masmaodi, the founder of the Washington and now Tunis’ (branch of) the center for democracy and Islam.  This presentation and interview was given at the US Capital’s (left of center) Stimson Center.

Hamadi Jebali (pictured to the left) was born during 1949 in Sousse, Tunisia. He is a graduate of the French (the former Colonial power of the Republic on the Southern Mediterranean littoral.  Parisian institutions have highly influenced, along with Islam, Tunis’ concept of the democratic) engineering institution, the Arts et Métiers in 1980 achieving an engineer’s degree in energy. He participated in many civil society activities during his ten-year stay in France, and was one of the founders of the French Muslim Association which demonstrates his deep personal Islamic religiosity, and participated in inter-religion dialogue that, further, demonstrates his toleration and liberality towards the beliefs of others, too.  He returned to Tunis in 1981, and became a member of the political bureau of the Islamic Tendency Movement.  Jebali became the president of this movement from 1981 to 1984.

Hamadi ran into legal difficulties for his political views in 1987 after Ben Ali came to power in late that year.

Despite this, Mr. Jebali became the political director of Nahda and the editor of the newspaper El Fair, the official newspaper of his party.  In 1990, he was condemned to sixteen years in prison, again, as a result of his political views and affiliation with al-Nahda, and spent 10 years in solitary confinement while in jail.  He was freed in 2006.  Then, he reintegrated into the Nahda party, and became its Secretary-General.

The presentation was in Arabic with translation by Masmaodi which gave your reporter plenty of time to get his comments down accurately.

What the “’Revolution’ was about was the dignity of the human being (very French) and social justice (more Islamic).   “We have to make this Revolt succeed…for social justice…We want political freedom…[for] One [dignity] goes with the other [freedom].”  Democracy is wherever freedom and justice reside side-by-side.

A State should represent all of its citizens, and refuse to be deleterious to any part of the body politique.  Everyone should have at least the “minimal rights” of residency!

Tunisia, the Metrpole of the pre-Islamic Carthagian Imperial world of the ancient past, has accomplished wonderful achievements over the centuries.  Even in the latter period education, women’s rights, etc. have been respected and have abounded.  Therefore, a “Peaceful democracy …is possible” in North Africa even though there are, additionally, many challenges which remain from individuals who benefited from the former regime, and still resist democratic change.

Thus, we shall require your support in the West.

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Hazare-Drama, Sangh Parivar’s Support Exposed!

September 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI:  In bits and pieces, the real stories linked with Anna Hazare’s 13-day fast and his supporters’ political background are gradually being revealed. Sources indicate that it was only a political game-show, including the fast, with corruption-issue deliberately selected to attract attention and target the central government. Medically, a person even half of Hazare’s age cannot be on fast for almost a fortnight and yet remain active enough to address the supporters almost daily. The secret behind Hazare remaining almost “fit” has nothing to do with his marital status, that of a bachelor. In reality, he was regularly kept on a liquid diet, particularly glucose. This “news” was deliberately not leaked even by people aware about it as it would have punctured the hype being raised about Hazare’s “fast” before his “mission” was at least partly accomplished.

The real support for 13-day show at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan came from members of saffron brigade and groups associated with them. They were, for instance, taking care of cooking and providing food and drinks to people visiting Ramlila Maidan. In fact, free supply of eatables at the grounds prompted a percentage of visitors to be there and enjoy the food as a part of their picnic.

Though support of saffron brigade for Hazare’s was known as an open secret all along, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) maintained a studied silence on this till the 13-day drama lasted. Now, the BJP and other wings of saffron brigade have openly revealed that their members were the key factions behind Hazare’s movement. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) chief Ashok Singhal has openly asserted that his group was in involved in Hazare’s movement against corruption. He said: “Members of the Dharma Yatra Mahasangh, a wing of the VHP, had opened stalls at Ramlila Maidan to offer food to over 20,000 people every day.”

Interestingly, while Arvind Kejriwal – key member of Hazare team – has expressed “shock” at Singhal’s claims, he has also accepted being unaware of whether the persons taking care of food stalls belonged to any extremist group or not. “I’m quite surprised, I’m shocked. It’s wrong, rather mischievous on Singhal’s part to say such thing. He should not indulge in these things,” Kejriwal said. At the same time, he acknowledged: “Six-seven organizations set up food stalls. They demanded space (at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan) and we gave them. I don’t know if one of them belonged to any political groups.”

With the drama over, now, critics are also deliberating on the similarity between slogans used by supporters at Ramlila Maidan and members of Sangh Parivar. The slogan that has prompted many critics to question secular credentials of key supporters of Hazare-drama is “Vande Matram.”

Having succeeded in attracting attention of people, the Congress-led government and the media, the BJP now plans to gain political mileage from Anna-movement in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state which is scheduled for assembly elections in less than a year from now. Elaborating on this, a BJP leader said: “The reports of our various wings being with Anna’s movements are true. The movement was a huge success against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.” Earlier, the party was not sure of the movement’s popularity. “Confident,” after success in Delhi, the BJP plans to take forward Anna’s movement in UP, according to Vinay Bahadur Pathak, UP unit’s party spokesperson. With the public sentiment strongly against corruption, Pathak said: “As the Congress at the center and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP are openly involved in various acts of corruption, we can certainly use the movement to our advantage.”

The BJP has planned two major yatras (processions) in UP, which will be flagged off from Mathura and Varanasi on October 13. They will culminate in Lucknow on November 21 after traversing most parts of the state. “A week before the main yatra reaches a particular assembly constituency, the local units of the party will start smaller yatras. Since we will hold rallies in each assembly constituency, the smaller yatras will ensure the presence of a large number of people there,” Pathak said.  The BJP has also planned 350 small yatras in UP, said the party vice-president, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. He is in-charge of assembly election management in UP.

Gradually, non-BJP leaders have also started speaking loudly about Sangh Parivar’s backing of Hazare-drama. In words of Lok Janshakti Party president, Ram Vilas Paswan: “Former RSS ideologue Govindacharya and leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have themselves been claiming that the crowd that had gathered at the Ram Lila Maidan comprised Sangh Parivar volunteers.” At the same time, he clarified that this does not imply all supporters of Hazare’s anti-corruption movement are members of Sangh Parivar.

With BJP’s political standing in UP a dismal affair at present, the party is apparently banking on the Anna-wave to turn the political tide in its favor during the coming assembly elections. It is as yet too early to state whether BJP’s Anna-chant will succeed in UP or not. Nevertheless, as the party leaders are revealing their intentions, it is becoming clearer that the 13-day drama at Ramlila Maidan was a part of their political strategy with an eye on UP polls. The BJP and Sangh Parivar are all set to politically cash on this line of action, through yatras, for electoral gains in UP assembly elections!

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Electoral Verdict & Muslims’ Success!

May 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI: Declaration of results to the five state assembly elections has certainly ended political suspense regarding the fate of candidates and parties engaged in the political battle. It is now imperative to analyse the results particularly in context of electoral success of Indian Muslims. Before elaborating on Muslims’ standing in this political phase, it is relevant to evaluate the overall performance of major parties in the race. Undeniably, the success of Trinamool Congress in alliance with Congress in ousting the Left bloc from power in West Bengal stands out. The Left has been pushed out of power after having headed the state government for 34 years. Trinamool Chief Mamata Bannerjee, popularly known as Didi, has been hailed in most quarters for having succeeded in this mission. Having won 184 seats in polls held in 294 constituencies, the Trinamool has emerged as a major political force in West Bengal, as it has the needed the strength to form the government with or without support from its allies, including the Congress. The Congress has won 42 seats. Credit must be given to both the Trinamool and Congress parties for having fought the elections as allies. It was sensible of Congress not to have insisted on testing its political strength in all the constituencies without reaching any political understanding with Trinamool. The Congress tried this experiment earlier in Bihar assembly elections to only fail and make it easier for its rivals – National Democratic Alliance- to return to power in state with greater success than expected.

In contrast, Congress and its key ally- Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have failed miserably in Tamil Nadu. In polls held to 234 seats, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by J. Jayalalitha has won 150 seats. The DMK has secured only 23 and the Congress – five seats.

The Congress has fared well in Assam by winning 78 out of 126 seats. It is a hat trick for Congress leader Tarun Gogoi to return to power as Assam Chief Minister for the third term. Kerala has also spelt success for Congress but only with the support of its ally, Muslim League. Here, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has been pushed out of power with the Congress-coalition that is the United Democratic Front (UDF) winning 72 seats in the battle for 140. The LDF managed only 68. While the Congress has won 38 seats, the 20 secured by Muslim League have played a major role in helping UDF form the new Kerala government. The elections to 30 constituencies in Pondicherry have witnessed victory for Congress in seven, AIADMK- five, DMK – two and others – 16.

Apart from stunning defeat faced by Left in West Bengal as well as its failure in Kerala to return to power, the political loss suffered by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot be sidelined. The BJP has won only one seat in West Bengal, five in Assam and none in South India. The five seats won in Assam are only half of the 10 BJP had in the preceding assembly. The BJP contested more than 800 seats in the five states’ assembly elections. Undeniably, the Congress has performed better, but it cannot be missed that except for in Assam, the party has not fared too well on its own strength. The Congress has won less than 50 percent of the seats it contested. The party has tasted success in only 170 of the 359 seats it contested. 

The assembly elections are also a crucial indicator of the increasing political importance of Muslim votes as well as Muslim parties. As mentioned earlier, the UDF’s success in Kerala would not have been possible without the state Muslim League as a key ally. The reverse is the case in Assam, where Asom United Democratic Front (AUDF) – led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal Qasmi – has emerged as the leading party in the opposition. The BJP and its ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have lost their position as the main opposition group to AUDF, which has won 18 seats. Though, nominally, unlike Kerala’s Muslim League, AUDF has not included any religious term in its label, the party is known as a Muslim party. Despite being in the political race only for the second term, AUDF has increased in its tally from 10 in the last assembly to 18 in the new one. What is more amazing is its emergence as the leading opposition party, the second most important party (after Congress) in the Assam assembly.
The percentage of Muslims in Assam is around 31 percent. Against 25 Muslim members in the last Assam assembly, there are 28 in the new one, with 16 from AUDF. West Bengal, with Muslims constituting 28 percent of the state’s population, has elected 59 Muslims, 13 more than in the earlier assembly. Twenty-five percent of Kerala’s population are Muslims. The state has elected 36 Muslims, 11 more than earlier, to the new assembly. Muslims constitute less than 13 percent of the population in both Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry. The two states have lesser Muslim members than they had in the outgoing assemblies. While Tamil Nadu has elected six members, Pondicherry has elected one, against the seven and two, both the states respectively had in the previous assemblies.
There is no denying that representation of Muslims in the five state assemblies remains below the mark it should be in keeping with their population. Nevertheless, the assembly elections indicate that their political importance and strength have definitely displayed a decisive increase in states where their population is more than 25 percent, which are West Bengal, Assam and Kerala. Interestingly, BJP’s political card has failed miserably in all the five states against the electoral verdict won by Muslim candidates as well as Muslim parties!

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