Tunisia's political turmoil

Last month's frightening scenes of mobs attacking the American Embassy and an American school in Tunisia  should focus Washington's attention on the birthplace of the Arab uprising.  President Moncef Marzouki has made great efforts to apologize for the attacks, to emphasize his government's commitment to democracy, and to crack down on what they clearly label an extremist minority. But concerns over the emerging salafi challenge should not distract attention from the deeper issues confronting one of the most hopeful of the Arab transitions.   The protests themselves were rooted in a deeply contentious political arena facing rising polarization around the role of Islam, anxiety about the drafting of the constitution, and the failure of the transitional government to effectively respond to a deep jobs crisis.

A new public opinion survey released by the International Republican Institute shows that Tunisians  have a grim view of their future. They remain overwhelmingly focused on a disastrous economy rather than on Islamist cultural issues.  But they are also exceedingly keen to see the drafting of a new Constitution completed -- and by a spread of 52%-41%, Tunisians said they would prefer a democratic Tunisia which was unstable and insecure over a non-democratic system which was prosperous and secure. This latest snapshot of public attitudes demonstrates again both how Tunisia's revolution has stalled.. and why there is still reason for hope.

The headline of an IRI survey which found 67% of Tunisians saying that the country is going in the wrong direction -- the highest since IRI began polling in March 2011 -- might be "it's the economy, stupid."  Large majorities identify economic issues as their primary concern: 60% describe the economy as bad or very bad, while 81% mention jobs as one of their top three issues, followed by "Developing the economy" (51%) and "Living Standards" (49%).  85% say that unemployment is the top problem facing the country, followed by economic crisis (63%). A rather stunning 57% of respondents say that they are not currently employed. 

Their concerns are warranted.  The 2013 World Development Report, as Erik Churchill points out, is full of horrifying statistics about Tunisia's jobs crisis.  This ongoing economic and jobs crisis threatening Tunisia's transition only highlights the foolishness of the Congressional decision to deny funding to the State Department's new program for economic assistance to transitional Arab governments.  Meaningful economic assistance seems far more important than democracy assistance or military cooperation for supporting a democratic future for Tunisia.  It is pure folly to cut such assistance programs now.   

If the economy is the overwhelming background issue for  Tunisians, politics also seems to matter.  A massive 86% majority say that "completing the Constitution" is important or very important to them, and 73% want it put to a popular referendum rather than simply approved by the Constituent Assembly.   There is still strong support for democracy, even admidst crisis, as noted above.   But enthusiasm for popular mobilization may be fading:  a sizable minority (30%) describes "strikes and sit-ins" as one of the top problems facing the country, and another 28% complain about  violence and vandalism.

Looking ahead to the next elections, Ennahda remains by far the strongest political party in the IRI survey, with 27% saying they intend to vote for the Islamist party in the next election and no other party exceeding 6%.   But there's a lot of volatility.  41% say they don't know who they will vote for.  Only 59% now say that they voted correctly in the previous election, down from 89% at the beginning of 2012, and only 39% say they intend to vote for the same party this time. 

What about secularism?  50% now say that they would accept the Tunisian government being secular -- the highest number recorded in an IRI survey. But 64% would prefer a strongly or moderately Islamist government -- down 15 points from January, but still a strong majority.  This is useful context for the renewed attention to the salafist or jihadist challenges. Where Tunisia initially managed to avoid the worst forms of polarization around religion, over the last year Islamist conservatism and especially the role of women and attempts to criminalize blasphemy have become highly sensitive issues in constitutional debates and in public life.  The outrageous charging of a woman raped by the police with indecency has drawn appropriate international condemnation, as well as protests on her behalf which have predictably received far less Western attention than the YouTube protests did.

The escalating battles over Islam in Tunisia's public sphere have raised the temperature at a time of great uncertainty.  But despite the raw angers and fears which these issues raise, it isn't all bad. That public contention has made it ever more difficult for Ennahda to maintain its carefully cultivated ambiguity.  It forces them to confront the divergent demands of governing and popular mobilization, and to decide whether to play to the conservative street or seek the calmer middle.  In other words, the very polarization and hot contention which is raising the political temperature and causing such worry may actually be a sign that an open public sphere and the prospect of elections is working as it should.   As in Egypt, actually putting a legitimate constitution in place and resolving the deep uncertainty about basic rules and principles would go a long way towards cooling these conflicts --a point clearly recognized by the 86% of Tunisians who view completing the Constitution as a top priority. 

It's worth looking through the IRI survey for a snapshot of current Tunisian attitudes and trends since the revolution.  The mixture of anger and hope among Tunisians, and their deeply divided views on core constitutional issues, shines through the numbers. Nobody ever thought these transitions would be easy.  But the sheer fact of real politics in countries such as Tunisia, with open contention and elections whose outcome is not known in advance, remains a fundamental change which should be nurtured and supported. 


Marc Lynch

Politicizing Benghazi

On September 11, 2012, in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and a wave of protests around the region against that absurd YouTube video, an attack in Benghazi killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. officials. American officials were surprised by the attack, shocked and horrified by the death of a close colleague, clearly confused about what exactly had happened, and a bit disorganized in their public statements. Reporters, politicians, and analysts have a number of serious important unanswered questions about the nature of the attack, security arrangements in Benghazi, the real role of al Qaeda, and the implications for possible future attacks. They might also be asking questions about why the protests so quickly fizzled and why so many Arab governments and political activists denounced the attacks and their perpetrators.

But that's not the debate we're having. Instead, in what passes for foreign policy debate six weeks before a presidential election, Republicans are focused on selectively parsing words to concoct a fantasy of the greatest scandal in American history -- worse than Watergate! As dangerous as the failure to connect dots before 9/11! Grounds for impeachment! The political calculations here are almost painfully transparent, as the Romney campaign desperately flails about for a way to attack Obama on foreign policy and change the subject to anything which doesn't include the phrase "47 percent." The media, bored with the current electoral narrative and always infatuated with sensational images of Muslim rage and the hint of scandal, is happy to play along. Such is policy debate during election season.

The focus of the "BenghaziGate" narrative has been on the conflicting narratives offered by Obama administration officials about what happened. The administration, they argue, intentionally played down the terrorism dimension of the attack for political reasons. A fair reading of administration statements would suggest confusion in the initial fog of war, with conflicting information and carefully guarded assessments which were updated as more evidence came in. Frankly, I don't think the administration did a particularly good job of communicating their stance, or coordinating their message across different officials, and they did seem oddly defensive and reactive as the media narrative gathered steam. But as "scandals" go this is weak stuff indeed.

The campaign against Susan Rice is especially misguided. Rice has energized U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations, restoring it to the center of U.S. foreign policy and playing a particularly central role in securing a Security Council mandate for the intervention in Libya. She has relentlessly pursued a U.N. role in Syria, despite Russian and Chinese objections, and has been a vocal and effective advocate of both the United States and of global norms. Indeed, she is arguably the most successful and important U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since Thomas Pickering, who managed the diplomacy at the United Nations for the liberation of Kuwait in 1990-91. Making her the scapegoat for a non-scandal has more to do with the desperate search for ways to attack Obama and preparing the ground for possible Secretary of State confirmation hearings next year than with anything grounded in reality.

That doesn't mean that there aren't serious questions. Journalists were absolutely right to dig deeper and to challenge the official narrative, and serious analysts will be struggling for weeks and months to come to assess what really happened. Was this an opportunistic attack by local extremists, or an attack coordinated with and supported by the remnants of al Qaeda Central? Even if it was opportunistic and unplanned, will its success become a model for future attacks? Will the Libyan government and the popular movements to disarm militias be strong enough to successfully establish state control? What is the significance of the fizzling of the protests across most of the region, and the crackdown by elected governments on the groups behind them? What about other governments faced with potentially emergent extremist groups, from Tunisia and Egypt to farther afield? How could the United States effectively work with those governments to meet such challenges? And at home, does Romney support Arab democracy along with long-time advocates in his party such as John McCain and Bill Kristol, or does he side with those on the GOP right more fearful of the empowerment of Islamists? I certainly don't know the answers to all these questions, even if most contributors to the "debate" seem to have such perfect information.

But instead of those debates, we're treated to a witch-hunt against Susan Rice and a flood of surrogates in the media attempting to exploit the horrific images of a dead ambassador for political gain. The only bright side is that, well, eventually election season will be over.

fficial White House Photo by Pete Souza