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Middle East and Africa

For a New Citizenship in Northern Africa

Interview by Michele Brignone

Following the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, the Egyptian one is tottering too. In your opinion could the situation evolve in a similar way to the events in Tunisia or do internal factors exist that make one imagine a different transition?



The protests in Egypt are surprisingly similar to those that Tunisia has just experienced. The demands are of a deeply political nature: a radical change in the political regime, which would make the Egyptians go from being subjects of the state to citizens. The Egyptians want to pass from an authoritarian and corrupt regime to a responsible transparent government before the citizens. As in Tunisia, the economic problems act as background to these demands. It is therefore highly probable that the situation will evolve analogously to the one in Tunisia, but everything depends on the strategy and behaviour of the army. The Egyptian regime is a military regime, unlike the Tunisian one.



In Egypt therefore it is the military that is in control of any possible transition. For the time being the army is not repressing the protestors. In Tunisia a similar position allowed two successive provisional governments to take over with no military coup. In Egypt the military will decide whether they want Mubarak’s departure and who will carry out the transition, the military or a civilian transition government. Moreover, Egypt occupies a crucial position in the balance of the international forces in the region. If the United States declares to be unwilling to take a stance, they will certainly have some amount of influence in the games, directing the country towards a chaos free transition and maintaining the alliance between the United States, Egypt and Israel.



The events in Tunisia were rather unexpected both by the media and international diplomacy. Was the Tunisian regime really as stable as people thought it was?



The regime owed its stability to three great pillars: first of all the police, which guaranteed order and, above this, the political police, which through the Ministry of the Interior ensured the submission of civilians by means of the violent repression of any opposition at all. The second pillar of the regime was the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally), heir of the PSD (the Socialist Destourian Party of Habib Bourguiba). The RCD, with its cells integrated in all the institutions of the country, had the role of controlling and organising the population to mobilise it in favour of the Ben Ali regime. The third pillar was the foreign support from the United States, the European Union and in particular France. These three pillars tottered before the power of the mass revolution which united all Tunisians against the regime, of every extraction with no distinction whatsoever, and thanks to the army which refused to carry out its role of repression (unlike what happened in Iran in 2010).



The most difficult pillar to clear out is that of the party, which has been at the head of the state since independence. At intervals the police continues to intervene, repeating the practices of the Ben Ali regime. There remains the question of the future of these two pillars, all the more so that if Tunisia actually started a true revolution between 17 December 2010 – date of the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi – and 27 January 2011 – date of the formation of a transition government without, under pressure from the street, most of the men of the old regime - we still do not know if this is a real change in the political regime.



The media first of all showed the uprisings that triggered the flight of Ben Ali as the consequence of a generational crisis (the despair of the young) and a socio-economic one (price rises). In your opinion, is this interpretation sufficient to explain the situation? Or can one speak of a sudden jolting of civilian society and an appeal for state democratisation by the Tunisian people?



The economic crisis has laid bare a deep social and political crisis, to which the regime had paid no attention. Europe is the first market to which the Tunisian economy is linked, and which was very badly hit by the 2008 economic crisis. Growth in Tunisia has dropped from about 5% in the first decade of 2000 to 3% in the last two years. Unemployment in young graduates has worsened as a result. Since 2008 the region of the phosphate mineral basin around Gafsa – south of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserin, two towns whose populations played an important role in the revolution – has been the theatre of various economic and social protests. Having said this though, the economic question was strictly linked to a political one, of corruption and its effects.



The opening up of Tunisia to economic globalisation was accompanied by acts of corruption: the ex-president Ben Ali and his family entourage illegally took possession of numerous privatised companies, and the corruption existing at all levels of state became the source of malcontent. A real breakdown between the state and the Tunisians took place. Moreover it can be seen that the protests often gathered in front of the buildings representing the state and the RCD, and that some of them were destroyed or occupied by the protesters. Aside from the economic crisis and the problems of corruption, there is a desire for citizenship on the part of the Tunisians, that is, of an aspiration to be truly represented at a political level and to have leaders who are responsible before the people. The Tunisian revolution was played out on issues of a new national project, citizenship and freedom. We now find ourselves well beyond a nationalism that was defined in relation to the other (the coloniser and the West) or by means of certain ideologies. It is a project of internal political renewal that appeals to universal values, as expressed in a slogan often chanted during the protests: ‘shughl, hurriyya, karâma wataniyya’ that is ‘work, freedom, national dignity’.



When one speaks of the countries of the Middle East, one normally thinks that the only real opposition to the ruling regimes is constituted by Islamists. The events in Tunisia seem to deny such conviction. Could a similar situation be repeated in other countries of the Middle East? Is it possible to connect what is happening in Egypt with the Tunisian example?



In Tunisia, the Islamist movement al-Nahda was an extremely powerful opposition force. It was severely repressed under Bourguiba and then under Ben Ali, particularly after having obtained 17% of the seats at the 1989 elections when its members stood as independent candidates. The Tunisian regime used the threat of an ‘Algerian scenario’ to justify the brutal repression of the Islamists. This is why the Islamist movement today finds itself greatly weakened. Being a political movement it did not take part in the protests. It is possible that it exercised a certain strategic caution, as it did not want to be used by a transition government as a new pretext to not pass to pluralism. The government formed on 27 January 2011 seems however to be open to their participation in the political process.



On the other hand, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the historical leader of al-Nahda, who returned to Tunis on 30 January 2011, declared that he had no intention of changing the Code of Personal Status which guarantees Tunisian women’s rights, and that his aim was not that of establishing sharî‘a in Tunisia. He explicitly compared his movement to that of the AKP Islamists in Turkey and stated that he was in favour of a democratic transition. The Tunisian political scenario is still uncertain, but it seems to be made up of left-wing opposition parties, progressives, democrats and new parties asking to be authorised. The Islamists therefore are certainly not the only nor the most important political opponents, and will undoubtedly have to adapt their political programme to the present situation, particularly in the proposal of solutions to the big economic and social problems. For this reason the Islamic component in the political game must not be ignored, but nor must its importance be exaggerated, as is done by numerous observers in Europe and the United States, who resume a dichotomy often used by those who supported Ben Ali’s regime: either dictatorship or Islamists. On the contrary, it appears to me that the paradigm has deeply changed and that this dichotomy has no reason to exist before the demands for radical change in the type of government coming from the Tunisian people. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is more deep-rooted and has always had, despite the repression, more important margins for movement than those granted to the Islamist movement in Tunisia, but even its members are not the only opponents to the Mubarak regime. Furthermore they have recently changed their debate – but not in the same sense as the Tunisian Islamists. It is possible and also probable that the same change in paradigm is taking place in Egypt.



Since the time of Bourguiba, the Tunisian state has found a solution to its relationship with Islam by subordinating the latter to very strict control. Even though it is probably too early for an in-depth analysis of this issue, is it possible that the change of regime will bring about changes in the relations between the state and Islam?




The Tunisian state effectively subordinated Islam to its control both at an institutional level and at the level of the interpretations of Islam which it managed to put into effect. The Tunisian constitution states that Islam is the religion of state. Over recent years the control of Islam has become tighter and tighter, thus causing a certain amount of tension among the devout Tunisian population, which wants to practise Islam in all freedom, and which is influenced by the Islam of the Gulf’s satellite channels. Ben Ali’s regime tried in vain to recover the religious component to its own advantage by creating an Islamic radio channel. The question of religious freedom and the role of the state towards religion will certainly come up again in the constitutional debates or in other contexts, if there are any. One can ask whether a constitutional reform will consider the question or not.



The most likely scenario is that Islam will remain the religion of state, but that the question of the place of Islam in the Tunisian society will be the subject of debates and disagreements. What is certain is that the liberal and modernist interpretation of Islam made by Bourguiba has left an indelible mark on Tunisian society and the Islamists themselves. For this reason I do not think that Islamist pressure will take place in Tunisia comparable to the pressure characterising other countries of the region.



In the long run, is it instead possible that the Egyptian Islamists will attempt to take the lead of the transition by cultivating hegemonic ambitions? And what role will the mosque-university of al-Azhar have in this, which until today, has given the ‘official’ interpretation of Islam?



The Egyptian Muslim Brothers represent an important part of the opposition, but they are not the only ones that count on the political front. Also the left and the liberals make up important groups. For the moment the Brothers are keeping a low profile, a strategy that allows them to not frighten their potential adversaries. Nonetheless, this is not only a question of a strategic position. Not all the Muslim Brothers necessarily aim at a hegemonic power and many of them have considerably moderated their debate. Also within the Brotherhood there exist oppositions and they do not necessarily represent a homogenous group. Overall they want to participate politically, that is, to govern. They therefore need a political system that guarantees alternate government and not a new authoritarianism that could harm them once again. The example of the Turkish AKP can offer them a model. In any case, today this is the model of the historical leader of the Tunisian Islamists Rashed al-Ghannushi.



Al-Azhar, the official institution of Egyptian Islam has always been faithful to the state and in general replies to its demands. The great ulemas of Egyptian Sunni Islam adapt to any possible pressures by the state and know how to let their disagreement be subtly expressed with the official policies. If the Brothers managed to take office, al-Azhar would show itself faithful to this line of official conduct, which can depend also to a large extent on the personality of its Great Imam.



If there were a real transition towards democracy – but we are far from this at the moment – al-Azhar could become a real echo of the various religious currents in Egyptian life and publicly express its own religious and intellectual diversity, which until now it has not always been allowed to do.