By Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh

Introduction: A Turbulent Transition

For the third time in six months, Tunisia’s political elites are scrambling to form a new government. This latest saga of political wheeling and dealing came after Elyes El-Fakhfakh’s abrupt resignation earlier this month amidst his conflict of interest (read: corruption) scandal over profiting from government contracts with companies he owns, to the tune of fifteen million dollars, and the appointment of his replacement, Hichem Mechichi, by President Kais Saied. This insight focuses on a series of interrelated and interconnected crises afflicting Tunisia over the past several months, since the September-October 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

It is time to go beyond sensationalist coverage and ideological or politicised ‘analysis’ of Tunisia’s dizzying political scene, in the hope that the country’s political elite can get on with the business of governing. To that end, the article considers not just the political implications for the latest developments in the country, but also ponders some of the lessons to be learned at this critical stage in the country’s democratic transition.

Two observations are in order. First, Tunisia may not be ‘exceptional’, but its democratisation deserves contextualised attention. The idiosyncrasy of Tunisia’s transition is its ever-shifting centres of power between the various political actors and even institutions. Parties within and outside of the ruling coalition, as well as individuals, always seem to be looking for an improved sort of power balance to strengthen themselves vis-à-vis other players, even within the same ruling coalition. This constant competitiveness, long after election season ended, likely spurred the revelations of Fafkhfakh’s earnings now under investigation, precipitating his resignation.

Changing coalitions, changes within parties, unsteady dynamics and tugs-of-war between the ‘three presidents’ (President Saied; the now-former head of government, Fakhfakh; and Speaker of Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi) have become an expected feature of Tunisian politics. No consensus seems to exist on anything at the partisan level. The electorate has accepted the country’s basic institutions, but this is not always echoed by politicians and parties. Examples include Saied’s campaigning to change the political system in favour of more direct democracy;  the electoral law that is lopsided regarding how seats are counted, making it advantageous to newcomers like Itilaf al-Karama and detrimental to larger parties like Ennahda; parliamentary by-laws (including speaking time, committees, and the option to debate and vote on ‘petitions’);  and foreign policy (on Libya, Syria, or other regional powers such as Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and Egypt). Continuing instability has yielded few set expectations that pattern the behaviour of either voters or political elites. The political scene has neither found nor fully constructed itself. Tunisian politics, nearly ten years after the 2011 uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has not yet settled from its institutions to its political culture.

Stemming from this instability, a second related feature is the absence of dominance or hegemony by any political actor, party or individual. Even the largest party, Ennahda, has seen its parliamentary seats plummet from sixty nine to fifty four in the last elections. The question ‘Who governs in Tunisia today?’ is pertinent. Is it the head of government, the speaker of parliament or the president? To an extent, this fragmentation will continue to be part of the landscape in the foreseeable future. Overall, this is a healthy dynamic in Tunisia’s democratisation, making a repeat of the 2013 Egypt coup scenario unlikely. 


The ‘conflict of interest’/corruption scandal

The extremely rapid rise and fall of a candidate who received less than 0.5 per cent of Tunisians’ votes when he ran for the presidency in October 2019 has made headlines in and outside Tunisia. His insistent confidence, as pressure mounted by MPs and the media (for instance, his interview with Nawaat), was baffling. Fakhfakh insisted that the judicial process would play out in his favour. Investigations and new reports by the finance ministry and the committee tasked with looking into the conflict of interest allegations were not kind to this short-lived prime minister. The conditions of contracts awarded to companies in which he has at least partial ownership (including Valis) were far from being above board, the reports suggest.  Paradoxically, Fakhfakh had promised to lead a government of ‘clarity’ (al-wuduh) and to regain public trust ('adat al-thiqah). These pledges have fallen flat and it will be little wonder if even more voters (particularly young people) sink deeper into political apathy and disillusionment.

The choice of this allegedly corrupt politician to lead government reveals that Saied misfired terribly when he nominated Fakhfakh as the ‘most competent’ person for the position (al-shakhsiyyah al-aqdar) as outlined by Article 89 of the constitution. This was after Ennahda’s nominee, Habib Jemli, failed to deliver a government acceptable to a majority in the legislature. There is irony in a newcomer president, about whom there is general agreement on his ‘clean’ record, choosing a prime minister knee-deep in corruption allegations. The question now is whether Saied’s new appointment, former interior minister Hichem Mechichi, will be able to form a new government? Or will the country head to new elections in three months?

Parliamentary mayhem

The exploding Fakhfakh scandal came amidst a chaotic parliamentary term. The tireless campaign of the head of the Free Destourian Party, Abir Moussi, against Rached Ghannouchi appears to be bearing fruit. Moussi claims to have secured at least the seventy-three signatures needed for debate and a vote of no confidence in the parliamentary speaker. This situation seemed unlikely a few months ago when she first brought up the idea after a meeting between Ghannouchi and Turkey’s Erdogan, and urged action by Tunisians committed to a ‘civil’ Tunisian state and national security.

Moussi and her party did not secure these gains in a vacuum. They have been boosted by the constant disruptions, name-calling, and time-wasting by an almost anarchic parliament. The sessions debating two petitions in early June – on Libya and an interrogation of Ghannouchi, and on demanding a French apology for colonialism – are cases in point. MPs and their party/coalition blocs appear to have no time for actual deliberation and lawmaking on matters of substantive importance, such as deepening poverty, increasing marginalisation, unmet demands of the El Kamour social movement, and the alarming foreign debt in a Tunisia recovering from the coronavirus. 

Parliamentary disruption reached its apex on 16 July as a Free Destourian Party’s sit-in prevented the long-awaited session on voting for nominees for the constitutional court, forcing the session to be moved to a different hall on Monday, 21 July. The antics in parliament may make for dramatic and viral video clips, but the distasteful political altercations, now extending to trading accusations of violence between Ennahda and the Free Destourian Party, are unseemly performances by elected officials. Unpleasant verbal exchanges between Etilaf al-Karamah and Moussi’s party, Moussi’s monologues against Ennahdah, whom she calls ‘Ikhwaniyyah’, as well as Sa'id al-Jaziri’s railing against everyone and everything including his fellow MPs whom he has called ni’aj (sheep), do not contribute to resolving any of Tunisia’s deep challenges. It is probably safe to say that parliament does not inspire the confidence of the voting public. One hopes that voters who still are paying attention will remember that electability does not always translate into skills in debate, persuasion, dialogue, and the kinds of policymaking that the country needs.

Decaying, moving parties

Tunisia’s new parties exhibit constant change internally as well as toward each other. Alliances even within the ruling coalition (Ennahda, Al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati, Harakat al-Sha’b, Tahya Tounes, and independents) survived for barely a few months. Ennahda has been, among other things, accused of playing both sides – opposition and government – as it secured votes by the opposition (Etilaf al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes) in Parliament. (The rejoinder is that the government coalition is not reflected in relations within Parliament.) The ruling coalition turned out to be highly problematic. It became Ennahdah vs the rest, it seems, with severe attacks in the media, by Harakat al-Sha'b (Salim Labyad) and al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati (al-'Ajbuni and Samia 'Abbo) against the Islamists with whom they were coalition partners. 

Ennahda was indiscreet, announcing days before Fakhfakh’s resignation that it was entering talks with the president about forming a new government. The party was rebuffed by Saied, who claimed publicly, and in the presence of Fakhfakh, that he refused to be ‘blackmailed’, and that he was neither part of nor committed to decisions made ‘behind closed doors’. Fakhfakh promptly dismissed Ennahda’s ministers before resigning. This final move was telling, pointing to a lack of political coexistence and congeniality between parties and individuals in the five-month-old governing coalition.

Meanwhile, discord within Ennahda continues with it being hit by a number of high-level resignations, most notably that of Abdelhamid Jlassi in March. Dissenting voices against Ghannouchi, and debate about whether or not he will seek to change the party’s by-laws to renew his leadership, may pause until a new government is formed. Yet all eyes are on Ennahda and its impending eleventh congress. Another coalition member, Qalb Tounes, suffers from internal problems, including resignations and losing MPs in its parliamentary delegation, which has shrunk from thirty-eight to twenty-seven. Yet, Nabil Karoui’s party may be making a comeback. (Another irony is that Karoui himself was imprisoned during the presidential campaign on corruption allegations.) Will it ally with Ennahda and Etilaf al-Karamah? That seems possible, but nothing is certain.

The rightist Etilaf al-Karamah makes headlines, but its MPs seem amateurish. Party leaders Makhlouf and Alawi prioritise showy speeches over substantive debate. They may be counterpoints to Moussi, doing their fair share of playing into regional politics. Etilaf al-Karamah has thus not been inconsequential in this year’s political events, but its performance is far from validating the revolutionary discourse of its campaign and its slogans such as halat wa’i (state of enhanced consciousness).

Informal politics: responding to socioeconomic challenges

Outside the country’s formal institutions, the biggest story has been the ongoing Kamour protests. Most recently, it has disrupted gas production after mediation failed. Protests also rocked Ramada in the governorate of Tataouine, after the killing of a young man by security forces. The Kamour protesters are adamant that the 2017 agreement with Youssef Chahed’s government, promising jobs and a regional development fund, be honoured. In addition, they insist that the government travel southward to Tataouine and insist ‘al-tafawud fi al-Kamour wa laysa fi al-kusoor (negotiations in Kamour, not in castles)The state’s security reflex in Ramada and the rest of Tataouine is, of course, worrying almost ten years into the country’s democratic transition.

Tataouine’s protests exemplify Tunisia’s huge challenges. The country faces not just the political task of forming a new government, but also a contracting economy hit by the coronavirus. A newly reopened tourism sector may do little to offset the budget deficit or create jobs for the unemployed. If Fakhfakh accomplished anything during his brief tenure, it was burying the country deeper in foreign debt, perhaps over a billion dollars just in the months since the epidemic began. There appear to be no economic fixes (quick or otherwise) on the horizon, as the ‘multiple marginalization’ of regional (under)development, despite being a commonly articulated concern on the lips of politicians, is a huge problem that grows more urgent by the day. Political unruliness (protests, sit-ins, etc.) in Kamour are not likely to suddenly disappear.

Lessons for democratisation

The dramatic turn of events in Tunisia reminds one that corruption is deeply entrenched in the country. A pertinent question is: ‘How did it come to pass that Fakhfakh was approved by parliament to head the government?’ Furthermore, why was he not vetted more thoroughly? The silver lining of this entire scandal may be that he did not get further into his premiership and make millions more dollars than most Tunisians would only dream of earning in their lifetime. A transitional justice process was cut short when the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate ended eighteen months ago. That, along with the economic Reconciliation Law (qanun al-musalahah) of 2018 is quite worrying. Fakhfakh may have been a newcomer to corruption, but there are countless other businesspeople profiting from suspicious deals, including from the Ben Ali era. Moreover, Fakhfakhgate demonstrates how corruption can undermine the entire political process. Consequently, regional development cannot be ignored. Mitigating Tunisia’s inequalities is one side of the oin of political institution-building. Economic development for the country’s marginalised population is a necessary and urgent undertaking.

Among the country’s political elites, MPs and politicians might all benefit from a lesson or two in civility. They would do well to brush up on discourse ethics (how to conduct respectful dialogue), and the parliamentary decorum expected of those elected into office. Disagreement is expected, even encouraged, in a democracy, but the level of personal attacks has reached an unprecedented low. Even basic parliamentary procedure appears to be too much to ask of this batch of MPs. Interruptions, yelling, and a lack of respect for physical space are all violations of the parliament’s by-laws, which appear meaningless as the speaker of parliament or his two deputy speakers (Samira al-Chaouachi and Tariq al-Fatiti) are unable to control their colleagues’ antics. Parliamentary etiquette is a prerequisite for substantive deliberation and lawmaking; it is not mere ornamentation, as indicated by the meagre accomplishments of this parliament.

She may divide people, but Abir Moussi is a fast-rising political force in the country. Her imprint is on much of what happens in Tunisian politics today, inflecting political discourse from foreign policy (vis-à-vis Libya or Turkey) to Islamism (in her campaign against Ennahda and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood), to development (where she is head of the Committee on Industry and Trade in parliament), to parliamentary procedure (it was she who activated the ‘war of the petitions’.) Referred to by many as the neo-Tajamu’ leader, she may never get the presidency, but she has a clear future ahead of her.

Improving inter-party dynamics is an important challenge for Tunisian democratic learning. Parties and coalitions may gain a great deal from an extraparliamentary platform for dialogue in an attempt to map out common ground and mutual acceptance, and some level of professional, collegial tolerance and coexistence. Tunisia’s parties seem not to debate head-to-head, but indirectly, via the media, press conferences, statements and facebook posts. Direct encounters and interactions would be beneficial to all, would enrich political life generally, and may go some way towards blunting some of the discord and fracturing, affecting the goings-on in and between the offices of the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

Ennahdah, the country’s largest party, needs serious reflection and to focus on regaining voters and reconnecting with its base. If it has learned anything from the last nine months, Nahdaouis should, by now, be keenly aware that without the numbers, they cannot accomplish much. The backsliding in vote share and parliamentary seats should be a problem that they place centre stage, strategising on how to woo back their voters. These internal reviews should be as big a concern at Ennahdah’s next congress as the fateful decision about the party’s leadership.

Saied seemed to have drawn out the electorate (particularly youth), but mounting disinterest in voting and formal politics suggest he has not lived up to the hype. The president appears aloof, and fumbling when he does decide to express clear views on contentious political issues. He could play a more constructive role in the midst of all the disharmony, especially since he is supposedly party-neutral. The instability of the past few months has laid bare the challenges of governing in this pilloried system. Endless wrangling between the three most important political offices and a parliament where no party has a clear majority have resulted in deadlock. Perhaps the drafters of the constitution did not anticipate this. Politicians, parties and voters now know that, in Tunisia, pluralism can bring it political fragmentation. It is up to the creativity and civic-mindedness of all political actors vested in the democratic transition to ensure that fragmentation does not obstruct the smooth functioning of the country’s political institutions. Democracy, after all, is meant to solve real problems for real people.


Looking forward: political paralysis and democratisation

The current mayhem confirms that perfect procedural execution does not mean that democratisation unfolds. If there is something to be said about the North African country, it is that, procedurally, everything is going according to plan. The hold-up is not in the democratic machinery, processes, institutions, and procedures which are, on the whole, operating as they should (even if the Constitutional Court nomination process being held up again by the Free Destourian Party’s sit-in). Rather, the problem is in the stock of values that seem not to have matured: moderation, inclusiveness, dialogue, compromise, tolerance, and so forth. Further, we see very serious remnants of ideological divides that rise to the level of personal animosities (for example, between Ennahda members and Moussi). Politicians have not been able to transcend the polarisation that interferes in the business of government.

Tunisia’s political parties are fragile and have no permanence in constituency, policy or leadership. Far from settled, they all display symptoms of attrition and decay. All are receding, losing the public to varying degrees. Ennahda is beleaguered by huge problems and seems to be in denial, and the Islamist (or ‘Muslim Democrat’, as it has described itself since 2016) party is sorely in need of renewal. It has not successfully engaged with its ideological foes, and currently engages with the always controversial Etilaf Al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes. This unease with other political players has become a huge predicament. Ennahda has not been able to politically penetrate anything: any ideology, the constituencies of other parties, the leaderships of other parties. This failure does not mean that there are no leaders or interlocutors within the party who might be able to reach out and communicate with other political actors, but this is the exception, not the rule.

As for party leader Rached Ghannouchi, he has done all he can. There is not much more he can offer to Tunisian politics, nor can he climb up any other political ladder. He will neither become president nor prime minister of the country. He did well in steering his party into routinising its role in Tunisian politics, has been successful in normalising his party as a major player in the political scene, and in contributing to building democratic institutions since 2011 (including the 2014 constitution). He has earned himself a place in the annals of the country’s political history. Highlighting the fact that he has outlived his political career is his very contentious role at the head of parliament. One the one hand, it is convenient for other parties to blame Ennahda when everyone shares responsibility in the widely remarked-upon chaos in parliament. Yet, it may not be false that parliament is dysfunctional partly because people do not want to work with Ghannouchi. For whatever reason, people across the political spectrum have problems with him. Moreover, at this level of performance he is not doing well either, having proved over the past five months his inability to be a suitable moderator of parliamentary sessions or debates. Having such a lightning-rod figure leading parliament in such a fragmented political landscape does not facilitate a stumbling democratic transition. It may be best for Tunisia’s democratisation, and even for Ennahda, if Ghannouchi resigns as speaker.

The other parties have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’; they share the perception that there is a constant threat from Ennahda, which is mobilised to dominate the entire political system and the state itself. This position of almost intimidation is reflected in expressions of concern that Ennahda is ‘taking over’ various institutions and processes in the country. The hubbub over the office of the parliamentary speaker is one example. 

Kaiss Saied exaggerates when he ominously warns that the Tunisian state is under threat. What is clear is that Tunisia’s politicians, parties, and their respective political institutions have not risen to the occasion of the country’s pressing socioeconomic needs.  It is fair to say that the deprivation, marginalisation, and socioeconomic exclusion that gave birth to the revolution in late 2010 have not been adequately addressed, let alone resolved. Democracy is a medium that facilitates delivering the goods: the sharing and organising of power and resources and the putting in place of processes that facilitate the arrival, execution and implementation of laws and constitutional rights, such as clean water, employment, regional development, access to decent healthcare and education, among others. This has not happened. 

The incessant commotion in parliament has created endless digressions, diverting from the business of governing. This parliament has passed only nineteen pieces of legislation in its first session, compared to forty-three in the 2014 to 2019 parliament. In the wake of Covid-19, Tunisia is confronting increasing debt, exclusion, rising unemployment, and an economy that is stalled, according to all indicators. Politicians should take their electoral mandate more seriously, living up to whatever lowered expectations Tunisians have of their democratically-elected representatives and their nascent political institutions.

The uncertainty that comes with democracy may be the price to pay for institutionalised freedom, equality, rule of law, etc. Democracy remains preferable to any other political system. The Tunisian experiment has demonstrated that democracy may bring to power people who are not necessarily qualified to govern, particularly in times of repeated or continual crises. The ‘three presidencies’ has proven to be a drawback to effective governance: Tunisia has a very inexperienced head of state, with no vision, experience or history of struggle; an octogenarian head of parliament who courts controversy and even rejection; and a head of the executive branch (who has just left) mired in corruption allegations. 

A kind of chaos continues in the search for Tunisia’s next government. All eyes are on the Arab world’s first democratising country, to see what surprises await.

* Larbi Sadiki is a full professor of Arab Democratization, Qatar University, and Layla Saleh is an associate professor of International Relations, Qatar University

President Cyril Ramaphosa has described the US middle east plan as another apartheid. The US plan proposes to allow Israel to annex all its illegal settlements as well as the strategic Jordan Valley. Israel has imposed a ban on the export of Palestinian farm produce via Jordan. In an escalating trade war, this will make it impossible for farmers in the occupied West Bank to connect with markets around the world. The Palestinians have described the export ban as a dangerous action. Palestine said the Israeli move is part of a dispute that began in October when their authorities ordered a halt to the import of calves from ranches in Israel. They said at the time they wanted to decrease their dependency on the Israeli market. But Israel saw the move as a breach of a trade agreement. Matshidiso Motsoeneng is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a think tank based in Johannesburg. She joins us via Skype for more on this.

By Larbi Sadiki 

Since 2017, Tunisia’s interior and south have witnessed a wave of ongoing protests, characterised by the slogan ‘al-rakh la’, meaning ‘No Relenting’. These protests have tested the resilience of the country’s democracy. Though they intermittently disrupt phosphate and oil production, they do so against the disruption of lives in towns like Gafsa, Kasserine or Tataouine, where democracy is yet to end marginalisation.

As the Tunisian government celebrated its ‘victory’ over the spread of COVID-19 on 25 June, protestors in Tataouine, at the southern tip of the country, sounded a different note. The jubilation over the release of the Kamour Hirak detainees did not prevent the activists from getting back to the business of protesting. The Kamour Hirak is a three-year-old protest in Tunisia’s southern Tataouine province, focused around grievances related to jobs in the oil and gas fields in the area, and on the share of funds from the hydrocarbon industry to be earmarked for local development. The activists in this loose group of protesters, who mostly rely on employment in the southern region’s oilfields, are demanding jobs and investments as part of a regional development fund that had been promised to them under a 2017 agreement with Youcef Chahed’s government.

Sustained protest

The Kamour protests did not erupt in a vacuum; they must be situated within the context of more than fifteen years of revolutionary action in the phosphate basin. The causes are still the same as they were late 2010 and 2011 when the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted. Multiple marginalisation is still the common incubator of the protests.

The protests are reminders of several interconnected issues. First, policy inertia when it comes to youth unemployment and regional marginalisation is a festering problem crying for urgent attention. Second, they sound an alarm about southern youth being disaffected and disenchanted with Tunisia’s new rulers. Third, they have created a protest multiplier effect, eliciting a widespread sense of solidarity and unity with the marginalised people of the south and centre. Last, the state’s coercive apparatus’s reaction to these protests shows that old habits die hard: when politics fails, there is an escalation of violent police tactics.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of protests in Tataouine as the working class ups the ante. Tansiqiyyat al-Kamour is a newer movement that mirrors persistent unrest in Gafsa’s phosphate basin, but protests and sit-ins have disrupted Tunisian phosphate production for years, recently resulting in production being 27.5 per cent lower than the 2.7 million ton goal set by the Gafsa Phosphate Company.

Before the 2011 revolution, protestors faced the challenge of dealing with the authoritarian state under Ben Ali. Arrests and state security repression included violence that resulted in at least four deaths in the famous phosphate basin events of 2008. Now, the same protesters are wrangling with a new democratic state that includes a stumbling transitional justice process for previous state crackdowns. Importantly, the demands of Gafsa’s marginalised people have not changed much since before the 2011 uprising.

Democracy is not enough

These clusters of unruliness across the country’s south represent movements of moral protest. Activists insist on a minimum standard of dignity to complement the hard-won freedoms of the 2011 uprising, and, when it is lacking, protests erupt periodically in the long-marginalised south of the country, with its long history of state neglect since formal independence in 1956. Tunisia’s politicians may rightly declare that COVID-19 exposed deep social inequality in the country, but economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering deprivation in the south. One government after another seems incapable of finding solutions to poverty, unemployment, poor healthcare infrastructure (highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis), and lethal environmental damage in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine (with Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the 2010-11 uprising), among other interior and southern regions.

Kamour’s latest escalation is but one manifestation of long-simmering discontent, accompanied by feelings of discrimination in broad segments of the country. For the people in these areas, the richer Sahel (coast), including the capital and surrounding areas, is a world away. The democratic ‘pill’ may have quelled some of the indignation in Tunisia’s marginal areas since 2011, but protests have not faded from the scene since Ben Ali’s fall.

The state’s heavy-handed approach to sit-ins and protests, such as the confiscation of 13 tents in Tataouine last week, did not go down well; indeed, it resulted in many citizens feeling unseen and unheard. ‘These events were painful,’ said Khalifah Bohoush, a member of Tansiqiyyat Al-Kamour. He complained that the government had violated protestors’ dignity. ‘We felt insulted…[after] we had chanted thawrah (revolution) in one voice with all Tunisians!’ Like Bohoush, many feel that the canisters of tear gas, the broken arms and legs, and the curses and insults hurled by security officials signal that not all Tunisian citizens are equal, that the country’s north is more deserving of wealth and government attention than the south’s forgotten and restless youth.

Democratisation has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families, all of whom wait to realise the distributive responsibilities of the state, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kamour youth continually stress their constitutional right to protest. Upon his release, Kamour spokesperson Tarek al Haddad admonished the country’s politicians that Ben Ali’s days were over: after 2011, there is no rule by force, he said. Why, then, the vicious crackdown, the teargas, the violence, the foul language?

These latest clashes between protestors and security ­­officials remind us that the ballot is not enough. Especially for a poor country beleaguered by deep inequalities, voting people into parliament and presidents into office is not an end in itself; elected officials should represent constituents’ demands. In this case, these demands include the implementation of a three-year-old agreement guaranteeing 1 500 jobs in oil companies (for instance, in the new Nawara plant), 500 landscape/agricultural jobs, and TND 80 million (about $28 400 000) a year for a regional development fund in Tataouine.

Democratic ethos and practice furnish the framework for constant dialogue between state and society, voters and officials. Reverting to the old Ben Ali-era tactics that made the Interior Ministry notorious in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world does not square well with democratisation. At this democratic moment, Tunisia finds itself doubly besieged. Internally, the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh faces the challenge of the ‘hirak’ and the youth stubbornly hanging onto government pledges to deliver the goods. A cabinet meeting late last week discussed the original pledge, inching closer to meeting the Kamour protesters’ demands for jobs. The embattled prime minister is also busy with a burgeoning ‘conflict of interest’ scandal. Externally, Tunisia is deeper in debt than ever before; a perfunctory calculation of debt accumulated during the past few months of the COVID-19 crisis tallies up to more than a USD 1 billion.

Who will pay back these loans, and where is the COVID-19 assistance going? Ultimately, democracy creates openings for solving people’s problems, particularly when opportunities arise. The epidemic was one such opportunity, the latest protests in the interior and the south are another. If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalised (and border) regions, any awe of democracy that still exists may fade. These youth publicly insist on the peacefulness, legality, and the justness of their demands and their tactics. The government should not lose them as interlocutors for confronting the country’s problems. Before Fakhfakh, the Chahed government lost credibility by failing to satisfactorily fulfil its Kamour promises. 

The current government seems to follow a policy of delay and decay: deferring distributive justice and sinking in political paralysis. The new president, Kais Saeid, seemed to have acted proactively by meeting with the Kamour protesters. However, not much has materialised since that encounter. And it was followed by a stain on his reputation when, on a recent tour France, he secured Tunisia’s latest loan instalment of $350 million and asserted in an interview on France24 that Tunisia had been a protectorate, rather than a colony, of France. Tunisia had not been not colonised the way that Algeria had, he insisted. In one interview, Saeid erased and rewrote Tunisian history and the numerous struggles and sacrifices against French colonialism.

Whether or not ‘protectorate’ is a precise legal designation is beside the point. Language always implies power. It is tactless and jarring that a sitting Tunisian president would reproduce the linguistic understandings of colonial discourse, which underpin decades of physical and cultural violence. Saeid revealed not only his lack of sophistication, but also an aloofness from Tunisian society. He demonstrated a willingness, for whatever reason, to verbally violate elements of the basis of a multi-vocal Tunisian identity whose very postcoloniality was forged in sacrifices of life and limb, for the sake of freedom.

Perhaps the president should reread Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. He would do well to re-immerse himself in the voices of local resisters and Tunisian voices such as Abdelaziz Al-Tha’albi, Farhat Hashad, Habib Bourguiba, to name but a few, who struggled, wrote, organised, and fought against colonialism. However, even more damaging to Saeid’s reputation has been his foot-dragging in making good on his promise to the Kamour youth who he met in January.

A distracted parliament

Tunisia has recently experienced parliamentary mayhem, epitomised in June’s ‘battle of the petitions’ that included one petition on 9 June that was sponsored by the Dignity Coalition, which demanded an apology from France for its colonial crimes. The debacle illustrated the lack of an ethos of respectful dialogue among MPs from rival parties (even within the government’s teetering ruling coalition). Instead, citizens witness cheap showmanship and sensationalism, ideological polarisation, and a willingness to turn parliament into a new televised battleground for region-wide conflicts.

Parliamentary deliberation has ceded to ‘petitioning’ by constantly bickering political parties and coalitions. The bickering has become more ideological and historical than contemporary or for Tunisia’s benefit. We see parliamentarian seek to issue final judgements on history (on, for example, Bourguiba’s legacy), or to position themselves vis-à-vis regional discord (regarding, for instance, pro- or anti-Turkey sentiments with respect to the conflict in Libya). This has intensified polarisation. Such raucousness in the legislature has distracted and detracted from real social and economic woes felt in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and other interior and southern regions.

Civil society actors, from Tataouine and Kasserine’s protesting youth to an Arab-wide initiative calling for the cancellation of exploitative international loans, may be ahead of politicians in demanding solutions for worsening socio-economic predicaments. Yet it remains up to those who hold power in Tunisia, the controllers of its purse strings, to activate the country’s impressive democratic toolkit. The government should ramp up the budgets of regions with special needs: unemployment, poverty, crumbling public amenities, etc. These are problems that will not go away.

Enacting policies that inch towards responsiveness to urgent citizen demands and away from external dependency is a Herculean but inescapable task, if not out of a sense of moral obligation, then at least because the disruptions of protests will not simply disappear. Kamour’s youth chant it in protests and scrawl it on walls: ‘Al rakh la’ – resist, and stay the course. Democracy demands they be taken seriously.

Thinking ahead: researching protests

From an epistemological angle, Tunisian and other Arab protests force us to revisit their common puzzle and research trajectories via a positivist take (when and how are protests inevitable?), and a normative angle (when, how and why should elected politicians represent the marginalised and the protesters?). In Tunisia, the biggest gain of the 2011 uprising is freedom. Freedom, however, begets more freedom, reinforcing different actors’ quests for dignity. It knows no limits in reimagining polity and democratic citizenship of equal (distributive, not adversarial) opportunity.

What do Tunisia’s protests share with contemporaneous moral protests and riots? In a nutshell, even if in some form or other they are conditioned by local concerns related to specific sociopolitical realities, they seem to share patterns of misrule and injustice. Arab protests from Beirut or Tripoli in Lebanon to Suweida in Syria, from Gafsa to Morocco’s Rif, keep millions of youth hanging on to possibilities of justice, democracy and better lives: ‘Al rakh la!’

Larbi Sadiki is a Tunisian writer, political scientist and Professor at the Qatar University. He was formerly a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Sadiki's writing focuses on the democratization of the Arab world as well as human rights studies and dialogue between the Western and Islamic civilizations.

** This article was first published in openDemocracy (8 July 2020)

Events in the Sudan since the ouster of long-time ruler Omar Al-Bashir have developed into a stalemate as protesters and military jostle for control.  With the army increasing using violence against the protester, and with protesters refusing to be cowed the future seems uncertain 

By Salma Sayyid

An insidious, toxic global nexus of right wing, neoconservative organizations from the United States, Europe and South Africa is rapidly gaining momentum as an avowedly racist worldview begins to shape domestic and foreign policy imperatives. From pro white supremacist sympathies emanating from the White House to anti-immigration sentiments of the vexatious Brexit debacle and right wing free marketers in South Africa, the key role players are now flexing their financial muscle with no encumbrances. The time of the muscular neoconservative crusader is upon us!

In Belgrade on 5 April 2019, a former sergeant in Israeli’s military intelligence was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Students for Liberty (SFL), a youth group whose mission is “to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders of liberty”. The sergeant, Yaron Brook, whose parents were born in South Africa, is also the current chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute. Rand was a Russian-American writer and philosopher and the ARI promotes her principles of reason, rational self-interest, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism to the widest possible audience. Brook is an uncompromising exponent of what rationalizing self-interest means. While appearing on the TV show of right wing neoconservative shrill, Bill O’Reilly, on 17 December 2004, Brook argued categorically on how US forces should deal with Iraqi civilians in Fallujah: “I'm suggesting that we start bringing this war to the civilians, the consequences of this war, to the civilians who are harbouring and helping and supporting the insurgents in Fallujah and other places. ... I would like to see the United States turn Fallujah into dust and tell the Iraqis: If you're going to continue to support the insurgents you will not have homes, you will not have schools, you will not have mosques.”

Brook further argued that if "flattening Fallujah to end the Iraqi insurgency will save American lives, to refrain from [doing so] is morally evil." Brook’s comments are neither surprising nor uncommon amongst this crusading movement of “regime change” advocates comprising billionaire right wing ideologues, white nationalists, Christian and secular Zionists, free market extremists and run off the mill neo Nazis. 

The SFL and ARI are just a small part of an extraordinary influential, US-based network of well-resourced politically connected individuals who are intent on expanding their presence and ideas around the globe. Their tentacles have even reached Africa.

In South Africa, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), Free Market Foundation (FMF), Students for Liberty (Cape Town), Independent Entrepreneurship Group (Ineng), African Liberty Forum, the newly formed Capitalist Party of SA and the new kids on the block, Progress SA, share board members, policy wonks and staff, as well sharing research, policy papers, coordinating their agendas while cloning their sponsor’s international policies and research to fit into domestic politics. More importantly, this cross-fertilization of board members and individuals, globally and locally, enables this network to leverage greater access to a broader spectrum of funding and enjoy greater intimacy to political power. 

At the centre of this global network are the various umbrella organizations in the US providing funding, intellectual cover and anonymity for right wing think tanks, activist groups, university associations, free market organizations and lobbying groups to operate.


Koch Brothers

Amongst the world’s foremost mega-donors to right wing causes are the billionaires Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries. Their combined fortune is approximately $100 billion, ranking them the second wealthiest family in America. 

Their father, Fred Koch, began building his fortune with $500,000 received from Stalin for constructing 15 oil refineries in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Later on, his company, Winkler-Koch, built the Nazis their third-largest oil refinery. According to Jane Mayer, author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, Fred Koch wrote in 1938 that “the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan”. Fred hired a nanny, who was a zealous Nazi, to ensure his children were instilled with his ideas and values. When she left for Germany in 1940, Fred became the single enforcer at home. It is no surprise that the brothers have a penchant for supporting and enforcing right wing policies. Their strategic political and funding philosophy is deeply embedded in their fervent desire to support causes that ultimately achieve their own predetermined objectives.

Writing in The New Yorker in August 2010, Mayer says: “The Kochs are long-time libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.” No doubt the brother’s private agenda drives a global movement that is pro-rich, against corporate taxation, advocates climate change denialism and part of the pro-gun lobby.

An example of their obsessive conservative bent was evident during the run-up to the 2012 US election, when Koch-affiliated organizations raised a staggering $400 million to spend on a campaign, unsuccessful it turned out, to oust President Obama and hand back control of the Senate to the Republicans. At a 2015 gathering of Koch donors, the network announced an unbelievable $889 million spending goal for the 2016 elections.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, ”Koch officials vowed to spend between $300 million and $400 million to shape the 2018 midterm elections”.

The Kochs’ chief political strategist is Richard Fink, who approached the brothers in 1977 to urge them to turn their libertarian ideals and love of “free markets” into political advocacy. Fink developed a three-stage model of social change: universities would produce “the intellectual raw materials”; think tanks would transform them into “a more practical or usable form”; and then “citizen activist” groups would “press for the implementation of policy change”. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, think tanks, journals and movements in the US and via conduit organizations globally. The most prominent being the State Policy Network, the Atlas Foundation and the Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund. Donors Trust and DCF allow wealthy individuals and philanthropic organizations to donate to right-wing causes (and even hate groups) with anonymity.

These Koch-funded networks have launched strident attacks on climate science, criticized clean energy and stifled debate on renewable energy via an army of front groups. They have also worked with big tobacco companies, like Phillip Morris, to stop common-sense regulations and public health measures on smoking. In fighting the tobacco cause, the Kochs refined their game plan that they would use to continue to fight against anti-pollution legislation, workers rights and subverting participatory democracy.

According to a 2013 investigation by the US Center for Media and Democracy (Exposed: The State Policy Network The Powerful Right-Wing Network Helping to Hijack State Politics and Government): “When the Kochbrothers want to see lower corporate taxes and fewer pollution regulations so Koch Industries can see higher profits, contributing to right-wing think tanks that aggressively call for lowering – or eliminating – corporate taxes and removing environmental regulations serves as an investment that aids their corporation as well as their personal agenda.”

The vast array of front organizations, think tanks, corporate lobbyists, educational programmes, political and consumer groups, pro-free market advocacy organizations are affiliated or indirectly funded by Koch Industries, the Charles Koch Institute, and Charles Koch Foundation. The scale of this powerhouse’s influence and resources was demonstrated at an exclusive Charles Koch Foundation event in 2018, when about 500 Koch donors — each committing at least $100,000 annually — met for the Foundation’s weekend "seminar" that had the usual cast of elected politicians and high-profile political influencers.

Under US law, Koch Industries, which is privately owned by Charles and David, is not obliged to disclose who it funds, in effect meaning that the total amount Koch Industries has spent on advancing the right-wing agenda of its leaders and organizations will never be revealed.The Institute separated from the Foundation in 2011 and has rebranded itself as an “organization specifically dedicated to educating the next generation of professional leaders” with libertarian-minded internships, grant funding and professional development courses. 


Atlas Network

Washington-based Atlas Network (formerly known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation)is a think tank that promotes free market economic policies around the World.  Founded in 1981 Atlas openly funds right-wing activities in more than 90 countries. With an annual budget of almost U$ 11 million, it actively funds and promotes neoconservativeorganizations from funding political activity around the world, each movement is supported by “formation institutes”, which are free to receive funds to carry out their agitation. 

In Brazil where organizations such as the Free Brazil Movement (MLB), the Liberal Institute and Students for Liberty Brazil emerged in Brazil’s political landscape, publishing books and organizing demonstrations as well as providing training and lectures to hand-picked leaders.

On the relationship between Students for Liberty (EPL) with the Free Brazil Movement, Juliano Torres, executive director of the Brazilian branch of EPL, was quoted by journalist Marina Amaral in an article for Agencia Publicia: “We receive money from foreign organizations as well, such as Atlas. Atlas, with Students for Liberty, are our main donors. In Brazil, the main organizations are Friderich Naumann, a German organization, which aren’t allowed to donate money, but they pay for our expenses”.

Various corporations and foundations helped Atlas to donate more than U$ 4 million to various organizations around the world in 2014. Companies such as Google, Exxon Mobil and organizations such as DonorsTrust, State Policy Network were just some of their donors. This neoconservative network has reshaped political power in country after country and at times has acted as a covert arm of U.S. foreign policy, with Atlas-associated think tanks receiving under the radar funding from the State Department and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a critical extension of American quiet diplomacy.

Atlas Network’s modus operandi is simple: “It gives grants for new think tanks, provides courses on political management and public relations, sponsors networking events around the world, and, in recent years, has devoted special resources to prodding libertarians to influence public opinion through social media and online videos.”

That the Trump administration is littered with alumni of Atlas-related groups and friends should not come as a surprise. Trump’s former counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, is a right wing Islamophobe once headed an Atlas-backed think tank in Hungary and still has links to the Order of Vitéz- a Hungarian far-right, Nazi-allied group - and Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard) - a paramilitary fascist group. Notwithstanding these links, US Congressman and co-chair of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, Trent Franks called Gorka "the staunchest friend of Israel and the Jewish people. Michael Rubin of the influential Washington based right wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute, said Gorka "is about as anti-Semitic as Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is, not at all." Evidently just a trifling inkling of pro-Israel sentiments is sufficient to absolve one’s anti-Semitic philandering!

US Vice President Mike Pence attended an Atlas event and spoke highly of the organization, while, perhaps the biggest feather in the cap for the Network is the appointment of former senior fellow at the Atlas Network, Judy Shelton, as Trump’s economic advisor and chair of the NED after Trump’s victory. Shelton also served as an adviser to the Trump campaign and transition team.


Students For Liberty (SFL)

The US-based Students for Liberty organizes student groups and leaders around the world to become a new generation of libertarian leaders. SFL is funded largely by a network of anonymous conservative donors through the Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, along with several Koch-affiliated groups. At their annual conference in January 2019, Google was the $25,000 platinum sponsor, while Facebook and Microsoft were $10,000 sponsors each.

The SFL programs are carried out in partnership with other foundations, especially the Cato Institute and the Institute of Human Studies, all these organizations are linked to the Koch family. 

As pointed out previously, Juliano Torres, an executive of the Students for Liberty Brazil, participates in an all-expenses paid international conference and leadership meeting in Washington annually. The reported 2015 budget of the SFL Brazil affiliate was R$300,000. On the launch of the EPL, Torres states it happened after he participated in a 2012 summer workshop for thirty students in Petropolis, sponsored by the Atlas Network. After that, Torres went through several training programs at Atlas: “There is one they call MBA, there is a program in New York, and also online training. We recommend to all people who work in positions of a certain responsibility to also go through the Atlas Network training programs.”

In the last two decades, the 11 foundations tied with the Kochs poured US$800 million into the American network of conservative foundations. Another donor to Atlas is The Templeton Foundation, a right-wing philanthropic organization that sets out to “bridge science and spirituality while – on a not obviously related track – promoting free enterprise.” The Foundation has also dabbled in politics when in 2004 it launched the group ‘Let Freedom Ring’, which was aimed at “getting out the evangelical Christian vote for George Bush.”

With considerably larger budgets than the Atlas Network, these organizations have developed and funded fellowship programs globally, which have been executed by Atlas. 


South Africa

In 2007 African Liberty was “founded as a project of the Cato Institute, thereafter under the auspices of the Atlas Network. It claims “It is a platform for advancing individual freedom, peace, and prosperity in Africa by promoting civil discussion and debate about social, legal, economic, and world issues affecting Africans” according to information on its website.

On the Advisory Board of African Liberty is Frans Cronje, the Chief Executive Officer of SAIRR. In its 2017 Annual Report, SAIRR lists the Atlas Foundation as one of its “significant donors”. Another important donor is the liberal political, climate change sceptics, German-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). According to its website, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is a longstanding partner of the FNF. 

In May 2017 the Free Market Foundation (FMF) together with the Atlas Network and The John Templeton Foundation, hosted the Africa Liberty Forum in Johannesburg. Discussions focussed on the challenges facing Africa and how to “most effectively advance free-market reforms”. 

Key speakers were Leon Louw, cofounder of the FMF, Unathi Kwaza from the Independent Entrepreneurship Group (Ineng) and current board member of the FMF, and a candidate for the newly formed Capitalist Party of South Africa. Other candidates for the Party are Kanthan Pillay and Roman Cabanac. Cabanac is co-host of The Renegade Report, a right of centre web-based talk show. Cabanac is a self-styled “advocate of individualism and anarchism”. Of free market economics and an avowed supporter of Israel. The SAIRR was also represented by its Vice President for Transatlantic Affairs, Garreth BloorBloor was elected to the Cape Town City Council in 2011 as a DA candidate and was subsequently appointed to the Mayoral Committee in February 2013. 

In July 2016, Leon Louw shared a Foreign Policy Panel discussion at a Charles Koch Institute funded gathering. The panel discussed how government actions abroad relate to markets and the economy. Coincidentally FMF advocacy for Big Tobacco follows a similar agenda of the Kochs and other pro-tobacco lobby groups.

In 2015 Ineng and the SAIRR sponsored the first event for the African Students for Liberty‘s Cape Town chapter. The African Students for Liberty (ASFL) is the continent’s affiliate of the US-based SFL.

Ineng has a partnership with the Atlas Network and in January 2015 Ineng “joined the Atlas Network’s global directory, the third group from South Africa and the first from Cape Town to do so”. Two South Africans are currently listed on the Executive Board of the ASFL. Martin van Stadenjoined ASFL in late 2014 as a Local Coordinator and was accepted onto the African Executive Board in August 2015 and served till August 2018. Martin is a Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation and Academic Programs Director of Students For Liberty in Southern Africa. Nicholas Woode-Smith became a Local Coordinator in 2015. In 2016, he became the Regional Coordinator for Southern Africa.  Nicholas co-founded the online publication Rational Standard in 2016 to “provide a libertarian alternative to the mainstream left-wing media in South Africa”. 

Another key player in the Students for Liberty organization is University of Cape Town student, Jordan Seligmann. According to his LinkedIn profile, Jordan currently serves as the Treasurer of the UCT chapter of the ASFL. From November 2017 to November 2018, Jordan was the Secretary of the UCT’s branch of ASFL. From May 2017 – November 2017 he served as Chairperson of the South African Union of Jewish Students (Cape Town) and was elected onto the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies. Seligmann is also the Deputy Chair in Administration of the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (UCT).

An interesting note in van Staden’s resume on the ASFL website is that he lists Stefan Molyneux as his “Favourite Figures in Liberty”. Molyneux is an Irish-Canadian white supremacist political commentator and a white genocide conspiracy theorist who podcasts on Freedomain Radio.  Molyneux frequently hosts white supremacists like Peter Brimelow (founder of the white nationalist website VDare) and Jared Taylor (founder of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance. Molyneux was refused entry to Australia because of his racist views.

In a 2017 interview, Brimelow told Molyneux that white nationalism is "a perfectly fine term" and "a legitimate point of view." Molyneux chipped in that whites had spearhead liberation struggles in non-white regions of the world, including South Africa, but that these regions were "backsliding" after whites had left or became a minority. In a 2018 interview with far right activist and internet personality, Lauren Southern, Molyneux stated that the media and NGOs were under-reporting violence against white farmers in South Africa because they "don’t want to scare the whites in the west with what happens when whites become a minority in a highly aggressive and tribalised world".

Newcomers to right wing campus politics is UCT-based Progress SA. Presently the public face of the web-based organization are Tami Jackson and Scott Roberts who have done the media rounds in Cape Town. Progress SA claims it is a “grassroots movement fighting for a free future in South Africa”. The movement's mission is to “search for a rational, moral alternative to racial nationalism, identity politics and other kinds of totalitarianism.”

On its website, the group does not identify any of its  leadership or office bearers. Ironically, an organization whose mission is to safeguard free speech, information regarding the identity of its website registrant and all contact information is redacted. While platformed by the Renegade Report, Tami Jackson acknowledged that the organization received funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

Progress SA has launched a campaign at UCT opposing what it calls the “university's policy framework for decolonising the curriculum”. The group says the proposal would limit academic freedom and introduce “a colour bar” that would allow only lecturers of certain races to teach certain subjects. Predictably it is also opposing the Senate’s resolution in favour of a proposal for UCT to not enter into “any formal relationships with Israeli academic institutions operating in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as other Israeli academic institutions enabling gross human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories”.

 Unsurprisingly, Progress SA posters on the UCT campus are also endorsed by the Students for Liberty.

There is no doubt that there is a growing political and financial alliance between right wing US neo conservatives and South African ngos, think tanks and student organizations. From the Koch brothers to the Institute of Race Relations, Free Market Foundation, Students for Liberty and Progress SA, this network of libertarian, right wing, neoconservative advocacy is finding voice in South Africa at the moment that right wing, white supremacist politics is gaining ground in the US and parts of Europe. This is the ugly face of right-wing politics in the age of Trump!

This toxic politics has consequences both for our democracy, as money from these shady organisations pour into our country; and for Academic Freedom, as this money attempts to influence research directions at our Universities currently starved of funding.

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