Friday, May 02, 2014

ISR's Reasoned Comments: To preview Syria’s future, consider Algeria today

Algeria was destined to become an African powerhouse. The largest country in the continent, it is populated by only 39 million people but endowed with huge natural resources: 159 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and 12.2 billion barrels of proven natural gas and oil reserves, respectively, and vast expanses of land, desert, and mountains. A country rich with such resources should not have a problem building a sustainable economy. However, corruption and a brutal civil war similar to the one going on in Syria transformed Algeria into Africa’s most disappointing state. How and why did such a promising country sink so low?

The first reason is systemic corruption and gross mismanagement. Since independence, Algeria embraced a state-managed economy and political system. The government confiscated private land, nationalized natural resources and exerted a monopoly on economic institutions. By mid-1980s, the government was essentially bankrupt. To stimulate economic growth, President Chedli Ben Djedid liberalized the economy, privatized some economic sectors, returned some land to its original owners, and democratized the political system, allowing political parties to challenge the ruling party that had monopolized power since independence.
In a series of elections that started in 1989 and continued through 1991, the Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS) won overwhelming majorities, which upset France—its former colonial occupier—and France’s Algerian allies, prompting the Algerian military to sideline the president, cancel the second round of elections (scheduled for early 1992), and establish a governing military junta. These actions started a 10-year intense civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people and devastated the economy. When first elected in 1999, Abdelaziz Boutaflika issued an amnesty that encouraged some fighters to lay down their arms, but low-intensity confrontation continued until this day.
On April 17, 2014, Algerians, perhaps still traumatized by the civil war, voted for a president who is too ill to deliver a single campaign speech let alone run the country. The scene of Bouteflika being wheeled into a polling station to cast his vote for himself as did 82% of eligible voters (unverifiable government figures) indicates that Algeria has lost hope and is clinging to the past. The psychology of Algerians voting for an ailing president may explain the desire of many Syrians to stick with President Bashar Assad.
Although Assad is in much better health and control over a better military, governing during and after the civil war will be a herculean task for many reasons.
First, Syria never had and never will have the natural resources Algeria has enjoyed. Second, unlike the Algerian rebel fighters who fought from the mountains, Syrian rebels occupied cities and towns turning civilian areas into war zones. Third, while Algerian rebels were Sunni Islamists fighting secular Sunni Muslims, Syrian rebels are extremist Sunnis fighting moderate Sunni Muslims, Shi`ites, Nusayris, Druze, Christians, and anyone else who is not on their side.
The Algerian conflict was, to some extent, a national one. The conflict in Syria is a proxy war involving regional and global powers. Moreover, the Syrian war has turned into a religious war authorized by the spiritual guides of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement, like Qaradawi, and of the fighting Salafi groups. Algeria was not declared “land of Jihad”; and Western powers did not join al-Qaeda in an effort to overthrow the government of Algeria the way they have been doing in Syria.
Given these key differences, it is unlikely that the Syrian war will be shorter than the Algerian one. Ending Syria’s a war must involve more actors and more governments, an unlikely scenario at this time. This means that Syria’s war will likely last more than a decade, will kill more than 500,000 people, will displace more than 10 million people, and will cost at least one trillion dollars—a huge cost not only for Syria but for the world. This much we can project based on what we have learned from Algeria’s civil war. Preventing this from happening depends on all actors to change their calculus immediately and do all that is in their power to stop the war in Syria.

ISR's Reasoned Comments: To preview Syria’s future, consider Algeria today: by Ahmed E. Souaiaia* Algeria was destined to become an African powerhouse. The largest country in the continent, it is po...

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Islamic Societies Review -- Comments : Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, perhaps learning from ...

Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, perhaps learning from ...On January 14, Tunisians will celebrate their revolution, which ignited a wave of protest that swept most of the Arab world. For this third anniversary, the Salvation Front, representing key leaders from political parties and civil society, gave the Tunisian people and the Arab masses a set of rare gifts: another peaceful transfer of power, a new constitution that protects the life and dignity of all Tunisians, and roadmap to a stable future.

Ennahda, the party that won the first post-revolution elections in Tunisia, handed over power to a non-partisan government last week so that it would remain relevant. This decision was the only path that could allow Ennahda to maintain its edge in the coming elections and avert disastrous outcomes similar to those experienced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the likely diminished power of AKP in Turkey. Importantly, the resignation fosters a promising culture of peaceful transfer of power--a first in the Arab world. Before stepping down, however, Ennahda’s leaders--working with leaders from two secular-leaning political parties, al-Mu’tamar and al-Takattul--managed to reduce the level of violence in the country, stabilize the economy, draft a new constitution, and set the course for a transition to a permanent government though the ballet, not the bullet.

It should be noted, however, that Ennahda did not voluntarily cede power. It took several political crises, many strikes and low-level uprisings, two assassinations of key opposition figures, and active participation of key civil society institutions (notably labor unions and NGOs) for Ennahda and its allies to give in to public pressure. Additionally, the troika (Ennahda, al-Mu’tamar, and al-Takattul) spent too much time drafting the constitution, which is crucial for holding elections that would move the country past the transition phase.

Nonetheless, Ennahda should be given credit for its willingness to be inclusive, for compromising to preserve the dignity of all Tunisians, and for enshrining social justice norms in the new constitution. For instance, while leaders of the movement insisted that Islam be privileged, they nonetheless accepted the codification of the civil state, the supremacy of the rule of law, and the proscription on takfir (branding dissenters infidels or non-believers). The new constitution, drafted under their watch, explicitly protects women as equal citizens, codifies women’s equal participation in public and political life, and highlights the abhorrence of violence against women.

Senior Ennahda leaders have always favored a parliamentarian system of governance, but they signed off on a constitution that defines Tunisia as being a republic: where the president is the top executive, where the people (not some interpretation of religious texts) has the ultimate authority, and where representatives of the people share governing responsibilities with the president. The new constitution emphasizes the principle of separation of powers, sets an absolute term limit for holding the presidency, and establishes a judicial system that is both independent and reflective of the will of the people (the composition of the constitutional court is determined by both the executive and the legislature branches).

In short, the new constitution lays the foundation for a pluralistic system that could empower all Tunisians and end the era of authoritarianism. Ennahda’s relative flexibility and willingness to step away from power at this juncture might be the only and best opportunity for the movement to avoid the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood and preserve public support, which it will need in the critically important elections ahead.

Of course, like any other constitution, Tunisia’s new constitution is not perfect. For instance, the language associated with the first two articles, the most important and most controversial in entire document, seems to confuse two critical concepts: nation and state. That problem could be avoided if the first and second articles are interpreted like so: (1) Tunisia is a free nation (watan/ummah; not dawlah), independent, sovereign, Islam is its national religion, Arabic is its national language, and republicanism is its form of governance; (2) the Tunisian state is civil, founded on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of the law.

The distinction between state and nation would rectify some of the misconceptions about the place of religion in society and in state institutions. Many Western interpreters of Arab constitutions contend that Islam is codified as the “state” religion. The language and use of the term “dawlah” perpetuates that misunderstanding, which if taken to be true, would make Article 1 and Article 2 contradictory: how can an Islamic state also be a civil state and treat all citizens—Muslims and non-Muslims—equally?

Distinguishing between state and nation means that there is no contradiction in holding that Islam is the religion of the country/nation (given that the majority are indeed Muslim), but the state with all its governing institutions is civil and treats all citizens equally regardless of religious affiliation. This interpretation would soften any harmful interpretations of Article 6, which states that “the state looks after (ra`yah) religion, fosters freedom of belief and conscience and the practice of religious rites, protects the sacred, and guarantees the status of mosques and places of worship as neutral space--free from partisan politics.” It would also make sure that the state does not define orthodoxy or discriminate on sectarian or religious grounds. However, failure to distinguish between making Islam the national religion and making Islam the state religion could empower the government to determine orthodoxy and use that authority to suppress freedom of thought and expression. The state can conceivably privilege a particular religion as part of collective national identity without harm, but that privilege must be balanced by strong safeguards for freedom of thought and expression.

The amendment clauses, too, are ambiguous and leave room for an interpretation that could create two separate paths for amending the constitution. Specifically, it seems that amendments could either pass through the parliament or occur by popular referendum. If the latter, the president could put an amendment directly to the voters and then ask the parliament to approve it by a simple majority, whereas an amendment originating in parliament would require a two-thirds majority. It is not clear whether these different thresholds are the intended result, or whether these clauses represent a poorly-considered balance of power that could result in careless amendments to this foundational document.

These are decisive times for Tunisia. Once again, the people and their representatives have a chance to prove that the Arab Spring was not a fluke, that non-violence is the only constructive path for social change, that Islam is compatible with representative governance, and that authoritarianism is not the only guarantor of security and stability. Tunisians can provide a hopeful model for Arab societies that is worthy of the Arab peoples' past sacrifices and honors those who struggled for social justice and suffered torture, exile, imprisonment, and death.
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