Hezbollah first became known to the Lebanese public in 1985 with its now-famous open letter, whose introductory statement read: “We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community)—of the party of God (Hezbollah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. … We obey the orders of one leader… that of our tutor and faqih [i.e., Ayatollah Khomeini]
.” A year later Hassan Nasrallah, then an officer associated with the party’s consultative council and now its supreme leader, made the organization’s overall goals and strategy unmistakably clear: “We are incapable at the present time of installing the rule of Islam, but this does not mean postponing our ideology and project … We must work hard to achieve our goal, and the most important means of doing so is to transform Lebanon into a society of war.
It has been argued that Hezbollah’s 2009 manifesto, which revised the open letter, underscored the organization’s diminishing revolutionary zeal and growing acceptance of Lebanon’s permanence. Yet a careful reading of the manifesto shows it to be merely playing with words, recognizing Lebanon as “our homeland” but not as a legitimate nation state. Indeed, far from being in a “continuous process of identity construction,” Hezbollah has striven during the past few years to overcome its limitations and promote its ultimate goal of transforming Lebanon into an Islamic state modeled after Iran’s wilayat al-faqih (the guardianship of the jurist).
Undermining the Lebanese State
Hezbollah needed physical space to spread its propagandizing mission and to carve out a constituency in the hearts of Lebanon’s Shiites. Even before the party’s official formation, proto-Hezbollah militants clashed with the police in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They seized on President Amin Gemayel’s (1982-88) attempt to clamp down on Muslim militias and restore state authority as evidence of his hostility to Muslims in general (and Shiites in particular) and transformed themselves from an innocuous movement committed to religious guidance and education into a full-fledged politico-military party.
It was not particularly difficult for Hezbollah to undermine the role of the state in Shiite areas like Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley. Shiite quarters were poverty-stricken, and in northern Bekaa, the birthplace of Hezbollah, the state was virtually nonexistent. Thanks to generous Iranian contributions, Hezbollah took it upon itself to provide its impoverished constituency with basic services, such as water and sanitation, usually provided by a state. It successfully traded services for loyalty and proceeded to its next objective of becoming the sole Shiite hegemon.
Controlling the Shiites
Efforts to organize the Lebanese Shiites into a political movement of their own began to take shape in 1974 when Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric of Lebanese origin, ushered in political Shiism and founded the Movement of the Dispossessed. The movement soon built up a militia and, a year later, acquired a new name, the Amal (Hope) movement. Sadr’s success in rallying coreligionists behind him had much to do with his determination to place the impoverished Shiites on Lebanon’s political map and bring an end to the condescending treatment they received from other sects, as well as the Sunni preference for keeping them powerless.
From its beginnings, the Amal movement opted to play by the rules of Lebanese confessional politics—provided the Shiites were no longer overshadowed by Sunnis—and was prepared to this extent to collaborate with the Maronite establishment. Yet the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon after its 1970 eviction from Jordan interfered with Sadr’s plans to transform Shiites into a major actor in Lebanese politics. The imam disliked the presence of armed Palestinians in southern Lebanon but carefully avoided clashing with the PLO since it was politically incorrect for Muslim politicians to deny the organization’s right to fight Israel. At the same time, Sadr forged an excellent working relationship with the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad.
Sadr’s mysterious disappearance in Libya in 1978 and the success of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran less than a year later had a dramatic effect on Lebanon’s Shiites. Thanks to the size of the Shiite community and the country’s joint border with Israel, Lebanon featured prominently in Khomeini’s efforts to export his Islamic revolution.
Nabih Berri, who took charge of Amal in 1980, explicitly positioned it against the Palestinians and tried to challenge them militarily. His ideological laxity and political utilitarianism eventually eroded the movement and “plagued it with moral degradation.” Since Amal did not present itself as a sufficiently credible ally, it became incumbent upon Khomeini to create a new politico-military group for his purposes. Tehran at the time wanted to respond to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) support for Baghdad in its war against Iran by creating an ideological base of support within an Arab country. As time went on, its local agency in Lebanon had grown strong enough to establish for itself a niche in the Shiite community. It soon targeted the Shiite Left and eliminated its prominent activists and ideologues, such as Hassan Bazzuni, a member of the central committee of the Political Action Organization, the communist thinker Hussein Mrouei, and academician Hassan Hamdan (aka Mahdi Amel), through assassination.
After decimating the Shiite Left, Hezbollah turned its attention to fighting the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its local surrogate, the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA), before taking on Amal and driving it out of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a task completed by 1988. A year later, Hezbollah resumed its offensive against Amal in those parts of southern Lebanon outside the control of the IDF and the SLA. The Iranians and Syrians intervened to normalize relations between the two Shiite forces and established a new balance of power that recognized Hezbollah’s preeminence.
Upon Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah shifted its main emphasis to consolidating its grip on the Lebanese political system and completing the construction of its own ideal society. The outcome of this process was the creation of a distinct Hezbollah community that looked to Iran for inspiration and directives.
Monopolizing the Fight against Israel
In tandem with its effort to gain control of Lebanese Shiites, Hezbollah moved to monopolize the fight against Israel, which had begun in 1982 as the objective of the largely secular National Resistance Front (NRF). Those religious groups that had merged to create Hezbollah in 1985 did not initially participate in the low-grade anti-Israel guerrilla warfare that was at first led by Lebanese communists, members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and remnants of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But by 1987, Hezbollah had taken control of the access routes to the Israeli-established security belt in southern Lebanon, which effectively rendered the NRF useless and led to its disbanding. Hezbollah also introduced its own military wing, the Islamic Resistance. It banned any group from launching independent operations and stipulated that all fight under its flag and name.
Hezbollah soon introduced its own reductionist definition for patriotism; terms such as “the liberation of Shib’a Farms and Kfar Shuba Hills,” “Hezbollah’s deterrent military capability,” and the “sanctity of the triumphant resistance” became nonnegotiable precepts of the Lebanese political parlance. Questioning the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s military wing and its arsenal became synonymous with “conspiracy against the resistance, collusion with Zionism and U.S. imperialism.”
Finding a Non-Ideological Maronite Partner
In Lebanon’s confessional politics, it is a must for any political group representing a major sect to affiliate with a counterpart from another major sect in order to navigate the turbulence of the political system. Shortly after the conclusion of the 1989 Ta’if agreement, which ended the decades-long Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah came to realize it needed to “to portray itself as a principal promoter of Muslim-Christian coexistence … through multi-confessional representation.” Unable to identify with the Lebanese Force or the Phalange, whose ardent nationalistic ideologies clashed with its universalistic Shiite aspirations, Hezbollah eventually found a partner in the Christian former Lebanese Army commander, Michel Aoun, who was said to nurse a grudge against fellow Maronite politicians for denying him the presidency in 1988. After fifteen years of exile in France, he returned to Lebanon in 2005 and took up the reins of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) which he had led in absentia. In accordance with the logic of Lebanon’s confessional politics, FPM and Hezbollah needed each other, and, in 2006, they signed a memorandum of understanding that enabled them to pursue their distinct interests under the guise of unity.
Marginalizing the Sunnis
Before turning against the Sunni political and security establishments, Hezbollah needed to eliminate independent-minded and outspoken Sunni clerics because of their ability to frame religious identity through politics. This context helps to explain the 1982 assassination of the director of the Union of Islamic Associations and Institutions in Lebanon, Sheikh Ahmad Assaf; the head of the Supreme Islamic Shari’a Council, Sheikh Subhi as-Salih, in 1986, and the grand Sunni Sheikh Hassan Khalid in 1989. Assaf possessed strong organizational capabilities and displayed a powerful sense of communal identity whereas Salih had challenged the Twelver Shiite imamate and the wilayat al-faqih concepts, both of which under-girded Hezbollah’s ideology. Sheikh Khalid’s crime was to attempt to convince the GCC countries to lead a new Arab deterrent force to free Lebanon from the Syrian stranglehold. This was completely unacceptable to Hezbollah whose prospects of achieving success hinged on excluding GCC influence and relying on Damascus.
The 1989 Ta’if agreement ensured that pro-Syrian Shiites and Maronites would control the country’s political, security, and judicial apparatus. But the return to Lebanon of Sunni business tycoon Rafiq Hariri from Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter upset the political balance that Hezbollah had sought in its favor. In 1992, a majority of parliamentary deputies designated Hariri their favorite candidate for the office of prime minister. His meteoric rise to power threatened Hezbollah’s efforts to dominate the Lebanese political scene, especially since he received the unconditional backing of Saudi Arabia and the West.
Hezbollah concluded that Hariri represented a threat to be eliminated, a view shared by Tehran and its Syrian henchman, Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad. Hariri’s influence was unacceptable and contradicted the pattern of fading Sunni power in the region, and thus he was assassinated in 2005. In June 2011, the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) indicted four Lebanese suspects linked to Hezbollah in connection with the assassination. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has categorically refused to turn them in because “the STL is an American-Israeli tribunal, and the four indictees are our brothers in resistance who have an honorable record.” The Hariri assassination brought to an end his project of reconstructing postwar Lebanon along political and economic lines that favored Saudi Arabia and the West. Thus, a formidable hurdle was removed from the path of Hezbollah’s designs for Lebanon.
Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son and political heir, lacked the acumen and foresight to continue his late father’s policies, let alone keep Hezbollah in check. The key to Hezbollah’s getting away with the assassination required dismantling Hariri’s private intelligence outfit, the information section of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF). Hariri wanted to take advantage of the tradition that enabled Sunnis to lead the ISF and to attach an intelligence component to it to counter control of the Deuxieme Bureau (military intelligence) by Shiites and their Maronite allies.
Instead, Hezbollah began a new reign of terror. In 2006, Samer Shihada, an investigator into the Hariri assassination, was the victim of an attack that killed four of his security guards and convinced him to emigrate from Lebanon. In 2008, Wisam Eid, a captain in the information section of the ISF, was murdered in an explosion linked to his investigation of the mobile communications used by the hit team that assassinated Hariri. Eid’s innovative investigative techniques had alarmed Hezbollah officials, who told him “that some of the phones he was chasing were being used by Hezbollah agents conducting a counterespionage operation against Israel’s Mossad spy agency and that he needed to back off.” In 2012, a major explosion in east Beirut killed the chief of the information section, Wisam Hassan, only a few hours after his return to Lebanon from a foreign trip. The identity of Hassan’s assassins has not been established, but the fact that Hezbollah completely controls security in Beirut’s international airport casts suspicion as to who might have committed the act. Hassan’s elimination from the scene ended once and for all the security challenge that the information section had presented to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah also used proxies to embroil its Sunni opponents in debilitating scandals. For this, the group prefers to use pawns such as Fayez Shukr, secretary general of the Lebanese Baath Party, and Wi’am Wahhab, chief of the minuscule at-Tawhid Druze party, and especially the pages of al-Akhbar, Iran’s mouthpiece newspaper in Lebanon.
During the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, al-Akhbar made its debut, coinciding with Hezbollah’s charge that Saad Hariri’s Future Trend (FT) party and Saudi Arabia were colluding with the U.S. and Israeli governments to destroy the group. In 2010, the newspaper fabricated charges against Tariq al-Rab’a, head of the administrative planning department for mobile phone operator Alfa, thereby playing a decisive role in his arrest by military intelligence on suspicion of communicating with the Mossad and giving the Israelis access to the Lebanese mobile network. The arrest of Rab’a, a Sunni from Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadida neighborhood, bastion of Hariri’s political support, occurred with the help of partisans of Hezbollah’s Maronite ally Aoun, who have taken charge of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Alfa Mobile and framed a case against Rab’a.
More recently, al-Akhbar has sought to implicate Hariri’s Future Trend in the arming of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting Bashar al-Assad. It featured on its front page the transcript of an alleged conversation between a member of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc and a representative of the FSA requesting arms. While the FT may actually be acting as a liaison between the FSA and arms providers, the newspaper simultaneously ignored Hezbollah’s role in fighting alongside the Assad regime’s forces.
As a totalitarian political party, Hezbollah cannot survive without a military component and will not accept anything less than full control of the Lebanese political system. The problem of Hezbollah, which possesses the premier military force in Lebanon, is its inherent incapability to transform itself into a genuine domestic political force in fear that “its legitimacy [would] become equal to ordinary political groups that accept the rules of accommodation.” This in turn means that Hezbollah has not abandoned its goal of creating an Islamic state of Lebanon.
Hezbollah has indeed gone a long way to achieving its objective of controlling Lebanon since its humble 1985 beginnings. It dominates the country’s domestic and foreign policy and operates a military machine superior to the national army. It has the final say on making governmental, administrative, and judicial appointments, and its interaction with Lebanese political groups has shown that it has no intention of truly assimilating into Lebanese political practices, not least since its Islamist Shiite orientation precludes its ability for a meaningful dialogue (as opposed to tactical alliances) with the Sunnis. Moreover, the Iranian paradigm of wilayat al-faqih, to which Hezbollah subscribes, baffles many critical-minded Shiites. Not surprisingly, Ahmad al-Asaad, leader of the fledgling Shiite party, the Lebanese New Option Gathering, believes that “we must get rid of Hezbollah in order to build a viable state.”
The winds of change are transforming the Middle East and are bound to leave their mark on the course of events in Lebanon. Syria’s uprising is unlikely to bring democracy to the war-torn country, but it will almost certainly alter the existing balance of power in Lebanon. The specter of a Sunni resurgence in Syria is already haunting Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
 “An Open Letter, The Hezbollah Program,” as-Safir (Beirut), Feb. 16, 1985.
 Ibid., Apr. 12, 1986.
 Joseph Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p. 33.
 “Hezbollah Manifesto,” Moqawama.org, Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, Nov. 30, 2009.
 Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction, p. 22.
 As-Siyasa (Kuwait City), Aug. 1, 2011.
 Akif Haydar, al-Ashia Biasma’iha: Min Ajl Lubnan Afdal (Beirut: Sharikat al-Matbu’at li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzi, 1995), p. 51.
 Khalil Ahmad Khalil, Naqd at-Tadlil al-Aqli: Shi’iat Lubnan wa-l-Alam al-Arabi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-Arabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 2001), p. 59.
 Haydar, al-Ashia Biasma’iha, p. 66.
 Waddah Sharara, Dawlat Hezbollah: Lubnan Mujtama’an Islamiyyan (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 1997), pp. 160-220.
 Hilal Khashan and Ibrahim Mousawi, “Hizbullah’s Jihad Concept,” Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 9, 2007, pp. 25-6.
 Nadia Aylabuni, “Niqat Muthira fi an-Niqash hawla Hezbollah,” in Ahmad Abu Matar, ed., Hezbollah: al-Wajh al-Akhar (Amman: Dar al-Karmil, 2008), p. 58.
 Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, Ayatollah Khamene’i’s representative in Lebanon, sermon, accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
 Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction, p. 41.
 Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin, Ightial al-Hariri wa Tada’iyatih ala Ahl as-Sunna fi Lubnan (London: Dar al-Jabiya, 2007), p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Al-Manar TV (Beirut), July 2, 2011.
 Naharnet News Website (Beirut), Nov. 23, 2010.
 Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Dec. 13, 2010.
 Ibid., May 15, 2012.
 Ibid., Nov. 29, 2012.
 Turki al-Hamad and Maza Yurid al-Sayyid, “Hassan Nasrallah wa Hezbollah?” in Ahmad Abu Matar, ed., Hezbollah: al-Wajh al-Akhar (Amman: Dar al-Karmil, 2008), p. 52.
 Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Disarming Hezbollah,” Foreign Affairs, Jan. 11, 2010; “Hezbollah Dominates Lebanese Government,” The Jewish Policy Center, Washington, D.C., June 15, 2011; “Hezbollah,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2012.
 “Hezbollah,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2012.
 See Adel Hashemi Najafabadi, “Imamate and Leadership: The Case of the Shi’a Fundamentalist in Modern Iran,” Canadian Social Science, no. 6, 2010, pp. 192-205; Ahmad al-Katib, at-Tashayu as-Siyasi wa-t-Tashayu al-Dini (Beirut: Mu’asasat al-Intishar al-‘Arabi, 2009), p. 118.
 As-Siyasa, May 4, 2009.
To the Beat of its Own Drum: On Internal Logic of Events in Tunisia
Once every five years or so, Tunisia finds itself in the headlines around the world. Last time, in 2015, it had to do with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. Before that, it was the events of the Arab Spring that led to President Ben Ali being overthrown. Today, ten years following the “Dignity Revolution,” the country’s president, Kais Saied, has frozen the nation’s parliament for a month, depriving its members of their immunity, dismissing the prime minister, minister of defense and minister of justice, and announced that he would govern the country through presidential decrees. All these decisions, which were made during Tunisia’s Republic Day celebrations, were a response to the demands of a certain part of the society—represented among others by the July 25 Movement—to restore order, dismiss the discredited parliament and call new elections.
Ten short years ago, the Tunisian people took to the streets to demand the overthrow of the authoritarian regime that had been in power for 24 years. This time, however, the society roundly supported the president’s decisions as people came out to fly the Tunisian flag and wave banners with patriotic slogans as well as charge the headquarters of Ennahda, an Islamist party that has held a majority in parliament since the 2019 elections. A number of commentators have already noted that the events in Tunisia signify the final defeat of democracy in the Arab world, the end of the Arab Spring, the complete and utter failure of the West’s policies in the region. Others see the traces of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on the one hand and Turkey and Qatar on the other, suggesting that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were taking revenge on their opponents for Field Marshal Haftar’s failed offensive in Libya.
While both of these interpretations are entertaining, they are striking in their complete disregard for the internal logic of the events that are taking place. At first glance, it would seem that COVID-19 is the main culprit. Indeed, recent COVID-19 incidence and morbidity figures are disappointing. The number of new cases continued to grow over June–July 2021, exceeding 9000 per day. Tunisia has a population of approximately 12 million people, so we can assume that the incidence rate roughly corresponded to that of Moscow during the same period. In the days leading up to President Saied’s extraordinary decisions, the number of COVID-related deaths had hit 200 per day. The epidemiological situation in the country was thus among the bleakest in the region.
There is no point arguing whether things are better in other countries or whether Tunisia is better at keeping the relevant statistics and is carrying out more tests for coronavirus. More important is the fact that the epidemiological situation had little to do with Saied’s decisions, and those in parliament were most heavily criticized not for their health policy but for their corrupt activities. In particular, Ennahda was accused of using its majority in parliament to advance its positions in administrative structures, business and politics, building ramified networks of nepotism in all three areas.
This is not the first time that Ennahda MPs have been accused of such wrongdoing, as similar accusations were levelled at the party during the 2013 national crisis. Just like in 2013, the party has come under fire, among other things, for its complete managerial incompetence and the inability to ensure public and national security—now you can add epidemiological safety to the list.
Interestingly, some of these charges are strangely reminiscent of those that were levelled against President Ben Ali in 2011. Of course, he was never accused of being managerially incompetent. He was, however, criticized for his clannishness and corruption. In fact, if you look at how political processes developed in Tunisia in the 2010s, an amazing pattern will emerge. The decade following the revolution can be split into three periods. The first is 2011–2013, which saw the strengthening and coming to power of Ennahda as well as the formation of a powerful anti-Islamist opposition led by Nidaa Tounes. This period ended with a profound political crisis and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The second period, 2014–2019, coincides with the presidency of Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of Nidaa Tounes. It was during this period that Nidaa Tounes effectively collapsed, while Ennahda continued to grow in strength, eventually taking power in 2019. The third and final period, 2019–2021, has been marked by the unrelenting confrontation between the president and parliament and would appear to be ending with the temporary removal of Ennahda from power.
We can thus suggest that domestic politics in Tunisia over the past decade has been dominated by the confrontation between the so-called secular forces and those who claim to be Islamists. Both these designations are, of course, euphemisms—the former referring to representatives of the old elites and those who live in the capital and along the coast, while the latter to members of the new elites from the inner and southern regions, who also enjoy the support of those living in poor suburbs of the big cities. The confrontation between these two groups attests to a deep internal divide in the Tunisian society into two halves that not only compete with one another but also with completely different views on such issues as the civilization to which the country rightly belongs.
The confrontation between the two parts of society was effectively the raison d’être of the country’s political forces. Any strengthening of either side was quickly followed by a weakening caused by internal fighting, coming as a result of their opponents rallying together at a given time: we saw this first with Ennahda, then with Nidaa Tounes, and then again with Ennahda. Another consequence of this polarization is the dominance of narrow party interests over national interests and the continuing distrust of the two parts of society and the political elites towards each other.
Another important circumstance is worth mentioning here. Today’s events are in many ways a consequence of the National Dialogue. While the National Dialogue proved to be an effective tool for overcoming the crisis and demonstrating the effectiveness of the institutions of the Tunisian civil society which acted as its organizers and guarantors eight years ago, it also highlighted the weaknesses of the political parties. Even before the crisis, the Tunisian people did not place a great deal of trust in political parties, and whatever trust there was eroded completely following the National Dialogue. To some extent, Ennahda proved to be an exception, since its long history and the persecution that the Islamists had endured during the 1990s and the 2000s led to a high degree of solidarity with the party and among its supporters.
Looking at the features of the Tunisian political process, we can thus see the decisions of President Kais Saied not so much as a manifestation of the (largely dubious) global trend of consolidating authoritarianism or a regional trend of ousting Islamists from power (which can also cast into doubt, given how strongly Islamists are represented in almost all parliaments in Arab countries) as an expression of the Tunisian logic of political development.
An important question in the context of recent events in Tunisia, of course, is whether the president’s actions can be considered a political coup. For the time being, Tunisia’s partners abroad tend to avoid this definition. Some Ennahda supporters, most notably Radwan Masmoudi, who has long unofficially linked the party with the Washington establishment, have called for the White House to recognize the incident as a coup d’état and, in accordance with the U.S. legislation, suspend assistance to the country, including in the fight against COVID-19.
The situation, however, is rather complicated. In taking his decisions, Kais Saied referred to Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which grants the president the right to demand exclusive powers in the event of a threat to national security. But there are two setbacks here: 1) it is far from clear that such a threat actually exists; 2) exceptional powers can only be granted to the head of state by agreement with the speaker of parliament who in this case is, of course, categorically against it, having stated that no one approached him about the issue.
It is also important to note that a key point in the adoption of the current Constitution was the provision to prevent any person from usurping power in the country. One of the through lines of the negotiations on the development of the Constitution in 2011–2014 was the need to insure the country against the establishment of authoritarianism. These are the arguments that make some respected figures in Tunisia, such as Yaz Ben Ashur, say that a coup d’état has indeed taken place in the country.
But there is another way of looking at it as the Constitution fails to provide for the kind of situation we are witnessing today. Instead, the president had to appeal to the spirit of the Constitution. After all, the Constitution is designed to support a strong and democratic republican state. But how can a state be strong and democratic if it is rife with corruption and laden with an impotent state apparatus? We are essentially talking about Carl Schmitt’s state of exception here. Moreover, the president is not suspending the activities of the legislative assembly forever—but only for a month. This by no means constitutes a usurpation of power.
All this allows us to offer a number of possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: Chaos. Concentration of power in the hands of the president brings about hardly any improvements in the situation. High-profile corruption cases are seen as an instrument of settling scores within the political elites, while the Ennahda Party, having recovered from the initial shock, mobilizes its supporters to defend the “values of the revolution.” This could lead to fresh protests and a gradual increase in political violence. If events unfold in this way, attempts will likely be made to repeat the successful experience of the National Dialogue, although it is far from clear how prepared the main actors will be amid these conditions.
Scenario 2: A la Ben Ali. The president receives additional support from abroad to fight the coronavirus and—with the help of the law enforcement—he gets the healthcare system functioning again. The security services initiate criminal cases against the most odious corrupt officials. All this allows Kais Saied to maintain a high level of public confidence and introduce amendments to the Constitution that would expand presidential powers and outlaw Ennahda. New parliamentary elections are called and contested by weak parties, which will lose a number of serious political functions. The regime is primarily propped up by the security apparatus, just as it was in the old days. This scenario can be seen as similar to the one that Ben Ali oversaw in the early 1990s, reproducing in general terms the schemes the President used to consolidate his power.
However, this scenario has three weak points.
First, it does not take into account the fact that Tunisian society has changed. Not because the country has enjoyed ten years of democracy or what poets like to call the “sweet air of freedom” (especially since this sweetness was tainted by an endless series of crises), but because the civil society has become more robust during this time. The statement released by the Tunisian General Labor Union (a key syndicalist in the country) in response to the president’s actions stresses, albeit in rather restrained language, the need to preserve the democratic foundations of the political system. Similar sentiments can be found in the statements of other major civil organizations.
Second, this scenario does not account for the fact that a significant part of society still supports Ennahda and that the party has managed to significantly bolster its positions over the past few years—not only among the general public but also in government bodies and in business. One may be tempted to compare the party with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt here , but such a comparison does not really work. In Egypt, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood remained in power for less than two years, while Ennahda had ten in Tunisia. What is more, having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi allowed the Salafist al-Nour Party official recognition. Ennahda’s competitors do not have nearly the same amount of influence and authority among the religiously motivated electorate.
Third, Ben Ali was a product of the intelligence services, while el-Sisi was a career military man. However, the Tunisian Army has never played a significant role in politics, and Kais Saied has no ties whatsoever with the intelligence services; whether or not they embrace the former university professor as one of their own remains to be seen.
Scenario 3: Hopeful. The actions taken by the president are mostly welcomed by the public, while the Islamists do not have the time to mobilize supporters to the extent they need. In addition, Tunisia’s society, tired of incessant crises, is not ready for a repeat of 2011. Constant consultations with the Tunisian General Labor Union and other influential organizations allow the president to maintain public order. In turn, corruption cases brought against MPs provide a reason to question the legitimacy of the parliament itself and call new elections since, after all, this is the will of the people. In addition, a referendum on introducing amendments to the Constitution to expand the president’s powers—another ground for parliamentary elections—may be called. The new-look Ennahda will have far fewer seats in parliament than before, while the majority of votes will go to secular centrist parties that support the president.
This is likely the preferred scenario for many, although it has a number of weaknesses, too.
First, it is clear that it will take longer than a few months to institute all these changes. Six months or a year are a minimum of what is needed. The question is whether Kais Saied can keep the wheels turning for that long. If he fails, Scenario 1 may become a reality, and a new, stronger figure may be installed in power.
Second, pushing Ennahda to the political margins means that some kind of alternative needs to be presented. However, secular parties have failed to come up with anything in recent years, and there is no reason to believe they will be able to now.
Third, such a scenario assumes that the president will have the unconditional support of the Tunisian General Labor Union and other civil society institutions, which is also not a given.
The three scenarios presented here merely outline the possible trajectories. We may see something completely different. That said, it is obvious that the coming month will be pivotal for Tunisia’s future. Not only will the response of the country’s internal forces to the president’s initiatives become clear, but the initiatives themselves will evolve into something resembling a political program. There is no doubt that such a program exists: at the end of the day, Kais Saied was talking about the need to strengthen presidential power as well as elements of direct democracy when he was running for office.
From our partner RIAC
Afghanistan may be a bellwether for Saudi-Iranian rivalry
Boasting an almost 1,000-kilometer border with Iran and a history of troubled relations between the Iranians and Sunni Muslim militants, including the Taliban, Afghanistan could become a bellwether for the future of the rivalry between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia.
Had the United States withdrawn from Afghanistan several years earlier, chances would have been that Saudi Arabia would have sought to exploit military advances by the Taliban in far less subtle ways than it may do now.
Saudi Arabia was still channelling funds in 2017 to anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite militants in the Iranian-Afghan-Pakistani border triangle and further south on the Pakistani side of the frontier despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to distance the kingdom from identification with austere interpretations of Islam that shaped the country’s history and that it shared with the Taliban.
“The Taliban is a religious extremist group which is no stranger to extremism and murder, especially murdering Shias, and its hands are stained with the blood of our diplomats,” noted an Iranian cleric, referring to the 1998 killing of eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Afghanistan.
Outgoing Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif outlined the potential tripwire Afghanistan constitutes for Iran.
“If Iran doesn’t play well and makes an enemy out of the Taliban soon, I think some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and the US would attempt to finance and direct the Taliban to weaken Tehran and divert its attention away from Iraq and other Arab countries. The biggest threat for us would be the formation of an anti-Iran political system in Afghanistan,” Mr. Zarif said.
Comparing the potential problems for Iran with an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban or a neighboring country at war with itself to Saudi Arabia’s Houthi troubles in Yemen is tempting. Saudi Arabia was, before the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban’s control of the country. At the time, it saw virtue in stirring the pot on Iran’s borders.
Much has changed not only in the last two decades but also in the last few years since both Saudi Arabia and some Trump administration officials like national security advisor John Bolton were toying with the idea of attempting to spark ethnic insurgencies inside Iran. And Afghanistan is neither Yemen nor are the Taliban the Houthis.
The Taliban have sought in recent weeks to assure Afghanistan’s neighbors that they seek cooperation and would not be supporting militancy beyond their country’s borders. Iran last month hosted talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government that ended with a joint statement calling for a peaceful political settlement and declaring that “war is not the solution.”
It has been war ever since.
From the Saudi perspective, it would not be the first time that the Taliban have said one thing and done another, including keeping an alleged promise prior to 9/11 that Osama Bin Laden would not be allowed to plan and organize attacks from Afghan soil and subsequent refusal to hand over the Saudi national.
All of this is not to say that Afghanistan could not emerge as a venue for Middle Eastern rivalries involving not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but potentially also Turkey and Qatar. It probably will be albeit one in which battles are likely to be fought less through proxies and more economically and culturally and in which alliances will look significantly different than in the past.
A crucial factor in how the rivalries play out will be the Taliban’s attitude towards non-Pashtun ethnic and religious groups.
“If Afghanistan returns to the situation before September 11, 2001, when the Taliban were at war with the Shia Hazara and the Turkic Uzbeks, then Iran and Turkey will almost inevitably be drawn in on the other side—especially if Saudi Arabia resumes support for the Taliban as a way of attacking Iran… Ideally, a regional consensus could successfully pressure the Taliban to respect the autonomy of minority areas,” said Eurasia scholar Anatol Lieven.
Supporting the Taliban, a group that is identified with violation of women’s rights, could prove tricky for Prince Mohammed as he seeks to convince the international community that the kingdom has broken with an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that inspired groups like the Afghan militants.
It would also complicate the crown prince’s efforts to project his country as a beacon of a moderate and tolerant form of the faith and complicate relations with the United States.
Moreover, Prince Mohammed’s religious soft power strategy may be working. In a sign of changing times, Western non-governmental organizations like Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation look to Saudi Arabia as a model for the Taliban.
“The way Saudi Arabia has developed in the past 10, 20 years is remarkable. I have seen with my own eyes how much (they) have reconciled modern life, women’s rights, women education, work-life, and still guarding (their) Islamic values. This could be a certain role model for the Taliban,” said Ellinor Zeino, the Foundation’s Afghanistan country director, in a webinar hosted by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRI).
Saudi steps so far to moderate the Taliban and facilitate a peaceful resolution of the Afghanistan conflict are however unlikely to have ingratiated the kingdom with the Taliban. A Saudi-hosted Islamic Conference on the Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan in the holy city of Mecca in June attended by Afghan and Pakistani Islamic scholars and government officials condemned the recent violence as having “no justification” and asserting that “it could not be called jihad.”
Fuelling the fire, Yusuf Bin Ahmed Al Uthaymeen, the secretary-general of the 57-nation, Saudi-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), told the conference that the Taliban-led violence amounted to “genocide against Muslims.”
The rhetoric notwithstanding, conservative Iran’s inclination to accommodate the Taliban as President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office, in a twist of irony, could see the Islamic republic and the kingdom both backing a group with a history of fire-breathing anti-Shiism if it comes to power in Kabul.
Said Mehdi Jafari, an Afghan Shiite refugee in Belgium: The Iranians “have much more to gain from the Taliban. Hazaras are a weak player to choose in this war. Iran is a country before it is a religious institution. They will first choose things that benefit their country before they look at what benefits the Shia.”
Tunisia between Islamism and the ‘Delta variant’
On Sunday 25 July, on a day dedicated to celebrating the country’s independence, in a move that surprised observers and diplomats alike, Tunisian President Kais Sayed relieved Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who had been in office since September 2020, of his duties. He suspended Parliament’s works and dismissed the Interior and Defence Ministers.
Mechichi, as well as the Speaker of Parliament Rachid Gannouchi, are members of the Islamist Ennhada party which, with 25% of the votes, holds the majority of Parliamentary seats and since 2011, when it returned to legality, has become a powerful political force that has attempted – without resorting to violence – to give secular Tunisia a progressive turn towards the most militant Islamism.
As is well known, Tunisia was the first Muslim country to be crossed by the stormy wind of the “Arab Springs” when, in December 2010, a young fruit and vegetable street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a square in the centre of Tunis to protest against the corruption of President Ben Ali’s government, in power for 23 years.
The demonstrations that followed the young street vendor’s death led to the ousting of President Ben Ali in January 2011, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia with his entire family, as well as to the fall of Mohamed Gannouchi’s government and, in October of the same year, to new elections which saw the success of the religious party, Ennhada, which had been banned by Ben Ali. This triggered a series of political innovations that led – in January 2014 – to the approval of a new constitution that, despite strong Parliamentary pressure from the most radical Islamists, can be considered one of the most progressive in the whole North Africa.
In the five years that followed, Tunisia – amid political and economic ups and downs – maintained a degree of internal stability that enabled it to dampen those Islamist pressures that, in other countries of the region, had turned the so-called “springs” into nightmares marked by unrest and bloody civil conflicts.
Ennhada was gradually integrated into a sort of ‘constitutional arc’, despite the protests of its most radical militants, and its most charismatic leader, Rachid Gannouchi, was even appointed Speaker of Tunis Parliament.
In recent years, however, the country has been afflicted by the problem of corruption of its entire ruling class, including Islamists. It is on a programme platform to fight this phenomenon resolutely and relentlessly that in October 2019 an eminent Law Professor, Kais Sayed, was elected President of the Republic.
In August 2020, President Sayed appointed Mechhichi, a moderate who had already been his political advisor, to form a technocratic government, “free from parties’ influence”.
The situation has seen the establishment of what the Tunisian media call the ‘government of the three Presidents’, namely Sayed (President of the Republic), Mechichi (President of the Council) and Gannouchi who, as Speaker of Parliament, tries to make the majority presence of the Ennhada Islamists in the legislative branch count.
The equilibria are fragile and are made even more precarious by the heavy social and economic consequences of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country.
Since the beginning of this year, Tunisia has been in a state of creeping crisis: the political uncertainty caused by the perennial search for a difficult political and governmental has been compounded by ideological and personal tensions between the “three Presidents”, whose positions on the instruments with which to tackle the pandemic and the economic crisis have gradually exacerbated to the point of producing a situation of political and legislative paralysis that is completely unsustainable.
In recent weeks, the ‘Delta variant’ of the pandemic has caused a spike in infections, causing further damage not only to the population and the health system, but also and above all to the economy of a country that is seeing the possibility of boosting its gross domestic product with tourism disappear for the second year running. For decades tourism has been an irreplaceable source of livelihood and enrichment for large sections of the population. The pandemic crisis has acted as a multiplier of the economic crisis, with the progressive and seemingly unstoppable loss of dinar value and the increasingly acute disparity between the increasingly poor and the increasingly rich people.
The government’s approach to the pandemic has been nothing short of disastrous. While the World Health Organisation declared Tunisia ‘the most infected country in Africa’, the government saw the change of five Health Ministers in succession, each of whom proposed confusing and uncoordinated emergency measures (lockdown, curfew), which were completely ineffective in containing the spread of the virus and the high levels of mortality.
The often improvised and contradictory confinement rules have exasperated the population, who has taken sides with the two parts of the political front: on the one hand, Ennhada’s supporters, who are convinced that the technocratic part of the government is to blame for the health and economic crisis; on the other hand, the secularists, who accuse the Islamists of being the cause of everything and of playing the “so much the worse, so much the better” game to permanently destabilise the institutions and turn Tunisia into an Islamic State.
Ennhada itself has not remained unscathed by internal quarrels and divisions, between the ‘hardliners’ who want the party to return to its militant origins and those who prefer to ‘stay in power and rule’ who – as is currently happening in Italy – prefer to seek stability in the situation and maintain their power positions.
Last May, Abdellhamid Jelassi, the Head of the Ennhada “Council of Doctrine”, resigned accusing the party leader and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gannouchi, of delaying the date of the Congress in order to avoid his defenestration and the appointment of a successor closer to the original ideas of the movement and to the most radical tenets of Islamic doctrine which, according to the orthodox members, have been betrayed by “those who want to rule” for the sake of power.
It was in that situation of economic, political and social crisis that, invoking Article 80 of the 2014 Constitution, President Sayed dismissed the Prime Minister along with other Cabinet members and suspended Parliament’s works for thirty days.
Many people within the country and abroad, starting with Erdogan’s Turkey, shouted the coup.
In Ankara, the spokesman of the AKP, President Erdogan’s party, defined President Sayed’s actions as “illegitimate” and threatened sanctions against those who “inflict this evil on our brothers and sisters in Tunisia”, while the Turkish Foreign Minister more cautiously confined himself to expressing his “deep concern” over the suspension of Parliamentary activities.
It is significant, however, that on the national front, after the first street protests by Islamists and Ennhada supporters, which were immediately harshly repressed by the police, and after the closure of the offices of the Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has always fomented Islamist demands, as well as the dismissal of the top management of the state TV, the “crowd” in the streets was dominated by demonstrators who favourably viewed the President’s initiative which, in their opinion, put an end to the activities of that part of the national government that proved totally unable of tackling the pandemic emergency and its negative social and economic consequences.
According to those who claim that what happened on July 25 was not a coup, President Sayed did not dissolve the Tunisian government: he confined himself to dismissing incapable Ministers and leaving those of the ‘technocratic’ wing in place, in the hope of producing a government turn while waiting for Parliament to reopen at the end of August.
The situation is in flux, but it seems to be moving towards stabilisation, which will be speeded up if the Mediterranean countries and the European Union move quickly to help Tunisia get out of the doldrums of the pandemic and economic crisis.
Helping the Tunisian authorities pragmatically to resolve the political crisis is also in the interest of all the countries bordering the Mediterranean, starting with Italy, not only for reasons of good political neighbourhood, but also to prevent a possible Tunisian chaos from triggering a new and uncontrolled migration push. This is what is currently happening in Afghanistan, where, following the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the United States and NATO allies, the Taliban are coming back, with the first consequence of a mass exodus of Afghans to Turkey via Iran.
According to the UNRHC, the United Nations refugee agency, thousands of refugees from Afghanistan are moving towards Turkey at a rate of 1,000 to 2,000 people a day: a phenomenon which could soon affect Italy, too.
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