How did Europe manage to drag Arabs to the wrong side of history – a confusion, pride, shame and denial – all which resurfaces again, 75 years after. How is this possible that the ‘never-again’ takes place today? Do we fake our surprise? How expensive is our European denial, and Monarchist Arabs claim of innocence?
Haj Amin Al-Husseini was instrumental in ushering in National Socialism within the Arab World and in contributing to tens of thousands of deaths both directly and indirectly during the WWII. He has influenced men from Adolf Eichmann, Abdul Nasser to Yasser Arafat (to whom he was related) and was directly supported by Adolph Hitler. During his life, al-Husseini was responsible for briefly overthrowing the Iraqi government in 1941, creating Nazi SS divisions comprised of Muslims, representing and spreading National Socialism within the Arab World, fostering and implementing a radical departure within Arab-Jewish relations from peaceful co-existence to that of mass killings (eliminating ninety percent of all the Jews within the Balkans alone), and being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. Additionally, he had successfully fused National Socialism, Islamic fundamentalism, and Pan-Arabism into a hybrid that exists to this day.
The Nazi connection to Islamic extremism is a topic little known and understood in modern society. As the West attempts to understand the long simmering blood feud between Arab and Jew, little is spoken of the role that Haj Amin al-Husseini played in escalating the conflict through his collaboration with the Third Reich.
Haj Amin al-Husseini was born in 1895 in Jerusalem, which at the time was a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. After attending the Al-AzharUniversity in Cairo for a year, he left to join the Ottoman Army at the outbreak of World War One. He achieved the rank of officer and was stationed among various ports near the Black Sea, primarily in the Greek Christian city of Smyrna. While there is little documentation to suggest that Husseini was directly involved with the subsequent Turkish genocide against the Christian Armenians, there can be no doubt that at the very least, he was consciously aware of the extermination program as much of the genocide was perpetrated within the areas where he was stationed. It was during these formative years of his youth that he began to embrace a fundamental pan Arab view of autonomy concerning not only Palestine, but later to include the entire Arab Peninsula. Throughout his life, this fundamental belief experienced various incarnations as Husseini struggled to deal with what he referred to as the “Jewish Question,” finally culminating by advocating Jewish extermination during World War Two and after.
Haj Amin al-Husseini’s rise to power
After being convicted by the British authorities for inciting a campaign of violence against Jewish settlers in 1920, he was suddenly pardoned by the British High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, who was attempting to control the widespread violence against the Jews by pacifying Husseini and appointing him the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (regardless of the fact that the Palestinian leadership had always voted for the position and that Husseini had finished a distant fourth). He was also given control of the Supreme Muslim Council that was created by the British to provide a voice concerning political matters within the British mandated rule of Palestine. Husseini would use this position by ridding himself of any opposition concerning his views toward the expulsion and eradication of Jews within Palestine. Throughout the decade of the 1920’s, Husseini carried out several anti-Jewish pogroms against Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Motza, Hebron, Safed, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, as well as those living in the countryside. Husseini ordered that slaughtered Jewish settlers should have their corpses disguised and then photographed as slain Arabs to further instigate and enflame Arab opinion. During these pogroms, Husseini organized and chaired the All-Islamic Conference in which he further consolidated his power and prestige within the Arab world. It was through this recognized entity throughout the Muslim world that Husseini would justify his position of authority to the Germans as being representative of Arab sentiment.
The birth of National Socialism within the Arab World
The election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933 galvanized the Arab world; this in turn further accelerated and cemented Husseini’s influence. Using the new Nazi regime’s rise to power and subsequent infrastructure as a template, Husseini played a decisive role in creating pro-Nazi parties within the Arab world, most notably in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and indirectly helping in the creation of the Social Nationalist Party in Syria. The emulation went far beyond just simple admiration as pan-Arab partied began to model themselves after the Nazi infrastructure. A young and powerful Abdul Gamal Nasser was heavily influenced by Husseini. Later to become one of Israel’s greatest enemies, Nasser belonged to the Green Shirts who went so far as to adopt the Nazi party motto, “One Folk, One Party, One Leader.” Consequently, National Socialism had a far more prevalent role in creating today’s Arab nationalist parties and subsequent governments. Sami al_Joundi, the founder and father of the Syrian Ba’ath Party, influential both in Syria and later Iraq wrote, “ We were racists. We admired the Nazis. We were immersed in reading Nazi literature and books that were the source of the Nazi spirit. We were the first who thought of a translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Anyone who lived in Damascus at that time was a witness to the Arab inclination toward Nazism.”
Further evidence as to the enormous popularity that Hitler’s policies were prevalent within the Arab world were the congratulatory telegrams sent to Hitler concerning his election to Chancellor, the first sent by foreign sources outside of Germany. It is at this point that Husseini first exclaims his desire to emulate and support Nazi policies toward the Jewish race, as evident by his message to the German Council in Jerusalem, “the Muslims inside and outside Palestine welcome the new regime of Germany and hope for he extension of the fascist, anti-democratic, governmental system to other countries.” Further giving display to his admiration of Hitler was the creation by Husseini of a Palestinian youth organization called the “Nazi Scouts.”
Contact between Husseini and leading Nazi figures
The time was fast approaching when a greater level of cooperation would be initiated between that of the Arab world, and that of the Nazi Germany. The first known contact between Husseini and a Nazi official was in 1936 when Husseini met with Francois Genoud, a prominent Swiss banker who represented much of the Third Reich’s financial endeavors outside of Germany. This was a position awarded him by Hitler himself, who made Genoud an honorary member of the Nazi Waffen SS as well as receiving the decoration of the Gold Badge. During World War Two, Genoud provided financial assistance to Husseini and his Berlin sponsored government in exile in order to continue his anti-Jewish propaganda campaign that was disseminated throughout the Muslim world. While this was Husseini’s first contact with a Nazi official, this was in no way his first contact with a representative of a fascist government; that “honor” belonged to the Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, who gave millions of dollars to Husseini for the sole purpose of poisoning the water wells in Tel Aviv.
Contact between Husseini and Nazi officials began to escalate after his first initial meeting with Genoud. On July 15, 1937, six days before his personal role in inciting riots against the local Jewish populace, Husseini met with the Nazi Ambassador Doehle, the German consul in Jerusalem. Doehle reported his meeting with Husseini, telling his superiors in Berlin that,” The Grand Mufti stressed Arab sympathy for the new Germany and expressed the hope that Germany was sympathetic toward the Arab fight against Jewry and was prepared to support it.” The riots though, continued unabated, so much so that the British sent Lord Peel, as the head of a fact finding commission, to interview all the various parties embroiled in this Jewish-Arab conflict, hoping to provide the British government with a better model to govern Palestine. One of these interviews was with Husseini, who made it very clear to Peel that his primary, if not sole, goal was the establishment of an all Arab Muslim state and the total eradication of four hundred thousand Jewish settlers. This transcribed interview with Peel directly contradicted the contemporary Arab nationalist belief that Zionists were attempting to evict all the Arabs from Palestine. The Peel commission recommended a partition between the Jewish and Arab settlements, an action that Husseini did not accept, expressing his vehement antagonism not only against those Jews in Palestine but also against those Arab moderates who agreed in principle with the Peel Commission’s findings and recommendations. Waves of assassinations resulted in the wake of Husseini’s anger against those within his own camp who openly disagreed with him.
Husseini’s influence on Nazi policy concerning the Jewish question
By this time, Husseini had attracted the attention of Nazi SA 0bergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, who sent both Hauptschanfuehrer Adolf Eichmann and his assistant Nazi SS Oberscherfuehrer Herbert Hagen to Palestine as his personal envoys to meet with Husseini. While there is little documentation surviving regarding the nature of their meeting, it is already apparent as to the strength of Husseini’s persistence and personality in influencing Nazi policy concerning their dealings with the Jewish population. This is evident because of Eichmann’s meeting with the Zionist Feivel Polkes. Polkes, who, in his meeting with Eichmann, argued for the increased Jewish immigration from Germany into Palestine, an idea that was openly discussed and even supported by high-ranking members of the Nazi hierarchy at the beginning of the war. Eichmann though, who met with Husseini afterward, reveals Husseini’s influence by arguing against such immigration measures by filing reports of Nazi influence within the Palestinian populace. This was certainly not the last time Husseini would be able to influence Eichmann, nor for that matter, Nazi decisions concerning the fate of the Jews. Husseini’s growing importance to the Nazis resulted in Nazi Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Nazi Abwehr Intelligence Division, putting Husseini on the Nazi payroll.
The revolt in Iraq
By 1939, the British had tired of Husseini’s influence and violent reprisals against British rule and stripped away Husseini’s various political titles, eventually deporting him from Palestine. Husseini fled to Lebanon and solicited additional Nazi support. This resulted in sending his personal assistant Doctor Said Imam to Berlin. Accompanying Imam was a personal letter to the Nazi leadership offering support and “disseminating National Socialist ideas within the Arab-Islamic world.” To further bolster his loyalty to the Nazi cause, Husseini traveled to Iraq to participate in the Nazi backed coup conducted by the pro-Nazi Iraqi National Party. In 1941, Husseini formed the Iraqi Committee of Seven, which included the top leaders of the planned pro-Nazi government. In the months leading up to the coup, Husseini was instrumental in arranging the meeting between coup planners and the Nazi officials Joachim Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, and Franz von Papen, the Nazi ambassador to Turkey. As Nazi successes on the battlefield filled newspaper headlines across the world in 1941, Husseini sent his personal envoy, Uthman Kamal Hadded, on a secret mission to Berlin with a letter from Husseini. At the beginning of the letter, Husseini immediately presents himself as the only qualified and legitimate leader of the Arab world. In the letter, Husseini makes clear his alignment with German racial policy particularly concerning the Jews: “His excellency is well aware of the problem faced by this country, which has suffered from the deceitful actions of the English. They attempted to place an additional obstacle before the unity and independence of the Arab states by abandoning it to world Jewry, this dangerous enemy whose secret weapon…finance, corruption, and intrigue…were aligned with British dangers…Full of unvanquished faith, the Arabs of Palestine fought with the most elementary mutual hatred of the English and the Jews….”
After the pro-Nazi coup was launched successfully on April 1, 1941 (though in power for only a month), Husseini wrote Hitler again, asking that Hitler “recognize the right of the Arabs to solve the Jewish question…in the same manner as in the Axis countries.” The coup though failed, largely as a result of a British backed insurrection. This action infuriated Husseini and resulted in him publicly blaming the fall of Iraqi “nationalism” on the shoulders of the ancient Jewish community that resided within Iraq for millennia, tracing back its lineage to the time of Judah’s captivity by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The result of Husseini’s allegation was six hundred dead Jews and the looting and destruction of Jewish shops and homes. This pogrom is known to Sephardic Jews as the Fahud.
Husseini meets with Benito Mussolini
As the Nazi backed provisional government collapsed, Husseini fled to Berlin, stopping on the way to meet with the Italian Fascist Dictator, Benito Mussolini, during which they discussed their mutual hatred for the Jews. During his stay, Mussolini gave him one million Lira for expenses. At this point, the Axis powers viewed Husseini as their most trusted conduit, not only to the Middle East but also to the Muslim world in general. His arrival into Berlin was heralded with the pomp and circumstance usually given to those of head of state. He continually met with high-ranking Nazi officials and while awaiting a first meeting with Hitler, he wrote that “to settle the question of Jewish elements in Palestine and other Arab countries in accordance with the national and racial interests of the Arabs and along the lines similar to those used to solve the Jewish question in Germany and Italy.”
Husseini meets with Adolf Hitler
After meeting with SS leader Heinrich Himmler and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who prepared him in his request for an interview with Hitler, Husseini drafted fifteen different documents concerning a joint declaration that he desired both Hitler and Mussolini to issue publicly in support of Arab nationalism and cooperation with the Axis powers. In the fateful meeting between Hitler and Husseini, which occurred on November 25th of 1941, Hitler told him the Jews were his foremost enemy. The Nazi dictator rebuffed the Mufti’s requests for a declaration in support of the Arabs, telling him the time was not right. Husseini then offered Hitler his “thanks for the sympathy which he had always shown for the Arab and especially Palestinian cause, and to which he had given clear expression in his public speeches….The Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies as had Germany, namely….the Jews….”
Hitler replied: “Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews. That naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine, which was nothing other than a center, in the form of a state, for the exercise of destructive influence by Jewish interests. Germany would furnish positive and practical aid to the Arabs involved in the same struggle…. Germany’s objective [is]…solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere…. In that hour the Mufti (Husseini) would be the most authoritative spokesman for the Arab world.” The Mufti thanked Hitler profusely.
Germany was involved in a life and death struggle against Russia and Great Britain (which Hitler referred to as two citadels of Jewish power) and was actively involved on all fronts; the fact that Operation Barbarossa was so consuming made Hitler hesitant to send any badly needed troops to the Arab world. Hitler though did promise one thing which pleased Husseini greatly, that once the war against Russia and Britain was won, Germany’s objective would then be the destruction of the Jewish elements residing in the Arab sphere under the protection or control of British power. In that hour the Mufti would be the most authoritative spokesman for the Arab world.
Husseini creates S.S. divisions and is the sole mouthpiece for Nazi propaganda within the Muslim world
After meeting with Hitler, Husseini was filled with new purpose, that of the promise of Nazi intervention to restore Palestine as a sovereign state and he eradication of the entire Jewish population. In May of 1942, Husseini began a series of radio broadcasts to the Arab world via Bari radio. The Bari station was equipped with an extremely powerful radio transmitter, which was located on the southern tip of Italy, its signal reaching a large segment of the Arab world. Beginning in 1942, as the German army began to suffer tactical setbacks under the command of Erwin Rommel at El Alamein, Husseini began to increase his inflammatory dialogue. He broadcast his plans to set up concentration camps outside of Nablus as soon as the Nazis were victorious in driving Allied forces out of Northern Africa and the Middle East. One such famous quote from his broadcasts is: “Arise. O sons of Arabia, fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. Their spilled blood pleases Allah, our history and religion. That will save our honor.”
In addition to the radio broadcasts and other conduits available to the dissemination of propaganda (leaflets, booklets, publications, etc) Husseini was given the responsibility by SS leader Heinrich Himmler in recruiting and maintaining SS divisions comprised of Muslims. Husseini broadcast messages into Nazi occupied Russia, exhorting local Muslims to join various Nazi sponsored military units. He was given this authority to create and raise these divisions as a result of a meeting with Gottlob Berger, the chief recruiter for the Schutzstaffel SS. Berger stated at the onset “a link is created between Islam and National Socialism on an open, honest basis. It will be directed in terms of blood and race from the North, and in the ideological-spiritual sphere from the East.” The creation of these units were known as Hanzar Brigades and resulted in the addition of several Einsatzgruppen divisions to the Axis cause. These Hanzar units were responsible for the extermination of ninety percent of the Jewish population within Bosnia as well as similar actions within Croatia and Hungary. As each of these divisions became active, they received speeches upon ceremonial activation by Husseini exhorting them that the “Jews are the worst enemies of the Muslims.” Himmler also established a school in Dresden to train mullahs who would then be placed directly under the control of Husseini. At the end of the war, there were over one hundred thousand European Muslims recruited to fight in specially designed Nazi brigades.
Husseini’s role with the Holocaust
His role in the Final Solution was also well known to the Nazi Hierarchy. On several occasions, Husseini directly intervened to stop any attempt to either help the Jews or hinder or delay their destruction. When Red Cross officials attempted to negotiate the exchange of four thousand Jewish children from Poland, Husseini directly intervened by writing to von Ribbentrop who then forwarded the letter to Adolf Eichmann, who was at the time contemplating agreeing to the Red Cross request. Instead, the children were sent to Auschwitz. Husseini also wrote to the foreign ministers of both Romania and Hungary requesting they also stop emigration attempts in trying to resolve the Jewish question without resorting to extermination. In both cases, Romania with two thousand Jews, and Hungary with one thousand Jews, relented and sent their Jewish allotments in question to extermination camps. Husseini went so far as to actually castigate those Germans who had shown either an unwillingness or wavered in abiding by Nazi racial policies. This is evident by his brazen letter to the Nazi foreign minister von Ribbentrop in which he admonished Ribbentrop in not following Nazi directives concerning the extermination of Jews. Even when Rudolf Kastner, of the Jewish Rescue and Relief Committee in Budapest (later to be tried in Israel for collaborating with the Nazis) contacted Eichmann in an attempt to allow Jews to emigrate to Palestine, he received a response from Eichmann in which the reply was, “I am personal friend of the Grand Mufti. We have promised him that no European Jew would enter Palestine anymore.”
As the war progressed, Husseini escalated his attempts to influence those in command in the Nazi hierarchy to exterminate Jews in ever growing numbers. On a visit to Auschwitz, he was said to have urged the German guards to work more diligently in exterminating the Jews. In a document presented to the United Nations in 1947, Husseini’s correspondence with the Hungarian Foreign Minister was made public requesting the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Poland. The document contained the following notation: “As a sequel to this request 400,000 Jews were subsequently killed.” Dieter Wisliceny, Adolf Eichmann’s deputy, testified during his trial in Nuremberg that Husseini was “one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and advisor of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan….He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures.”
There is speculation as to how great Husseini’s influence was on Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jewish “problem.” Historians do know that two months before the Wansee Conference, Husseini wrote in his diary “I am resolved to find a solution for the Jewish problem, progressing step by step without cessation. With regard to this I am making the necessary and right appeal, first to all the European countries and then to countries outside of Europe.”
In his own memoirs, published before he died, Husseini wrote that “Our fundamental condition for cooperating with Germany was a free hand to eradicate every last Jew from Palestine and the Arab world. I asked Hitler for an explicit undertaking to allow us to solve the Jewish problem in a manner befitting our national and racial aspirations and according to the scientific methods innovated by Germany in the handling of the Jews. The answer I got was” ‘The Jews are yours.’”
The assimilation of Nazis within the Arab world at the end of WW II
After fleeing Germany at the end of the war, Husseini was instrumental in ferrying certain Nazis to various locations within the Arab world as well as helping in the placement of these figures who would be beneficial to the various respective Arab governments who could use their services in promoting their own nationalistic endeavors against the newly created state of Israel. This was known as Project Odessa. Husseini was to ferry key Nazi figures fleeing from war crimes charges into key positions within the Arab world, primarily Egypt and Syria who were the main antagonists advocating the destruction of Israel and attempted to do so several times within the span of Husseini’s life, most notably during the Six-day war in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In 1962, Al-Husseini would lead the Islamic World Congress for the last time, retiring shortly thereafter. Before leaving office, the Congress, while under the leadership of Husseini, drew up a resolution that was eerily similar to that of the invective spewed forth by Nazi officials two decades earlier. The resolution called for the ethnic cleansing of all Jews within the Arab World and to establish a Middle East that was “Judenrein” (free of Jews).
On July 5th, 1974, Husseini died, passing the torch to a new protégé, his nephew, Yasir Arafat who in a later interview called his diabolical uncle “a great hero.” Throughout the years Arafat has gone on record several times in praising the “virtues” of his uncle. That Husseini groomed Arafat for this role of leadership within the newly created PLO is of no question. Husseini placed him in command of arms procurement for his militia as well as arranging for Arafat to fulfill the role of a leader, grooming him for the necessary tenacity required to fill the vacancy that Husseini would leave behind.
In light of the historical record, which shows indisputably Husseini’s role in the Holocaust, one wonders as to the absurdity prevalent within the Arab world in denying not only allegations of wrongdoing through their idealistic and nationalistic leaders but also the very Holocaust itself. The historical record though is clear. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the one man who could claim to be the spokesman and ideological leader of the Arab world, was an accomplice to mass murder.
National Socialism and its integration within Arab foreign policy
Since the end of World War Two, National Socialism has continued to steadily influence political and ideological thought in the Muslim world. The first such signs were apparent during the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 when Arab newspapers, providing coverage of the trial for their readers, were openly sympathetic to Eichmann’s cause, going so far as to complain that the only fault visible to them was the inability of Eichmann to complete the Final Solution. At the same time was General Gamal Abdul Nasser, who after seizing power in 1952, incorporated literally dozens of former officials from the Nazi hierarchy, including notorious S.S. members such as Otto Skorzeny, Obersturmbannführer of the Waffen S.S. and also labeled at one time by the OSS as the most dangerous man in Europe; and Joachim Daumling, the former chief of the Gestapo in Dusseldorf, who completely rebuilt the Egyptian intelligence services.
Financial connections between Arab extremist organizations and former Nazis
Husseini spent much of the post-war period funneling money to extremist Islamic groups whose views corresponded with his own, money that had been pilfered from Jews at the hands of the Nazis. This money was used in a variety of ways, from supporting terrorist organizations, to producing his propaganda. The Swiss Nazi banker, Francois Genoud, aided him heavily in this endeavor. Genoud was an unrepentant Nazi until his death in 1996 at the age of 81; in the midst of investigations into his support for terrorist organizations. Genoud was instrumental in supplying Husseini with funds throughout Husseini’s post war life, primarily because of his creation and involvement in the Arab Commercial bank in 1958. The bank offered loans to Arabic nationalist groups that fought against or attacked Israel. Genoud was so adamantly anti-Semitic that he actually ordered his bank to manage the fighting fund of the Islamic Algerian independence movement. Genoud was highly influential in transporting key Nazi figures into the Arab World through the Odessa project which was created and funded by Genoud, who oversaw the transfer of millions of marks into his accounts which were then used to finance Odessa and Husseini’s own endeavors. The principal source of the finances that made this possible originated from the personal holdings, property, and belongings from Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Additionally, Genoud acquired the rights to the published writings of leading Nazi figures such as Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, and that of Hitler. His acquisition came as a result of becoming personally involved with the families of each. The primary reason however, in his support for Husseini and Islamic extremism, was a conversation he had with Major Herman Bernhard Ramcke, during which he learned of Martin Boormann’s account of the many conversations with Hitler in the last three years of his life. These written accounts were later handed to him in full by SS Captain Hans Reichenberg, resulting in Genoud publishing them several years later. Genoud wrote the preface, claiming, “Hitler wanted the people of the Third World to carry on the work of the Thousand Year Reich.” Genoud was also instrumental in the hijacking of a Lufthansa 747 in Bombay by Islamic terrorists who demanded five million dollars for the Organization for the Victims of the Zionist Occupation. It was Genoud who carried the ransom letter, though at the time, his complicity was not known. In 1962, Genoud moved to Algiers where he became the director of the Arab People’s Bank, yet another institution that he used to transfer over fifteen million dollars belonging to the National Liberation Front to Swiss bank accounts. For this action he was arrested in Algiers but later rescued by the Egyptian President Abdel Nasser, who was well versed in the ideological trappings of National Socialism, due in no small part to the influence of Husseini. Throughout Husseini’s public career, Genoud served as his personal financial advisor.
Genoud was not Husseini’s only Nazi contact. The American H. Keith Thompson, an influential Nazi activist, has readily admitted to helping Husseini in his post-war activities by stating that he “did a couple of jobs for him, getting some documents from files that were otherwise unavailable.” Another collaborator was Youssef Nada who served with Husseini during the war as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party. The Muslim Brotherhood party directly supported the operations set forth by Husseini and Nazi Military Intelligence, who in 1936, recruited Nada and others to link up with the Young Egypt Party, whose membership included Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat. The Young Egypt Party was an exact carbon copy of the Nazi Party, going so far as to use translated Nazi slogans and call themselves the “Green Shirts.” Youssef Nada, who worked closely with Nazi intelligence, until recently was the director of the al-Taqwa bank, an institution that the U.S. Treasury has condemned for laundering money and financing al-Qaeda as well as having connections to various extremist Islamic organizations.
Key Nazi figures within various Arab governments
In the several decades following the conclusion of World War Two, thousands of Nazi fugitives, collaborators and sympathizers flooded into the Arab World, particularly Egypt. The Egyptian President made it very clear that he desired the propagation of these Nazi’s into the Egyptian hierarchy, “We will use the services of those who know the mentality of our enemies.” Among the many Nazis who fled (or were invited) to Egypt was Franz Bartel, the Gestapo head of Katowice, Poland who subsequently ran the “Jewish Department” of the Egyptian War Office, Standartenfuhrer Baumann, who was instrumental in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and who now was an integral part of the Palestinian Liberation Front, also based in Egypt. Various Nazi medical personnel, such as Doctor Herbert Heim and Doctor Willerman who committed atrocities under the guise of “medial experimentation” at Mauthausen and Dachau, were also welcomed within the Arab world. Nasser particularly sought those Nazis from the realm of Jewish anti-propaganda. Nasser established an Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo in 1959, which employed former key figures in Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda, including Luis Heiden, who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf. into Arabic, which was then issued to every officer in the Egyptian army. Nasser, was impressed with the success of the integration of Nazis within the military infrastructure of Egypt and ordered Colonel Muhammad al-Shazli, his attaché in London in 1962, to contact prominent Nazi sympathizers in London such as Colin Jordan and John Tyndall and discuss the funding and financial support of the National Socialist Movement in Jordan.
The assimilation of the tenets and adherents of National Socialism within the Arab world continues to reverberate through the decades. In 1976, the Saudi representative in the United Nations denied the claims of a historical Holocaust in a speech to the United Nations Security Council and laid the creation of such a “myth” as the result of Zionist media. Exactly one year later, the Saudi government gave twenty five thousand dollars to the American Neo-Nazi William Grimstad to write a book detailing a collection of quotes concerning anti Semitic behavior throughout the centuries called Anti-Zion. In the 1980’s, Inamullah Khan, the director of the World Muslim league located in Pakistan, paid thousands of dollars for this Nazi-influenced book to be sent via mail to every member of the United States Congress and the Senate, as well as every British MP in Parliament. Mein Kampf has been a best seller within the Palestinian territories as well as having been published across the Arab world and other Islamic countries; currently it is on the bestseller list in Turkey. In Lebanon, there are several translations in circulation, all under the watchful eye of Syrian leadership. The translation of Mein Kampf is primarily handled by Luis al-Haj who wrote the introduction: “We made a point to deliver Hitler’s opinions and theories on nationalism, regimes, and ethnicity without any changes because they are not yet outmoded and because we, in the Arab world, still proceed haphazardly in all three fields.” Clearly the link between Islamic extremism and National Socialism has been shown time and time again by not only the leaders of the Arab world but in the simple beliefs of their constituents. Fatma Abdallah Mahmoud, writing for the Egyptian government daily Al-Akhbar, wrote on April 29th, 2002, “Hitler himself, whom they accuse of Nazism, is in my eyes no more than a modest ‘pupil’ in the world of murder and bloodshed. He is completely innocent of the charge of frying them in the hell of his false Holocaust!!” The entire matter, as many French and British scientists and researchers have proven, is nothing more than a huge Israeli plot aimed at extorting the German government in particular and the European countries in general. But I, personally and in light of this imaginary tale, complain to Hitler, even saying to him from the bottom of my heart, ‘If only you had done it, brother, if only it had really happened, so that the world could sigh in relief [without] their evil and sin.’“
Today, the Arab run cable channel Al-Manar, is disseminating and propagating anti-Semitic material into France, Germany and other countries with sizeable Arab populations. The broadcasting of the twenty-nine part series “Al Shatat” deals with the prevalent Islamic belief that the WorldTradeCenter bombing was the result of an Israeli Intelligence Services operation. After the French Prime Minister pressed for charges in order to block the broadcasts from airing in France, the heads of Al-Manar immediately sought help from the German Ministry in keeping the controversial program alive. This action in turn caused Udo Steinbach, head of the Deutsche Orient-Institut in Hamburg, to comment about the “lingering effects of the sympathy traditionally evinced for Germany in the whole region.”
Of particular interest since 9/11, is Adolf Hitler’s own vision for his attack on New York City, as accounted by Albert Speer in his biography, in which he recounts Hitler describing New York’s skyscrapers turning into “gigantic burning torches, collapsing upon one another, the glow of the exploding city illuminating the dark sky.”
Recent connections between Arab countries and Neo-Nazis
In recent years, especially since the 9/11 attacks on American soil, there has been increased communication between Neo-Nazis and their Islamic counterparts, united in a single goal, that of the elimination of International Jewry. In 2005, the offices of a prominent neo Nazi (as well as a convert to Islam), Ahmed Huber was raided by Swiss police at the request of the United States government because of the American accusations that Huber was instrumental in providing financial assistance to Osama Bin Laden. At times, neo-Nazis have offered more that financial support. During the beginning of the first Gulf War, German neo-Nazis created an anti-Zionist brigade called the “Freedom Corps” that paraded around Baghdad in SS uniforms. Jorg Haider, who also governs the Austrian province Carinthia, runs an organization linked to this attempt, entitled the Freedom Party, composed of former Nazis as well as younger neo-Nazis. The Freedom Party has continuously downplayed or rejected Nazi atrocities and German war guilt. In 2000, Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya, deposited twenty five million dollars into a bank in Carinthia under Jorg Haider’s control. The “gift” was meant to alleviate sanctions imposed on Austria by the European Union in response to the Freedom Party being integrated into Austria’s governing coalition. This was not Ghaddafi’s first encounter with neo-Nazis; in 1982, the Italian neo-Nazi Stefano delle Chiaie, who had committed several bombings in Rome and Milan wrote to Ghaddafi, “Libya can, if it wants, be the active focus, the center of national socialist renovation [that will] break the chains which enslave people and nations.” Neo Nazis have since appeared in newspapers across the Arab world, their writings reaching a much larger audience than in the West.
There is no question as to the substantial influence that National Socialism has had on Arab nationalism. I believe that history shows that the main conduit for the spread of National Socialism was Haj Amin al-Husseini and that the following decades have seen the rise of Islamic extremism, which can be directly attributed to National Socialism and its many adherents. Part of this blame is to be placed at the feet of the Superpowers, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union; both countries began adhering to their respective foreign policies during the Cold War. This included ignoring the influx of Nazi officials and other sympathizers during the last stages of the war as well as the decades after 1945. Several of these figures that escaped into the Middle East were able to cut deals with the United States in return for the exchange of information concerning Nazi funded weapons programs. Lax security measures also played an important part in allowing thousands of Nazis to escape, not only to the Middle East but also to locations all over the world. It was not until the 1980’s that bank accounts and other financial institutions were examined by the West in attempting to recover funds that were attributable, directly or indirectly, to power brokers within the Arab world.
Ironically, it is the Arab World, which so strenuously denies that the Holocaust ever took place. It is a denial that is based not only on ignorance concerning the historical record, but also concerning their own role in the Holocaust. Ex-Nazi officials aided their governments and the various institutions of their military, and their own recognition of Husseini’s role in World War Two has been placed in a decidedly supportive light. Additionally, Israel is now looked upon as being synonymous with Nazi-like oppression in their dealings with their neighboring Arab countries, a horribly misconstrued role reversal in which the past Nazi aggression is now looked upon as being somewhat justifiable in their past persecution of the Jewish race. This can only be directly attributed to the symbiosis of National Socialism and Islamic extremism, in which the truth is considered expendable, a trait that both ideologies seem to share. There is only one weapon that can be use to combat this deadly symbiosis and that is education; an objective understanding of history and what role National Socialism has played in the formation of foreign policy in Arab countries, especially with that of Israel. Until then, the tenets of National Socialism have found a comfortable home indeed within the Middle East and in other Islamic countries.
First published under the title: “Haj Amin al-Husseini and Nazi Racial Policies in the Arab World” by the LAMED.
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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