Tunisian president releases 21 Muslim activists to celebrate the 21st anniversary of his rule

Developing Just Leadership

M.A. Shaikh

Dhu al-Hijjah 03, 1429 2008-12-01

Occupied Arab World

by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 10, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1429)

When a government official announced on November 5th that 21 people sentenced to long prison terms for belonging to a banned “Islamist party” had been released as part of celebrations to mark the twenty-first anniversary of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s rise to power in 1987, the irony in the announcement could not have been lost on the Tunisian people. It is common knowledge that Ben Ali, a general, should never have been in power in the first place, let alone for so long, but the released “Islamists” should not have been in prison either. In any case, no Islamic activist would celebrate the anniversary of a corrupt dictator’s rule they loath and want to end, no matter how long their cancelled sentences.

General Zine al-Abidine, then prime minister, deposed president Habib Bourguiba in 1987 on grounds of senility only to retain power and prepare the ground for his own election as president in 1989. He was re-elected in 1994, in a similarly unopposed election. In 1999 and 2004 he was re-elected in dubious multi-party elections. In fact, the main opposition party pulled out of the presidential election of 2004 beforehand, claiming that its participation would only legitimize the pretense of democracy. Its argument is backed by the fact that the ruling RCD won the simultaneous legislative election with an overwhelming majority of seats after capturing 87.7 percent of the votes cast. It is also supported by the fact that when elections were held in 2005 to form the membership of the then-new upper house of the legislature — the Chamber of Councillors — the RCD again dominated the membership. In addition, the president appoints 41 of its members.

Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, only to be ruled by a monarch who was deposed the following year and replaced by president Habib Bourguiba, who chose to rule as a dictator. However, he was forced, by growing demands in the 1970s for the creation of legislation allowing a multi-party system, to allow other parties to be registered. The first multi-party elections were held in 1981 but the ruling party, now known as the Consti-tutional Democratic Rally (RCD), has retained its grip on power over the past two decades. Clearly, Ben Ali believes that all he has to do to appear less dictatorial than Bourguiba is to use the terms “democratic” and “constitutional” to describe the tools he uses to retain absolute power.

Equally clearly, Ben Ali receives some consolation from the fact that his counterparts in North Africa are using similar tactics to disguise the despotic nature of their rule. One of the methods they commonly use is to amend the constitution to increase the number of times a president approaching the end of his term can be re-elected. To take only one example, president Abdulaziz Boute-flika in neighboring Algeria amended the constitution on November 11th to enable him to be re-elected for a third term, one more than was legally allowed by the old constitution. Respecting the provisions of their constitution and bowing out of power instead of amending them to stay on is clearly not in the nature of North African despots.

The Tunisian ruler might point the finger at the Egyptian president, Husni Mubarak — who has been in power for 30 years and is preparing to “transfer” political power to his son, Gamal — and claim that, like Mubarak, he does not wish to stay in office as long or transfer it to members of his family. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

Ben Ali — like the rest of the region’s rulers – receives strong encouragement from the West, especially the US, to continue ruling and to protect the West’s “security and energy interests”, mainly by the suppression of Islamic groups that are automatically labeled as al-Qa’ida terrorists. On February 11, 2006, Donald Rumsfeld, then US defense secretary, described Tunisia and Morocco as “longstanding friends and constructive partners” in the fight against terrorism. Rumsfeld, who said this on the eve of his visit to both countries, was planning to discuss with officials there the opening of a new FBI office in Morocco and other topics relating to the capture and torture of Islamic activists. In fact his visit coincided with Western media reports quoting intelligence sources to the effect that the US was already helping Morocco to build a new interrogation and detention facility.

But even more seriously, the media reports were backed by detailed accounts of the torture cells or facilities already built, and how activists were being held and tortured there. But that was only the beginning, and human-rights groups have since issued even more detailed reports of the Bush administration’s rendition and torture programs which pave the way for the transfer of Islamic activists captured in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere to the Guantanamo Bay detention and torture centre. Many of those are returned to be tried by state-controlled courts. Even Islamic activists who legally take refuge in the US are arrested on the request of the regimes in the region or US intelligence agencies and subjected to Guantanamo and rendition practices.

Not surprisingly, the war of terror declared by the US and its regional allies on Islamic activists and their supporters have only succeeded in strengthening the determination of the victims and their supporters to fight back, earning far greater sympathy among the peoples of the region and ruining the reputation of the US in particular and the West as a whole. The incensed activists, their supporters and people of the region have as a result stepped up their resistance to their rulers and the Western powers that back them. Their resistance has even been taken into Western Europe, where many Muslims of North African origin live. But the EU members have – like the US – not learnt any lessons from their experiences and are even more determined to back Washington’s “war on terrorism”. They justify this on the grounds that al-Qa’ida is exporting its terrorist campaigns from North Africa to Europe. The amazing thing is that Washington even publicly admits that its anti-terror campaign has failed, while al-Qa’ida’s propaganda campaign has succeeded.

The annual report of the US state department issued on April 30, for instance, acknowledged that the West is struggling in the ideological battle against radical Islam and has failed to provide an adequate response to extremist propaganda. “The international community has yet to master extremist propaganda,” the report said. It identified “counter-radicalisation” as a policy priority for the US. But the mere fact that Washington and its allies in Europe and the Muslim countries claim that their “war on terrorism” is aimed solely at al-Qa’ida, and not at Islam or non-radical Islamic groups, has not influenced many Muslims in their favor. This explains why Islamic groups in North Africa have escalated their campaign against the regimes there and their Western backers almost everywhere.

But despite this rise in the West’s anti-Islamic attitudes and the Islamic groups’ reactions to it, Washington and Brussels insist on repeating their transparently feeble claims, they are exerting strong pressure on Muslim rulers to democratize, and even free “moderate Islamists” who have no connection with “terrorist Islamic groups”. This explains why the Tunisian ruler and the Moroccan king have announced the release of Islamic activists. The king has even added that some of those released were die-hard members of al-Qa’ida but have now left it and become “moderate Islamists”. But the fact is many Islamic activists have been – and continue to be – killed by security forces under order from top officials or the rulers themselves. In Tunisia, for instance, security forces killed 12 “Islamic activists” last year. They were claimed to be linked to Algerian terrorist groups and of preparing to bomb US and British embassies.

The EU countries make similarly transparent explanations to justify their crackdown on Islamic residents. For example, a recent report by Europol, the EU crime intelligence agency, claimed that most of the 340 people arrested on terrorism-related charges between October 2005 and December 2006 inside Europe “came from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia”. It added that many of them “had ties with the salafists and AQIM”. Intelligence sources and diplomats quoted in the Western media describe AQIM as “a new Algerian group calling itself al-Qaeda in the land of Islamic Maghreb” which is aiming at establishing al-Qa’ida intelligence and bombing practices in Europe.

In reality, far from putting pressure on Muslim despots to democratize their countries, the Western powers are restoring their relations with rulers, such as Libya’s president Qaddafi, from whom they distanced themselves in the past. The US and the EU now treat him as a close friend and ally against terrorism. Islamic groups are no doubt delighted with this as it exposes the false nature of the US-European “anti-terrorism war”.

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