Tag Archives: Tunisia
Clueless in the Maghreb: International Coverage of the 2011 Tunisian Elections and its Implications for Egypt
The results of the elections to the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly – held on 23rd October 2011 – were gradually promulgated earlier this week, with the 217 available seats being split between a variety of parties; Harakat an-Nahda (‘Renaissance Party’), an entity led by the moderately charismatic Rashid al-Ghannushi, won the largest block, with talks for the formation of a coalition government with the Congrès pour la République and Ettakatol parties ongoing. The election has been hailed as something of a blueprint for other elections ensuing from the Arab Spring, with many of the more prominent of the 500 international observers giving a resoundingly positive assessment of the process; al-Ghannushi has been magnanimous in victory, seemingly going out of his way to build an inclusive national consensus on the way forward for his country – the Renaissance Party is not even fielding a candidate for the post of president lest this upset the political equilibrium in Tunisia.
Yet despite the rather prosaic facts on the ground, much of the media coverage of the Tunisian elections – at least in the Anglosphere – was shrill, alarmist and seemingly incognisant of large areas of political thought and practice. We at Mediolana were especially disappointed at the treatment of the following issues:
1. Gender and Procedure. In the days leading up to the election, a flurry of articles appeared that heavily inferred the impending marginalisation of Tunisian women owing to the fact that women headed only 6% of electoral lists: the presence of women in the National Constituent Assembly would be negligible, and the stage would be set for the ‘inevitable’ disenfranchisement of the nation’s females. This was, needless to say, a bizarre notion. Firstly, a high percentage of female legislators in a country’s parliament, while sometimes a great bonus, is in no way a guarantee that women’s rights will be respected or that repressive laws and/or customs will not be upheld: South Africa (rape), Afghanistan (insecurity) and Sudan (female genital mutilation) are countries synonymous with grossly negative social phenomena, particularly from the standpoint of women, yet which vaunt incredibly high proportions of female lawmakers.
Secondly and more specifically, such gloomy articles ignored not only Tunisian election law, which stipulates the alternation of gender on electoral lists, but knowledge of how the party list system actually works: even if women had been placed second, fourth, etc. on every single list, they would still have won a very considerable percentage of seats in the National Constituent Assembly. This point was completely lost on so many analysts that we at Mediolana wonder whether they have recovered from the final results, which saw women capture 24% of the seats in the Tunisian parliament – a record, and a greater proportion than countries such as the United Kingdom (22%) and the United States (<17%).
2. Islamism. Throughout much of the election coverage, Tunisia’s Renaissance Party was referred to as a movement of ideological extremism or potential ideological extremism to such an extent that their actual policies – protection of the 1956 Code of Personal Status and a commitment to pluralism – were largely overshadowed. Much of the media seemed unable to distinguish between or even know very much about different forms of Islamism, and appeared to be genuinely surprised at al-Ghannushi’s conciliatory language and actions – a reaction that betrays a worrying lack of familiarity with the political discourse in a huge chunk of the world.
This does not bode well for coverage of the forthcoming elections in Egypt, where there are chasms not just between secularist and Islamist parties, but the various strands of Islamism reflected in the numerous Islamist political organisations, from the modernist and polarising (Al-Nour, ‘Party of Light‘); to the more mainstream (Freedom and Justice Party or FJP); through to the exceptionally pluralist (Al-Wasat, ‘New Centre Party‘). Mediolana expects confusion and incoherence to reign supreme across vast swathes of the international media.
An infographic recently published by that source of seemingly endless statistics, the Economist, is well worth a few moments of anyone’s time. The moderately interactive diagram depicts the 28 states (and most of the 7 union territories) that make up today’s Republic of India in terms of three variables: GDP, GDP per capita and population. For each of these variables, the Indian administrative units are paired with an equivalent country, so Maharashtra, an entity which is host to booming Mumbai, has the name of Singapore – the GDP of which it roughly matches – superimposed on its territory.
This infographic reveals much about contemporary India:
1. Wealth. At least in absolute terms, India is a land of fabulous wealth. GDPs of countries such as Qatar, Uzbekistan, Croatia and Tunisia represent but a fraction of the overall Gross Domestic Product of South Asia’s largest nation.
2. Poverty. Measured on a per capita basis, India is still beset by shocking levels of poverty. The average Maharashtran has an annual income of c.US$4,743.00 – slightly less than the average resident of war-torn Sri Lanka. Those in poorer states fare as badly as almost anyone else on earth: desperately impoverished Bihar is worse off in per capita terms than benighted Eritrea.
3. Potential. If Uttar Pradesh – a gritty industrial state in northern India – declared independence tomorrow, it would be the fifth-largest country on earth in terms of population, with its 195.8m people edging Brazil’s 191.5m. If India can somehow grow its economy on a meaningful scale – in particular, pulling society’s lower echelons up into its middle class – and in a sustainable manner, it could yet eclipse China in the race of the Asian superpowers.
The ultimate consequences of the still-unfolding events in Libya remain to be seen, but while the world’s eyes are focused on the spectacle of a courageous revolution against a dictator whose probable final days at the helm of his country have been characterised by a mixture of industrial bloodletting and surreal performance art, two developments which have barely flickered on the global consciousness could yet prove to be the most profound results of the Libyan uprising:
1. On 22nd February 2011, the price of Brent crude oil rose to US$108 per barrel; six days later, Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid reported that the opposition authorities now in control of eastern Libya ‘are scrutinising contracts with the intent to cancel any that they deem to be illegal‘;
2. On 25th February 2011, the Spanish government announced that effective from 7th March 2011, motorway speed limits would be lowered, train ticket prices cut and usage of biofuels would be intensified. Around 13% of oil consumed in Spain is sourced from Libya; deputy prime minster Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba stated that a €10 per barrel increase in oil prices would cost Spain – a country already on something of an economic precipice – an extra €500m per month. Spain was alone in instituting such measures.
These developments are significant because they illustrate two interrelated phenomena: the strong possibility of a recalibrated relationship between oil-producing nations and their clients, and the rather moderate response of oil-dependent territories to this recalibration. As this blog examined on 7th February 2011, uber-economist Nouriel Roubini has convincingly posited that there is nothing less than a symbiosis between recessions and high oil prices. And this makes recent developments in Libya even more salient, because while its revolutionary predecessors Egypt and Tunisia possess relatively small oil reserves, Libya is a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (‘OPEC’), pumping 1.6 million barrels per day and meeting almost 2% of the entire global demand for oil.
OPEC itself is replete by countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are presently experiencing or have rich potential to experience significant unrest; indeed, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia make up nearly half of the organisation’s membership. If the thirst for reform in these countries proves as unquenchable as the planet’s desire for palatably priced oil, a lot more contracts might be abrogated, and many more speed limits – not least that of the world economy – reduced.
The recent unrest in the Middle East – which has thus far resulted in regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt – has prompted a catalogue of commentary on the role of social media in enabling mass uprisings in the region. Some eminent commentators have tended to minimise the part played by the ilk of Twitter and Facebook in these revolts: writing in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reminds us that despite the scarcity of landline connections in 1980s East Germany, demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people were not rendered an impossibility. Others, such as the increasingly omniscient tech deity Dennis Anderson, have emphasised how new information technologies and Web 2.0 tools are having a profound impact on political change.
While the jury is still out on the precise extent to which social media is facilitating dramatic expressions of popular dissent, there does seem to be an interesting pattern emerging with regard to the shutting down of communications services such as the Internet and mobile telephony by authoritarian states in the midst of serious social disruption: in both Tunisia and Egypt, severe restrictions on and/or total shutdowns of the Web and cellular phone networks marked the final days of the ancien régime. The Tunisian government doubled the number of blocked sites as cyberwarfare between the Tunisian Internet Agency (known by its French acronym, ATI) and dissident hackers ensued, while Egypt turned off the Internet and mobile telephone networks entirely for an extended period.
This appears to be especially significant for the following reasons:
1. The economic cost of such steps is high. A recent article by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (‘OECD’) estimates that the direct revenue losses from Egypt’s communications blackout were $18m per day, or 3-4% of GDP; the secondary effects, such as the impact on industries such as tourism and information technology are much harder to quantify – and in all likelihood, much deeper;
2. The social consequences, even in developing countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, are immense: nothing less than a grinding to a halt of normality. As of 2009, Egypt had over 55 million mobile telephone subscribers, or 66.7 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Curbing a population’s freedom to communicate via mobile devices – many of which have Internet browsing facilities – in some senses means curtailing communication, period.
With the economic and social price of shuttering the Internet and mobile telephony clearly completely unsustainable, it is no exaggeration to state that if any government begins to implement measures of this kind, its shelf life is probably rather limited; in time, political scientists may come to recognise this as a new, extraordinary tipping point.
Conclusions from the historic and still-unfolding events over the past few weeks in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region are difficult to draw, but there is one that appears to be fairly uncontroversial: these developments were a surprise. Even a month ago, the notion that this part of the world could become synonymous with convulsive democratic transformation would have seemed fantastical.
However, should the watching world – and indeed, the inhabitants of the region – really be that astonished at what is happening? One recent publication – the intriguingly titled Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think – would suggest not. Co-authored by John Esposito, Professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, and the Cairo-born researcher Dalia Mogahed, it presents the results of an humongous Gallup survey which interviewed 50,000 Muslims in more than 35 countries, including Egypt and Tunisia (both of which have populations which are preponderantly at least nominally Islamic). The survey ascertained, amongst other things, that:
* Large majorities of Muslims would guarantee free speech if it were up to them to write a new constitution and they say religious leaders should have no direct role in drafting that constitution;
* When asked about their dreams for the future, Muslims say they want better jobs and security, not conflict and violence.
Given these results, it is in one sense of no real amazement that the populations of both Egypt and Tunisia, seemingly defying everything that a brutal police state can throw at them, have decided to take matters into their own hands on a grand scale: the aspirations of the general public in these countries do not correlate at all with the authoritarian political structures that ruled over them. The real shock will be if this type of technology-driven uprising does not spread to states where economic hardship and a lack of basic freedoms are prevalent – not just in the Middle East, but globally.