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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 12    Issue 16   16 - 31 January 2018

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Large-Scale Protests Rock Tunisia

On January 7, shortly before the seventh anniversary of the ousting of Tunisia’s former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, massive protests and demonstrations broke out in large parts of the country. The protests, which were particularly vociferous in the district of Tunis, were supported by the opposition parties, who say there has been no appreciable change in economic and social conditions in the country since the start of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011. More than 800 protesters were arrested by the police on charges of violence, theft and looting.

The protests were sparked by the announcement by the Tunisian government about new value-added taxes, price hike and increased taxes on imported goods in the 2018 budget. The protests were initially peaceful but soon clashes broke out between demonstrators and the police. Some of the protesters blocked traffic, took over shopping malls and set fire to police vehicles. In some places the army was called in to stop the destruction of public property and government buildings. Opposition parties and civil rights groups have demanded the scrapping of the new budgetary proposals.

The Backdrop

The massive popular uprising that rocked Tunisia in 2011 and led to the ouster of Ben Ali’s corrupt and dictatorial regime was prompted by high unemployment rates, corruption in the corridors of power, apathy and callousness of the administration and the suppression of freedom and civil liberties.

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 25 years. He and his second Wife Leila Trabelsi’s family controlled between 30 and 40 per cent of the country’s economy, amounting to about $10 billion. The assets held by the two families covered all sectors of the economy, including banks, insurance, distribution, transport, property, tourism, television channels and retail businesses. Leila Trabelsi was notorious for her ostentatious lifestyle and profligacy. She often used the president’s 737 Boeing Business Jet to shop at the fashion capitals of Europe like Milan, Paris and Geneva. In 2010, Tunisia rejected a French request for the extradition of two of Ben Ali’s nephews who were accused of having stolen two mega-yachts from a French marina. France’s Le Monde reported that relatives of Ben Ali fled the country with 1.5 tonnes of gold ingots valued at $65 million.

The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables described Tunisia’s ruling family as the nexus of corruption aided and abetted by a mafia-like network. A June 2008 cable from the US embassy in Tunis quoted a report by the Transparency International to the effect that Ben Ali’s family was involved in clandestine dealings in cash, services, land and property. The cables also reported that due to fears of reprisals from the president’s highly influential and resourceful family, many Tunisian investors had to forgo new investments and were forced to keep domestic investment rates low, which added to the high unemployment rate in the country. A report by Global Financial Integrity, a watchdog group, in January 2011 said: “The amount of illegal money lost from Tunisia due to corruption, bribery, kickbacks, trade mispricing and criminal activity between 2000 and 2008 was, on average, over $1 billion a year”.

In the parliamentary elections that were held in the wake of the 2011 uprising, Rachid Ghannousi’s Islam-inspired Ennahda party won a majority of seats, but fell short of a clear majority. In December 2011, human rights activist Moncef Marzouki was elected president by the constituent assembly and Ennahda leader Hamadi Jebali was sworn in as prime minister. Since the 2011 uprising, Tunisia’s political scenario has been fraught with ideological and sectarian differences and clashes. In 2012 there were clashes between extremist Salafi groups and security forces. In February 2013 the killing of an opposition leader Chokri Belaid sparked violent protests.

In December 2013, following an agreement between Ennahda and secular opposition parties, Mehdi Jomaa was appointed head of an interim government. In January 2014, Parliament passed the country’s first democratic constitution. In October 2014, Nidaa Tounes, a broad coalition of secularists, trade unionists and some members of Ben Ali’s regime, won the largest number of seats in the parliamentary elections, overtaking the Ennahda. In December 2014 Nidaa Tounes candidate Beji Caid Essebsi was elected president. In 2015, extremist groups affiliated to the so-called Islamic State attacked foreign tourists on beach resorts.

Economic Hardships

Tunisia continues to be under the shadow of political uncertainty, a sluggish economy, inflation and a high unemployment rate. Political, ideological and sectarian differences and conflicts among Tunisian leaders and political parties have a direct bearing on the country’s worsening economic conditions. Tourism has dwindled due to terrorist attacks on foreigners. Tourism revenues fell by over 35% in 2015 and the number of foreign tourists dropped by 30%. Nearly seven million foreign tourists visited Tunisia in 2010. In 2015 the number was reduced to 4.2 million. The International Monetary Fund gave the country a loan of $2.9 billion in 2015 to tide over its economic and financial difficulties. In December 2017 the IMF told Tunisia that it needs to take urgent measures to reduce its deficit. The unemployment rate among youth, who constitute over 25% of the country’s population, remains high. According to the World Bank, more than 35% of Tunisians aged between 15 and 24 are unemployed. According to the United Nations figures, the unemployment rate among university graduates is as high as 30%. In Sidi Bouzid, located in the centre of Tunisia, the rate is nearly 45%. At least 7,000 university graduates are without jobs in Sidi Bouzid. Even those with jobs have to struggle to make ends meet. Many Tunisians feel that things have taken a turn for the worse during the past seven years. Many of them say that the 2011 revolution may have ushered in a new political system, which is essentially democratic, but it did not succeed in bringing about any significant socio-economic changes in Tunisia.

Following days of widespread protests, the Tunisian government announced a package of economic and social reforms, including guaranteed medical care, housing reforms and increase in the minimum wage. The government has pledged an extra $70 million for the poorer sections of the population, which will benefit 250,000 families.

Muslims to be the Second-Largest Religious Group in US by 2040

According to data released by the Pew Research Centre on January 10, Muslims will be the second-largest religious group in the United States by 2040, largely as a result of higher fertility rates and higher levels of migration. The report suggests that within two decades Islam will surpass Judaism as the second-largest religion in the US and that the Muslim population will double from 3.45 million in 2017 (1.1% of the total population) to 8.09% million (2.1% of the total population) in 2050. Muslims in the US are largely concentrated in metropolitan areas. The Pew data suggest that 75% of the Muslim population in the US are immigrants or part of an immigrant family.

The Pew report notes that Muslims in the US have faced increased levels of demonization and persecution since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. Incidents of hate crimes against Muslims and Islamophobic attacks have become more frequent in the past one year. Far-right groups and white supremacists have become emboldened under the Trump administration. Trump retweeted and shared the Islamophobic post of a far-right British activist who is the deputy leader of a fascist group known as Britain First. British prime minister Theresa May criticized Trump for sharing the Islamophobic video.

Worsening Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen

Large-scale protests and demonstrations in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011 forced Yemen’s authoritarian leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to hand over power to his deputy, Abdurabbuh Mansour Hadi. Yemen continues to be plagued by a host of intractable problems, including a secessionist movement in the south of the country, pervasive corruption, deadly attacks by al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic state, poverty and food insecurity, tribal and sectarian conflicts and a high rate of unemployment.

Yemen, a predominantly tribal society, has two major sectarian groups: Sunnis (56%) and Zaidi Shias (44%). The Houthi movement, spearheaded by the Zaidi Shia minority, launched a rebellious campaign against the Saleh government in the first decade of the 21st century. Following the transfer of power and with the support of Saleh, they took control of Sa’ada province and neighbouring areas in 2012. They also took over Sanaa and placed President Hadi under house arrest. Mr Hadi fled to Aden and then fled abroad in March 2015. Sanaa continues to be under the control of the Houthi rebels.

Sensing that the Houthi rebellion was backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab nations launched air strikes against Houthi strongholds and sought to restore Mr Hadi’s government. The Saudi-led coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France. The fighting between the Houthi rebels and coalition forces has continued unabated during the past two and a half years. Taking advantage of the chaos, al-Qaeda and Daesh have carried out deadly attacks on government buildings and have seized some territory in the southern part of the country. Following a missile fired by the Houthi militants towards the Saudi capital Riyadh in November last year, the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has imposed a blockade on ports and airports. This has severely restricted the supply of food and medicines sent by aid agencies.

The fighting and violence have taken a heavy toll of human lives. According to the United Nations, over 5,000 civilians – more than 20% of them children – have been killed and nearly 9,000 grievously injured. Over three million people have been internally displaced and 188,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. Much of civilian infrastructure has been destroyed by air strikes. More than 20 million people, including 11 million children, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. There have been a million suspected cases of cholera and 2,196 people have died of the disease since April 2017. Several hospitals and medical facilities have been destroyed in the air strikes.

Resurgence of Islamic Consciousness in Azerbaijan

Islam reached Azerbaijan as early as the 7th century. In the course of the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813), Azerbaijan was occupied by the Russian Empire in 1806. It was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1920, which was followed by the brutal suppression of religious beliefs and practices. Nearly 98% of Azerbaijan’s population is Muslim, the majority of whom (85%) follow the Shia creed. Soviet authorities actively promoted atheism and sought to erase the religious and cultural identity of Muslims. Islamic education was prohibited and madrasas were closed down. A number of mosques were closed down and some were demolished by the Bolsheviks. A couple of madrasas which were allowed to function were subjected to surveillance and state regulation. Going on the Hajj pilgrimage was prohibited. Women were not allowed to wear the headscarf.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian Republics, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan came to be ruled by authoritarian regimes. In order to consolidate their power and authority, these regimes sought to control people’s religious and cultural aspirations and often suppressed movements of Islamic revival. In 2008 the Aliyev regime launched a crackdown on Islamic revival and banned the wearing of the headscarf in public schools.

With the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991, the restrictions placed on religious practices during the Soviet era have been lifted. Azerbaijan’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship. Women can now wear the headscarf in public. During the Soviet era, there were only 18 mosques in the country. Now the number of mosques has increased to over 2,000. There is an evident increase in the number of worshippers.

As a result of the systematic suppression of the religious and cultural identity of the Azeris during the Soviet era and official propaganda and indoctrination, at least three generations of Azeris have grown up without any substantial knowledge of Islamic beliefs and practices. Consequently, religious observance among Azerbaijan’s Muslims, particularly among youth, is comparatively low. However, Islam remains a central part of the Azeri identity.

Expanding Women’s Empowerment in Saudi Arabia

Gender roles in many Arab countries are undergoing a subtle but highly significant process of transformation. Quite a few Arab women now occupy prominent positions in public life and have successfully made a breach in the citadels of male dominance. Though the government ban on women driving cars remains in place, Saudi Arabia issued its first flying license to a female pilot, Hanadi al-Hind.

Dozens of Arab women, including those from Saudi Arabia, have joined airlines as flight attendants. Etihad, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, runs the Etihad Training Academy where the trainees include Arab men as well as women. Some professionally qualified Arab women have taken up overseas jobs and some of them are supporting their families.

In recent months, Saudi authorities have granted additional rights to women, largely in response to demands by activists and women’s groups. Women, unaccompanied by male relatives, are now permitted to enter stadiums to watch football matches in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia permitted a women’s basketball tournament for universities in Jeddah, which was attended by about 3,000 women. In December 2017, thousands of women cheered a Lebanese female singer at the first public concert. In the first week of January, Saudi Arabia hosted its first women’s squash tournament. These developments form part of a social reform campaign initiated by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The government’s Vision 2030 programme aims to lift the ban on commercial cinemas from March 2018 and the ban on women driving cars in the near future.

The dream of Sarah Alkashgari, 18, who is a football fan, was fulfilled when she got an opportunity to not only attend but help organise a football match in Jeddah January 12. Ms Alkashgari, who is a student at King Abdul Aziz University, along with 200 other girls, was entrusted with the responsibility of welcoming guests and ushering them to their seats.

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