People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 14

April 07, 2013




Tunisia and Libya Face Political Turmoil


Yohannan Chemarapally


TUNISIA and Libya both celebrated the second anniversary of their “Arab Spring Revolutions” this year amid increasing political turmoil and uncertainty. The “Jasmine Revolution” of Tunisia was mainly the result of a genuine mass upsurge against a long ruling authoritarian ruler.




The political transition that took place in Tunisia after the removal of President Ben Ali was comparatively smooth. The moderate Islamist Party al-Ennahida had won the first election held after the Arab Spring revolts in October 2011. The party won 89 out of the 211 seats in parliament. The Islamists formed a coalition government with two smaller secular parties. Most of the key ministerial positions in the coalition, known as the “Troika,” were held by the Ennahida.  


Libyan style democracy has, on the other hand, turned out to be farcical. Two years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan parliament has failed to draft a new constitution. The once united country is now divided by factionalism. In Libya, law and order remains a major problem as the government battles secessionist tendencies, increasing sectarianism and tribalism. The country has become a haven for terrorists and jihadists. The killing of the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stephens, in Benghazi by a terror group and the flow of weapons and terrorists from Libya to neighbouring countries like Mali and Algeria are illustrations. An Arab commentator described Libya as an area of “absolute lawlessness.” Laribi Sadiki, an expert on the region described, Libya as “being caught in the midst of a tension between revolution and devolution.”


Now political uncertainty seems to have gripped Tunisia too following the assassination of the popular Left wing leader, Shokri Belaid on February 6 in the capital, Tunis. His killing occurred when tensions between the secular forces and hardline Islamists was on the boil. Previous months had witnessed many confrontations between the two sides. The opposition parties have blamed elements in the Ennahida party for the serial targeting of opponents for assassination. Sufi shrines which ordinary Tunisians visit in large numbers have been targeted by radical Islamists.


Belaid was a fiery trade union activist who had fought for democracy and workers rights during the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali. He was the leader of the Popular Front Bloc, a coalition of the leftist and secular parties. Belaid’s murder was the first political assassination of a leading figure since colonial times in Tunisia.  Belaid’s outspoken criticism of the Islamists and espousal of a socialist ideology had made him a marked man. Interestingly, Belaid, a trained lawyer, was part of Saddam Hussein’s defence team, when the Iraqi leader was facing an US supervised kangaroo court in Baghdad. He was also a poet. His last poem was dedicated to the Lebanese Marxist philosopher, Hussein Mroueh, who was assassinated by radical Islamists in Lebanon in 1987.


The Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, who also comes from a socialist background, has warned that the country is being sucked into a vortex of religious bigotry, intolerance and terrorism. Shoukri’s family has accused the leader of Ennahida, Rachid al-Ghannoushi, of involvement in the murder. The party has strongly denied the charge. Belaid was killed a day after he appeared on national television criticising the increasing political intolerance in the country.




Following Belaid’s assassination, Tunisia has seen a surge in violence and nationwide protests. More than 100,000 people marched in the streets of Tunis to protest the killing and to demand the resignation of the government. Reacting to the gravity of the situation, the Tunisian prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, decided to dissolve his cabinet and try to put in place a government of “national unity” comprising mainly of technocrats, irrespective of their party or ideological affiliations.


The street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide sparked the “Jasmine Revolution” and then a wider upsurge in the region, had dramatically highlighted the problems afflicting Tunisia. Those problems have only worsened. Revenues from tourism, which is declining due to the recession in Europe, continue to be the mainstay of the economy. Unemployment stands at 18 per cent today. (Before the “Jasmine Revolution,” it was only 12 per cent.) A third of the unemployed are college graduates. High inflation has also sent prices of basic food necessities soaring. The government has not formulated any plans for solving the problems related to chronic unemployment and poverty. The country’s credit ratings were downgraded in late February by the international ratings agency Standard and Poor (S&P).


In late February, having failed in his efforts to form a cabinet comprising of technocrats, the Tunisian prime minister threw in the towel and announced his resignation. Hardliners in Jebali’s own party, led by Ennahida leader Rached Ghannouchi, had rejected his proposal. While announcing his resignation, the prime minister conceded that “there is great disappointment among the people and we must regain their trust and this resignation is the first step.” Jebali also holds the position of secretary general of the Ennahida party. Recent events have, however, shown that his importance in the party has diminished. In the last week of February, the Ennahida chief announced that its candidate to replace Jebali was the interior minister, Ali Larayedh. The latter is identified with the hardline wing of Ennahida. There is speculation that the open rift between the Ennahida chief and the former prime minister could lead to a split in the party’s ranks.




In neighbouring Libya, the second anniversary of the NATO led coup was marked by muted celebrations. Western governments have been busy issuing travel advisories, warning their citizens on the dangers of travelling to Libya. Specific advisories against travelling to Benghazi, the city which NATO helped “liberate,” highlighted the gravity of the security situation in the country. According to reports, policemen cannot venture outside the city limits of Benghazi in uniform for fear of being shot. There has been a proliferation of militias. Many of these militias besides fighting each other also run their own private prisons.


Seif al-Islam al Gaddafi, the former leader’s son, is being held by militia leaders in Zintan. They refuse to release him to the central government and had briefly arrested representatives of the International Criminal Court (ICC) who had gone to question him. The Libyan government had consented to his trial in Libya under ICC supervision. The ICC wants the trial to be held outside Libya, claiming that the situation in Libya would preclude a free and fair trial for Seif al Gaddafi. The Ansar al Shariah, the militia which the Americans have blamed for the killing of their ambassador last year, remains the most powerful militia in Benghazi. The extremists in eastern Libya have been accused of having links with the terrorists involved in January’s attack on an Algerian gas refinery across the border.


Meanwhile, there are moves afoot to debar all those associated with the previous government, including those working in the bureaucracy, from public life. A leading Islamist politician, Abdel Wahab Ahmed Qaid, is demanding the promulgation of a “Political Exclusion Law” which, if passed, would effectively purge the bureaucracy as most of the government servants had worked for the previous government that had ruled Libya for more than 40 years. The supporters of Gaddadi’s egalitarian and pan-African vision will be excluded from participating in the country’s politics. Already entire tribes like the Warfala and towns like Bani Walid and Sirte, have been labelled as anti-national by the new rulers and the victimised. The two cities were the last to fall to the NATO guided rebels who today rule Libya. Gaddafi himself was murdered in cold blood on the outskirts of Bani Walid.


The Misrata and the Warfala tribes are still at daggers drawn. Sections of the Libyan army have helped the Misrata militia in staging recent attacks on Bani Walid. There are more than 60,000 internally displaced Libyans living in miserable refugee camps. More than half of them belong to the Tawergha tribe, and are victimised because of their support for the previous government and also because of the colour of their skin. The Tawergha were displaced from their town by the Misrata militia. More than 1300 Tawregha were either killed or reported missing.




The Libyan foreign minister, Mohammed Abdelaziz, on a recent visit to Paris, called for help from NATO countries to help safeguard the country’s borders. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ali Suleiman Aujali, admitted that the top priority for the government is internal security, “Without our security, we cannot build up our country.” Christopher Chivvis from US think tank, the Rand Corporation known for its close links to the Pentagon, has suggested that the US should take the lead in doing more for Libya. Otherwise, he warned that the NATO’s hard won gains in Libya would be imperilled. 


The Libyan government also finds itself enmeshed in corruption scandals. Progressive laws enacted during the Gaddafi era have been rescinded. Libyans are allowed now to take a second wife without the consent of the first wife, reflecting the influence of Islamists in the government. The oil contracts which the Gaddafi government had painstakingly negotiated for the benefit of the Libyan people are being renegotiated in favour of western and Gulf oil companies. (The West and the Gulf emirates had midwifed the so called Libyan “revolution.”) Foreign companies are now granted many years of tax exemption and are allowed to retain 65 per cent of the project value of the contracts. The eastern region, where Benghazi is located, produces around 80 per cent of Libya’s current oil production. The central government in Tripoli has allowed the authorities in Benghazi a great deal of autonomy in striking oil deals. The eastern region is also keen to retain the lion’s share of the royalties. The other regions, bristling with well armed militias, will not allow the East to dictate terms. Libya seems to be in for a long tryst with instability despite all its oil wealth and a small population.