Category Archives: Revolution

Democratic Rhapsody and Anxiety in Postrevolutionary Tunisia


Danny Postel


“[Tunisian dictator] Ben Ali’s departure on January 14, 2011 released a host of formerly unaired and long-suppressed grievances. After decades of repression, many Tunisians are talking openly across the political tablehearing one another’s views in an atmosphere of free debate for the very first time. This process of self-reckoning has proven both exhilarating and immensely frightening for many Tunisians, some of whom are shocked to see their so-called Islamist party rejecting a fully sharia-based constitution, others of whom find it difficult to fathom that their seemingly secular state could be the site of antiblasphemy protests and pro-niqab rallies.”

This observation from the Tunisia scholar Monica Marks remains as relevant today as when she made it six months ago and very much resonates with my own experience over the last ten days in the small but hugely pivotal North African country. It was here, after all, in December 2010, that the cascade of uprisings that would convulse the Arab world got going.


This was my first time in a country so soon after a revolution. I was in Cuba forty years after its revolution and Iran twenty-eight years after its own. But in Tunisia the revolution is hot off the presses—literally. Since the dictatorship of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled just over two years ago, Tunisia has seen an explosion of newspapers, TV stations, and websites giving voice to a plethora of opinions. Under the twenty-three years of Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisian media were purely an organ of state propaganda. No independent outlets were allowed, no dissent tolerated.


I never visited Tunisia before the revolution, so I can’t speak from first-hand experience, but Tunisians are quick to emphasize how different the atmosphere is today. Last Monday I spent the afternoon with Mongi (pronounced “Moan Jee”) Smaili, a professor of economics at the University of Tunis and a researcher with the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). We were discussing Tunisia’s increasingly contentious political landscape while strolling down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the central thoroughfare of Tunis, when he paused to reflect on the experience. “Before the revolution,” he remarked, “this conversation that we’re having would have been dangerous.” Ben Ali’s security forces, he said, would have approached him after our visit and grilled him about who I was, how he knew me, why we were together ,and what we were talking about.


“Now,” he explained, “we’re free to talk to anyone we want, about anything we want, without fear.”


And this from someone who is sharply critical of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that has been at the helm of Tunisia’s current governing coalition since winning the country’s first postrevolutionary elections, held in October 2011. But on this point every Tunisian I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agreed: the one unquestionable achievement of the revolution is the freedom of expression now enjoyed in the country. And Tunisians are taking advantage of that new breathing space. This new spirit in the country was palpable everywhere I went. Taxi drivers, students, waiters, bureaucrats, intellectuals, housewives, and trade unionists all volunteered passionate opinions about the current political situation, and dramatically different ones. Some expressed strong approval of Ennahda, others strong disapproval. And Ennahda’s opponents claim allegiance to several different parties: some to the centrist secular party Nidaa Tounes, others to the Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties. For all the challenges Tunisians face—and there are many—they have now entered the realm of multiparty democracy and are engaged in a spirited debate about the country’s future.


Anxiety is also widespread, and on the rise—particularly since the assassination in early February of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid. The investigation into his murder is ongoing, and impatience is growing. This event has rattled Tunisian society, in part because political violence is so rare in the country’s history. The last time a Tunisian political figure was assassinated was sixty years ago, shortly before independence, when the trade unionist and anticolonial leader Farhat Hached was murdered, and agents of French colonialism are widely believed to have been responsible. Many Tunisians were left wondering who might be next.


“People are really freaking out,” one young Tunisian told me. And not just over Belaid’s assassination, but over the growing atmosphere of violence and intimidation in the country. Salafists, though small in numbers, have been making their presence felt, staging attacks on cultural events and fellow Tunisians they deem un-Islamic. This too is something that many in Tunisia, where secularism enjoys deep roots—and where the practice of Islam has historically been decidedly unextreme—find perplexing. Then there are the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, vigilante groups of morality police who patrol the streets to keep people in line, in a manner evocative of Iran’s thuggish basij militias.


A debate is now raging among Tunisians over Ennahda’s role in these developments. Many blame the Islamist party for fostering this climate of intimidation or at least for turning a blind eye to the rampages of such groups. Why, many Tunisians ask, hasn’t Ennahda disbanded or at least reigned in the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution? Why has the party not cracked down on these thuggish elements who seem to be roaming more freely than ever before?


Ennahda counters that Tunisia under its rule is no longer a police state, and it can’t control everything that goes on in the country. “If crimes are committed we should prosecute them, but we can’t arrest people for their beliefs,” Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, has said. The party officially denounces Salafist violence and complains that these groups, which outflank Ennahda on the right, are a thorn in its side. But Ennahda also points out that there are divisions among Salafis, and not all of them are engaged in troublemaking. Secular and liberal Tunisians are unsatisfied by this response and hold Ennahda responsible for the climate of fear that has begun to permeate everyday life and polarize the society.


The good news is that because Tunisia is now democratic, these disputes are being hashed out in the court of public opinion and will be resolved at the ballot box. Elections are likely to be called in November or December.


At a conference on “Democratic Transitions in the Arab World” I attended in Tunis over the weekend, the comparativist Marina Ottaway observed that conflict grows out of all democratic transitions. All revolutions, she pointed out, produce winners and losers, and postrevolutionary situations involve clashes of visions. The war of position in Tunisia between Islamists and secularists today is nothing unique. Indeed it’s a vital sign for a postrevolutionary society. The fear is that the growing climate of violence, intimidation and polarization could rip the fabric of Tunisian society apart, just as this new democratic space and culture of pluralism are forming. But I left the country feeling optimistic that, despite all its challenges, Tunisia will navigate these waters and find its way forward.


My next post will feature my interview with Mongi Smaili, the economist and labor researcher I mention above, about the state of the labor movement in Tunisia and the Ennahda-led government’s economic policies. Stay tuned for that.

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Hugo Chávez and the Middle East: Which Side Was He On?


Danny Postel


Most of the postmortem commentary on Hugo Chávez has focused on his domestic legacy in Venezuela, his wider regional legacy within Latin America, and what we might call his hemispheric legacy—his “special relationship” with the United States. And for good reason: these were the principal realms in which he operated during his fourteen years as Venezuela’s president (1999–2013), and it is for his accomplishments in these domains that he will be remembered and the Chávez Era (it was, to be sure, an era) will be evaluated.

But there’s a less discussed dimension of the Chávez legacy that I’d like to examine briefly: his relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, a story whose significance became more salient with the onset of the momentous changes the region has been undergoing over the last few years—not merely since the “Arab Spring” or Arab revolts starting at the end of 2010 but going back to the upheaval in Iran in the summer of 2009.

But, first, let me be clear that I admire a great deal of what Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution accomplished in Venezuela. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research points out, the Chávez government

reduced poverty by half and extreme poverty by 70 percent.  Millions of people also got access to health care for the first time, and access to education also increased sharply, with college enrollment doubling and free tuition for many. Eligibility for public pensions tripled.

And it’s significant that Chávez did all of this through the ballot, not the bullet. He was elected and reelected repeatedly, and by wide margins. I’ve praised the experiments with alternatives to neoliberalism in Venezuela, suggesting that other movements around the world study and learn from them. I’ve even been taken to task for being too pro-Chávez.

It’s precisely because of these positive accomplishments that Chávez’s record on the Middle East and North Africa is so disconcerting.

Chávez had been an enthusiast of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since the latter became Iran’s president in 2005. In 2006, while Ahmadinejad presided over a massive escalation of repression against dissidents, trade unionists, and human rights activists in Iran, Chávez awarded him the Order of the Liberator medal, the highest honor Venezuela bestows on foreign dignitaries. In June of 2009, as millions of Iranians took to the streets to ask Where Is My Vote? Chávez was among the first world leaders to congratulate his ally in Tehran on his reelection, and the Venezuelan foreign ministry issued this statement:

The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela expresses its firm opposition to the vicious and unfounded campaign to discredit the institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unleashed from outside, designed to roil the political climate of our brother country. From Venezuela, we denounce these acts of interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while demanding an immediate halt to the maneuvers to threaten and destabilize the Islamic Revolution.

This provoked widespread dismay and appeals to Chávez from Iranians, many of whom sympathized with the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution, to stop supporting their reactionary president. Those appeals, alas, went ignored, further damaging the standing of the Venezuelan leader among progressive Iranians.



“In Egypt, the situation is complicated,” Chávez pronounced during the Tahrir Square protests that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. He remained conspicuously silent on the Battle of Cairo, one of the great democratic uprisings of recent times, remarking merely that “national sovereignty” should be respected.

But silent he was not as the Arab revolts spread to Libya and Syria; he spoke out emphatically in support of Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad. Chávez had been chummy with the Libyan leader before the 2011 uprising against him; in 2009 he regaled Qaddafi with a replica of Simón Bolívar’s sword and awarded him the same Order of the Liberator medal he’d bestowed on Ahmadinejad. “What Símon Bolívar is to the Venezuelan people,” Chávez declared, “Qaddafi is to the Libyan people.” As the Libyan revolt grew and Qaddafi went on a rampage of slaughter, Chávez was one of a handful of world leaders who stood by him: “We do support the government of Libya.” That support, as one observer noted, was “politically costly and proved to be an embarrassment to many of Latin America’s erstwhile revolutionaries who now share a vision of a democratic future.”

“How can I not support Assad?” Chávez asked last year as the body count in Syria approached sixty thousand. While the regime bombed bread lines and hospitals, Chávez shipped upwards of 600,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel to his ally in Damascus. Meanwhile, the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA) denounced a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that condemned the Assad regime for the horrific massacre of over one hundred noncombatants, including forty-nine children. The UN resolution, ALBA protested, was an attempt to “interfere in Syria’s internal affairs.”

Chávez’s support for despotic and murderous regimes isn’t limited to the Middle East; he also hailed Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe, the late Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, and Alexander Lukashenko, the repressive Belarusian leader known as “Europe’s last dictator.”

These international alliances raise troubling questions about Chávez’s judgment and legacy (a legacy that awaits, and deserves, a thorough historical reckoning along the lines of Perry Anderson’s magisterial retrospective on Brazil’s Lula), especially for those of us who do admire many of the Bolivarian Revolution’s accomplishments.

Some of Chávez’s defenders chalk these unsavory alliances up to realpolitik calculations that a Third World leader has no choice but to make in dealing with a global hegemon hell bent on undermining all alternatives to its dictates. But this only goes so far. Lula’s foreign policy involved lots of deals and alliances—the Brazilian-Turkish attempt to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue, for instance—but, unlike Chávez, he never defended the repressive domestic policies of the Islamic Republic or denounced Iran’s democratic movement.

A group of Iranian leftists who support the goals of the Bolivarian Revolution made this point in an open letter to Chávez. “To us,” the letter reads, “it is possible for the Venezuelan government to have close diplomatic and trade relations with the Iranian government without giving it political support—particularly where domestic policy is concerned. Above all, endorsing its labor policy is in complete contradiction with your own domestic policy.”

Dealing with ambiguity has never been a particular forte of the Left. Yet assessing the legacy of Hugo Chávez requires nothing so much as a sense of ambiguity. I thus find Bhaskar Sunkara’s observation that the Bolivarian Revolution contains “both authoritarian and democratic, demagogic and participatory” elements most refreshing. I know from personal conversations with countless progressives that ambivalence about Chávez, particularly on the international front, runs deep—but the critical conversation has yet to reflect that ambivalence.

Theorizing Chávez’s international relations—examining the ideological affinities between his left-wing populism and the right-wing populism of Ahmadinejad, exploring patterns between his domestic and foreign policies, comparing his international dealings with those of other progressive leaders in the Global South—remains to be done. I don’t think any complete reckoning with the legacy of this historic political figure can be complete without confronting these questions, thorny though they may be.

Rather than draw any grand conclusions on this phenomenon, though, I’d love to hear what thoughtful admirers of Chávez like Ernesto Laclau might have to say on the subject. Perhaps we can enter into a critical dialogue on this theme.


Danny Postel is the associate director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Reading “Legitimation Crisis” in Tehran (2006) and the coeditor, with Nader Hashemi, of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011).


Filed under Arab Spring, Danny Postel, Libya, Revolution, War

The Sounds of a Familiar Plot/ Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower)

 Adapted by the author from published Dec. 19, 2011, as a reaction to KM Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) who has presented a bill to silence the muezzins. The bill has not passed, at least for the time being.  Ruth HaCohen’s The Music Libel Against the Jews was published by Yale University Press last December.

Noise accusations against minorities are nothing new.   Such an accusation was made against the Jews who lived among Christian communities in the Middle Ages, and in modern times it remains as fresh as ever.  The Nazis sophistically used it to justify the expulsion of the Jews from Germany.

Like the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in Israel, every ethnic, cultural, or religious minority is suspected of embodying and inducing disharmony from the start.  From the “point of hearing” of the hegemonic community, the sounds of the minority grate, they are grotesque, threatening.  According to the Christians, by comparison with the harmony in their churches, what prevailed in the Ashkenazi synagogue was nothing but chaotic shouting.  Sometimes they used images from the animal kingdom to describe what they heard.

The noises, which sounded strident to them, served as the basis for an accusation: the Jews hated “our” harmony so much – so said the Christians throughout Europe – that when they heard an innocent and pure Christian boy singing hymns to the Virgin Mary, they would slit his throat mercilessly.  Later on, when they found that Jews, when given the opportunity, marched in the vanguard of the “decent” musical camp, they attributed this success to forgery and imitation.  Therefore they prevented the advancement of Jewish composers and performers years before the Nazis came to power.  A long time passed before they began to listen to the sounds of the Jews and to find beauty in them, though this was partially “exotic.”  The Jews themselves sometimes rejected their own heritage in embarrassment and adopted the dominant Christian sound.

Prayer in a Mosque in Sakhnin. Silencing the sounds of Islam is a loss to non-Muslims as well. Photograph: Dan Keinan

Particularly in the Arab world a dialogue was created between Jews and Muslims.  They borrowed from one another without raising a fuss.  When composers who had been nurtured in European conservatories arrived in the Land of Israel, they tried to adopt the local sound.  What began as an “orientalist” approach developed into moments of mutual attentiveness.  Examples of joint creativity emerged here and there, and in some places in Israel, such as the Holy precincts of Jerusalem, the tolling of church bells still mingle with the chants of the muezzins, and, on certain days of the year, with the sounding of the shofar as well.

Thus a miniature Utopian area has been created – not harmonious, not organized, but still possessing beauty and uniqueness.  Each religion has its own sounds.  Over centuries and millennia, every religion created its own forms for itself, each different from the others, and each bearing worlds of meaning for its believers.  Clearly a blow to those sounds is regarded by the injured party as desecration of sanctity and profanation of the sublime.  However, the suppression of the sounds of another religion – Islam in this case – is a loss for non-Muslims as well.

True, sounds can be disturbing.  High decibels are shocking and deafening.  During my stay in Zurich, Switzerland, a few years ago, at first the church bells disturbed me with their harsh reverberations four times every hour.  I soon became used to it: I understood that people have been living that way in Switzerland for hundreds of years, and one has to adapt. Unfortunately, a law forbidding Muezzins’ calls in the public sphere is in practice in that ringing country, since 2009.

MK Anastasia Michaeli defines herself as the defender of “noise victims.”  However, her record and that of her party testify to the intention of undermining the legitimacy of the sonic presence of the other religion that dwells beside us. If it is a question of disturbing the peace of one’s neighbors, those, including some Muslims, who suffer from the early rising of Muezzins, might be able to engage in dialogue with neighbors who are not deaf to one another.  The residents of Caesaria, for example, neighbors of the Prime Minister (who actually was enthusiastic about Michaeli’s proposal) spoke to the residents of Jesr a-Zarka (“Netanyahu expresses support for the Mosque Law,” Barak Ravid and Jackie Huri, Haaretz, Dec. 12, 2011), and this led to a reduction of volume in a demonstration of good will without much ado.

Meanwhile, in my office on Mount Scopus, I open my window in the afternoon.  While Jerusalem is bathed in golden splendor, the chants of the Muezzins pour into the Kidron Valley from one minaret after the other, bearing with them a melody of sorrow and longing, and enveloping me.

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One more furious thought.
The formation of the government is nothing but an outloud catastrophy. In addition to the “ancient” PM, there is a scandal about the minister of Interior Affairs. He was the assisstant of the security head general in Alexandria. For those who are not aware what Alex stands for please recall the murder of Khaled Said, the precursor of the Revolution; and the brutal torture of Sayed Belal for 9 hrs as a suspect of explding the famous Church “the Saints”, that was on the eve of the New Year!! This is just a tiny example of the “new” government. Indeed those people who have been anti the Revolution should relax now, the scene looks familiar. To add more to the farce, this minister is to perform the oath today and soon on the 25th Dec he is to go to court to answer to the accusations of “murdering” protesters of Alex in last January. And…we are still receiving the blessings of the West…
Sent from Etisalat Misr by Shereen Naga, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cairo University

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I believe these elections should be listed as one of the biggest treasons in history. While we were being attacked in Tahrir Square, completely desrted by all the political parties, and accused of all nasty things in the media, the voting polls opened and received people who were standing in lines (out of fear from paying the fine which is 100$). All legal violations were allowed by the police and military, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood were waiting at the gates for the people telling them whom to vote for. Nontheless, all the world raved about the Egyptian elections!! The final results are not out, all we know is the results of the individual candidates (not the lists), and it is apparent that the MB and the Salafis (the very strictly fundamental ones similar to those of Pakistan_) are gaining ground. While the whole society is in panic, the US issued a statement to bless them: “we are proud of democracy and we are able to deal with any government”!! The problem is that nobody is paying attention to the real problem: it is the military rule!! This parliament is absurd, here is the funny process as designed by the military council: elections of the MP’s, writing the constitution, presidential elections, then again elections of a new parliament. Can you believe that? So this parliament is nothing since it is not going to stay, it does not have the authority to dismiss the military council, and it is not allowed to make any decisions concerning the government. Talking of the government, they (MC) resurrected a prime minister who has been a member of Mubarak’s gov., his discourse and rhetoric are poorly senile, his weakness cannot be mistaken, he held a press conference yesterday and it was pathetic.
As I told you the situation is very fluid and every 5 minutes there is something new, and so the head of the Culture Council has become the Minister of Culture! Just like that, over one night…
As we have been completely dumped by all politicians and parties we decided- after a voting- to suspend the sit-in. Many of us have died and several are dangerously injured, not to mention those who lost their eyes permanently.

To be cont.

warmest regards

Shereen Aboueinaga

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Bill Ayers on Oral History in Cyprus


Cyprus, one of the smallest countries in the European Union, is also the last divided country in Europe, Nicosia its last divided city. Winning its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Cyprus has been roiled in ethnic conflict, violence, and division almost from the start; everyone of a certain age remembers the troubles of 1963-1967. The 1974Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation sealed the fate of Cyprus for decades.

The troubles of the last 50 years are not unrelated to Cyprus’ strategic location at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, a place that has long attracted and continues to draw the great world powers. Rome ruled, as did Istanbul and England. Richard the Lion Hearted took a piece of the island on his way to the Crusades, Paul the Apostle was given 39 strokes with a lash by the Romans for preaching the Gospel, Othello’s Castle is on the southern coast, and Lazarus died on the island. Cyprus has always been a storied jewel of the Mediterranean.

Today UN peace keepers patrol the buffer zone between north and south, and England maintains a massive presence, tens of thousands of military personnel, and two air bases (which were used by the US most recently to launch into Afghanistan and Iraq) constituting 10% of the land mass. Some Cypriots complain that the great powers see Cyprus as little more than a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier.

While there has not been a shot fired since 1999, and while the border between the north and the south opened in 2003, for the generation now in its sixties, memories of the early days are both vivid and raw, and, indeed, for most Cypriots of every age, Cyprus still bleeds. That bleeding—its interpretative meaning and its pervasive imaginative power today—is the focus of this work.

Our project is simply this: to record in notes and photographs and sketches, on audio or video, the voices and words of the people of Cyprus themselves, from every community, to capture their memories, understand their specific meaning-perspectives, illuminate their lives. Our guiding light is every person a philosopher/every day another story. We will create as rich and varied an archive as we can, and we hope that participants will see themselves in this collection as three-dimensional, grass-roots makers of history, and that their descendants will better understand how their ancestors—like all human beings: free and fated; fated and free—shuffled through this mortal coil. We hope, too, that future historians will find material to aid in their own searches for deeper meanings and fuller understandings. We hope, finally, to add ground-level, individual perspectives toward uncovering and teaching the conflict, and in this way, through oral history, to assist the process of truth-telling and reconciliation. Continue reading

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