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A staff interview with Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor of the Pan-African News Wire

If there is another breakdown in trust between the ruling Ennahda party, its allies and the secularists, and if the Islamists insist on completing the proposed new constitution prior to the creation of a new government, escalating tensions could prompt more mass demonstrations, general strikes and civil unrest

QUESTION: What is your assessment of developments in Tunisia after nearly three years since the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali?

AZIKIWE: I along with many others had hoped that both Tunisia and Egypt would have set an example for the entire regions of Africa and the Middle East. To witness before our very eyes an uprising against a western-backed tyrannical regime was historic and inspirational.

Nonetheless, the country is highly fragmented politically. There are at least three broad political trends that have emerged since January 2011 when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia amid a national uprising against his regime. There is the Ennahda Party, which is considered a moderate Islamic party that is willing to work in a coalition with other parties that are secular and left-oriented.

The left parties such as Popular Current feel that they have been unjustly targeted perhaps by more conservative Islamic groups. The assassination of two leading left political opposition figures both of whom had been highly critical of the dominant moderate Islamists has worsened the divisions within the country.

On August 27, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh in a press conference designated Ansar al-Shariah as a terrorist group and said they were responsible for the assassination of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, who were killed within six months of each other. The assassination of Belaid sparked mass demonstrations and strikes across the country that led to the resignation of the first Ennahda government headed by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.

The assassination of Brahmi has deepened divisions with the widespread protests and strikes along with calls for the resignation of Larayedh and the formation of a new government. The announcement on August 27 by Larayedh that Ansar al-Shariah was responsible for the assassinations was designed to rebuild confidence in the rule of the Ennahda party.

The prime minister also maintained that the Tunisian military would escalate its campaign against Ansar al-Shariah who are said to be responsible for the escalation of tensions in the Mount Chaambi region near the border with Algeria. Earlier this year 10 Tunisian troops were killed in clashes with armed combatants in the area.

On October 19 the government announced that it had killed ten members of the Ansar al-Shariah group in clashes that resulted in the deaths of two Tunisian soldiers. These clashes came amid the announcement that the Ennahda government would open talks to create a new coalition government prompting the current regime to resign. The government says that fresh elections will be held within six months.

However, it remains to be seen if these pronouncements will be enough to bring stability and faith in the government. Many political forces withdrew from the legislative body in the aftermath of the assassination of Brahmi in late July.

QUESTION: Do you think a solution to this crisis can be worked out politically?

AZIKIWE: Yes. However, it will take a lot of work on the part of both the Islamists and the liberal and left secular forces. Trust between the various political parties has broken down and it will take time for these divisions to heal.

Ideally a government of national unity could be established that would balance out the current moderate Islamist tendencies with the so-called secularists. Nonetheless, this will be a difficult task in light of the two assassinations and the failures of the dominant political forces since the overthrow of Ben Ali.

Unfortunately, the African Union and the Arab League, of which Tunisia is a member, have not been able to intervene to broker a political solution. Not that this would be easy but some mediation by outside regional interests may prove to be helpful.

In Tunisia there is strong western, or French, cultural and political influence, existing alongside interests that want to see the existence of an Islamic society and political culture. It is the contradiction between these two schools of thought that is preventing the stabilization of the legislative and administrative structures within the government.

This contradiction has also plagued neighbouring Egypt whose uprising followed that of Tunisia. This is perhaps the most significant subjective challenge to the governments in North Africa: how do they in the face of ongoing United States and Western European economic and consequently political dominance over the region, create governments that will foster the sovereignty and genuine independence of the peoples of the area?

There is no magical formula for this crisis. It will ultimately be worked out by the people of Tunisia themselves. It is imperative because if the divisions and tensions continue, the country could remain stagnate for years to come.

QUESTION: Do you see the potential for military intervention in Tunisia as has happened in Egypt?

AZIKIWE: Well, so far the Tunisian military has indicated that it has no desire to seize power in order to establish stability. Nevertheless, in January 2011, the army played a decisive role in the removal of Ben Ali.

Whether the army would take control and establish a government like in Egypt seems remote. The political situation in Tunisia is different in the sense that violence and killings have not taken place on the same scale as in Egypt.

If there is another breakdown in trust between the Ennahda party, its allies and the secularists and if the Islamists insist on completing the proposed new constitution prior to the creation of a new government, the potential for escalating tensions could prompt more mass demonstrations, general strikes and civil unrest.

Also in contrast to Egypt, the Pentagon does not have as much invested in the armed forces as they do in Egypt where the military provides over $1.3 billion annually to the defense department. Tunisia has been involved in the U.S. “war on terrorism” but whether the army sees itself as the “guardians” of the state as has been articulated by the generals in Egypt remains to be seen.

QUESTION: What economic prospects does Tunisia have if stability is established?

AZIKIWE: The country has been a destination for European tourism for decades. Of course this may have fueled resentment due to French and western influence that comes with tourism.

Also the mining sector is essential in the future development of the country. It is also important in regard to political stability since the miners are very organized and have engaged in strikes over the years.

Foreign investment opportunities exist, but there is reluctance on the part of western corporations as a result of the ongoing political divisions and the militancy of the youth, the working class and the intellectuals who have led the rebellions and strikes since December 2010. However, the youth, professionals, workers and intellectuals are the hope for the future of the country. They must articulate and organize a new political system that can move Tunisia forward in the face of the growing imperialist interventions in Africa and the Middle East.

QUESTION: Do you see any prospects for immediate intervention in North Africa and the Middle East by the U.S., other NATO countries and Israel?

AZIKIWE: Yes I do. Just look at Egypt as an example. The White House cannot even say that a coup has taken place. Obama continued to provide aid to the Egyptian military until recently when a suspension was announced. This aid continued in the face of mass killings and political repression.

Syria is under constant attack and the imperialist states along with their allies are committed to bringing down the government of President Bashar al-Assad even if it means supporting groups they have designated as “terrorists.” Obama was poised to bomb Syria in August but an international outcry even inside the U.S. gave pause to the administration.

The White House does not want any genuine revolutionary party or movement to take power in North Africa or the Middle East. They want to maintain political dominance in order to ensure the economic exploitation within the mining and oil industries. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the overall counter-terrorism strategy of Washington are designed to continue the colonial and neo-colonial legacy that has been in existence since World War I.

The State of Israel has the unconditional support of the U.S. Israel is the largest recipient of direct American aid in the world. The fighter jets, offensive weapons and diplomatic support to Israel remain unchallenged inside the halls of Congress.

Israel is as equally concerned about political developments within the region. Once these states break relations with Israel and the U.S., a whole new political reality will develop. This will eventually take place because the current system is unsustainable. The economic decline of the U.S. will not allow it to continue spending money to maintain control throughout the region.

Without the support of the U.S., Israel will be weakened and its survival is questionable. There needs to be a renewed focus on the plight of the Palestinians and the liberation of Palestine. If Palestine is not free there is very little hope for real development in the region.



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