Apparent suicide attack on Tunisian presidential guard bus kills 12


At least 12 people were killed on Tuesday when an explosion tore through a bus full of Tunisian presidential guards in an attack that one source said was probably the work of a suicide bomber.

Ambulances rushed wounded from the scene and security forces closed off streets around Mohamed V Avenue, one of the main streets in the capital Tunis, where the charred wreckage of the bus lay, not far from the Interior Ministry.

It was the third major attack in Tunisia this year, after an Islamist militant killed 38 foreigners at a beach hotel in the resort of Sousse in June, and gunmen killed 21 tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March. Islamic State claimed both those attacks.

Security sources said the guards were boarding the bus to be taken to the presidential palace on the outskirts of the city when it blew up. One presidential source said it was likely that a bomber had detonated his explosive belt inside the bus.

“I was on Mohamed V, just getting ready to get into my car, when there was a huge explosion. I saw the bus blow up. There were bodies and blood everywhere,” said bystander Bassem Trifi.

At least 12 guards were killed and 17 wounded, according to an Interior Ministry statement.

President Beji Caid Essebsi canceled a trip to Europe and said Tunis would be placed under curfew until Wednesday 5 a.m. (0400 GMT). He reinstated a month-long state of emergency, temporarily giving the government more executive flexibility, security forces more powers, and restricting some civil rights.

Mohamed V is a major boulevard usually packed with traffic and pedestrians, and the site of several hotels and banks.

Fighting Islamist militants has become a major challenge for Tunisia, a small North African country that was hailed as a blueprint for democratic change in the region after an uprising in 2011 ousted autocrat Zine Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia has held free elections and is operating under a new constitution and a broad political consensus, for which secular and Islamist parties have managed to overcome deep disagreements.

But several thousand Tunisians have also left to fight in Syria, Iraq and Libya with Islamic State and other militant groups, and some have threatened to carry out attacks at home.

The army has also been fighting against another Islamist militant group in the mountains near the Algerian border. Militants have attacked checkpoints and patrols in rural areas in the past.

In September, the government received intelligence reports pointing to possible car bombings in the capital and banned traffic in parts of the city.

This month, authorities arrested 17 Islamist militants and said they had prevented another major assault, planned for November, on hotels and security forces in Sousse.

Tunisia imposes state of emergency and pushes new counter-terrorism law


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Tunisia’s President Bejd Caid Essebsi has declared a state of emergency after a terrorist killed 38 European tourists, most of them British, at a beach resort. According to Tunisian law, the president may declare a state of emergency of up to 30 days, and can renew it as needed, in response to serious disturbances to the public order.

At the same time, Tunisia has drafted a new anti-terrorism law that human rights groups worry could impinge on basic freedoms and human rights. Nine NGO’s including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International signed a letter to the Tunisian parliament and asking its members to reconsider its provisions. Authorities also said they would close 80 mosques that had been hotbeds of extremism.

“The draft law extends the period of time that a person can be held incommunicado before he is brought before a judge from six days to 15 days,” Amna Guellali of Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “This raises a lot of concerns because if a person does not have the right to a lawyer he is under the total mercy of the police force who can use their power and force to abuse a detainee.

She said they are also concerned that the new law allows the death penalty.

“Even in the 2003 law which was widely criticized as undemocratic and harsh, there was no death penalty,” she said. “If the new counterterrorism law has the death penalty, it is a step backwards for human rights. We fear it could be an open door for executions.”

Tunisia is reeling after the terrorist attack on the beach. Officials have admitted that it took far too long for police to arrive and stop the attacker. Most tourists left the country immediately after the attack, and future reservations were cancelled.

Until the shooting on the beach, and an attack last March that killed 22 tourists at a museum, Tunisia had been seen as the poster child for the Arab spring. Long-time dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had resigned and the country held democratic elections and wrote a new constitution.

But Tunisia has been buffeted by forces beyond its control, says Hamza Meddeb of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Tunisian-born analyst. Meddeb left Tunisia just hours before the attack on the beach, hearing of it only when his plane landed in the UK.

“The situation in (next-door) Libya is chaotic and Tunisia is paying a big price,” Meddeb told The Media Line. “With the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, there is a security vacuum at the border and many Tunisian jihadist fighters have been trained in Libya.”

Among them are Seifeddine Rezgui, the break-dancer turned gunman who carried out the beach attack.

Estimates are that there are almost 3000 Tunisians fighting with Islamic State in Syria, and between 500 and 1000 fighting in Libya. Their return to Tunisia could intensify tensions even further.

Youth unemployment in Tunisia is about 30 percent, Meddeb said, and many youth say they have no confidence in the future. Tunisia, where the Arab spring began in 2011, has extended some political freedoms, he said. But it has not been followed by social mobility and economic reforms. Now human rights activists worry that the political reforms may be turned back as well.

Over 50 killed in terrorist attacks on three continents


Terrorists have attacked sites in France, Tunisia and Kuwait, killing over 50 people according to preliminary reports.

At least one person was killed and several were injured in an attack on a gas factory in Grenoble, France in what French President Francois Hollande said was a “pure terrorist attack.”

At a beach in front of two hotels in Tunisia, multiple gunmen have killed 28 people and wounded at least 39, according to the Tunisian Health Ministry. French, Belgian, Russian, German and British tourists are among the dead. At least one of the attackers was killed by security forces, the New York Times reported. A security source in Tunisia told Reuters that one of the hotels targeted was the Imperial Marhaba.

Meanwhile, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bomb explosion at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait which has killed at least 25 people, according to Sky News.

Although there is no concrete indication that the attacks were jointly coordinated, they occurred at roughly the same time on Friday morning across the three continents. Earlier this week, ISIS urged its followers to increase its attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

In France, the decapitated body of a man was found on the premises of the factory near Lyon, and an attacker brandishing an Islamic State flag was arrested, according to the website of the Le Point magazine. Two other people were shown being detained on French television, one of whom is the attacker’s wife.

The victim was reportedly a local business man and the employer of a second suspect detained by police. French reports said the victim’s head was pinned to the factory gate and covered with Arabic writing.

There were explosions. It’s not clear whether they were caused by devices or by the ramming of a car into gas tanks.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said he would “immediately” head to the site. Hollande cut short his attendance at a summit of European leaders in Brussels in order to return to Paris.

Tunisian soldier opens fire on comrades, killing seven


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Seven servicemen have been killed in Tunisia in what appears to have been an insider attack by a fellow soldier. It is unclear whether the assailant, who seized a weapon and turned it on his comrades, was linked to a terrorist group or had an alternative motivation for the incident – which cost him his life.

The incident, which left ten others wounded, several of whom are in critical condition, occurred at a military barracks near the parliament building in the capital Tunis.

The government has played down any possibility that the shooting was an act of terror. “The incident which took place at the Bouchoucha barracks is not connected with a terrorist operation,” a spokesperson for the interior ministry told reporters.

The site of the assault is close to the Bardo National Museum – the scene of Tunisia’s worst terror attack in years.

The shooter was identified as a master corporal, a junior rank, by Belhassen Oueslati, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense. The soldier suffered from family problems and behavioral disorders and as such had been banned from carrying a weapon, Oueslati said. Accordingly, he had been posted to Bouchoucha, which was considered a non-sensitive location.

Local media identified the man as 30-year old, Mehdi Jemi.

A security source speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed to The Media Line that the assailant had been prohibited from carrying a weapon. Nevertheless, he stabbed a soldier at the entrance to the barracks, seized the man’s gun and opened fire on those around him, the source said.

The soldier’s motivation for turning on his comrades is still unknown.

Concerns over terrorism following the Bardo Museum siege in March, which left 21 people dead, has had a serious effect on tourism in Tunisia. Traditionally, foreign visitors to the country have provided an important part of the small north African state’s revenue. Most of those killed in the museum attack were European tourists. Two Islamist gunmen were slain by police while a third escaped.

Security forces have intensified operations against extremist groups following the Bardo attack, with increased arrests and a number of operations against cells active in the mountainous region of Kasserine. In one such operation conducted shortly after the Bardo siege, nine members of Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, an affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS), were killed. The group’s leader, Khaled Hamadi Chaib, also known as Lokman Abu Sakhr, was one of those who died during the operation.

The credibility of Tunisia’s transition to democracy has been called into question following several political assassinations and a growing number of attacks against security personnel. The failure of other Arab countries to form stable democratic governments has also cast a shadow over the chances of the embryonic Tunisian democracy. Of the countries that had a change of government following the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only one that has not reverted to authoritarianism or outright civil war. Both Libya and Syria are in turmoil as the result of their respective regime changes or the attempt to pressure for change. On the other hand, Egypt increasingly appears to be espousing a model of government no different than that practiced for decades prior to the election of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically-elected head of state. Fears remain that Tunisia, the birth place of the Arab Spring, could follow Egypt’s example.

The United States has doubled its funding for military assistance to Tunisia, putting the figure at $160 million.

Freedom of expression under attack in Tunisia


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

A new Tunisian security bill could make criticizing the Tunisian police or security forces a crime, and should be amended, says a group of human rights organizations. It also allows security forces to use deadly force to protect property, not only lives. The human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urge the Tunisian parliament to drop these problematic provisions from the bill.

The government sent the bill to parliament in April following the March attack by gunmen that killed 23 people at the Bardo museum and a series of attacks by gunmen on members of the security forces. At least 75 members of the Tunisian army and police have been killed since the uprising that ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, and almost 200 wounded.

“The government has approved a draft bill that in the name of protecting the security forces inflicts severe setbacks on civil liberties in Tunisia,” Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “If the bill is passed it would stifle criticism and whistleblowing, and have a chilling effect on anyone who criticizes the security forces by putting them at risk of prosecution.”

Tunisia, which is where the Arab spring began more than four years ago, is in many ways a success, say analysts who study the region. Tunisia adopted a constitution in 2014, and later that year held both parliamentary and presidential elections – Tunisia’s first democratic elections since 1956. Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi, a former foreign minister and interim Prime Minister in 2011 and founder of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, was elected.

Tunisia has moved slowly toward democracy, and this bill could threaten that movement.

“The public is more ready to accept this kind of legislation thinking it will protect them from additional attacks,” Maha Yahya, an expert on Tunisia at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. “But it is critical for Tunisians to understand that clamping down on civil liberties is far more threatening to Tunisia’s transition to democracy than a terrorist attack. All they will do is push people to the shadows and fringes where they will look for other ways to express their discontent.

She compared the situation to Egypt, where a similar drive to democracy, and an election that brought Muslim Brotherhood head Mohamed Morsi to power in 2013, has devolved into an anti-democratic rule by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and arrested hundreds of its supporters.

“It’s paramount for Tunisia’s political leaders not to sacrifice Tunisia’s fragile political transition on the altar of security.”

Tightening security policies is common after terrorist attacks, as the US did after 9/11. But the current bill before the Tunisian parliament would allow courts to impose long prison sentences on anyone who reveals “national security secrets.” It also allows no defense from prosecution for whistleblowers or journalists who claim to have acted in the public interest.

The bill would make the “denigration” of police or security forces a crime, and provides for up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine for those who publish a “national security secret”, which it defines broadly.

“The reaction to this draft bill in both human rights groups and civil society was unanimous in their disappointment,” Goldstein of Human Rights Watch said. “That’s why we want it revised.”

Israel warns of Tunisia terror attack as Lag b’Omer ceremony nears


Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued a travel warning for Tunisia in advance of a traditional Lag b’Omer procession.

The warning issued Saturday night called on Israelis to avoid visiting Tunisia and to leave the country as soon as possible. It said that recent information indicates the intention to carry out terror attacks against visiting Israelis or Tunisian Jewish communities, with an emphasis on the upcoming Lag b’Omer commemoration on the island of Djerba.

The traditional festive procession near the El Ghriba synagogue on Djerba takes place on or around Lag b’Omer, a break during the 49 days of mourning between Passover and Shavuot, which this year begins on Wednesday night. It draws hundreds of Tunisian Jews and visitors from Israel.

The synagogue, in the village of Hara Seghira, or Er-Riadh, dates back to 586 B.C., although the current building was reconstructed in the 19th century. El Ghriba is sometimes cited as North Africa’s oldest synagogue. In 2002, terrorists blew up a vehicle near the synagogue, killing 21 people.

In March, 23 people were killed in an Islamic State terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis; the Islamic state has claimed it will commit more attacks in the country.

Following grave desecration, Tunisian president vows to defend Jews


 In the wake of the desecration of a Jewish sage’s grave, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi promised a European rabbinical body he would protect his country’s Jews.

Essebsi, who won the country’s presidential election last year, made the pledge this week during a meeting with Rabbi Moche Lewin, who was in the country as a delegate of the European Conference of Rabbis.

“I will not return Tunisia to the days of dictatorial rule, but will firmly protect all citizens and the Jewish community and its institutions,” Essebsi told Lewin, who was part of a delegation of foreign faith leaders and dignitaries attending a rally commemorating the death last week of 22 people, many of them tourists, in an attack by Islamists in Tunisia.

Essebsi was quoted in a statement released Thursday by the Conference of European Rabbis.

During his visit, Lewin visited Tunisia’s old Jewish cemetery where unknown individuals earlier this month smashed the headstone of the grave of Rabbi Masseoud Elfassi, an 18th-century sage.

Tunisian Tourism Minister Amel Karboul told Lewin that security around the cemetery and other Jewish sites were beefed up after the attack. Quoting Jewish community representatives, the news site assabahnews.tn reported the incident may have been the work of grave robbers.

Karboul also announced plans to restore the old synagogue of Tunis, the country’s capital city, and to observe the annual pilgrimage of Jews to the island of Djerba ahead of Passover.

Also joining the delegation commemorating last week’s deadly attack was Avishai Hattab, the brother of Yoav Hattab, a Tunisian Jew whom an Islamist killed on Jan. 9 along with three other Jews during an attack on a kosher supermarket near Paris.

Gunmen storm Tunisian museum, kill two Tunisians, 17 foreign tourists


Gunmen in military uniforms stormed Tunisia's national museum, killing 17 foreign tourists and two Tunisians on Wednesday in one of the worst militant attacks in a country that has largely escaped the region's “Arab Spring” turmoil.

Visitors from Italy, Germany, Poland and Spain were among the dead in the noon assault on the Bardo museum near parliament in central Tunis, Prime Minister Habib Essid said.

Security forces stormed the former palace around two hours later, killed two militants and freed other tourists held hostage inside, a government spokesman said. One policeman was killed in the police operation.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Islamic State militants, who have become particularly active in neighboring Libya, were behind the attack. “The EU is determined to mobilize all the tools it has to fully support Tunisiain the fight against terrorism,” she added.

Prime Minister Essid declared in a national address:

“All Tunisians should be united after this attack which was aimed at destroying the Tunisian economy.”

Television footage showed dozens of people, including elderly foreigners and one man carrying a child, running for shelter in the compound, covered by security forces aiming rifles into the air.

The attack on such a high-profile target is a blow for the small North African country that relies heavily on European tourism and has largely avoided major militant violence since its 2011 uprising to oust autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia's uprising inspired “Arab Spring” revolts in neighboring Libya and in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. But its adoption of a new constitution and staging of largely peaceful elections had won widespread praise and stood in stark contrast to the chaos that has plagued those countries.

Authorities did not immediately identify the gunmen.

But several Islamist militant groups have emerged in Tunisia since the uprising and authorities estimate about 3,000 Tunisians have also joined fighters in Iraq and Syria — raising fears they could return and mount attacks at home.

“Two terrorists disguised in military clothes got into the parliament building, then the museum where they attacked tourists. Nineteen people were killed including 17 foreign tourists. Twenty-two tourists are wounded,” the prime minister said.

ARAB SPRING REVOLTS

“Two militants opened fire on the tourists as they were getting off the buses before fleeing into the museum,” one Bardo employee told Reuters at the scene.

An official at the Italian foreign ministry in Rome said two Italians had been wounded in the attack.

About another 100 Italians were in the area and had been taken to safety by Tunisian police, authorities added.

The museum is known for its collection of ancient Tunisian artifacts and mosaics and other treasures from classical Rome and Greece. There were no immediate reports the attackers had copied Islamic State militants in Iraq by targeting exhibits seen by hardliners as idolatrous.

Islamic State affiliates are gaining a foothold in neighboring Libya where two rival governments are battling for control. A senior Tunisian militant was killed while fighting for Islamic State in the Libyan city of Sirte over the past week, authorities said.

Wednesday's assault was the worst attack involving foreigners in Tunisia since an al Qaeda suicide bombing on a synagogue killed 21 people on the tourist island of Djerba in 2002.

Tunisian Jewish cemetery vandalized


More than 68 gravestones were found ransacked and graves were looted at a Jewish cemetery in the coastal Tunisian town of Sousse.

The Tunisian Shems FM radio station cited a Tunisian security official who said the graves were damaged over the last month. Claims on Facebook had said the graves were vandalized on Jan. 23.

According to the Shems FM report, Tunisian youths believing rumors that the Jews bury their dead with gold were responsible for the grave looting.

Only a few Jewish families now live in Sousse, which had a Jewish community of nearly 6,000 at the time of Tunisia's independence in 1956. One Jewish-owned fruit juice shop, Pascal, is located in the city.

According to TAP, the Tunisian state news agency, the office of Prime Minister Hammadi Jebali of the Islamist Ennahda party released a statement last Friday expressing “deep indignation at any criminal act undermining Tunisia's cultural and historical heritage,” and said that efforts were under way to work with security forces and the judiciary to ensure that attacks on cemeteries and mausoleums stopped.

The Tunisian Ministry of Culture recently announced that 34 shrines of venerated Sufi Muslim saints have been attacked by religious extremists since the country's January 2011 revolution ousted former dictator Zine El Abddine Ben Ali.

Tunisia had a Jewish population of more than 100,000 at the time of independence in 1956, comprising the country's largest religious minority. Today nearly 2,000 remain, living mostly on the southern island of Djerba and around the capital, Tunis.

Tunisian minister wishes Jews a Merry Christmas


A Tunisian minister in charge of emigres wished a Merry Christmas to the country’s Jews.

“I want to wish all the Jews of Tunisia a happy holiday tonight, it is a big holiday all over the world,” Houcine El Jaziri, Tunisia’s state secretary for immigration and Tunisians living abroad, said while participating in the talk show “Attasia” on the Ettounisya network, which was aired on Dec. 31. He also wished the Jews a “milaad Majid,” or Merry Christmas.

Dozens of bewildered comments appeared on Ettounisya's Facebook page, with some users speculating that El Jaziri conflated the Jewish holiday of Chanukah with the Christian holiday.

The website of El Jaziri’s Renaissance Party, an Islamic movement and the country’s ruling party, says that El Jaziri, 45, studied philosophy in Tunisia, Morocco and France, where he obtained a master’s degree.

Some 1,700 Jews live in Tunisia, according to the European Jewish Congress. Tunisia had a Jewish population of 110,000 in 1948, but half left for Israel in the 1950s and most of the rest went to France.

Islamist leaders vow unity against Israel


At a conference that drew a roll-call of the Islamist leaders who have gained influence in the wake of Arab Spring revolts, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal won a noisy welcome and pledges of support on Thursday.

A day after Israel assassinated Hamas's top commander in the Gaza Strip in a new offensive, hundreds of delegates at the conference in Sudan burst into applause and cheers as Meshaal, dressed in a suit and open-necked shirt, entered Khartoum's hangar-sized Friendship Hall.

“Khaybar, Khaybar,” the crowd chanted as Meshaal shook hands with other Islamist leaders, in a reference to a battle in Arabia where the Prophet Mohammad and his followers defeated Jewish defenders in the 7th century. “The army of Mohammad has started to return.”

Although most attendees were Sudanese, some came from as far as Indonesia and Senegal.

Among the delegates were the leaders of the Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia that have come to power through the ballot box in the wake of the Arab Spring, a regional shift towards the Islamists that has also helped embolden Hamas.

Israel has bombed targets in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for two days, saying its attack is in response to escalating missile strikes from Gaza. Fifteen Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed in the flare-up.

Condemnation of the Israeli offensive has been led by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, from the now dominant Muslim Brotherhood.

The head of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, told the conference in Khartoum: “The blood of our brothers who were martyred yesterday, just yesterday, in Palestine, in Gaza, this is what waters the tree of Islam.”

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party, said: “In truth, the mother of the revolutions was the blessed Palestinian revolution.”

Tunisia was the first Arab Spring country where a long serving strongman was unseated through popular protest.

Sudan's own Islamist government, headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, came to power in a 1989 coup. Vice President Ali Osman Taha said Israel had no respect for international law. “This madness is a danger to international peace,” he said.

Last month, Sudanese officials blamed an Israeli air strike for a blast at an arms factory in Khartoum that killed four people. Israel has not commented on the accusations, but Israeli officials have accused Sudan of funneling weapons from Iran to Hamas in Gaza.

Meshaal, who spoke just before Bashir, was greeted with chants of “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas” as he climbed onto the stage, flanked by two bearded, thickset bodyguards. Hamas has refused to recognize Israel or renounce violence.

“Our enemy is your enemy,” Meshaal said, interrupted several times by cheering and chanting. “Our hands are with you.”

Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Matthew Tostevin

Kidnapping plot against Tunisian Jewish community reportedly foiled


A network plotting to kidnap and ransom members of a southern Tunisia town's Jewish community was broken up by the country's national guard, a Tunisian newspaper reported.

The network was started by a police officer who was formerly responsible for protecting the Jewish community, according to the report  in Al Hacad, a Tunisian weekly. The officer was reportedly recruiting young Tunisians to take part in a kidnapping operation that aimed to force Tunisian Jews to leave the country. He had a car registered in Libya as well as firearms stockpiled.

A Jewish resident of the southern Tunisian town of Zarzis told JTA that extra security measures had been taken up by the national guard in the Jewish neighborhood, where about 100 Jews live.

“I was wondering why we had a new army truck stationed about 40 meters from our synagogue for the past week, and then I read about this,” he said.

The police officer reportedly was known for being involved in an Islamic extremist group and was plotting to carry out a kidnapping operation on a Friday evening when local Jews spend Shabbat on the beach.

After the plot was foiled, all those behind it were arrested. The case has been referred to the Court of First Instance in Tunis.

While relations between Muslims and Jews in Zarzis have been relatively calm in recent years, there have been past incidents where the Jewish community was the target of violence.  In 1982 the synagogue in Zarzis was torched, and Torah scrolls were destroyed in the blaze. The arson attack was considered a response to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon.

The Arab Spring springs surprises


When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots.

Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as “the Arab world” had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolt against Hafez Al-Assad’s regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime.

This time, however, it was different. The Tunisians succeeded with breathtaking speed in overthrowing Zine El-Abidine’s dictatorial and corrupt regime. But what turned those events into something really unique in the modern Arab world was the domino effect which followed. Shortly after the Tunisians won their battle with their government, there ensued a confrontation between the Egyptians and their own government. Before long, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down. The ripple effect of those cataclysmic developments was subsequently felt in other Arab countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and, later, Syria.

Despite the apparent similarities noted in the Arab rebellions taking place in the Middle East, there were nevertheless some notable differences in the way the uprisings happened in the aforementioned Arab countries: the relatively benign dictatorships-Tunisia and Egypt- collapsed much more easily than did the far more ruthless tyrannies in Libya and Syria. One reason may be that Zine El-Abidine’s regime in Tunisia was caught napping by the sudden nature of the revolt in that country. And while Hosni Mubarak’s regime had some forewarning of the possibility of similar developments taking place in Egypt, this was not early enough for members of the Egyptian political elite to successfully contain and defuse the situation.

By contrast, the Qaddafi regime had ample time to prepare for such an eventuality, and the regime of Bashar Al-Assad had even more time than Qaddafi’s to brace itself for a similar insurgency occurring in Syria. Coupled with the horrifically brutal nature of both of these regimes, the spread of the “Arab Spring”, as it came to be known, lost momentum. Despite some initial successes achieved by anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, the tide was turned fairly quickly as Qaddafi’s forces rallied to roll back the rebels’ advance speedily and efficiently. Before long, Qaddafi’s fighters had overcome the rebels in Zawiya, laid siege to Misrata, and beaten the eastern region’s rebels from near Sirte, his own birthplace, all the way back to my own city, Benghazi. Terrified and thrown into panic by the merciless, ruthless nature of Qaddafi’s threats and his declared intention of vindictively seeking out his enemies “street-by-street, alley-by-alley, house-by-house”,  France, along with the United Kingdom and, after some hesitancy, the United States successfully obtained the Arab League’s consent to a possible aerial intervention in Libya in order to protect civilians from what looked like a potentially hair-raising massacre not very different from what had happened in Srebrenica in the ex-Yugoslavia back in the 1995. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States also succeeded in persuading reluctant members of the United Nation’s Security Council, most notably Russia and China, of the need to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. The French, the British, and the Americans also took advantage of the wording of UN Resolution 1973, especially one of the points authorizing all necessary means to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, to justify the active, pre-emptive aerial attacks against the Qaddafi regime. The famous French air attack on Qaddafi’s lethal forces on the outskirts of Benghazi in March 2011 achieved the goal of preventing a large scale massacre of civilians in that city. Consequently, Qaddafi’s forces quickly retreated all the way back to Sirte. Buoyed up by such speedy withdrawal, the eastern rebels advanced just as speedily all the way to an area not very far from Sirte, while exuding their newly-found confidence that the Qaddafi regime would crumble in few weeks or less.  That, of course, did not materialize, and the Libyan conflict entered thereafter a phase of prolonged stalemate which lasted for many months before the Qaddafi regime collapsed in the city of Tripoli and Qaddafi himself was captured and killed near his hometown of Sirte in October 2011.

Once the Syrian people saw what was happening in other Arab countries, and how France, the United Kingdom, and the United States were striving for intervention in the Libyan conflict, they plucked up enough courage to launch mass protests against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. This began when protesters called for the “Friday of Dignity” and Syrians initiated their first serious challenge against their own government. Unlike the Libyans before them, the Syrian protesters did not want outside intervention and were intent on fighting the Assad regime alone. When it gradually dawned on the Syrian rebels that overthrowing Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was not as feasible as they had imagined, they little by little started to have second thoughts concerning the idea of requesting external armed involvement.

Nonetheless, this time the situation in Syria was significantly different from the Libyan situation: First, both Russia and China objected to outside intervention à la Libyan case. Second, important regional players such as Iran, along with organizations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, backed up the Syrian regime and reportedly propped it up with arms, financial, personnel, and diplomatic support. Third, despite the longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the Israelis, and quite a few of their American supporters, balked at the idea of Syria being run by an actively anti-Israeli, perhaps theocratic, government should the Assad regime disintegrate. After all, both Bashar Al-Assad and his father before him often barked at Israel, but they never did much biting. The anxiety concerning a possible Islamist takeover in Syria was compounded by the early results of regime change in the Arab Spring: Major Islamist successes in Tunisia and Egypt, and significant Islamist influence in Libya’s post-Qaddafi politics, scared outside powers which feared that, yet again, the “Arab Spring” in Syria could very well lead to an “Islamist winter”.

The differences between Libya’s situation and that of Syria did not emerge only in terms of geopolitical dynamics, but also extended to include internal differences: To an extent far greater than the national makeup of Libya, Syria’s is a mosaic of various religions, sects, and ethnic groups: Arabs, Assyrians, Kurds, Armenians, Turkmen, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and so forth. These groups had been held together by Hafez Al-Assad and later his son Bashar. If the son’s regime were to collapse, it is not inconceivable that this might bring about the fragmentation of the country, resulting in extensive massacres. The relations between Muslims and Christians in Syria are already very tense, as are many of those between Syria’s other ethnic and sectarian groups. But the Syrian regime’s most-intensely feared scenario is the fate of the Alawite minority, to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs. The end of their tight grip on power could very easily become a prelude to their mass murder at the hands of other groups, especially the Sunnis who have long resented being governed and oppressed by the Alawites. This is one of the most important reasons why the Bashar Al-Assad regime is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to power: what is at stake is not merely the regime’s survival, but above all that of the whole Alawite sect.

Having previously worked for several years as a university professor of political science, I am fully aware that forecasting in the area of international politics is a very difficult undertaking; there are far too many unknown quantities and variables involved for this to be easily doable. All the same, it does look at the moment as if the Syrian situation will continue to be a war of attrition, with neither side being able to gain the upper hand in a decisive and conclusive manner. One is then left wondering whether this might lead to yet another “Lebanon”.


Husam Dughman’s family was both educated and liberal.  They heroically stood up to the Qaddafi regime and endured the dire consequences. This gave him a first-hand experience of what dictatorship, bigotry, and intolerance are about, and what kind of price has to be paid in order to stand up to them.  Coupled with his experience of religious intolerance, Mr. Dughman resolved to fight against zealotry, hate, and extremism, come hell or high water. Thus, the idea for Tête-à-tête with Muhammad began to germinate in his mind.

Husam Dughman was born in Libya and educated in Libya and the U.K. He earned his B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Kent at Canterbury, where he won several awards for academic excellence and graduated with a First Class with Honours. In 1993, Mr. Dughman returned to Libya and was successful in securing a position as a university professor of Political Science. Due to political reasons, he left his university position in 1997 and subsequently worked in legal translation. He immigrated to Canada in 2002, where he has been helping new immigrants with their settlement.

Dughman’s new book, Tête-à-tête with Muhammad, is available for purchase at Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, as well as other online booksellers.  To learn more visit: http://www.husamdughman.com

Amid security concerns in Tunisia, a smaller Hiloula celebration


Two thousand years ago, a mysterious woman who was unable to talk arrived on this island. Every sick person she touched was healed. Although she died when her wooden house caught fire, her body remained intact and did not burn.

That’s a local legend.

Another is that the miracle worker is buried beneath the foundation stone of the El Ghriba Synagogue, one of the oldest continuously used synagogues in the Diaspora and the site of an annual pilgrimage that typically brings thousands to Djerba seeking answers to their prayers.

This year, amid political uncertainty and security concerns, the two-day celebration held last week on Lag b’Omer drew more journalists and police than pilgrims.

“We have about 300 people here from abroad today, but most are locals,” said Rene Trabelsi, a Paris-based organizer of the celebration whose family oversees the synagogue. “What’s important is that we are having this event this year because last year it did not happen. I hope we can slowly increase the number of people attending each year.”

Last year, in the aftermath of Tunisia’s revolution that overthrew the country’s long time autocrat Zine El Abddine Ben Ali and killed more than 300 Tunisians, the Hiloula celebration was canceled.

Pilgrimages in previous years had attracted thousands of visitors to Djerba. After the El Ghriba Synagogue was attacked in 2002, the pilgrimage was vastly scaled back, but the number of pilgrims steadily increased until nearly 10,000 came in 2010.

Heavy security accompanied this year’s event, and those coming by car faced some dozen checkpoints en route.

Elias al-Fakhfakh, Tunisia’s minister of tourism and a member of the center-left Ettakatol political party, attended on the second day. The crowd, which had been singing kabbalistic tunes outside the synagogue, switched to the Tunisian national anthem as al-Fakhfakh approached.

Entering the El Ghriba sanctuary, al-Fakhfakh put on a kabbus, a red traditional Tunisian hat that many Tunisian Jewish men wear as a kippah.

Before cameras from almost every Tunisian television station, al-Fakhfakh viewed both the sefer Torah and holy area where the foundation stone is believed to be.

“It is great that Muslims and Jews can celebrate this occasion together,” he told a cheering crowd before heading off to a meal with local Jewish community leaders. “After the Tunisian revolution we adopted new democratic values. We have a new country with a deep heritage that accepts people with different cultures and religions.

“As a government,” he said, “we want to embrace good relations between Jews and Muslims in the new free Tunisia.”

During the pilgrimage, El Ghriba’s sanctuary becomes a holding place for people’s wishes, which are written on paper and placed inside cracks of the wall—similar to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Coins are placed inside oil lamps for tzedakah, charity.

Women seeking to marry or have children visit El Ghriba and write their wishes on boiled eggs, symbolizing life. Candles are lit for those asking for good health and a long life.

A door to the foundation stone, which is beneath the ark, is opened during the pilgrimage, so the candles and eggs may be placed on the stone.

Newlywed Vanessa Mamou, whose father is from Djerba, traveled from Paris for the celebration.

“I put an egg in the synagogue because I am married and want to have a baby,” she told JTA. “My sister is here because she wants to meet someone and get married.”

The El Ghriba legend is important not only for Tunisian Jews but for Muslims as well.

“This is a holy place for all Djerbians, not just the Jews,” a woman named Khalija said as she was leaving the sanctuary. “I came to light a candle with my Jewish friend.”

Unlike previous years, when the celebration attracted Tunisians and non-Tunisians from abroad, nearly all of this year’s pilgrims were Tunisian.

Many were local Djerbians; others came from Tunis. The remaining were Tunisians visiting from Europe, although the visitors included a couple of French pilgrims.

“My family left Tunisia when I was 10 years old, but I spent almost every summer growing up in Tunisia,” said Isabel, who came with her husband and daughter from Paris. “No one will scare me away from coming here because this is my country. I am Tunisian and will never be afraid of my country.”

Adjacent to the synagogue is a building that once served as an inn housing visitors, primarily Libyan Jews visiting El Ghriba. With the growth of the tourism industry and the establishment of vast hotels in recent years, the building is mostly abandoned year-round.

But during the two-day Hiloula, the inn becomes a center of celebration. Live traditional Tunisian music, in Hebrew and Arabic, is sung to the beat of the darbouka drum.

The smell of fried brik—a flour envelope of potatoes, Tunisian hot sauce known as harissa, parsley and egg—is present in the air. Families sit together on benches and munch on fresh almonds, apricots, oranges, cantaloupe and mulberries that are sold in nearby stands.

For some Tunisians who have been abroad for many years, the celebration is a chance to reconnect with Tunisia. On sale are CDs of famous Tunisian Jewish singers from the community’s past as well as DVD collections of recent Tunisian sitcoms.

Previous celebrations have attracted many Israeli pilgrims, but this year Israel issued a travel warning advising its people not to attend.

Perez Trabelsi, El Ghriba’s president, criticized the Israelis in the local French language Tunisian newspaper, Le Press, for not attending this year.

According to some foreign attendees, many foreign visitors canceled after the Islamist Tunisian party Ennahda invited Youssef Al Qaradawi, a Qatar-based Egyptian sheik well known for his endorsement of suicide bombings, on a multi-city speaking tour of Tunisia in the week leading up to the Hiloula.

Israel’s counterterrorism bureau upgrades Tunisian threat


Israel’s counterterrorism bureau has reiterated a travel advisory to Tunisia, despite plans to reinstate an annual pilgrimage to the grave of a Jewish mystic.

The National Security Council bureau said Thursday that there was a “high concrete threat” to Israeli visitors and Jewish targets, and called on Israelis to avoid visiting there.

Each year, Jewish pilgrims from France, Israel and elsewhere come to the El Ghriba synagogue to join with local Jews in celebrating the yahrzeit, or anniversary of the death, of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century Torah scholar and author of the Zohar. This year, the annual Lag b’Omer pilgrimage falls on May 9 and 10.

The festival surrounding the pilgrimage was canceled last year due to the revolution that swept the country’s longtime autocrat, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power.

Some Tunisian Jews have been unsettled by demonstrations there in recent months in which fervently religious Salafi groups with alleged ties to al-Qaida called on Muslims to kill or wage war against Jews.

In April, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki visited the El Ghriba synagogue to mark the 10-year anniversary of the 2002 al-Qaida truck bombing that killed 21 people. Marzouki in his speech called for Jews to be welcomed to the annual pilgrimage.

Opinion: All in


Two years ago, before our very eyes, a liberation movement of great courage and hope began to unfold halfway around the world. Blood ran like water in the streets of distant capitals, and still people fought, flesh against tanks, citizens against infantry, poets against police.

How could we not see the parallels to the Passover narrative, how could we not embrace their calls for liberation as our own?

Oh yeah, because they’re Arabs.

Because those uprisings have taken place in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria, the collective Jewish response has been more teeth-gnashing than hand-clapping. Yes, we want people to be free — that, at face value, is our central communal narrative, the one we’re about to gather and read this weekend at our seder tables. But … but … but what about Israel? 

Our worries over how these sweeping changes will affect Israel dull our reflexes and dampen our humanitarian impulses. Sure, freedom is good, but what about the Muslim Brotherhood? We’re all for an end to torture, but what about the peace treaties? We applaud nonviolent resistance, but what if it sweeps into the West Bank?

Tunisia and Libya are one thing, but Egypt and Syria are something else. The closer the Arab Spring blooms to Israel, the greater our allergic reaction.

The great shame in all this is that American Jews, with their power, their voices and their skills can do much, much more to come to the aid of the Syrian rebels and help bring about the end of the Bashir Assad regime.

The most immediate thing we can do is tell our good friends Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to step up and act boldly. I don’t mean Iraq III.  I mean something closer to Kosovo II.

The parallel to Syria, as Fouad Ajami pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, is Bosnia. There another Clinton hesitated to use military action to thwart the murderous march of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But British Prime Minister Tony Blair steeled the American spine, and Clinton ordered a NATO air campaign against Serbia. Congress supported it — as I’m sure it would a concerted, well-planned action against Assad — and the paper tiger crumbled and ran away.

“We could, with some moral clarity,” writes Ajami, “recognize the Syrian National Council as the country’s legitimate government, impose a no-fly zone in the many besieged areas, help train and equip the Free Syrian Army, prompt Turkey to give greater support to defectors from Syrian units, and rally the wealthy Arab states to finance the effort.”

With some moral clarity. That’s the operative phrase here. Passover is a time of moral clarity. The Children of Israel were freed with “an outstretched hand,” the story goes, but with no guarantees of what happens next.

The realists among us warn that Syria, smack in the middle of every ethnic and religious tension in the Middle East, is better left to stew in its own juices. Israel doesn’t need the headache of another unstable nation on its border, with the possibility of an extremist Muslim takeover. 

But Syria is already unstable, and some of its most radical elements, like Hamas, given shelter by the Assad regime, have wisely departed, before being run out. 

The truth is, if we don’t help now, we may forfeit the ability to influence the direction of the coming crack-up.

“If the international community doesn’t arm them [the Syrian rebels] and provide logistical support, ‘everything’ the world fears from the fall of Assad will come to pass,” a Syrian rebel leader told Foreign Policy magazine.

“The people will get weapons, one way or another, so help us,” the leader said. “If you give us weapons, we can control them. We want the fall of the regime, not the fall of the state. If the international community helps us, we’ll help them. If it doesn’t, our people offer no guarantees.”

It sounds like a threat, but it’s really desperation. Nothing in the history of the Assad regime, father or son, can lead one to believe Syria will honor commitments to the current U.N. ceasefire efforts, or to the longer-term interests of its people. We who come together each year to celebrate the gift of freedom, the miracle of liberation, should know that better than anyone. Pharoahs can’t be persuaded. Pharoahs can only be beaten.

“There are risks to be run, no doubt,” concludes Ajami, “But at present we have only the shame of averting our eyes from Syrian massacres. If we act now, President Obama, when he pens his memoirs, could still claim vindication, or at least that he gave Homs and Hama and Deraa his best.”

The Syrian people have decided to outstretch their own hand — the question is whether we will reach out to grab it.

 

To send an e-mail to Secretary of State Clinton, click here.

Tunisia’s Jews keep wary eye on political developments


Tucked on a quiet side street blocks from the Mediterranean Sea, the last kosher restaurant in the Tunisian capital is a thriving center of Jewish tradition in a country of 10 million with nearly an entire Arab and Muslim population. Yet Jacob Lellouche, who has owned and operated Mamie Lily since it opened 16 years ago, says his business is hardly a Jewish bubble.

Most of his customers are Muslim, and on a recent Thursday night, the restaurant’s cozy dining room is dominated by a large party of Tunisians sipping boukha—a fig-based liquor that Tunisian Jews traditionally drink on the Sabbath—while chattering in Arabic and French. Lellouche says the guests are liberal activists who have come to the restaurant to draft a statement on freedom of speech in the aftermath of the revolution that toppled Zine Abdine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011.

“The civil society in Tunisia sustained the Jewish community of this country,” says Lellouche, explaining that relations between Tunisia’s educated and politically engaged citizens and the country’s 1,500 Jews have always been mutually beneficial. “As long as there are Jews in the world there will be Jews in Tunisia,” he says.

But more than a year after Tunisia became the first Arab country to overthrow its dictator through a popular, nonviolent uprising, two religion-inspired political movements are challenging Tunisia’s cosmopolitan political and social attitudes, and are threatening to reverse the country’s long-standing moderation toward Israel and the Jews.

Located just 80 miles off the coast of Sicily, Tunisia has been colonized by foreign powers from the Roman Empire to modern France. But unlike other countries with a long colonial history, Tunisia has historically been a place where Middle Eastern and European values and ideas have converged, reinforcing one another without causing conflict or social discord.

Educated Muslim Tunisians acknowledge that the Jews are a crucial part of this history.

“The Jews came to Tunis and developed commerce and trade here, and many came after they were expelled from Iberia,” says Abdel-Hamid Larguech, a history professor at Manoura University. “These were factors in how Tunisia became more cosmopolitan.”

Kedya Ben Saidane, who has researched the country’s Berber community, claims Berbers living in Tunisia first began practicing Judaism nearly 3,000 years ago.

Modern Tunisia has subsequently had a history of moderation on Israel-related issues. In 1965, Habib Bourguiba, the president from 1957 until 1987, caused a brief crisis in relations between Tunisia and several other Arab governments when he outlined a plan for recognizing Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Official diplomatic contact between Israel and Tunisia, established in 1996, lasted just four years, yet Tunisia does not take as hard line a position on the Jewish state as other Arab countries. 

“Tunisian Israelis come here with no problem at all,” says Rabbi Haim Bittan, the leader of the small Jewish community in Tunis, adding that travel to Israel is fairly routine for the country’s Jews. Tunisia is also one of the few Arab countries accessible to Israeli passport holders, despite the lack of official recognition.

Yet since Ben Ali’s ouster, there have been hints that Tunisia’s moderation—and its moderate position toward Israel—could be eroding.

In October, the Islamist Ennahda party won 43 percent of the vote in Tunisia’s first post-uprising parliamentary elections, putting an explicitly religious party in charge of a country with a long-standing secular and republican tradition.

Although Ennahda in late March officially dropped its demand for Islamic law in the country’s new constitution, many Tunisians still fear that the party could take the country in an uncomfortably radical direction.

Party co-founder Rached Ghannouchi has publicly praised the mothers of suicide bombers and spoken about “the extinction of Israel.” 

“Ennahda’s election favored the emergence of a new fundamentalist section of the society, the extremists,” Larguech says. “And the two enemies of the democratic revolution are populism and extremism.”

Ennahda confirmed moderates’ fears by proposing a constitutional ban on normalization of ties with Israel during a mock parliament held just after Ben Ali’s ouster. A year later there is almost no mainstream support for such a provision. Ennahda, which has proven responsive to the criticism from the country’s large secular-liberal wing, also now opposes the normalization ban.

Walid Bennani, vice president of Ennahda’s parliamentary contingent, says his party believes that peaceful relations with the Jewish state would be possible as soon as Israel makes peace with the Palestinians.

“The constitution is not the place to legislate relations between countries,” he says.

However, Ghannouchi said Sunday that there could be no normalization with Israel, according to the official TAP news agency. “Tunisians’ problem is with Zionism, not with Judaism,” he reportedly said.

Tunisia also has a growing and increasingly vocal Salafist movement. Tunisia’s Salafists are Islamic fundamentalists inspired by Saudi Arabia’s restrictive version of political Islam who felt oppressed by the secular, republican character of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. On March 23, Salafist protesters chanted anti-Semitic slogans in downtown Tunis, provoking a tense standoff with a group of artists gathered in front of Tunisia’s national theater.

Every major political party, including Ennahda, condemned the Salafists, whose chants included “death to the Jews.” A week later, Salafists called for a ban on normalization with Israel in a protest in front of the National Assembly building in Tunis.

So far, Tunisia’s moderate and secular political culture has kept the Salafists on the social and political fringes while frustrating Ennahda’s ambitions for an overtly Islamic constitution. And as far as the Jews are concerned, Tunisian moderation has endured during the transitional period.

In Tunis itself, Jewish life is more developed than in most other Arab capitals. Although only 500 Jews remain in the city, it boasts a Jewish school, a yeshiva and a kosher food service—as well as the Grande Synagogue de Tunis, a 1930s art-deco masterpiece still topped with a colossal, gilded Star of David. The southern island of Djerba has more than 350 students in Jewish schools, according to Bittan.

The post-revolutionary sense of openness has yielded one major gain for Tunisia’s Jewish community: After Ben Ali stepped down, Lellouche launched Dar el-Dekra (Arabic for “House of Memory”), which he describes as the first Tunisian organization aimed at celebrating and promoting the country’s Jewish heritage.

“Ben Ali used to instrumentalize the Jewish community,” Lellouche says. “Ben Ali wanted to say to France and America that the Jews live till now in Tunisia because he wants them to live here.”

With Ben Ali gone, there’s a new opportunity to develop Jewish life in Tunisia without contributing to the public image of a widely despised autocrat, says Lellouche, who also is planning a Jewish museum.

Still, he remains wary.

“The Salafists have now chanted ‘death to the Jews’ during their marches three times,” Lellouche says. “The first two times they were talking about Zionists. But I think the third time they were talking about the Jews themselves.”

Tunisian officials decry anti-Semitic chants at rally


Tunisia’s Religious Affairs Ministry condemned anti-Semitic epithets shouted at a rally in Tunis calling for the imposition of Islamic law in the country’s new constitution.

“The call to fight against the Jews is absurd,” the ministry said in a statement issued Tuesday, according to the French news agency AFP. “The ministry rejects this attack against all Tunisian citizens. Tunisian Jews are full citizens.”

A new constitution is being drafted for the country, which has a population of 10 million, mostly Muslims. About 1,500 Jews reportedly live in Tunisia.

The rally Sunday held by radical Islamist Salafists called for the imposition of Shariah, or Islamic law, over all of the country’s legislation. In the Oct. 24 elections in Tunisia, the relatively moderate Islamist Ennahda Party won 90 seats, making it the largest bloc in the 217-member assembly.

Several of Tunisia’s political parties also denounced the attacks on the Jewish community, according to AFP.

The leftist Ettajdid party in a statement Tuesday condemned “the calls to violence, hatred and even murder from fanatical Salafi groups that have again targeted citizens of the Jewish faith,” AFP reported.

Roger Bismuth, president of Tunisia’s Jewish community, met Tuesday with Tunisian Constituent Assembly Speaker Mustapha Ben Jafar, who reportedly condemned the verbal attacks and called for their end.

Bismuth reportedly has threatened to sue a Salafist preacher who during Sunday’s demonstration shouted “young people rise up, let’s wage a war against the Jews” to cheers from the crowd.

Tunisian pizza


There’s a concept in the Persian language – ghessmat – for which no exact equivalent exists in English. It refers to a person’s unrelenting, inescapable, for better or worse but either way, it was designed and executed specifically for you, destiny.

Like when you miss your flight because the cab got a flat tire, then the plane you were supposed to be on crashes in the Atlantic Ocean. Or when you work a lifetime and hide all your money in your mattress because you don’t trust the banks, then the mattress catches fire and burns to ashes. Or, more immediately in my experience, when you resist eating at kosher dairy restaurants for 30 years because the food gives you heartburn, only to end up in a place at Pico and Bedford on a Wednesday night, eating pizza with cheese, fried egg, and tuna, and living to rave about it.

My mother has been recommending this place – 26 by Shiloh’s – for a year already. She talks about it like it’s Perino’s come back to life in Pico-Robertson, and maybe I’ve been living under a rock, but all I’ve ever seen of kosher dairy is Greek Salad (I make it better myself), humus (they sell a nonfat version at Trader Joe’s), and pizza with a thick, greasy crust and too much cheese. My mother is a very talented artist with an intensely accurate intuition – she dreamt JFK was lying with his head in a pool of blood two days before he was assassinated – but she tends to have one or two blind spots for the people she loves, her entire, very extended, very international family among them. You want to achieve sainthood in under three minutes? Be born or marry into the Merage family, and my mother will see to it that you’re fast-tracked ahead of Mother Teresa.

In this case, one of the owners, Geoffrey Ghanem, is related to her by marriage. Geoffrey is a French Jew who met his wife, Debbie, on the boardwalk in Eilat. They were both 21. He didn’t speak English; Debbie didn’t speak French. Debbie’s parents are Iranians who met and married strictly because of ghessmat: In 1972, Debbie’s mother, Shana, broke up with her fiance the morning of the wedding because she “didn’t know the guy well enough and didn’t want to get to know him anymore.” To escape the heat, she left Tehran to spend a couple of months with her sister in New York. If ever she got married, she told her sister, it was going to be after a long, long, courtship.

One snowy afternoon, an old friend of her sister’s came to visit. The friend had a brother, Ray, who had lived in Pasadena since he was 17, coming to the United States alone and with no money. He slept in a church or at the YMCA, started to work as a busboy at Manny’s Cafeteria in Pasadena; three years later, he was managing eight Denny’s restaurants, but he lost his job because one of chefs left the stove on when they locked up for the night. In the morning, the place had burned to the ground and Ray was told he should think about a career change. He went into banking. In 1972, he was engaged to the daughter of Pasadena’s chief of police when they decided they had rushed into something prematurely and broke off the engagement.

Ray and Shana met on a Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday of the following week, they went to City Hall in New York and got married.

Some 30 years later, their daughter Debbie met Geoffrey on a Wednesday afternoon in Eilat. She didn’t want to live anywhere except in Los Angeles; he had always known that he would live anywhere but Los Angeles. He proposed after a week and followed Debbie to L.A. to work in real estate; instead, he and Debbie opened two restaurants. They’re still happily married and raising 5-year-old twins and 3-year-old triplets. That, too, is ghessmat.

My mother is so fond of the twins and the triplets, she has their pictures framed and displayed all over her house. That’s very sweet, I think, but it does make her recommendation of 26 a little suspect. As far as I know, in Los Angeles you’re lucky if you get a plate with your slice of pizza; you want a tableside flambe and French and Italian tapas? Go to France and Italy. Then again, you can only withstand a force of nature for so long before you have to relent, and that’s how I finally ended up at 26 on a Wednesday night during its grand reopening, and I have to say, I was a little stunned by the elegance and beauty of the restaurant’s interior; it looks like it should be in the meat packing district of Manhattan instead of in Pico-Robertson, down the street from the kosher fish stores and Iranian grocery stores and all those other shops that could stand a few coats of paint and some major renovation.

That already makes it an anomaly. So does “sea bass with pomegranate sauce” and “baked fig with a cheese crust” and, yes, “Tunisian pizza” with fried egg and tuna. I order this last one only because I want to see what it looks like, but then the food arrives, and it’s all very good and not expensive. And then the chef comes out to talk to us about his “concept” of “Western European cuisine” with “essence of international flavor,” and “natural, seasonal, market-fresh items,” and how he was the executive chef at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland and later at the Carlton in Cannes.

All this is great and wonderful and, for someone who has underestimated the potential of kosher dairy for so long, rather humbling, but what are the chances, I’d like to know, that two Iranian Jews would both leave fiances at the altar, meet and marry in three days against all reason and live happily ever after, have a child in Pasadena who will meet and marry a French boy in Israel after a week when neither of them even speaks the other’s language, come back with him to Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, have a set of twins and a set of triplets, and open a restaurant that serves pizza with fried egg and tuna that — I kid you not — is delicious?

Tunisian president calls on Jews to return


The interim president of Tunisia called for its Jews to return, although it was not clear if he was reflecting the Islamist-led coalition.

President Moncef Marzouki met Monday with Haim Bittan, the chief rabbi to the country’s remaining 1,500 Jews, The Associated Press reported.

Under Tunisia’s previous constitution, the president held strong executive powers. Marzouki, who was elected last week by the first parliament to be chosen in free elections in decades, was picked more for his symbolic status as a longtime human rights campaigner, and it does not seem as if he would have strong executive powers.

The Islamist-led coalition has yet to begin governing formally, but its leadership has said Tunisian Jews will have equal rights.

Approximately 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia before a broad North African exodus following the 1967 Six-Day War. Many of those who left went to Israel.

Is Syria next?


Tunisia condemns Israeli assistance offer to its Jews


Tunisia’s government condemned an Israeli government decision to offer extra financial assistance to Tunisian Jews wishing to immigrate to Israel.

The approval of the new program amounts to interference in Tunisia’s domestic affairs and “an attempt by Israel to tarnish the post-revolutionary image of Tunisia,” Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, the Associated Press reported.

Under the plan approved at a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Tunisian immigrants will receive special financial assistance of more than $9,000 in addition to the usual aid provided to new immigrants.

“We know that there is real distress among the Jews of Tunisia, many of whom would like to immigrate to Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the meeting. “We will increase the absorption basket in order to allow them to do so.

“Israel is the state of the Jews. It worries about Jews wherever they are—those who are here and those who would like to come here.”

Minister Sofa Landver said, “The Government of Israel must see to the needs of new immigrants who arrive here hastily from Tunisia, without sufficient advance preparation like other immigrants. This proposal, which was formulated along with the Jewish Agency, is designed to ease, and answer, the difficulties for the families that, given the sensitive situation, decided to come here.”

About 1,500 Jews are living in Tunisia. Some 1,100 live in Djerba, with the rest in the capital city of Tunis.

Ten Tunisian Jews made aliyah to Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency in late January amid political upheaval and violence that led to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zein el-Abbadin Bin Ali.

First Tunisia, then Egypt: Which Mideast autocracy will be next to fall?


With popular uprisings having toppled two Arab dictators in the space of just a few weeks and unrest reverberating across the Middle East, are other regimes likely to fall, too?

Nearly everywhere in the region, autocratic leaders seem to be on the defensive. Using carrots or sticks, and sometimes both, they’re struggling to curb growing protest movements.

In Jordan two weeks ago, amid spreading protests, King Abdullah II dismissed his prime minister and Cabinet, promising reforms. In the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, police countered protesters’ “Day of Rage” this week with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the king tried to defuse opposition by promising a $2,650 payment of “appreciation” to every Bahraini family. In Kuwait, too, the ruling emir announced cash grants to every citizen.

In Iran this week, government forces used violence to block demonstrators from massing in main squares, despite Tehran’s rhetorical support for the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In Yemen and Algeria, protesters and police battled in the streets. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would hold long-overdue parliamentary and presidential elections by September, and this week the PA prime minister dismissed his Cabinet.

Long a mostly impotent force in Arab politics, the Arab street suddenly has discovered its power, and it’s ushering in change from Tunis to Amman—not to mention fraying nerves in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Activists in other countries are trying to use the example of Egypt and Tunisia to mobilize large numbers of people to the streets,” said David Siddhartha Patel, a political scientist at Cornell University.

Despite the spreading protests, experts cautioned against predicting the collapse of additional regimes. While the Arab street has drawn lessons from Egypt and Tunisia, so have their autocratic rulers.

“Will people demonstrate and protest? Yes,” said Barry Rubin, an Israeli scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center’s program of Global Research in International Affairs. “Will people overthrow governments? I think the answer is no.”

In Israel, the sudden change in Egypt has ignited a sharp debate along partisan lines about lessons to be learned and the efficacy of peacemaking with the Arab world.

“The right wing says you cannot really negotiate agreements with Arabs because the agreements will not be kept because their states are not stable,” said retired Israeli Brig.-Gen Shlomo Brom, an expert on Arab politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The left will say, the lesson is that because of the instability of the Middle East, we should be interested in minimizing friction between us and the Arab world by having ongoing negotiations for peace.”

The calculus for every country is different, and the elements that made for the success of Egypt’s uprising were a uniquely combustible combination that may not transfer elsewhere.

High unemployment, a yawning rich-poor gap, widespread government corruption and deteriorating quality-of-life metrics made Hosni Mubarak almost universally despised in his country, uniting Islamists and secularists in opposition. Egypt faced a looming succession crisis that undermined the legitimacy of the 82-year-old president, who wanted to hand over power to his son, Gamal.

Once the protests began in earnest, Egypt’s government, which receives $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid, was subject to American pressure on how to confront the demonstrators. Perhaps most significant, the Egyptian army opted to side with the protesters over the regime, declining to use violence against the people and essentially turning what had begun as a popular uprising into a military coup.

That stands in stark contrast to Iran, which put down mass protests a year-and-a-half ago following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The key state security forces did the government’s bidding at the time, and with gusto: They beat and shot demonstrators, jailed dissenters and executed organizers.

This time, the regime is making sure that mass protests never materialize by choking off main arteries leading to central squares, deploying hundreds of riot officers and banning marches in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Already pariahs in the West, Tehran’s rulers have little to hold them back from unleashing the full might of their security apparatus to stay in power.

“The Iranian regime acted decisively early on, using security forces ruthlessly against the opposition, unlike Mubarak who hesitated and vacillated,” said Manochehr Dorraj, an Iran expert at Texas Christian University. “In Iran, the use of the security forces put shivers in the heart of the demonstrators who knew that they might be killed or executed. And because Iran has oil and gas reserves, it could afford to act autonomously and ignore public opinion and take that defiant posture.”

Likewise in Syria, the state security services moved firmly to stifle budding protests, scaring potential opponents into submission through arrests, intimidation and a zero-tolerance policy even for small protest gatherings. Furthermore, the broad popular discontent that fueled the Egyptian protests is less salient in Syria, where quality-of-life measures have improved in recent years under Bashar Assad.

Syria and Iran have another card to play when it comes to staunching opposition.

“Their anti-U.S. and anti-Israel posture lends them the claim that whoever rises against them are agents of the U.S. and Israel,” Dorraj said. “This was not available to Mubarak.”

Algeria in many ways looks similar to Egypt, with broad disaffection for the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, youth-led protests gaining steam and widespread strikes. But Algeria’s army is unlikely to side with the people against the regime, many analysts say. The same goes for Algeria’s neighbor to the east, Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya, where dissidents called for a protest to take place Thursday in Tripoli.

Jordan, the only Arab country besides Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel, is seen to be in a more vulnerable position. Its ruler hails from a minority group in a country whose population is mostly Palestinian. In recent weeks, even the native Jordanian tribes in the minority that comprise the king’s traditional power base went public with charges of corruption against Abdullah’s wife, Queen Rania. Also, the painful domestic effects of the global economic crisis have increased popular discontent in Jordan.

As protests—a recurring presence in the kingdom—gained steam following the unrest in Egypt, Abdullah moved quickly to announce political reforms, firing his government and installing a new, conservative Cabinet designed to placate Jordan’s powerful tribes. The moves, and the king’s relative popularity compared with Mubarak in Egypt, weigh in Abdullah’s favor.

“Here we see a difference between Jordan on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other: Jordan made some concessions, where the governments of Iran and Syria will not give an inch,” Rubin observed.

“In Jordan, it’s different from Egypt and Tunisia—everybody likes the king,” Faisal Al-Rfouh, a former Jordanian culture minister and now a professor of political science at the University of Jordan, told JTA in an interview from Amman.

“There is no problem with the king, but with the corrupted government and corrupted people,” Al-Rfouh said. “We need to change from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy under the leadership of His Majesty the King.”

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country most vulnerable to revolution is Yemen, which like Mubarak’s Egypt is plagued by high poverty, unemployment, discontent with the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and, until a few days ago, a looming succession crisis.

Saleh has tried to use both sticks and carrots to quell protests, dispatching his security forces to put down protests while offering a host of concessions, including a pledge to relinquish power in 2013 and not install his son as successor.

Long ravaged by internal conflicts, Yemen is seen as a key front in the war against al-Qaeda and terrorism. If Saleh goes, it’s not clear that Yemen’s government will remain allied with the West against Islamic extremism.

The future of Yemen, like so much in the Middle East, remains uncertain.

“There is one lesson we can learn from the Tunisian and Egyptian cases,” Brom said. “That is that nobody is immune and there are strong limitations to our ability to make forecasts.”

Tunisia Jewish leader meets interim PM over safety concerns


Tunisia’s Jewish community is concerned for its security in the wake of anti-Jewish protests outside of the capital’s main synagogue, a community leader said.

The head of the Tunisian Jewish community, Roger Bismuth, met over the weekend with the country’s interim prime minister, Mohammed Ghanoucci, and requested better security for the country’s 1,500 Jews, the French news agency AFP reported.

On Feb. 11, dozens of Muslim demonstrators gathered in front of the main synagogue in the capital, Tunis, and chanted anti-Jewish epithets.

Last month, amid the political upheaval and violence in the African nation that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian military deployed forces specifically charged with protecting the Jewish community on the southern island of Djerba and elsewhere. The interim government reportedly is working to stabilize the country.

Among the Jews in Tunisia, 1,100 are living in Djerba and the rest in Tunis.

Tunisian synagogue attack disputed


A Tunisian synagogue was not the target of arsonists, a Jewish leader asserted, contradicting another leader.

Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi on Tuesday told the French news agency AFP that the synagogue in the southern Gabes region was burned Monday night by arsonists; he said the Torah scrolls were damaged in the fire.

“I condemn this action and I believe those who did it want to create divisions between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia who have lived for decades in peace,” Trabelsi later told Reuters.

But late Tuesday, Roger Bismuth, the president of the Jewish community in Tunisia, told The Jerusalem Post that the fire was likely vandalism, and that the synagogue is actually a room used for worship that was unlocked at the time of the attack.

Trabelsi is the head of the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Al-Qaida terrorists bombed the synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people, including 16 tourists.

The Tunis-Afrique-Press news agency on Wednesday quoted Trabelsi as saying that he could not confirm that the synagogue room had been set on fire, denying his earlier statements to AFP.  He told the news agency that he would send volunteers to the scene to investigate what happened.

Ten Tunisian Jews made aliyah to Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency in late January amid political upheaval and violence in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of President Zein el-Abbadin Bin Ali.

About 1,500 Jews are living in Tunisia. Some 1,100 Tunisian Jews live in Djerba, with the rest in the capital city of Tunis.

Arsonists strike Tunisian synagogue


The Torah scrolls at a Tunisian synagogue were burned in a fire reportedly set by arsonists.

The synagogue in the southern Gabes region was set ablaze Monday night. Jewish community leader Perez Trabelsi told the French news agency AFP about the scrolls and criticized police for not stopping the attack.

“I condemn this action and I believe those who did it want to create divisions between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia who have lived for decades in peace,” Trabelsi told Reuters.

Trabelsi is the head of the Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. Al-Qaida terrorists bombed the synagogue in 2002, killing 21 people, including 16 tourists.

Ten Tunisian Jews made aliyah to Israel with the help of the Jewish Agency in late January amid political upheaval and violence in Tunisia that led to the overthrow of President Zein el-Abbadin Bin Ali.

About 1,500 Jews are living in Tunisia. Some 1,100 Tunisian Jews live in Djerba, with the rest in the capital city of Tunis.

Egyptian protestors call for more rallies


Egyptian activists urged protestors to take to the streets for a second day of anti-government rallies.

Wednesday’s protests come a day after three activists and one policeman were killed and more than 100 security personnel injured in anti-government rallies across the country.

The rallies were largely organized using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, according to reports. They were inspired by the popular uprising in nearby Tunisia, which led to the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who then fled the country.

Tuesday’s demonstrations in several Egyptian cities, including the capital Cairo, called for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for the last 30 years.

Among the protestors’ demands are an end to a long-standing state of emergency, a rise in minimum wages and the resignation of the interior minister. They expressed anger at the rising cost of living and the government’s failed economic policies, as well as government corruption.

While the Egyptian Interior Ministry said Tuesday that its security forces were only on hand to secure the demonstrations and not confront the protestors, it later blamed members of the Muslim Brotherhood for the rioting, the damaging of public property and assaults on police. On Wednesday it banned further demonstrations.

Mubarak has been a reliable ally of the United States since assuming the presidency three decades ago.

“The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper,” the White House said Tuesday in a statement.

In the days leading up to the protests, more than 90,000 people indicated that they would participate by signing up on a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” the New York Times reported.

Mubarak, then Egypt’s vice-president, became president in 1981, following the assassination by Islamists of President Anwar Sadat.

Amid crisis and violence, Tunisian Jews safe but guarded


The violence roiling Tunisia hasn’t put the country’s 1,500 or so Jews in serious jeopardy, but Jewish organizations are increasingly concerned about their fate as massive anti-government protests continue.

No Jews have been targeted by the protesters, according to Roger Bismuth, a Jewish businessman and member of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend following violent protests by mostly unemployed young men venting their anger at Ben Ali and his wealthy cronies.

On Tuesday, the North African country’s interim prime minister and president, Mohamed Ghannouchi and Fouad Mebazaa, both resigned from what had been the country’s ruling party.

“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.”

Asked about Ben Ali, often described by the local Jewish community as a protector of Tunisia’s Jews, Bismuth sounded a new tone.

“He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth said. “He and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, described the Tunisian government of Ben Ali as a “corrupt and kleptocratic dictatorship.”

About 1,000 Jews, the majority of Tunisia’s Jewish community, live on the island of Djerba, where Jews have maintained a historical presence for more than 2,000 years. Another 400 Jews live in Tunis, the capital, with much smaller communities in Zarzis, Sfax and Sousse.

The country’s population of 9.5 million is nearly all Muslims. Islam is the state religion of Tunisia, which sits on the Mediterranean coast between Algeria and Libya just south of Italy.

In 2002, a terrorist attack on the El-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba involving a truck bomb killed 21 tourists, mostly Germans. Al-Qaida took responsibility for the bombing.

Judy Amit, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s regional director for Africa and Asia, said her organization has been in daily contact with Tunisian Jewish leaders throughout the crisis.

“Ever since the rioting erupted there, we’ve been in close contact with members of the community,” said Amit, speaking in an interview from Israel. “It’s an economic protest with local grievances related to high unemployment and high food prices. There’s been no violence against the Jewish community, and no Jews or Jewish institutions have been targeted.”

Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, noted that “Jews have been part of the fabric of Tunisian life for more than 2,000 years, since well before the Arab conquest.”

Yet Isaacson, who visited Tunisia last month, warned that things could quickly change for the worse.

“My concern is that if the situation is not stabilized, there could be further instability and create a breeding ground for extremism,” he said. “That’s not been a part of the equation, but it could happen if the enormous damage done first by Ben Ali and second by the riots is not compensated by a very serious international infusion of outside assistance.”

As of Tuesday, some 78 people have been killed, with economic losses estimated at $2.2 billion—equivalent to about 4 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. Schools and universities have been shut down as a precaution against violence and vandalism by protesters, including the Chabad school in downtown Tunis.

Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC’s country director for Tunisia, said his main concern is for the 100 Jews of Zarzis, who live in a two-square-block area just off the town center. Four non-Jewish civilians were killed during protests there late last week, and a Jewish shop was among the many looted.

Bar-Chaim said that until a few days ago, this self-imposed “ghetto without walls” was carefully guarded by police. But the police have “simply disappeared from the streets of Zarzis and the army presence there is basically a passive one,” he reported.

“The police have reportedly disappeared in many places throughout Tunisia,” though a heavy police presence continues to guard the Grand Synagogue of Tunis and the central building of the Jewish community, he said.

Isaacson, who has been speaking by phone daily to Bismuth and other Tunisian Jewish leaders since the crisis began, said that “It’s generally a secular uprising directed at the regime’s corruption and economic stagnation and a general desire for freedom, especially in the last few days as unrest has continued.”

Sharansky warned of an “ever-present possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment leading to violence” in the cities where Jews live and work.

“Before the revolt, Ben Ali had a tolerant attitude towards the Jewish community,” he wrote. “Until the revolt there was no blatant anti-Semitism. However, an uncomfortable relationship between the Jewish community and the Arab population exists.”

Tunisia: the first Arab revolution


Every July 23 for the past 58 years, Egypt, my country of birth, has celebrated its “July revolution” that overthrew King Farouk and ended the monarchy and British occupation once and for all. It was no revolution: It was a coup staged by young army officers.

And so it has been with a series of “revolutions” around the Arab world in which a succession of military men went on to lead us in civilian clothes — some kept the olive drabs on — and rob generations of the real meaning of revolution. For years I looked at the Iranians with envy — not at the outcome of their 1979 revolution, but because it was a popular uprising, not a euphemism for a coup.

So you’ll understand why, along with millions of other Arabs, I’ll forever cherish Jan. 14, 2011 — the day Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, his 23-year rule toppled by 29 days of a popular uprising. A real revolution for a change.

It’s the first time Arabs have toppled one of their dictators, so you’ll understand why, despite the reports of chaos, looting and a musical chairs of caretaker leaders, I’m still celebrating. Let’s have no whining about how those thousands of pesky Tunisians who risked their lives to face down a despot ruined the idyllic package-holiday-in-a-police-state for so many European tourists.

The equations circling Tunisia right now are very clear: We have no idea who or what kind of coalition of leaders will emerge, but there is no doubt who’s rooting for the failure of this revolution: every Arab leader who has spent the past month watching Tunisia in fear. You can be sure the region’s dictators are on their knees right now praying for chaos and collapse for Tunisia.

Some Arab countries have simply ignored what happened: no official statement from Algeria or Morocco. Others said they respect the wish of Tunisians but filled their state-owned media with reminders that they weren’t anything like Tunisia: Egypt.

Leave it to Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest-serving dictator, to best portray that panic. Addressing a nation where thousands had faced down the bullets of Ben Ali’s security to protest unemployment, police brutality and the corruption of the regime, Gaddafi told Tunisians they were now suffering bloodshed and lawlessness because they were too hasty in getting rid of Ben Ali.

If every Arab leader has watched Tunisia in fear, then every Arab citizen has watched in hope because it was neither Islamists — long used by our leaders to scare many into acquiescence — nor foreign troops that toppled the dictator: It was ordinary and very fed up people.

Tunisians must remember that during these days of chaos. We’re hearing reports that neighborhood watch committees have sprung up to protect against looting and violence, which many blame on Ben Ali’s loyalists.

Interestingly, both Western observers and Gaddafi have been crediting WikiLeaks but for different reasons. By buying into the idea that leaked U.S. embassy cables about corruption “fueled” the revolution, commentators smear Tunisians with ignorance of facts and perpetuate the myth that Arabs are incapable of rising up against dictators. Gaddafi railed against WikiLeaks because he, too, wants to blame something other than the power of the people — and cables from Tripoli portray him as a Botox-using neurotic inseparable from a “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse.

Gaddafi’s Libya has had its own protests over the past few days. Nothing on the scale of Tunisia, but enough that his speech to Tunisians could be summarized thus: I am scared witless by what happened in your country.

That’s why I insist we stop and appreciate Tunisia: Relish the revolution that is not a euphemism for a coup.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. This essay originally appeared in The Guardian and is reprinted with permission of the author.

In Tunisia, Jews enjoy stability, but not democracy


To the east is Libya, a vast desert nation, where not a single Jew remains from the forced exodus that followed Israel’s founding in 1948.

To the west is Algeria, a bloodstained country that once boasted 140,000 Jews and today is home to barely 100.

Squeezed between these two oil-rich giants is Tunisia, a Wisconsin-sized oasis of tranquility that safeguards its 1,500 Jews, foots the bill to restore old synagogues and even welcomes Israeli tourists — despite the lack of diplomatic relations between Tunis and Jerusalem and Tunisia’s history as PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s home during the 1980s.

In many ways, Tunisia is distinct in the Arab world.

The country is home to the Arab world’s only Jewish legislator, an 81-year-old senator who also is president of Tunisia’s Jewish community. In November, World ORT returned to the country after a 35-year absence, inaugurating a computer laboratory and IT center at the Chabad School of Tunis at a ceremony attended by Education Ministry officials.

And despite the absence of diplomatic ties with Israel, in 2005 an Israeli delegation that came to a U.N.-sponsored telecommunications conference in Tunis was headed by Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom, at the time Israel’s foreign minister.

But stability in Tunisia — for its Jews and for the country as a whole — has come at a price, analysts say: democratic rights.

“Unfortunately, Tunisia is a long way from democracy,” said Nejib Ayachi, founder and president of the Maghreb Center, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on North Africa. “They keep saying they’re working on it, but I personally believe that institutions and the rule of law should come first, before establishing a democratic system that works effectively.”

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has been in power since ousting the ailing Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987.

Though Tunisia has held several presidential elections, few take them seriously. In 1999, Ben Ali’s party won 99.66 percent of the vote. In 2004 he officially won 94.48 percent of the vote after a constitutional change two years earlier enabled him to seek re-election.

But supporters point out that under Ben Ali’s rule, Tunisia has been able to develop one of the highest levels of literacy in the Arab world, as well as one of its lowest rates of infant mortality and unemployment.

Roger Bismuth, the Jewish member of Tunisia’s Chamber of Deputies, credits the 71-year-old president for keeping Tunisia on a moderate course, promoting education and protecting Tunisian Jews from the chaos and religious extremism enveloping much of North Africa.

“The president is good to us,” Bismuth said, adding, “We are very careful. Our security is very tight, even if you don’t see it.”

“There is a national consensus around Ben Ali,” Mohamed Nejib Hachana, Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States said in an interview. “He is the savior of Tunisia, and he’s putting our country on the right track in this very risky and difficult moment. He is deadly serious about democracy and pluralism.”

The threat of Islamic terrorists groups like Al Qaeda has given Arab dictatorships a handy excuse to crack down on civil liberties, even in monarchies where there’s been some nominal movement toward democracy, such as Jordan and Morocco, says Abdeslam Maghraoui, a North Africa expert and visiting associate professor at Duke University.

“The regimes are dealing with this threat in a very efficient way,” said Maghraoui, who is also the former director of the Muslim World Initiative at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “However, they’re clamping down on civil liberties, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Democracy may actually be suffering because of this.”

Experts say terrorist activity is on the rise throughout North Africa’s Maghreb, a region that encompasses Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.

Last month, twin car bombs in Algeria devastated a government building and the U.N. headquarters in the capital city, Algiers, killing more than 50. Also last month, a French family of four vacationing in Mauritania was gunned down.

Both attacks are believed to be the work of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a terrorist group increasingly active in North Africa.

The last serious attack in Tunisia took place in 2002, when Al Qaeda agents attempted to bomb North Africa’s oldest shul, Djerba’s Ghriba Synagogue. The truck bombing didn’t damage the synagogue, but it killed 21, most of them German tourists, and scared away visitors for several years.

“They wanted to shut down the tourist industry, and in fact they did,” Bismuth said. “And in December 2006 we had some more incidents, which were definitely traced to Al Qaeda.”

Bismuth visited Washington in November to meet with Jewish members of Congress and to lobby for U.S. help in Tunisia’s battle against extremists.

Although it is far removed from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Tunisia commands respect in the region both for having hosted both the Arab League — after the organization pulled out of Cairo following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — and the PLO, which operated out of Tunis from 1982 to 1993.

Hachana said Tunisia was instrumental in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together, despite an Israeli attack on the PLO’s Tunis headquarters in 1985.

“Tunisia played a very constructive and positive role in the Middle East peace process,” the ambassador said. “The first dialogue between the Palestinians and Americans was in Tunis. This was followed by the first official dialogue between the PLO and Israel.”

Those two dialogues, he said, gave birth to the Oslo peace agreement and the historic 1993 summit between Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Yet unlike Egypt and Jordan, Tunisia has not formally recognized the State of Israel.

“It all depends on the peace process,” Hachana said. “Tunisia has said very clearly that when there’s progress on this issue, Tunisia will react favorably on the normalization of relations with Israel.

“But we must see tangible progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track: a sovereign state of Palestine living side by side with Israel. The main issue is still not solved.”