Mosque & State: Tunisia's Moderate Islamist Party Is Favored In Next Month's Vote

Tunisia's Nahda party is working to improve its image amongst foreigners and skeptical secularist voters. But it does not renounce its desire for a democracy based on Islamic values.

Rashid Al-Ghannushi, leader of Islamist Nahda party, on the right(Magharebia)
Rashid Al-Ghannushi, leader of Islamist Nahda party, on the right(Magharebia)
Julie Gommes

TUNIS – At a meeting last week, Tunisia's moderate Islamist party Nahda (Renaissance) outlined its policy proposals for next month's parliamentary elections. Simultaneous translation headphones, staff hired specifically to answer every foreign journalists' whim: everything was aimed at improving the party's image, as Tunisians voters prepare to vote next month. Indeed, Nahda is leading in the polls.

The party's program, a mix of Turkey's market-oriented Islamism and more traditional values, included such measures as economic reform, a new union of Arab countries and the reduction of women's weekly working hours, so that they can "devote more time to their families."

The gathering opened with the assembly chanting verses from the Koran and every speech began with "In the name of Allah, most Gracious, most Merciful." This probably won't improve the party's image in Tunis, a city that is increasingly Europeanized. But Nahda knows that it's in villages that it will win seats for the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the program underlines the importance of fishing and farming, but also stresses the need to raise low salaries and give more to poor families.

Besides outlining the party's program, Nadha also wanted to emphasize its modernity: "Islamists have always been misunderstood. We only want to keep the most objective principles, like peace and science. Religion is between you and God," confessed Mondher Ounissi, a doctor. Supporters have mastered a well-oiled speech. It is impossible to find out where the campaign funds come from or what kind of society the party has in mind.

Nahda's president, Rashid Al-Ghannushi, learned the lessons of the revolution and now advocates "a participative society, a market-oriented economy supported by a new social contract." He says he wants to build "a democratic regime based on the values of Islam." Tunisians may be in for the long haul as there have been repeated talks of "extending the planned two presidential terms."

In the streets of Tunis, these ideas aren't welcome - especially among the youth: "If I wanted to invite a female friend to a flat I share with friends, she wouldn't be able to stay overnight. The whole neighborhood would start gossiping. She'd be in trouble," a very young supporter confessed, even though he said he couldn't see himself anywhere but among Islamists in the future. "It's a fairer society. Some complain about order and restrictions, but what we're looking for is dignity."

Not a word about headscarves

Riding the wave of fashionable themes – an independent judiciary system, a strong cooperation between the people and the state and above all, creating about 600,000 jobs – Nahda wants to create an Arab Maghreb Union to challenge the Union for the Mediterranean when it comes to dealing with Europe. The same goes for the economy: a "common North African market with our Libyan and Egyptian brothers," coupled with investments that would contribute to "GDP growth."

There was, however, no word on the Islamic headscarf or on polygamy (Tunisia is the region's only country where men are allowed to marry only one woman). Rashid Al-Ghannushi only mentioned the decline in the number of divorces as a result of the decision to reduce women's weekly working hours.

And finally, when asked about what kind of relationship he would want between Tunisia and Europe, the Islamist leader avoids any commitment and speaks of "respecting treaties' and "getting involved in the long-term." Nothing new, then, except an impressive U-turn in terms of communication, one month before the elections.

Read the original story in French

Photo - Magharebia

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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