TUNIS – Dorra Bouzid is elated as she faces the slogan-chanting crowd. “It’s the first time I’ve seen an audience at such a fever pitch,” says this emblematic journalist, who wrote the first feminist column in 1955. She feels validated in her opinion: “I’m from the generation that built independence, I’ve always believed in my country,” she says. “This time again, we won’t be pushed around.”
Several thousand people gathered last Monday night in Tunis and other cities after breaking the Ramadan fast, to defend women’s rights, answering the call of opposition parties, feminist associations and human rights activists. It was one of the largest mobilizations since the Islamist Ennahda party came to power. Their “project of a society that discriminates against women is now out in the open,” says Saïda Garrach, one of the leaders of the Democratic Women’s Association (ATFD).
“The last straw,” according to Mrs. Garrach, was the adoption at the beginning of August of a draft law put forth by Ennahda. Article 28 of the new draft constitution states that “The state protects women’s rights and gains based on the principle that they complement the man in the family and are associates to men in the development of country.” “We want gender equality, period,” opposition representative Maya Jribi told the audience.
The protest wasn’t planned on this day by coincidence: on Aug. 13, a bank holiday, Tunisia celebrates the 1956 promulgation of the Personal Status Code (CSP). It was a pioneer law at the time, unprecedented in the Arab world, which abolished polygamy and repudiation, even though it still maintained gender inequality through inheritance rights and the authority of the father over the whole family.
Many Tunisians, attached to the modernist impulse of Habib Bourguiba, father of the independence, say Article 28 opens a breach in the CSP and that it “threatens our model,” as explained by demonstrator Naïma Rekik. The crowd of protesters issued a warning: “Jebali the Ennahda Prime Minister, forget it, the Tunisian woman is too strong for you,” they chant.
Going back in time
Nothing is definitive yet. Each article of the draft constitution still has to be discussed and adopted in a plenary session by a two-thirds majority. Also, the future preamble, voted unanimously, enshrines “fairness and equality of rights and duties between all citizens.”
Faced with the controversy, Ennahda defended its vision of family relations but rejected the notion that they wanted to go back in time. “The question of equality was settled a long time ago in Tunisia, it is even mentioned in the Koran,” said the Prime Minister in a television address on Monday, saying that the issue was being exploited for political ends.
But women’s rights aren’t the only grounds for worry and disgruntlement: inflation, unemployment, insecurity, dirty streets and water shortages are affecting the country on unprecedented levels this summer, angering many Tunisians. On Monday, after repeated protests, Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the revolution – was on a general strike. To quell the rumbling discontent, the Islamists announced a cabinet reshuffle, which should take place after the end of the Ramadan.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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