x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tunisian turmoil sparks tide of concern

Unusually blunt statement by head of the Arab League is echoed by region's parliamentarians at gathering in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // The continuing crisis in Tunisia sparked extraordinarily frank statements from regional leaders at summits in Egypt and Abu Dhabi yesterday.

"The Arab soul is broken by poverty, unemployment and general recession," Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, said at a 22-nation meeting of the region's economic bloc in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh.

"The Arab citizen is in an unprecedented state of anger and frustration," Mr Moussa said.

The Arab world, he concluded, was in need of a renaissance.

His call was echoed by leading Arab and Muslim parliamentarians who are gathered in Abu Dhabi this week under the umbrella of the Parliamentary Union of Islamic Countries (PUIC).

The parliamentarians said the Arab and Muslim world must enact political and democratic reforms or risk a repeat of the "Tunisia scenario" of popular uprising.

"Political reform is something that has to happen," said Yousef al Neaimi, an FNC member from Ras al Khaimah who is the head of the UAE delegation at the parliamentary summit. "This is a spark."

Demonstrators in Tunisia capped four weeks of protests with the overthrow of President Zine al Abidine ben Ali, who fled the country over the weekend to Saudi Arabia.

Though rising food prices might have sparked the uprising, the underlying sentiment was a yearning for political participation and democracy.

Parliamentarians say the answer to prevent a repeat of this scenario is to enact democratic reforms.

The "absence of freedoms" alongside the demands of people to be a part of the political process were the "essence of unhappiness" among Arabs, said Abdelraouf al Rawabdeh, the former Jordanian prime minister who is the head of his country's delegation.

"High prices, poverty and unemployment become catalysts for the explosion," he said.

Jordan itself was the scene of protests due to rising food prices this month, but Mr al Rawabdeh's comments indicate that deeper concerns over political freedom are generating unrest.

"The people have a duty to insist on democracy in peaceful ways, and the rulers must grant their people the right to be free and to express themselves," Mr al Rawabdeh said.

But, he said, moving towards democracy needs a gradual growth of political institutions and real political parties. These institutions, he said, must represent the hopes of the populace and have credible programmes.

The parliamentarians believe the contours of political reform include greater political participation and freedom of thought and expression, enshrining the civil rights of Muslim citizens, empowering Muslim parliaments and reviewing "tailor-made" Arab constitutions.

"This is not an issue of people wanting bread or water," said Dr Abdul Raheem al Shaheen, an FNC representative from Ras al Khaimah and member of the UAE delegation. "What happened in Tunisia should lead to a rethink in the entire Arab world."

The PUIC issued a communiqué this week in support of the Tunisian protestors.

"We express our support of the choice of the Tunisian people in managing their country and choosing their representatives", it said. "We appeal to all the Tunisian forces and factions to maintain wisdom and self-strength."

Mubarak al Khrainje, a member of the Kuwaiti National Assembly and a delegate at the conference, warned that denial of civil rights to Arab and Muslim citizens could lead to more unrest.

In Tunisia, Mr Ben Ali forced women to abandon the veil in government institutions, and demanded that worshippers at mosques obtain ID cards.

"This despot wanted to be Kemal Ataturk, or even worse," said Mr al Khrainje, referring to the late Turkish president disliked by some Arabs and Muslims for restricting religious practices such as wearing the veil. "If a president treats his citizens in this manner, then of course this will happen."

"Oppression breeds an explosion", he said.

Dr al Shaheen agreed.

"My prediction in the next five years is that the Tunisia scenario will repeat itself in other Arab nations, unless these Arab regimes rethink political participation in their countries," he said. "What happened in Tunisia was an earthquake, but it is a good phenomenon, it is a revolution and not a coup, and it was not propelled by a person or party but it was spontaneous."

Indeed, the Tunisian episode showed that change must come from within Arab and Muslim countries and not be imposed by foreign powers, said Fathi Abu al Ardat, a member of the Palestinian National Assembly.

"Change must come out of a local, national desire in every country, and there must be no external pressure," he said.

Qadir Baloch, a member of the Pakistan National Assembly, agreed that the Tunisian riots were positive because they promoted democracy in Muslim nations.

Change should be brought to any government that does not serve its people, he said, and if changes to the political systems of the Muslim world are not introduced, "then such things will happen as happened in Tunisia".

Arab regimes must enshrine freedom of expression and political participation, as well as empower their parliaments, Dr al Shaheen said, so they can play a role in decision-making as representatives of the people.

"We respect the choice of the Tunisian people because the people in the end are the ones who can choose their destiny," Mr al Neaimi said. "People are decision-makers, and you cannot stand in the way of the people."

The Tunisian crisis likewise dominated discussions at the gathering of the region's economic leaders in Sharm el Sheikh.

Arab nations at the summit committed to a proposed US$2 billion programme to boost the faltering economies that have propelled crowds into the streets to protest high unemployment and rising prices.

Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah, the emir of Kuwait, said the fund will "contribute to creating new job opportunities for young Arabs" at a time when the region is witnessing "unprecedented historical crisis."

The idea of the fund was first suggested by Kuwait during the economic summit it hosted in 2009, but the proposal has been slow getting off the ground. However Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have now promised to pay $500 million each and, after the unrest in Tunisia, pledges are pouring in.

kshaheen@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press