Overcoming violence, a menace in North African transitions

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

With varying intensity, turbulence has persisted in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia since the “Arab spring” uprisings. More unsettling, however, were the violent incidents which continued to mar the political and social climate in the countries of the region.

In Egypt, scores of people were killed in January and February, in anti-government protests and in violent demonstrations which erupted after a court delivered its verdict over the Port Said football stadium tragedy. The situation became so dire as a result of the unrest that General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister, warned members of the political class that “their disagreement on running the affairs of the country may lead to the collapse of the state and threatens the future of the coming generations.”

In Libya, the authorities had to call on “revolutionary militias” to help combat an unprecedented crime wave which included murders, kidnappings and drug traffickers’ shoot-outs. The country’s General National Congress summoned the Prime Minister for questioning over the failure of the country’s security agencies to provide security in the GNC building itself. In Tripoli, Benghazi and other cities, more than 40 former senior army and security officers have been assassinated so far.

In Tunisia, violence never reached the firearm nightmare scenario of Libya nor the casualty count of Egypt. It remains however that even before the assassination of leftist political leader Chokri Belaid, 76% of polled Tunisians described political violence as a threat to their revolution, while 34% saw it as a “threat to the continuity and the credibility of the state.”
Flow of weapons

One of the most disturbing aspects of the situation in North Africa is that there does not seem to be a shortage of weapons. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, large quantities of arms and ammunition have remained unaccounted for. According to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) an “influx of large numbers of heavy weapons, combined with the porosity of the border, has introduced a new threat for Libya and for the stability of the region.” The unsecured stockpiles included assault rifles, rockets, mines and explosives, artillery shells, and Russian made missiles. The large-scale proliferation of weapons has had a direct impact on the escalation of tribal and regional strife in Libya itself. Mali became a first outside casualty as the arsenal fell in separatist and Jihadi hands. Weapons trickled also towards the east. This month, Egyptian authorities intercepted two pickup trucks carrying 60 antitank missiles, smuggled from Libya. Fox News even reported that weapons of Libyan origin were being sold at underground auctions in Sinai.

In Tunisia, where new arms caches were discovered in recent weeks, there have been sporadic clashes between security forces and jihadists. Recriminations and complaints of death threats continued over the February 6th assassination of leftist leader Chokri Belaid, despite announcement of arrests in the case; and fear of wider violence, remains a source of increased tension and wariness.

The violence has taken a psychological toll on the populations of North Africa, which are more gripped by anguish over what the future holds more than by the current incidents themselves.

Addressing the political crisis

The worst common fear is over some form of “cataclysmic violence”. In Egypt, the call by parts of the opposition for a boycott of the April elections raised the specter of score settling outside the ballot box. A lose-lose scenario for the whole country. Many Libyans also raise the concern that tribal and ethnic violence could threaten the territorial integrity of the country.

Avoiding the worst-case scenarios will require resolving the political crises through compromises and arbitration. That will mean defusing or at least demystifying the current forms of polarization. Mutual distrust transforms differences of opinion into existential threats. Even in the West, there has been a recent tendency to talk about “the clash within civilizations,” to explain the tensions in North African nations. The perceived “clash” between modernity-inspired vs. faith-based value-systems gives the impression of societies at war with themselves. This does not however take into consideration the existence of overlapping segments of the population. There are religiously-conservative secularists, modernist-oriented Islamists and shades in between. A peaceful democratic transition will hinge upon coexistence between all vying value-systems. But ultimately, it is the success of the democratic transition that will help put political violence into-check.

Growing pains

On the ground, the proliferation of weapons has coincided with the collapse of the old “law and order” system, which used to be based of coercion if not on dire repression. A new security doctrine (and also a new type of state-citizen relationship) is needed in all the transitional countries of North Africa. Problems cannot be settled anymore through the “old-fashioned way”, that is by the excessive use of force or by “delocalizing” the security problems. Under previous regimes, in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, “exporting” Jihadi fighters was tolerated since that meant Jihadis could become “other peoples’” problem, even though it was only a matter of time before the chickens would come home to roost.

In the wider scope of the “Arab Spring” revolutions, the security dimension was part of a much larger State/society inadequacy. Uprisings took place when societies outgrew the political regimes; and the growing pains continue today. Rajan Menon , senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in New York, sees the assassination of Chokri Belaid in Tunisia as symptomatic of “the imbalance between social mobilization (peoples’ newfound freedom to participate in politics) and political institutionalization (new political structures struggle to gain legitimacy, to provide venues for reconciling political disputes, and to maintain public order)”.

Continuing post-revolutionary violence often stems from unrealistic expectations over the state’s ability to respond to the demands of impatient segments of the population. Revolutionary prisms usually come in black and white, without any shades of grey. They have no room for complex explanations of why problems cannot be resolved overnight. And reality-check can be brutal.

Socioeconomic frustrations

Structural socioeconomic problems are not easy to resolve, especially for countries with limited natural resources such as Egypt and Tunisia. Whatever the politics and ideologies pursued, it will take time to overcome the fallouts of youth unemployment, development inequities, insufficient growth rates and global financial crisis. "There's a political crisis and there's a social and economic crisis,” says Elijah Zarwan, foreign policy expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “A negotiated solution to the political crisis will certainly help but it's just a necessary first step towards resolving the social and economic crisis,” he says.

But getting there can be trying for all classes of society. Chronic insecurity can lead to deterioration in the quality of life of the population. Arms proliferation encourages not only violent radicalism but confrontational criminality. Khaled Karrah, a Libyan anti-drug activist complains that drug dealers “have heavy weapons like RPGs, and gelignite to make bombs. There are some 25 million weapons in Libya.”

Furthermore, insecurity (or just perceptions of insecurity) has serious consequences on the economics of the transitions. International rating agencies are downgrading the credit ratings of countries that are, ironically, in dire need of foreign investment and soft loans. Travel companies are discouraged from continuing their work in such traditional tourism-magnets, as Tunisia and Egypt.

Jerry Sorkin, international tourism consultant and President of “TunisUSA”, says the problems of insecurity and violence “have crippled tourism throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Prospective travelers are choosing to postpone their travel to Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey. Certainly, they feel little urgency to travel to these areas when the world offers many alternatives.”

Media and violence

Despite the likely frustration of transitional governments, it should not come as a surprise that violent developments grab the attention of domestic and international media. In the North African countries themselves, the unfettered media landscape allows for wide coverage of violent incidents. The problem however is that the local media do not have much experience debating or covering violent political conflicts. Things can get even more complicated when the media themselves become, whether unwittingly or not, take sides in such conflicts. "The media in the Arab post-revolution environments should be adamant about preserving their newly-gained freedoms but must be careful not to serve as means of incitement to violence or as catalysts for confrontation though the propagation of messages of hate and demonization,” says Kamel Ben Younes , a Tunisian political analyst and private television executive.

A lot was written about Western media coverage of violence in the Arab world. But criticism of western media in regard is both legitimate but too easy.

Sensationalism and stereotypes can distort coverage. After the heinous murders of American diplomats in Benghazi, some Western writers could not resist the temptation of drawing parallels between violence in North Africa, today, and events during the Barbary Coast era. There is also the tendency to paint the whole region with a broad –brush. “The result is that Western audiences often fail to make distinctions from one country to the other,” says Sorkin. “This, compounded with those countries where acts of violence are rare, such as Tunisia and Jordan and outside of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt as well, these countries have failed to implement ongoing communication strategies to counter balance the broader media reports.”

With the “right script”, fringe groups, even limited in numbers, can grab the attention of the media. When hundreds attacked US missions in North Africa, in September, there were probably millions of viewers in the region at the same time watching American television series with Arabic subtitles. But it is the picture of violent protesters that systematically wins the competition over media attention. Acts of violence that are attributed to religious zealotry can get even more play than the rest. By virtue of the same logic, anti-Islamist fringe groups, such as Egyptian “Black Bloc” militants parading in balaclavas, in front of television cameras, are quite newsworthy. That is the nature of the beast. Looking at events without the media lens can lead to different observations. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group describes the clashes in Tunisia between hardline Salafis and security forces as “low intensity violence” (pointing out that such incidents have essentially victimized the Salafis themselves).

Voices of reason

Across the region, there is a growing awareness by political parties, civil society and the religious establishment of the dangers involved in political violence. Some are even acting upon that awareness. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, head of al-Azhar University and mosque, managed to get political parties in Egypt to adhere to a common stand against political violence. "Political work has nothing to do with violence or sabotage and the welfare of everyone and the fate of our nation depends on respect for the rule of law," he told the political protagonists at the end of January.

Libyans have massively protested the assassination of American diplomats back in September. There are many voices in Libya calling for a speedier national reconciliation process so as to end the self-perpetuating cycle of revenge killings and speed up the democratic transition and economic recovery process.

Tunisian political parties and civil society are working on a common platform against political violence. Academics are debating the development cost of political violence. By massively attending the mass funeral of Chokri Belaid, Tunisian crowds, expressed -more than anything else- their rejection of political violence.

Among the majorities of public opinions in North Africa, there is a realization that violence is not the way to bring the Ship of State to safe harbor. Smooth sailing will be possible only when the main protagonists, and even those who may feel they have no stake in the transition, are convinced they are all on the same boat.

Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.