Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Tunisia Has Returned to Authoritarian Rule

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Why does it seem that attempts at democratic transition and consolidation are so difficult to achieve in the Arab world? This has been the case in, among others, Algeria, Egypt, and Libya in North Africa.

And now Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring originated, has joined that list. The small Maghreb country has often been held up as the only true success story to emerge from the turmoil of post-2011 regional revolutions.

Protests against the autocratic regime of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were crowned on January 14, 2011, as he fled the country. The protests sparked a wave of similar movements in the Arab World. For years, Tunisia seemed to be the only country that enjoyed a democratic system since the Arab Spring. No more.

The dismantling of democracy began in July 2021, when law professor-turned-President Kais Saied, who had won the position with a massive majority in October 2019, suspended the constitution and parliament, casting aside the Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party, the country’s largest, and paving the way for a new constitution that expanded the powers of the president at the expense of parliament.

Among other things, it also gave the president the ultimate authority to appoint judges. Dozens were dismissed as part of an amorphous “anti-corruption” campaign.

Saied insisted that Tunisia’s 2014 constitution was a flawed text whose distribution of powers led to political deadlock. He also blamed the country’s worsening economic and public health challenges due to COVID-19 on the corruption and recklessness of Ennahda. He argued that he acted to remove an ineffectual government that had lost popular support amid escalating crises.

Saied then asked Najla Bouden Romdhane, a little-known professor of geophysics, to form a government. In effect Saied had engineered an autogolpe, or self-coup, in which a president, having entered office democratically, suspends the legal mechanisms that brought him to power.

The move towards autocracy gained speed this past January, when many of President Saied’s political opponents were labelled as traitors or criminals. At least a dozen politicians, activists, and critics were detained in February.

Among those arrested by the Tunisian police were Issam Chebbi, head of the opposition Republican Party, prominent Saied critic Ezzedine Hazgui, and Chaima Issa and Jaouhar Ben M’barek, both leading members of the National Salvation Front, Tunisia’s coalition of opposition parties that includes Ennahda.

Thousands of people protested Jan. 14 across several cities in Tunisia against Saied’s policies, also accusing him of trying to stifle union rights. Not surprisingly, on Jan. 29 only 11.4 per cent of the country’s nearly eight million eligible voters turned out for parliamentary elections. This was likely the world’s lowest turnout for a parliamentary vote, according to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

The low turnout was a nadir in Tunisia’s democratic transition and reflected a deeper sense of despair and disenchantment in a society that has been ravaged by economic crises worsened by the pandemic, which hurt the tourism industry. Some described it as a “ghost election.”

Ennahda, the biggest party in Tunisia’s outgoing parliament, boycotted the elections, as did other opposition parties and civil society groups. They did so, they stated, because parliament's powers had already been diminished as a result of the changes undertaken by Saied. 

Large protests organized by the National Salvation Front coalition, which combines Ennahda, the Stop the Coup protest movement, and some other political parties, demonstrated on March 5, demanding that President Saied step down.

Some of those who had initially supported Saied’s moves in 2021 have turned against him. The democratic reforms the country witnessed during the decade following the uprising were coupled with a hit to its economy.

The economy continued to deteriorate after 2021, with inflation passing the 10 per cent mark in December 2022, and poverty affecting some 20 per cent of the country's 12 million people. Tunisian residents have also been suffering from shortages of staple items such as sugar, milk and oil.

Unemployment has also exceeded 15 per cent, in a country where most job opportunities are still offered by the state. The government has been scrambling to secure a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

However, IMF demands to lift food and energy subsidies and restructure public firms have stood in the way of securing the funds.

Another wrinkle in this dispiriting story: Saied has targeted the country’s minority migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, alleging on Feb. 21 that undocumented immigration from African countries was changing Tunisia’s demographic composition.

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” he contended.

Also, some unemployed Tunisians alleged that sub-Saharan Africans are taking their jobs away. Dozens of migrants were detained, in a move harshly criticized by human rights organizations and activists. 

They condemned what they call hate speech directed at African migrants. Saied “aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems,” remarked Ramadan Ben Amor, of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

Tunisia has become yet another cautionary tale in a region full of false dawns and dashed hopes. It’s come full circle. They may as well have moved straight from Ben Ali to Saied.


Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Indian-Russian Relationship Remains Strong

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

India has embraced Russia in a “special and privileged strategic partnership” that features regular dialogues between the heads of state as well as ministries, substantial advanced arms sales, and intergovernmental commissions to cooperate in trade, energy, science, technology, and culture.

India has also joined Russia in new institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) grouping; and the Russia–india–china trilateral meetings, and has demurred from opposing Russia’s assault on Ukraine.


Until 2022, Indian President Narendra Modi and Russian President held annual meetings, alternating between the two countries, in which the partners said they shared “civilizational values” and promised “new heights of cooperation through trust and friendship.”

Trade between India and Russia is reaching new heights. According to the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Russia has become India’s fourth-largest source of imports in the past year. From April to December 2022, imports totalled $32.8 billion, up from $6.58 billion in the same period of 2021.

India has declined to join the West’s sanctions on Moscow and the country is now importing more crude oil from Russia than ever before.

As part of global sanctions on Russia, the Council of the European Union put a new price cap of $60 a barrel on crude oil which originates in or is exported from Russia. It came into force on Feb. 5. For India, the third-biggest consumer of oil in the world, this reduction makes a huge difference and brings multiple benefits for the government.

Because India imports more than 80 per cent of its crude oil, the cap means it can lower energy costs. Furthermore, by turning to Russian oil, India can decrease its dependence on the Middle East, which used to be the source of some 60 per cent of the country's oil imports.

India has bought “a lot of crude, converted it into refined petroleum products and sold it,” Indian Commerce Secretary Sunil Barthwal told the Nikkei Asia news outlet. “Enhancing trade and economic cooperation between India and Russia is a key priority for the political leadership of both the countries,” the Indian Embassy in Moscow stated in a 2022 briefing on India-russia economic relations.


The economic and political relationship between the two countries goes back decades, to their long-standing cooperation during the Cold War. Although India was a selfprofessed nonaligned power, by the second half of the Cold War it had clearly gravitated toward the USSR through significant purchases of Soviet defence equipment.

In 1965 the Soviet Union served successfully as a peace broker between India and Pakistan after their 1965 war. Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met with representatives of the two countries and helped them negotiate an end to the military conflict over Kashmir. The Tashkent Declaration was signed in January 1966, stating that the Indian military and the Pakistani military would pull back to their pre-conflict positions.

India and the USSR grew closer with the signing of the Indo-soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1971 under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was also more ideologically aligned with the Soviets than with the Americans.

The treaty gave Gandhi the confidence to intervene in the Bangladesh War of Independence against West Pakistani forces that year, as she perceived the treaty as a deterrent to Chinese or American intervention on behalf of Pakistan.

Moscow refrained from condemning India’s 1974 nuclear test and even agreed to ship heavy water for India’s nuclear reactors after the United States and Canada suspended shipment. The Soviets also backed India’s military involvement in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, while India even informally endorsed the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.

Soviet-type economic planning served as a model for the Indian economy, as it transitioned from colonialism and sought to fight poverty. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that India introduced reforms and opened up its economy to the world.


The Soviet Union also supplied weapons to India for decades and trained Indian forces in how to use them. India obtained three fifths of its arms from the USSR between 1955 and 1991, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The quantity of Russian contributions to the Indian arsenal has been very significant.

On the other hand, there was a cooler relationship with the United States, which delivered arms to India’s enemy, Pakistan.

More recently, Russia became the first member of the United Nations Security Council to endorse India’s position on Kashmir after New Delhi abrogated the autonomy provisions of the state in 2019, imprisoned political leaders, and reinstituted central control.

In return, India has defended or remained silent on Russian actions in the Syrian Civil War, its 2008 annexation of Crimea and now, the war in Ukraine. In a joint press conference following a 2018 summit with Putin, Prime Minister Modi stated that “Russia and India agree on multipolarity and multilateralism in the world.”

“The Russian-indian partnership will continue,” observed Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“For India, Russia remains an important supplier of weapons,” they have written. “India has not joined the West’s sanctions on Russia. By doing so, it has demonstrated its independent foreign policy.”

Despite American annoyance, this will probably remain the case.



Thursday, March 16, 2023

Syria Creeps Back Onto the Middle East Stage

 By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Can a horrific disaster like the massive earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria in early February have a silver lining for one of them? While most deaths occurred in Turkey, more than 6,000 were killed in Syria.

The earthquakes may offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a chance to end his diplomatic isolation, especially in the Arab world. Following the earthquake, Assad took phone calls from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Hamad of Bahrain.

On Feb. 20, Assad visited Oman, in one of his few trips abroad in the past decade. According to Syrian and Omani reports, he and Oman’s sultan, Haitham Ben Tareq, spoke of the need for “joint cooperation” and “efforts to consolidate security and stability in the region.” Tunisian President Kais Saied said on March 10 that he plans to restore diplomatic relations with Syria.

March 15 marked 12 years since the start of the civil war in Syria, which has resulted with a defeat for the opposition but, despite Iranian and Russian help, a hollow victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, since he remains without effective control of large swathes of Syrian territory.

The war changed the face of Syria and it is now split into four regions, each under the influence of foreign forces: Regime-controlled territory, the autonomous Kurdish area, Turkish areas in the north, and the Sunni rebel-controlled Idlib region.

Foremost among these outside actors has been Iran, which has come to exert huge influence over the Assad regime. With Assad painfully aware of the extent of Syrian Sunnis’ resentment of their longstanding domination by the Alawite Shia community, less than a fifth their size, the war provided a golden opportunity for both Damascus and Shia-ruled Iran to execute a profound demographic change under the guise of fighting extremism.

Out of a prewar population of 21 million, more than six million are refugees in other countries and some seven million are internally displaced. An economic crisis is ongoing and the humanitarian situation is grave. Food insecurity affects 12 million people in Syria, and the poverty rate stands at over 90 per cent.

Yet Assad’s grip on power seems firm. It’s the combined result of harsh repression of political adversaries, a weak and divided opposition, and the determination of Assad and his Alawite clan.

Shortly after the beginning of the revolution in 2011 and the Assad government’s brutal repression of peaceful anti-government protests, most Arab nations cut ties with Assad. But just over a decade later, the tide appears to be changing as regional leaders reconsider ties to Damascus.

Assad had grounds to hope for reintegration well before the quakes. Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Mauritania and Oman had never broken off diplomatic relations. And others are coming around.

In December 2018, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit since the civil conflict broke out. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain re-opened their embassies in Damascus that same month.

In March 2022 Assad visited UAE crown prince (and now president) Muhammad Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and this past January the UAE foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was in Damascus to meet with Assad. The UAE affirmed its support for a political solution to the Syrian crisis that restores Syrian sovereignty over all of its territory.

In October 2021 King Abdullah of Jordan phoned Assad, ending a decade of silence. Two months later the Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEP) voted unanimously for Syria to host its 2024 conference. More recently Saudi Arabia has started talking to Damascus again.

Turkey has continuously supported the Syrian opposition during the conflict, and Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria, is protected by Turkey as are other, smaller areas in northern Syria. Turkey is unlikely to want to withdraw from these parts of Syria anytime soon.

Nonetheless, since the earthquakes, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though a longtime Assad foe, said he too might soon meet with Assad. Russian, Turkish and Syrian defence chiefs and top intelligence officers in Moscow last December in the highest level of official contact between the archrivals in more than a decade.

Syria was suspended from the 22-member Arab League in 2011 and the November 2022 Arab League summit deferred Syria’s readmission, despite host country Algeria’s recommendation and Russian lobbying. But the delay is likely to be short, since Egypt no longer opposes it. Several countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Oman and Algeria, have called for Syria to be welcomed back.

Saudi Arabia will host this year’s Arab League summit. Asked whether Syria would be welcome, foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud on March 7 said “I think it's too early to talk about that.”

“He’s already won, in the sense that the war was primarily about whether he was in charge,” Christopher Phillips, a professor of international relations at Queen Mary University of London, remarked. “And he is still in charge of most of Syria. In military terms, the opposition is no longer a viable alternative.”

Outside the Middle East it’s a different story. The Ukraine war has united Europeans in opposition to Russia, so nobody wants to reconcile with Assad, one of Russia’s staunchest allies. The United States is even less likely to relax its position.