By Vanessa Tomassini.
This story originally appeared on the Italian “Strumenti Politici”.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States and NATO was undoubtedly not an improvised choice but well thought out. It was preceded by months of dialogue in Doha. The images of the Afghan citizens falling from the last American plane departing from Kabul, in a last vain attempt to cling to life, could perhaps have been avoided. But what effect does this have on a region in eternal transition like North Africa? How do Tunisians, historically the most open Arab people and closest to the Mediterranean, see the West today and the fall of Kabul? We asked one of the best-known journalists and writers in Tunisia, Sofiane Ben Farhat.
– Thank you, first of all, for accepting this invitation. Let’s start with the news of the day on the international panorama. How is the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan viewed in Tunisia and North Africa?
“The Tunisians, for an association of ideas, do not see very well the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban. For two reasons: first of all, our country has lived ten black years because of the terrorists, as well as Algeria, which called them “the Afghans” because there were young Algerians who Al-Qaeda and the Taliban mobilized, who then returned to their country. Ten years characterized by hundreds of deaths and thousands of refugees. Second, Tunisians know that at least 3–5 thousand Tunisians have joined terrorist groups in wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Mali, and other countries. We are talking about events dating back to five or six years ago. So, despite the moment of enthusiasm Tunisia is experiencing, we follow the events in Kabul with apprehension. Tunisians are wondering where have gone these thousands of young people who extremist groups had mobilized — recognized as extremist by international agencies, the international community, observers, and journalists, as wells as heads of state and government. There is also concern from the Libyan side. These last days, the borders between Libya and Tunisia remain closed, officially due to the health emergency linked to COVID-19. Some reports of a hundred terrorists who went to Sabratha and Zawiya and now want to enter Tunisia. Certainly, the Tunisians are not enthusiastic about the Taliban”.
– Yet, there were some members of Tunisian Parliament — actually frozen — and members of parties belonging to the galaxy of political Islam who hailed the rise of the Taliban and the exit of the West and the United States from Afghanistan, proposing it as a “victory of the Muslims.” Is it really like this? What effects do these words have on Tunisian public opinion?
“There is a leader of a center party, albeit closer to the fundamentalists, who glorified this result of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the public reacted by asking why this deputy was not a Republican, where was his attachment to the Republic. There is always in this region — which goes from Morocco to Indonesia and to which the Americans refer to as the MENA area (the Middle East and North Africa) — a grey area of storms. There is always a danger. But in my opinion, what happened in Afghanistan is not a US failure but rather a choice. A well-thought-out decision based on state interests and areas of influence. In the Tunisian political class, there is always an attempt to glorify these “far-right” groups. And even the Muslim Brotherhood, who say they are more or less different from others, for me, is always part of the same family, be it Isis (Daesh), Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram, or Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are all sides of the same coin, as they share the purpose and objectives, albeit with different means. All of them agree to create an Islamic-Fascist Caliphate, but everyone has their own approach at the level of tactics. Tunisians are conscious, and certainly, our army, police, and specialized security forces are always alert to what happens in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Mali, and the Sub-Saharan region. We cannot remain calm and watch when it is the neighbour’s house that burns.”
– How does US policy come out of the Afghan retreat, undoubtedly exploited by the Islamist media and extremist propaganda, followed too often by some significant European press? It is sometimes a choice compared with other US and NATO actions in the region, such as the interventions in Iraq and Libya, which have had and continue to have disastrous results. What image do Washington and NATO have today, does their political weight change in North Africa?
“NATO has been saying for some time that it has become Mother Teresa, claiming that it has more of a humanitarian purpose than a military one. I was surprised to hear certain statements on the occasion of an official visit. Because since the Second World War, there have been financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and military institutions. NATO represents the capitalist and North Atlantic countries’ strategic interests. After the disaster that NATO has wrought in Libya and Afghanistan, they cannot tell us that they are a humanitarian organization! NATO is a military defense device of the Atlantic Alliance. Although they say it is a failure, we must say that an agreement had been reached since February. In the Doha Pour Speakers, the Taliban officially negotiated with the US, NATO, and other lesser-known or non-publicly appearing groups. America is a state that has existed for 250 years. They have waged at least 120 wars, they fight a battle every two years, they have more than a million soldiers in overseas bases worldwide, but today there is the desire to return, be in America, and repatriate the troops. That is the Monroe doctrine, America for Americans. I believe President Biden is implementing this policy. I also think there is an undeclared international war between the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians to control markets and resources. The Americans have killed two birds with one stone, withdraw from Afghanistan, which has become expensive for them, and at the same time have a destabilization device for China and Russia. Let’s look at the borders of Afghanistan with more than seven countries, including China for about seventy-six kilometers and a slice of territory with the problem of Muslim Huguri who want to have some sovereignty. We understand that it is a game between nations, an intelligent and cruel game. Both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank depend primarily on the will of the United States as the most powerful country in the West. Both military and financially. Americans alone can move 500,000 troops, at any time, to any region of the world. All of Europe will never be able to do this. The United States can control the oil, gold, or any strategic asset market. Europe is still divided enough to be able to do this. So it was a brilliant move by the Americans.”
– The Taliban are also called Islamic scholars, and we have often heard about Sharia law. What is Sharia law, and what does it mean for women?
“Taliban means student in Arabic. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, there was a Taliban branch in Peshawar, Pakistan. They claimed to be religious students, but these students had formed military troops. Then there is another group of Taliban. During the war between Pakistan and India, the Pakistani secret services made Bin Laden travel from Sudan to al Qaeda in Afghanistan with Mullah Omar, intending to exploit these groups against India for an ethnic-religious issue. The Taliban quickly became a school that does not give diplomas but weapons for people born to kill. The history of Afghanistan is characterized by struggles between leaders of armed, religious groups and the powerful local armed feudal. The Taliban study to kill; they are political criminals. The great family of fundamentalists has different branches: the first is that of the Muslim Brotherhood, then we met Al-Qaeda, then we met Daesh and other groups, all of which share the same ideology or state of affiliation. As in Europe, Italy, France, and Germany’s right parties belong to the same family, the same for the liberals. The doctrine of this large family of extremists does not provide for human rights, nor does it recognize the rights of women or minorities. They are against women’s emancipation, against young people, against the Republican state. As the psychoanalyst, Eric From said — dividing people into biophilic and necrophiles — necrophilia prevails in the values taught by the Taliban. All vulnerable groups become targets in Arab countries that do not have a solid democratic tradition but live attached to feudalism and are angry at progress and development. They use the mass media and the means of communication to convey past, necrophiliac and shadowy values. The struggle so far in the Arab world is about the choice between darkness or light. Iraq, Egypt, and Libya have known it for over ten years. In Tunisia, a country where women have achieved conquests even before some Western countries, such as Malta or Italy for the vote, today we are witnessing the population that chooses light and a political class that opts for darkness. It is a danger because being on the right is not a problem, but being a fundamentalist is. It means denying education to women, killing and promoting polygamy “.
– Is this Sharia that the Islamists promote values in the Holy Quran, or is it a matter of misinterpretation?
“Each religion initially represents a revolution and at the same time a system. In the beginning, like Christianity or any other great religion, Islam was a revelation that has turned into a system. In every religion, we can find light or darkness, as I said. It is a problem of interpretation. If we take the Koran, revealed fifteen centuries ago, surely the conditions in which people lived were not like those today. Muslim societies did not experience the Renaissance as in Europe, a liberation from the interpretation of religion. The presence of the Protestant Church is much stronger in people’s lives than the Catholic one, albeit with different values. The problem is not in religion because as long as man exists, there will be religions, monotheistic or polytheistic, but it is a problem of interpretation. In Europe, there is a division between belief and politics, there are attempts at exploitation, but the system distinguishes the educational, political, and religious spheres. The Arab world had not had this Renaissance for centuries, although Muslims were in Europe, Spain, Italy, Venice, and elsewhere when the Renaissance took place. That is the paradox. Being Muslim does not mean being an extremist. We must deny this dialectic of Islamophobia promoted by the European right-wing parties, but at the same time Muslims must stop saying that we are the best and that our religion is the best in the world”.
– Tunisia has always been a bulwark for this. Even the Revolution has not only brought death and destruction, as has happened in other countries, but you have also made conquests. On July 25, the President of the Republic made important decisions. What is happening in Tunisia today?
“I don’t want to be a chauvinist, but speaking of this subject, I might sound like it. There is no Arab Spring but a Tunisian exception for many years. With President Bourguiba on August 13, 1956, Tunisia banned polygamy. In that period, only 1% used to have more than one wife. The Tunisian society so close to Europe, to the Italian islands, is a mixture of cultures, peoples, and traditions. Tunisia has always been open, and Bourguiba has always supported the education of young people, especially young women. We have a much more advanced level of education than other countries and in the field of human rights, refugees, minorities, and women as a personal statute. President Kais Saïed is not a revolutionary. He is not the Che who came to say there is a reversal, but in his speech about him, he is a man more of the right than the left, although he does not have a real party of his own. He is a conservative, a legalist, but he applies the Constitution at least. The Tunisians, as well as the Italians and the French, are on the left when they speak or shout, but when they make a choice, they often take it to the right, or center-right, because the peoples of the Mediterranean love life history, party, fun, the course, the beaches. President Kais Saïed responded to a popular request. We have made a revolution, events have confirmed that we are a positive exception in the Arab world, we do not want to go back. Even the tradition of this country has not known any particular violence, if not for the last years marked by terrorism. The Tunisians have asked to return to the pact of the Constitution, to the values of the Republic. In Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Ennahdha — although they have changed their name — has exploited democracy to obtain feudal political power. Fascist, after all. The deputies of the allied parties of Ennahdha, such as al-Karama, say it publicly: we are against women’s emancipation, minorities, civil society, intellectuals, and journalists. Ennahdha hides its principles. For the first time, against the Islamists, there is a right party man with Kais Saied, rather than a left or a liberal as Caid Essebsi was. Therefore, the President of the Republic knows these dynamics well. He knows who the Muslim Brotherhoods are. They did ‘etankin’ in Arabic, meaning they occupied leadership positions within state institutions. There was no educational reform. Fear of crime has increased in recent years. Women are afraid. And above all, there is a factor that Italy knows very well, the Muslim Brotherhood has applied a type of mafia-style capitalism. This capitalism has three fundamental characteristics: savage capitalism for which the cost of living in Tunisia is sometimes more expensive than in Europe; they fueled regionalism; and militarization, with armed groups that are very reminiscent of the United Crown, the Camorra, the ‘Ndrangheta, or Casa Nostra. Kais Saïed understood that the Tunisians were tired of all this. The Tunisians have been happy since July 25, not because Saied is a leader — of whom he does not have the characteristics — but because he represents their will. Anthropologically, Tunisians are a Mediterranean people. The Tunisian spoken Arabic is a mix of French, Italian, Spanish, of all the great civilizations that have crossed our country, leaving something behind. With all due respect for our neighbors, Libyans, and Algerians, the events in Tunisia are not always the same at the level of values and institutions. Tunisians are closer to the idea of modernity and internationalization. But like Italy has given to born Raphael, Giotto, Dante, and the greatest artists, also gave birth to the Dux; Germany, the land of Marx, Hegel, Kant also gave birth to the Third Reich. That is to say: people can end up in the ideological trap that for a short time erases their values. Kais Saïed is the representation of Tunisian anthropology against the state extremism of Ennahdha and its allies, from 2011 to July 25. But Tunisia, like Italy, Greece, Spain, France, is a spirit, a way of life. That is why Ennahdha’s plan to rule for fifty years has failed. In theatre, prose, and journalism, I have always said: I dream of when Tunisia will return home one day. Since July 25, it seems that an important step has been taken, but obviously, this process is not over yet”.
– As you have perfectly described, Italy was the birthplace of the greatest artists and thinkers, but also of Benito Mussolini. Similarly, using your words, Tunisia has given birth to great names in music, literature, and entertainment, but it has also given birth to Rachid Ghannouchi. In addition, we have seen the mask scandal that involved deputies, 20 thousand deaths from the coronavirus that perhaps could have been avoided, given that at the beginning, Tunisia managed the pandemic in an exemplary manner. In your opinion, did Ghannouchi understand his mistakes? And how much responsibility does he has in this economic, social, and health crisis?
“Let me tell you that Rached Ghannouchi is a man of the past. He lives in a system of the past, in the 60s of the twentieth century when a fierce war was fought in Egypt and Yemen between the Muslims of Said Qutb and Hassen Al-Bennah against the young republics of Nasser, or secularists like Abdelkarim. Kassam in Iraq, or Shukri Al Qweitli in Syria. This man of the past wants to have his revenge against the Republic. At the level of his choices, it is an archaism, even if he claims to have updated his theses. But the reality is not like that. Just enter the Ennahdha Facebook page to see a text from 1986 that talks about apostates. In 2011, Ghannouchi did nothing for the Revolution, spontaneous, made by the young people of the deepest Tunisia. The Revolution did not have leadership, an ideology, or a program, but it was a movement reminiscent of Mexico in 1910. After a few months, he returned saying that he did not want to take any responsibility but wanted to live in his country. At the same time, however, he exploited our Revolution for the obscure design of the Muslim Brotherhood. From freedoms, we moved on to a crueller way of life than the one we had known. Even young people today say Tunisia in the time of Ben Ali was a better place. Sin! But, today, we have a constitution and transparent elections. Everything has changed, even the slogans. Today, first of all, for society comes not security but freedom. Ghannouchi seems to have understood nothing: he spoke of a coup, he launched threats in the press and the Corriere Della Sera. On July 25th, there was this change, and on July 27th, Ennahdha had already signed a contract with a US lobbying group to influence US policies. And Tunisian law prohibits receiving or having funds abroad and using them for politics. Rachid Ghannouchi still wants to remain in charge of Ennadha, of Parliament, and take his revenge against Bourguiba, his greatest obsession. Although Bourguiba has been dead for years, he remains an icon for Tunisians. The Kennedys received the former president in New York in 1961 because he was considered by Fanfani in Italy, by De Gaulle in France, as one of the greatest leaders in the world. He was a man without an ideology, a progressive, a practical one. Because of his obsession, Ghannouchi has lost everything, the party, the trust, credibility within the country, and the international brotherhood they had lost everywhere except in Tunisia. It’s over. Game over for Ghannouchi. He is a ghost, and he is not a choice in the present or Tunisians’ future. The time has come to leave to limit the damage. That is a choice of courage. I don’t know what’s going on in his head…”.
– Among other things, an exponent of Ennahdha just yesterday defended her party, saying: “among the many arrests, only three deputies are from Ennahdha.” In all the countries, the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrates the institutions of the state, reaching the top of the judiciary, recalling, as mentioned earlier, some Italian scenarios in the struggle between the state and the mafia. President Kais Saïed has changed all the heads of the Ministry of the Interior and the security agencies. Why do you think? There will be more arrests, or is Ennahdha just a political movement? Maybe it’s not all true what they say?
“I am not in the secret services or in secret Dei to know everything going on, but I do know that there are several leaders of Ennahdha who have been arrested, as well as members of al-Karama or the elderly minister Al-Marouf. At the same time, we must say that the measures introduced by Kais Saïed have affected most of the movements that have sprung up on the Tunisian political scene in the last decade and are involved in misconduct and corruption. On Ennahdha, a whole dossier has not yet been revealed regarding the killing of Chokri Belaid, Mohamed Brahmi, leaders of the left (the popular front), and other army officers. This dossier was also raised during the Beji Kaid Essebsi government and reported before the National Security Council. Now, there is a magistrate from Ennahdha, Bechir Akremi, who was arrested precisely for covering up or hiding relevant facts about this investigation, such as the black courtroom inside the Ministry of the Interior. The Defense Group and the Two Martyrs reported the existence of this mysterious dark room. Ennahdha said it doesn’t exist, but a magistrate found it, shutting it down and installing surveillance cameras after finding thousands of documents inside. We know that Ennahdha is involved, but nothing has ever been done until now. As Italy still fights against mafia-type organizations today, Tunisia will take years to have a clear landscape on Ennahdha, their crimes, and connections. But I think we have reached a point of no return: never again as before. Now the confraternity members are starting to see that there are serious investigations and that it is not just a political move by the President. I believe that there will be someone who will speak out, donating the keys of this famous black hall not only in the Interior Ministry but of the entire movement”.