Sunday, 23 November 2014

Israeli cargo ship cancels docking at Oakland Port

Palestine solidarity movement mobilizes to “block the boat”

 October 30, 2014

A significant step forward in the struggle against Israeli apartheid was taken this weekend in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the third time in less than three months, an Israeli cargo ship owned by the ZIM shipping company was prevented from unloading its cargo as scheduled.
The ZIM Beijing ship was scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland on Oct. 25 but never showed up. The Beijing passed through the Panama Canal, turned north on course for the Port of Oakland and then after a few days traveling towards Oakland veered west on its way to destinations elsewhere.
Prepared to meet the ship at the Port of Oakland was a “welcoming” party of Palestine solidarity activists organized by the Block the Boat coalition. The Block the Boat coalition, comprised of Palestinian, Arab and pro-Palestinian activists and organizations, was formed earlier this year to highlight the role the Port of Oakland plays as an entry point for goods being shipped by the Zionist ZIM corporation. Amongst the array of goods carried by ZIM ships are materiel for local police forces in the United States.

Once it became clear over the weekend  that the ship was not arriving on or near the schedule, the coalition organized a rally and march on Oct. 26 to the port to let ZIM know what they can expect if they try to come back.

The success of the Oct. 25 mobilization comes two months after the BTB coalition organized a historic action against the ZIM Piraeus. The ship tried to dock on Aug. 16, but was prevented from unloading for four days and ultimately little if any cargo was handled.

The BTB coalition issued a press release on October 29, which read in part, “Pro-Palestinian activists in the Bay Area achieved a decisive victory over the Israeli-owned ZIM Integrated Shipping Services this past weekend. As part of a sustained organizing effort to protest Israel’s ongoing occupation and apartheid against the Palestinian people, organizers deterred the container ship ZIM Beijing from docking at the Port of Oakland.

“Members of ILWU Local 10, the union which represents dock workers at the Port of Oakland, informed BTB organizers that the ZIM Beijing has been rerouted to Russia 'to avoid disruptions at the SSA Terminal,' according to a statement by BTB. The ZIM Beijing was originally scheduled to arrive and unload its cargo at the Port of Oakland on October 25, but changed course to avoid protests that had been planned by BTB.”

In an unprecedented development, ZIM has no ships scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland.
Oakland activists see this retreat as a victory for Palestine, and are hopeful that they have staved off ZIM for good. “This effort of Block the Boat, the Palestinian and Arab communities, and allies has truly revealed our collective power against Zionism,” says Sameh Ayesh of Arab Youth Organizing. “ZIM is the largest shipping company in Israel, and the 10th largest in the world; it is now clear to ZIM that our communities in the Bay Area will not welcome it or any other business that supports Israeli occupation and apartheid.” 

The solidarity of the port workers, who have historically stood against injustice, including refusing to unload cargo carried by ships flying the racist South African apartheid flag, has been an important component of this effort. The resistance in Palestine is intensifying, and so too must our solidarity all around the world.

Read also
Block the Boat to End Israeli Apartheid!

Join the action at the Port of Oakland on Sunday, Oct. 26 to stop the Israeli Zim shipping line from unloading

Tampa, Fl. blocks Israeli boat

Activists gathered to stop the Israeli ship ZIM Alabama from unloading


More Child Abuse by the Israeli Military

Israeli Soldiers detain developmentally-disabled Palestinian child in Hebron, 19 Oct. 2014
As part of the wave of military repression soldiers briefly detained a developmentally disabled Palestinian boy, who is under the age of criminal responsibility, on suspicion that he had thrown stones. The boy, A. a-Rajbi, (full name withheld in interest of privacy) who will be 12 in a month, was detained after Palestinian children threw stones at soldiers on the main road of the Jabel Johar neighborhood in Hebron, close to the settlement of Kiryat Arba. A-Rajbi was handcuffed, blindfolded, and held on the floor of an army jeep for some 15 minutes until his father arrived and convinced the soldiers to release his son, who is mentally disabled and cannot speak.

In the video footage, filmed by B’Tselem volunteer Samih Da’na from his window, soldiers are seen holding the boy, handcuffing him, blindfolding him and closing him in the jeep, despite cries by Palestinian residents that the boy is mentally disabled. The footage also shows settlers from Kiryat Arba, watching the incident from behind the settlement’s fence. Some are seen calling out encouragement to the soldiers, including several racist remarks.


Shlomo Sand - Stops being that which he denies exists!

From Debunking to Denying History

Two days ago I was sent a review from Ha’aretz (see below) on Shlomo Sand’s new book ‘How I stopped being a Jew’.  Shlomo Sands wrote a best selling book The Myth of the Jewish Nation.  This one is a dogmatic assertion (if Ha’aretz and others are to be believed  - I haven't read it yet) of what Sand considers Jewish identity to be, which is that based on the Jewish religion.  In this he agrees with the anti-Semitic Gilad Atzmon who argues that only Zionism provides another alternative Jewish identity, that of being Israeli and that Jews who are neither should not be criticising Israel.  
Below is my instant analysis of the book, based on the review and also the interesting rejoinders of Matzpen member and former Israeli Moshe Machiver and David Finkel.    I hope to write a more considered review once I’ve read the book.
Tony Greenstein
i.  Many of the themes echo those of Gilad Atzmon, who has been all over Sand like a rash.
ii.  Sand has a fixed and static concept of what Jewish identity is.  He correctly sees that an Israeli identity is not the same as a Jewish identity, despite Israel's claim to be a Jewish State (the significance of which he fails to understand entirely) and adopts a lazy analysis of what Jewish identity consists of. 
Historically being Jewish was not just a religion, though for tactical reasons it's often simpler to assert this.  However in the transition from the feudal era, emancipation and the escape from the grip of the rabbis, where religion and social occupation were entwined, (Leon's 'people class' i.e. a caste) did indeed mean that being Jewish took on aspects of nationhood..  This doesn't mean that Jews were a nation but that in their heartland, the Pale of Settlement in Russia, Poland and Lithuania where they were confined, they did have territorial contiguity and a separate language (Yiddish).  They could be loosely defined as a national minority in that part of Eastern Europe.
iii.  In the US and UK being Jewish meant for most Jews being an immigrant section of the working class, with its own trade unions even.  It meant resisting the fascists and Police and being the advance guard of the working class (e.g. the election of England's only elected communist MP was in Mile End, the heart of the Jewish East End of London).
iv.  Today a secular Jewish identity in the West is primarily defined either by support for Israel or opposition to Zionism.  The majority of Jews are 'disappearing' i.e. integrating into the wider population because it is a transitory identity but Sand is wrong to suggest that there is therefore no secular Jewish identity, even if it is forged in opposition to Israel and what it stands for.
v.  Sand argues that there is nothing specifically Jewish in a secular Jewish identity.  But is there any specific national identity in  anything?  What does being Hungarian or British actually mean?  All national identities look back to national myths and borrow from other cultures and identities whilst claiming to be unique.
vi.  When he says that 'No achievement of Jewish secularists can be regarded as being Jewish, but is, rather, universal or belonging  to the nations where they took place.' my response is so what?   But why  did American Jews participate out of all proportion to their numbers in the civil rights struggles?  Or why did Argentinian Jews participate in and suffer disproportionately under the Junta?  Possibly the answer is that they saw their Jewish heritage as part of their anti-racism.
vi.  Hence the ridiculous claim that the 'involvement of people of  Jewish ancestry to him is totally incidental.'  Clearly it isn't to those who are involved.  Jewish values are not the same as Jewish religious ones, although the Orthodox (and the Nazis) proclaimed it as such.
vii.  Sand's denial of the right of secular non-Zionists to organise together is that of an Israeli academic who resents the solidarity movement.  Again he echoes Atzmon (in more elegant language and without the anti-semitism). 
viii.  His suggestion that Israel’s War of Independence was just like other similar wars suggests he either doesn't understand the specific nature of Zionism and its quest for demographic purity or he is unconcerned. 
ix.    Even more absurd is his attack on those who 'claim to be upholding Jewish values  while criticizing Israel,' and writes that they are no different from  “overt pro-Zionists.”   The latter are out and out chauvinists and often overt racists.  Hence their links with fascist organisations.  The same is not true of anti-Zionist Jews but one suspects that Sand is simply ignorant in this respect.  Jews have no greater rights than non-Jews but they do have a greater impact which is why we are targeted as 'self haters' by the Zionists.
x.   Sand's refusal to support the right of return of the refugees suggests that Sand himself accepts some of the tenets of Zionism (again  like Atzmon)

xi.  I agree with him is that the Palestinian people were the creation of Zionist colonisation.  That is also true of other colonised people, but so what? 

There were a few comments from other people when I first circulated this critique and I print them below:

Tony Greenstein

From  Moshé Machover:
I suspect that you are missing some significant fact about Sand and what he is trying to do and say. I think you are tacitly assuming that he is some kind of leftist. He was, but no longer is, and part of what he is trying to do is to make this clear. He comes from a CP family and in his youth was member of the Israeli Young Communists League. Following the 1967 war he and some of his friends attended Matzpen discussion circles; I recall them from that time when they described themselves as “between the CP and Matzpen”. After some vacillation he joined Matzpen. But not long after that he decided to follow an academic career and no longer engage in political activity.  He has since moved steadily to the right, and is now a kind of middle-of-the road liberal bourgeois nationalist. 

However he did not become a Zionist. In fact, he has retained some of the analysis of Zionism that he absorbed in Matzpen (although he is very careful not to mention this). So in the perverted Israeli classification he is regarded as a “leftist” (which simply means that he is not a Zionist or an anti-Arab racist).

His nationalism is of course not Zionist or any kind of Jewish nationalism; it is Hebrew (or “Israeli”) nationalism. Like Avnery (another Hebrew/Israeli bourgeois nationalist) he is patriotic about the 1947–49 “War of Independence” and opposed to the return of the Palestinian refugees; but supports equal individual rights for all Israeli citizens. 

His project is to establish his Hebrew/Israeli nationalism by rejecting and undermining Jewish nationalism and indeed any kind of Jewish identity. At the same time he is keen to disavow leftism and establish a bourgeois liberal persona. For this reason he attacks Jewishness in general, but most particularly left-wing anti-Zionist Jewish identity (this is where he meets Atzmon…).


ATB, MM

On 18 Nov 2014, at 14:27, CFC <cfc@igc.org> wrote:

Thanks, Tony -- these are interesting observations. Sand’s book (which I’m just now reading) is serious, where Atzmon’s is a lunatic rant. In any case, however, there’s an additional complication: The  statement that “The majority of Jews are 'disappearing' i.e. integrating into the wider population because it is a transitory identity“ sounds logical, even axiomatic to us materialists but  doesn’t hold up, at least in the U.S. context. A recent study (by the Pew institute, not a Jewish organization) indicates that while only 33% of U.S. Jews have any congregational affiliation, and only 23% attend synagogue or temple at least once a month, a much higher percentage affirm a Jewish identity and that this persists even in intermarriage – indeed, Jewish partners in intermarriage seem to feel a certain obligation to maintain the Jewish part of the family’s character. So Jewish identity is undoubtedly changing and becoming way less institutionally structured, but it is not disappearing. And support for Israel or opposition to Zionism – whatever any of us might like – does not seem to be decisive either way.  
David Finkel

Sun Nov 16, 2014 2:44 pm (PST) .

In his new book, the controversial historian challenges secular and anti-Zionist Jews to define their identity.
By Anshel Pfeffer, Nov. 15, 2014 

Perhaps the most telling passage in Shlomo Sand’s new book – “How I Stopped Being a Jew” (Verso Books, 112 pages, $16.95/£10) – comes about halfway through, when he mentions the famous meeting in 1952 between Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (known by his followers as the Hazon Ish), at the time one of the most influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis. According to one version of what happened at that meeting, Rabbi Karelitz lectured Ben-Gurion that, in collisions between religion and state, the rabbis must prevail. To back this up, he cited the talmudic case of two carts blocking each other on a narrow road. The ruling is that the empty cart must give way to the full one. The inferred analogy – that secular Jews are the empty cart, devoid of heritage and learning, while only the Orthodox have any authentic Jewish culture, has been an enduring insult ever since to many Israelis.

But Sand, the controversial and iconoclastic Tel Aviv University  historian, whose previous books “The Invention of the Land of Israel”  and “The Invention of the Jewish People” caused furor within and outside academic circles, and who takes pride in being a total atheist, is on  the rabbi’s side. Not only, he argues, is there no Jewish culture that  is not derived from religiosity, but the very notion of secular Judaism  is indeed an empty one, since no such thing exists. His new book,  actually a moderately long essay, should instead have been called “Why I Never Was a Jew,” since Sand is emphatic that nothing he has ever  believed in has really been Jewish. His entire life, or as much of it as comes to light in what is also an abbreviated autobiography, led up to  the moment he realized his total lack of a Jewish identity. But more than anything else, while reading Sand’s new book, I felt I  was a religious affairs reporter once again, back in the days when I  read the ultra-Orthodox newspapers daily. Sand could have easily been a  pundit for one of them. I don’t mean those of the rabidly anti-Israel  Neturei Karta sect, but the more mainstream Haredi publications, like  Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia and Mahane Haredi, whose standard line is to  deride and denigrate any manifestation of Jewish secularity.

Just like the Haredi ideologues, Sand denies there is such a thing as  Jewish secular culture. No achievement of Jewish secularists, he says,  can be regarded as being Jewish, but is, rather, universal or belonging  to the nations where they took place. The involvement of people of  Jewish ancestry to him is totally incidental. This is classic Haredi  thinking: Judaism and Jewishness only manifest in rabbinically  prescribed religious practice – everything else is goyishe stuff. Once again, Sand’s most recent offering has caused much anger,  particularly among Israelis and Jewish supporters of Israel from the  right. This time most of the fury has been directed at his  characterization of Israel as “one of the most racist societies in the  Western world” in a shortened version of the book that appeared in The  Guardian. But while that is only to be expected, the new non-Jewish Sand poses little threat to the right wing; it is Jewish secular leftists he is challenging, particularly the anti-Zionist ones. I realized this at a lecture he gave last month at the London Middle  East Institute and the Center for Jewish Studies at the School of  Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Nearly 300 people  came to listen to Sand talk about his new book; a great many of them of  that specific demographic that, for want of a better description, can be labeled “conflicted Jews.”

 In the Q&A part of the lecture, two of  them asked Sand, with real pain in their voices, “instead of stopping  being a Jew, why didn’t you write ‘How I Stopped Being an Israeli?’” They simply couldn’t understand how their admired writer, who has  dedicated a major part of his writing career to dismantling what he sees as the fake mythology of Jewish nationalism, and lambasting the Israeli state, could deny the Jewish part of his identity in favor of his  Israeli one. But Sand has done the opposite of what they expected of him (and some of them have actually done themselves). Not only has he  constructed for himself a new form of Israeli identity, but he denies  these secular, progressive, non-Zionist Jews their intellectual  integrity. He ridicules those who claim to be upholding Jewish values  while criticizing Israel, and writes that they are no different from  “overt pro-Zionists.” These “anti-Zionist Jews” who have never lived in  Israel, he writes, “claim a particular right, different from that of  non-Jews, to make accusations against Israel.” Living in their  “diaspora,” a term he dismisses with quotation marks, they are “granting themselves the privilege of actively intervening in decisions regarding the future and fate of Israel.”

No universalist ethics

Sand denies the special right of secular non-Zionists to band together  as Jews, as they do in dozens of organizations and forums, and sit in  judgment of Israel. He goes further, accusing them of the same sin as  Jewish nationalists; of trying to claim that there is something special  or better about their Judaism. “But Zionism did pick up a lot of things  from Judaism,” he argues. “And even if Zionism is not Judaism, it  doesn’t mean that Judaism is an ethical religion – Judaism doesn’t allow marrying a non-Jew. Jewish ethics are not the ethics I dream of, it’s  not universalist ethics.”

Sand here is echoing both the ultra-Orthodox, who accuse the secular of transplanting foreign ideals into “authentic” Judaism, and Benjamin  Netanyahu, who famously said, “the leftists have forgotten what it is to be Jews.” Sand wants Jews to choose: You can be either religious or  nationalist (or both), but if you are neither, then you are not Jewish.  And don’t bother him with talk of Jewish ancestry and DNA, because if  that’s your alternative, then your definition of Jewishness is racial,  just like the anti-Semites.

There is nothing ethical about Judaism, says Sand, blasting away the  much cherished liberal notion of tikkun olam – if it’s enlightened, then it’s universal, and therefore not Jewish. The long lists of brave  Jewish revolutionaries and human rights advocates so beloved of  progressive Jews mean nothing, he claims. If anything, they were denying their parochial Jewish roots and joining a bigger and better global  brotherhood of man and woman.

Sand is the scourge of anti-Zionist secular Jews. Criticize Israel, by  all means, he tells them; but if you identify yourselves as Jews when  doing so, you’re phonies. You don’t get any special moral standing just  by accident of birth. You are no better than the goyim. He of course does have a special right to excoriate Israel. He is an  Israeli and prefers the citizenship of Israel to being a Jew, despite  Israel’s many faults, and racism that leads him to believe it will  “perhaps soon” be as bad as “1930s Germany” (though not 1940s, he  insists). His vision of a better Israel is simply a less Jewish one. “I  grew up there and lived there,” and these ties bind him forever: “My  culture is Israeli culture” (yes, there is such a thing). He even ends  the book with Theodor Herzl’s exhortation, “If you will it, it is no  legend.”

Mirroring the right

And here is his next major letdown for the anti-Zionist left. Of  course, Sand wants Israel to relinquish its notions of Jewish supremacy  and end the occupation, in the hope that it will end the conflict with  the Palestinians; but he isn’t willing to accept the Palestinian  narrative. Many of the audience were distressed to hear that he opposes  the Palestinian “right of return” because “it’s a denial of the  existence of the State of Israel.” This led an astonished  British-Palestinian academic to say to him, “I really liked you until  you said that.”

How awful for her that this fierce critic of Jewish nationalism refuses to embrace Palestinian nationalism instead. She would have been  devastated if she knew that Sand agrees with the Zionist right that the  Palestinian people are an invention. In 2012, he said in a Haaretz  interview that “the Palestinians were Arabs who lived in this region for hundreds of years. Zionist colonization forged the Palestinian people.” Many of his arguments against a return of the Palestinian refugees  mirror those used by the right.

He says that Israel’s War of Independence was just like other “wars of  the 1940s that kicked out minorities,” and the Palestinians don’t  deserve any special right of return just because unlike those expelled  in other wars, they were forced to remain refugees. He blames the Arab  states for perpetuating the refugee problem, along with Israel for  creating it. “The Arabs kept these children in the camps and they have  their responsibility, also with their nice solidarity. Let these people  go out of this shit of the camps.”

Sand advocates equal rights for all Israeli citizens; indeed, one of  his reasons for proclaiming he is not a Jew is that he doesn’t want to  belong to one set of “privileged” Israelis. But at one point in his  lecture, he echoed Avigdor Lieberman, when he raised the following fear: “What if the Arabs in Galilee want to have a Kosovo?” He also rejects  the Israel = apartheid equation much beloved of the anti-Zionist left;  not because Israel is any less racist in his reckoning, but because  unlike South Africa, which could not exist without its black population, Israel’s economy is robust enough to do without the Palestinians.

Sand’s challenge to secular Jews who refuse to be defined by religious  belief and practice is a strong and eloquent one. In the absence of  religion, he claims, there are only ersatz identities, such as clinging  to memories of persecution, which has largely disappeared from the  world. Everyone wants to be a survivor, he says, that’s the real  “Holocaust industry.” Or else Jewishness in this day and age is defined  by one’s artificial relationship with Israel, whether it’s support or  repudiation.

Sand takes advantage of a peculiar vulnerability of today’s  non-religious Jews – their failure to articulate what it means to be  Jewish in a century where no one is trying to shut them into a ghetto or murder them. Being Jewish without religion, he insists, means living in the past; it has no base in the present or future. But his insistence that if it cannot be defined, then it does not exist, is also his weakest point. Just like the Haredi outlook, Sand’s perspective of Judaism is a  fundamentalist one. He disregards the fact that ultra-Orthodoxy is also  just another reinvention of Judaism – in this case a reaction to the  18th-century Enlightenment and the auto-emancipation of the next two  centuries. In every generation, Jews fought with the contradictions of  their faith and allowed themselves to pick and choose. It was always a  nebulous identity, but never the weaker for that.

The identity of the skeptics and the heretics and the rebels was  Jewish, precisely because they chose it to be, and denied the rabbis the right to decide for them. Who can deny them that?

Sand implores his readers to allow him not to be Jewish; that should be his right. But at the same time, he cedes the right to define who is a  Jew to the rabbis. To win his freedom to define himself as he chooses,  he wants to deprive the rest of us of our freedom to remain Jews on our  own terms. https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif   

Tunisia – Victory for the Left as the Islamists are Defeated


It is always welcome news, especially in the Middle East, to hear of the defeat of the Islamic Right, who use religion to reinforce the power of the market and the mullahs and their corrupt hangers-on.

Tony Greenstein


By Laryssa Chomiak October 29 
Women look at candidate lists for parliamentary elections Oct. 26 in the Tunisian village of Chebika)
.Elation beamed from supporters of Tunisia’s secular Nidaa Tunis party just hours after polls closed Oct. 26, marking Tunisia’s second democratic elections after the Arab Spring. Nidaa Tunis is headed by the charismatic Beji Caid Essebsi and is an eclectic conglomerate of cadres from the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, big business, left-wing intellectuals and unionists. The party unseated Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that swept the 2011 legislative elections. For months, analysts and voters pitted Ennahda against Nidaa Tunis, painting a polarized political field. Religion against secularism appeared to be the name of Tunisia’s electoral game.

Yet the country’s political field is much more diverse than that. With 1,327 candidate lists vying for seats during the three week long campaign, streets were crowded with boisterous rallies and clamorous parades, representing a wide variety of reforms, programs and promises. Preliminary election results reflect Tunisia’s political diversity with a third of voters choosing between extreme leftists, determined capitalists and independents. When glancing beyond the capital of Tunis to the country’s economically challenged interior and south, a simplistic secularist over Islamist victory does injustice to the richness of Tunisia’s shrewd post-revolutionary political evolution.

In Gafsa, the phosphate-rich epicenter of southwest Tunisia, and the neighboring mining town of Redeyef, lofty debates about religion and secularism mean very little to residents. Unemployment in the area soars, and disgruntled residents complain of no improvements since the 2011 toppling of Ben Ali, blaming Ennahda’s governance as much as corrupt interests of the lingering old guard in Tunis. Life in the mining region differs remarkably from that of Tunisia’s capital, but to many residents and local leaders, Gafsa is where the Tunisian Revolution began. In 2008, two years before the Arab Spring, a six-month rebellion by unemployed minors, leftist activists and defected unionists in the mining region was violently crushed by Ben Ali’s security forces. The region was on fire as protesters took to the street every week, fundamentally shaking the regime. Candidates from the region, especially leftists, heavily lambast the post-revolutionary political elite for dismissing the region’s longstanding political tradition. In Redeyef, a town dotted with dilapidated buildings from the French colonial period and flimsy constructions of the 1960s and 1970s, unemployment has reached an estimated high of 40 percent. Most affected are educated youth who desperately seek entry into the phosphate industry. Phosphates extraction, production and trade constitute one third of Tunisia’s economy, yet the industry is heavily controlled by the Tunisian state, which has done little to reinvest in the region.

Poster of Argentinian Marxist Revolutionary Che Guevara hanging near a Tunisian flag at the Redeyef Office of the Popular Front. (Laryssa Chomiak)
Though Ennahda swept the elections in the mining region in 2011, the area has always been a bastion for politics concerned with workers’ rights and economic equality. One of the region’s most celebrated local leaders, Adnen Hajii, the so-called Che Guevara of the south, led the 2008 rebellion and has now secured a seat in the 217-member parliament on an independent ticket. He ran along-side the Popular Front coalition, an eclectic mix of 12 parties and civil society organizations, inspired by mid-century intellectual Marxism, Leninism, Arab and Tunisian Nationalism, and European-style social democracy.

Bordered by Algeria to the west and the Sahara desert to the south, Redeyef has historically suffered from underdevelopment and mismanaged economic plans, yet its political vibrancy mirrors none other in Tunisia. Days before the Oct. 26 elections, residents were out in full force, braving the unbearably dry heat to welcome political celebrities. Leftist Hamma Hammami, the Popular Front’s charismatic leader and long-time opponent of Tunisia’s first and second presidents, Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, visited his loyal followers, many of whom participated in the 2008 rebellion. A recent visit by Slim Riahi, leader of the Free Patriotic Union party, businessman and president of Club African, a popular Tunisian soccer club, captured a surprising amount of support by coming in third, less so for his liberal economic affinities than his soccer profile. Original campaigns by both political factions garnered them well over 10 percent of parliamentary seats, one of the elections’ surprises.
Leftist tendencies in Tunisia have regained much of their former popular appeal following two political assassinations of leftist leaders – Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July 2013, respectively. The second assassination spiraled Tunisia into a political crisis and inspired a movement, Rahil (Get out), which called for the resignation of the Ennahda-led Troika government. Voters dissatisfied with both Ennahda’s performance and Nidaa Tunis’s program have been drawn to smaller parties, from leftists to those with clear liberal economic agendas. Discussing platforms with groups of leftists in the sparse offices of the Popular Front or Hajji’s party on election day, the mood was clear: Local economic needs trump all other ills.

In regions such as Gafsa, plans for economic equality, redistribution and a heavy regulatory state dominated platforms and public speeches. The Popular Front is first and foremost committed to democracy, principles of social justice and economic equality. But its members cringe when you call them leftists. They have a keen reading of politics: A retired philosophy teacher who taught at a local school in Redeyef clarifies that leftist militancy served a purpose before the Revolution, “it allowed us to unite and fight against Ben Ali and his cronies.” With a smile he says, “Today we have become democrats, we are pragmatic about Tunisia’s future.” The Popular Front, projected to have won 12 seats, wants to ensure a political balance between the leading factions in parliament. “The Popular Front is an example of a party that represents Tunisia’s most pressing needs and one that can function as a legitimate counter-power in parliament by placing a check on both Nidaa Tunis and Ennahda,” says Noaman Ben Ammar, a young, unemployed activist from Gafsa who participated in the 2008 Rebellion and is now a member of the Popular Front. Those who voted for leftists and other smaller parties are thrilled – not only have their economic woes found a voice in the assembly for the first time, but their decision to not vote “strategically” has paid off.

As stories abound about a strong victory of secularism versus Islamism, or the faulty perception that Tunisians are polarized on a religion-secularism dichotomy, those who voted for the smaller parties are content.They understand that in a nascent democracy, a wide variety of platforms with diverse promises are more valuable than a clustering of interests around one or two political factions. “I am a devout Muslim,” says a member of Hajji’s party from Redeyef, “but I will only vote for candidates who represent the real dire needs of my region. For us the only solution is a strong leftist voice in Tunis.” Painting Tunisia as split between religion and secularism cheapens the country’s extraordinary progress toward democratic pluralism.

The parliamentary elections showed that voters’ political inclinations stretched far beyond the ideological splits of religion versus secularism. Such labels have become fashionable means to make sense of Arab Spring countries, yet they don’t represent Tunisia’s fascinating political, if not democratic reality. For the country’s south, which has been plagued by economic ills since independence, there is hope. “For the first time,” says Ammar, “our needs are represented in the assembly.” The proliferation of political parties and extraordinary strength of civil society defining Tunisian politics following the 2011 Revolution show that Tunisia’s democracy is, indeed, in its making.


Laryssa Chomiak is a political scientist and director of the Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines in Tunis. She is finalizing her upcoming book on the politics of dissent under Ben Ali’s Tunisia and portions of her work have appeared as book chapters and journal articles in Middle East Law and Governance, The Journal of North African Studies, Portal 9 and Middle East Report.