The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Links 15 November - 5 December 2017

I try to blog the links I bookmark (and that get automatically posted to the @arabist Twitter account) every couple of weeks. Those links are usually things I think are worth highlighting for one reason or another. For the last two weeks I was traveling a lot, and have decided to give up on the 40+ tabs I have open in Safari and simply dump them below. So only a few proper links:

and a huge Safari tab dump:

LinksThe EditorsComment
Links 1-14 November 2017

Above, gratuitous feature of The Prisoner's opening theme in honor of Saad Hariri's "resignation" – but mostly because I'm rewatching at the moment.

Recently on The Arabist:

And the links:

LinksThe Editors
The Arab world is not ready for complacency

This commentary was contributed by friend of the blog Dr H.A. Hellyer, who is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London.

One would think the whole 'Arabs aren't ready for democracy' shtick would get old at some point. But it doesn't. The virus of this strand of pseudo-intellectualism is an equal opportunity one, across the board, whether the carriers are politicians, diplomats, journalists or just your average taxi driver (that last one, not really; that’s just an additionally problematic way of understanding the region, but I digress).

When the claim of ‘they’re not ready’ comes from within the region, it's simply a way for autocrats, dictators and worse to justify their abuses and maltreatments. When it comes from outside of it, it's merely a new way of expressing a 'bigotry of low expectations', underpinned by a skewed and self-serving cultural relativism. Or, to put it bluntly: “what kind of standards can you really expect these kinds of people to uphold? I mean, after all, they are what they are…”

The Complacency of ‘Within’: Colonel Jessup is at the party, not just in Gitmo

We’ve seen that from rulers and officials from within the region, of course. To defend, excuse and minimise the seriousness of abuses they oversee or have responsibility for, they revert to this crude style of orientalism. They caricature their own people, so that their own problematic rule is justified. “Yes, we’re abusing our own people – and so what? This isn’t the West, and they’re not Westerners. We’re in a rough neighbourhood, we’re not all educated, and you need to understand what we are going through – the responsibilities we have – the challenges and problems we face – so leave us be.”

It reminds me so much of that scene in that 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, where Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, defends his ordering of an abuse of a soldier (Santiago) under his command:

Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the Marines…You have the luxury of not knowing what I know; that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall!”

How many times have we heard the autocrats and their domestic apologists use the same logic. But the situation is worse. Because they’re not just talked about at the parties, like Colonel Jessup is talked about – they are at those parties, as honoured guests.

The Complacency of ‘Without’: ‘The natives said they aren’t ready, and they’re right!’

And when it comes to the advocates for these kinds of figures, who will do the party invites, write the raving reviews and the delirious declarations – they will just say, ‘well, they’re not ready for democracy. They even said so themselves, and they’re right.’

How convenient, of course – especially when we, as governments, want to sell weapons and arms to these autocrats, with no strings attached. When we, as writers and journalists, want to act as propagandists for the same. At so many levels, this skewed ‘cultural relativism’ is deployed, time and again. It has nothing to do with respect for difference and pluralism, and everything to do with shirking basic human responsibilities.

Pragmatism isn’t evil. To minimise further damage to regional stability, to ensure lives are saved rather than slaughtered by the likes of ISIS and worse; sometimes, it is necessary to work with unsavoury characters. But there is a clear difference between engaging in order to reduce harm and increase benefit – and engaging because we essentially don’t care about anything more than the bottom line.

So, let us be frank – the ‘not ready’ argument is little more than a 21st century version of that old ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric that underpinned the colonialist endeavour. It is just a shallow and thinly disguised regurgitation to justify our complacency, our lack of care, our rank disinterest in the well-being of the peoples of this region, all the while we seek to benefit ourselves by them.

Has anywhere ever been ‘ready’? No: we all makes mistakes and we all learn

But here's the truth of it - has there ever been a place that has been 'ready' for 'democracy'? Or, let's break it down, to avoid the tired old tool of ‘democracy is a Western, imperialist, non-universal way of governing’. Indeed, the Arab world ought to be able to produce its own indigenous ways of governing, without fetishizing the modern nation-state model. So, let’s ask: has any place in the world – in human history – been ‘ready’ for respecting the fundamental rights of all, while choosing their representatives openly and freely?

No, of course not. Was the United States 'ready', when it started out with slavery, and systematic exploitation of Africans on its soil for centuries? Was it ‘ready’ for democracy, when it elected a man who is daily chipping away at its fundamentals? Was the UK ‘ready’, as we colonised much of the known world? Is the United Kingdom 'ready', when we voted 'yes' in a referendum that is leading us to economic turmoil, a referendum tainted by xenophobic memes? Was Europe ‘ready’, as we perpetrated the Holocaust? Is Europe 'ready', when the bigoted populism of the far-right is the fresh new game in town?

No, there's no place that is 'ready'. We all learn – by being given chances, and opportunities, and options. We might all make mistakes, and grievous ones at that. We might make mistakes with Islamists; with anti-Islamists; with right-wingers; with left-wingers; across the board. But they will be our mistakes, and no one else's.

We all have the right to have that chance: stand for that, or be silent We all have the right to have that chance - and if the comfortable, privileged few within these lands of the Arab world want to disavow their own right to have that chance, that's their choice. But they do not have the right to negate that choice for the rest.

For those of us outside of the Arab world, who find it easy to accept the supercilious worldview of these few; those of us who are comfortable in accepting the 'barbaric Arabs who need a strong man to control them’, because it makes it easier to ingratiate the autocrats... well. You ought not to be surprised when you're called out on it.

And when you are called out – don’t act so wounded. Long after your emotional bruises are healed, there will be people fighting & struggling; pushing & pulling; to fight the good fight & to hold back the tide, to hold the line & to keep the faith. All to make a difference; all while you're back on your comfortable couch in suburbia, pontificating about these ‘objects’ of discussions. They’re not objects – they’re human beings, with their own dreams and the right to have those dreams.

And when you finally start to ponder, ponder this: if your assertion really is that this region is not 'ready', then explain why so many in 2011 insisted - nay, they revolted - in order to have a chance to say 'no: we demand the right to choose; and to be treated as human beings.' What, because they are tired, six years later, exhausted and healing, they are suddenly domesticated pets? Is your view so shallow, your perspective so narrow, your outlook so self-serving?

If you would not stand with them, that's fine. It's your choice. It would be a credit to you if you did, and an honour you would earn nowhere else. But if you wouldn't, then respect their struggle, admire their sacrifice, and remain silent, without implicitly or explicitly admiring their oppressors. Decency demands no less.

A visiting professor at the Centre for the Advanced Study of Islam, Science and Civilisation in Kuala Lumpur, Hellyer is the author of several books including A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond RevoltMuslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans and the forthcoming A Sublime Path: the Way of the Sages of Makka. You can follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

The Editors 2 Comments
A new podcast from The Arabist and ArabLit: BULAQ
bulaq-burnt ornage on turq - lores.jpg

I am so pleased and excited to be co-hosting a new podcast on books in, from, and about the Arab world with M Lynx Qualey of ArabLit. I read many more interesting books than I am able to review or write about and I can't think of anyone I'd rather discuss them with than MLQ. It should also be an opportunity to look at literary news, cases of censorship, and the kinds of debates and exchanges that books provoke in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. Our first episode focuses on a novel about gay life in Cairo, "In The Spider's Room," and much more. 

This is an experiment and a labor of love. With the help of our producer (my amazing husband Issandr El Amrani) we are still working on improving the sound quality (i.e.  soundproofing my small office). We will also be tweaking the format as we go along. We hope you'll join us for the ride. You can subscribe in the iTunes Store.  

Links 14-31 October 2017

For the Pyramids nerds among you, read more about the new cavity found in Khufu with cosmic rays (which alone should revive a whole genre, popular in the 1970s, of aliens-build-the-pyramids literature) in Nature and the researchers' press release.

And now for the rest of the links:

LinksThe Editors
Cross-pollination

I was just in Cairo, a visit that inspired the usual mixed feelings: the aching pleasure of the familiar; the somewhat dulled pain at the loss of all the hopes that burned so bright here just a few years ago; the awe that this city-to-end-all-cities inspires (and the suspicion that I couldn't survive its daily grind anymore). 

I was there to talk about writing an editing with my former colleagues and all-the-time heroes at the one-of-its-kind independent web site Mada Masr (blocked in Egypt until now but still publishing there on Facebook and running a full operation). 

In our discussion, I used several readings that the Beirut-based research and analysis organization Synaps has shared online. Developed out of their own grappling with the writing/editing process, these materials are very well written and engaging and pushed me to think about my own writing -- about how often I struggle, when starting a piece, with answering the basic questions, because they are the hardest. For anyone writing journalism, analysis, or research, I strongly suggest checking them out and sharing them. 

And it was just neat to be at one unique venture in Cairo using materials from another original and self-reflective organization in Beirut. Right now in terms of intellectual and cultural and media life in the region it seems like we are in a phase of survival -- just hoping some bright spots can hold on and last long enough to see us through, keep open a little space for thought and hope and discussion. 

Ursula Lindseymadamasr, synaps
Links 10 September - 13 October 2017

Another overdue link dump:

LinksThe Editors
In Translation: The Kurdish referendum and Arab Male Chauvinism

The In Translation series, in which we publish translations of commentaries from Arabic, is brought to you courtesy of our partners at the excellent Industry Arabic translation service. In this installment researcher Rasha Al Aqeedi takes to task the Iraqi newspaper Al-Nahar for its coverage of the recent referendum on independence in Kurdistan. 

Al-Nahar newspaper and Arab Male Chauvinism

Al Hurra newspaper, September 28, 2017

By Rasha Al Aqeedi

The result of Kurdistan’s referendum, in which the “yes” vote exceeded 90%, was no surprise to observers of the Kurdish issue. The Iraqi response was also expected. Feelings of suspicion, fear, and legitimate anger were mixed with Arab chauvinism and abhorrent anti-Kurdish racism – practices that are easily denied yet experienced by every Kurd carrying an Iraqi passport at least once in his life. But as with all forms of defamation, the reaction of the Baghdad-based al-Nahar newspaper summarizes not only the tragic relations of the Kurds with their partners at home, but also the depth of nationalism’s moral decline.

An image implying a young woman’s gang rape by a group of men headlined the page. The page designer intended the young woman to represent Kurdistan, and the men the neighboring countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, in a vulgar and macho display unbecoming of a newspaper bearing the logo of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate or of a society calling for moderation. The controversial Al-Nahar newspaper does not represent the Iraqi press, but its choice to use that image requires all of us to face a difficult truth: Iraqi society is still chauvinistic from top to bottom, and the “female” is still used to insult the “male.”

Rape has historically been a deliberate military strategy used to strike fear into the hearts of societies and to instill a feeling of defeat in the enemy by insulting his honor, making rape, or even the threat of rape, a form of broad-based psychological warfare last used in Iraq when thousands of Yazidi women were abused. They were humiliated and repeatedly raped by ISIS militants in the name of religion after their men were slaughtered. What would prompt al-Nahar to brandish the image of the rape of Kurdistan in the name of nationalism?

Systemic anti-Kurdish racism is the legacy of generations of Arab chauvinism, which sees other nationalities as outsiders who do not deserve first-class citizenship. In an outpouring of racial spite, derogatory discourse is immediately invoked anytime the “intruders” do not please the “masters.”  Even clerics do not hesitate to provoke rivalries overflowing with anti-Kurdish hate, as some call the Kurds “demons” and see it as their moral duty to fight them.

Interjecting women into the political debate to extort the “other” is nothing new.  Eastern society is both obsessed with, and afraid of, sex. The issue most often revolves around the honor of women: violating it where it is associated with the enemy and seeking to defend it where it is associated with oneself. As sectarianism in Iraq deepened following the fall of the former regime, Saddam loyalists and Arab sectarian groups began to call Iraqi Shias the “sons of mutaa.”  After a decade, the oldest Shia chauvinists fired back, calling Sunnis “sexual jihadists.” Both counteracted the other side’s disparagement by accusing its women of immoral and indecent behavior.

This is not the first time “free” pens in Iraq have expressed a political opinion about a region or sect by portraying the “other” as a sinful or raped woman. During the liberation of Fallujah, the hashtag #fallujah_washes_away_its_shame (الفلوجة_تغسل_عارها#)  and a caricature of a young woman returning home, with her head down as her father waits to discipline her for the “shame” she has inflicted on him, spread across Twitter.

Rejection of the referendum and Kurdish independence can be expressed in measured words, a targeted image, or constructive criticism, but invoking this superficial notion of honor, designed to threaten and intimidate, reflects only the weakness of the argument and the weakness of the individual. It is not possible to see inside the mind of the designer, but one can make some assumptions as to the angry neighbors that await an independent Kurdistan.

The implication that rape and sexual violence is somehow a legitimate form of punishment is an expression of a societal malady deeply rooted in history. All human societies have suffered from this disease, which has not been fully treated but has been contained in many cultures. The culture of the Middle East, however, is not among them.  Al-Nahar owes an apology to all Kurds, and to the countries whose names it has involuntarily attached to an offensive image. Print media is a source of reform: Iraq’s ills cannot be addressed if the media is a source of corrosion.

Life in Cairo
Graffiti in Cairo: "Imagine Tomorrow." Photo by Parastou Hassouri. 

Graffiti in Cairo: "Imagine Tomorrow." Photo by Parastou Hassouri. 

the other day i walked down the street wearing a dress but it might as well have been a sign saying hurl abuse at me but don't you dare think about stopping or before you know it there'll be a voice in your ear telling you exactly what you are to them or a hand between your legs telling you exactly what they're going to do to you so shut your mouth and open your eyes and keep fucking walking, walk past the kid at your feet who hasn't eaten in three days selling tissues under a billboard that he can't read selling mansions where kids selling tissues aren't allowed to exist, past the building that casually leaned against its neighbor and the train that tripped and fell or flew and the prison where all your friends hang out, past the battles you thought were romantic once upon a time but turned out to be just as dismal as the soon-to-be-banned pop song blaring from the radios you can't shut out as you maneuver between cars that haven't moved for the past five hours and puppetmasters that haven't moved for the past five decades, past all the posturing and mediocrity and melodrama and even faster past all the absurdity and horror and heartbreak, skirt around the mounting piles of trash/teenagers being taught lessons at police stations in lieu of functional education systems, and while you're at it, you might as well pick up a state-authored paper from a dusty stack and catch up on what's happening in an alternate universe near you but be sure to avert your eyes and what remains of your heart from the actual news you can't access on the four hundred and twenty four blocked websites about a person being tortured for asking a question or taking a photo or wearing the wrong t-shirt or having an opinion or an imagination or some really shit luck, watch your step though for that dripping air-conditioner and collapsing bridge and animal carcass and particularly that stranger who doesn't know if he's more outraged at the idea that you appear to have a vagina and an undercut or a penis and multiple earrings, but you don't have time to wait for him to figure it out, you need to pick up a useless document signed by a man making ersatz peanuts even before they floated the currency who won't give it to you for a reason he won't tell you at an institution that will ensure that you are traumatized enough to never attempt to ask for it again, but don't panic, just take a fume-filled breath and pirouette around the brain that exploded on the sidewalk because it was shot for getting too close to the truth or maybe it just combusted spontaneously when it realized that it's trapped in a body that's trapped in a place where you're not allowed to think speak move touch sleep leave hope try share eat — if you can't afford it or if you happen to be hungry when the sun's out during the holy month of ramadan — hide fight rest gather breathe feel fuck act yell be dream heal dance die with any semblance of fucking peace, a foreign word reserved for mystical people (spies and whores, naturally) in faraway lands, all of whom, you are informed about fifty times a day, are conspiring to pillage the generous resources pouring out of the orifices of your three-thousand-year-old civilization like blood from that mosquito you killed on your thigh or from that woman who wanted to place flowers on a monument on the anniversary of a day you wish with everything you have you could forget, but you can't unlive unfeel unsee any of it, not even the fifteen minutes you spent skimming the hundreds of comments vilifying some kids who waved a rainbow flag at a concert that somehow still make you seethe and sigh and sink even though you'd think at this point in your life it wouldn't hurt this badly given that you already fucking know, goddammit, that almost everyone around you is unwavering in their conviction that what is different is sick and must die, but even that doesn't hurt as badly as realizing that the handful of people who don't think that are too broken to save people who are actually sick from dying, and so be prepared to spend a relatively alarming portion of your youth at burials where you're pointedly told not to grieve out loud because crying is of no help to the dead. praying, however, is encouraged at all times.

Habiba Effat (@HabibaEffat) is a copyeditor and an occasional writer with independent Egyptian journalism platform Mada Masr.

The Editorscairo, effat
Events in Tunisia

The Tunisian government passed two pieces of legislation last week. One, the infamous economic reconciliation law (which has been championed by President Essebsi since he took office), is designed to protect businessmen and former regime figures from prosecution for corruption. For more on corruption in Tunisia and the tug-of-war between the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (whose now undermined mandate includes corruption) and the government, you can read my report in The Nation from Tunisia last Spring.

The Tunisian government also announced it will be the first Arab country to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. This is excellent news, but the timing fo the announcement seems deeply cynical, designed to draw attention away from the much more complicated issue of corruption, and to use the state's feminist credentials as a form of international propaganda (something Tunisia has a long history of doing.)

Links 26 August - 9 September 2017
LinksThe Editors
Links 19-25 August 2017
LinksThe Editors
In Translation: Sisi's war on the Egyptian constitution

Rather predictably – as predictable as his bid for the presidency was after he led the 2013 coup – Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi has been in recent months airing trial balloons on amending the 2013 constitution (supposed to be, in theory at least, a consensual text that brings together a variety of political factions, even it excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and others) to allow himself to become, like his predecessors, a president for life. Cue the protests from his defenders that these are ill-advised initiatives by his over-eager fans; but of course even if Sisi may not be as daring as pushing for such changes now, he is certain to do so after he wins what was supposed to be his second and last term in the 2018 presidential elections. You can expect him to reluctantly answer the popular cry for him to serve his country, sacrificing himself (he had been looking forward to quiet retirement, etc.) as countless other dictators have done so before him, from Sisi's friend Vladimir Putin to his arch-enemy Recep Tayyep Erdogan.  

Arguably, Egyptian constitutional principles have been eroded to such an extent under Sisi that this is simply making official a de facto state of affairs. The symbolism of the formal change, however, is serious, as could be legal repercussions that further enshrine today's state of emergency into the constitution. It would further push the regime's opponents – not all cuddly revolutionary types, to be sure – into a zero-sum logic and amplify the rationale that all hope is lost. Putting term limits on the presidency was, after all, one of the few political gains made among the generally meager returns of the Egyptian uprising. It offers, even from today's bleak prospects, the possibility of an eventual change in leadership that might prevent the ossification of the regime (see Algeria today, Egypt under Mubarak, etc.) This is why even mild-mannered critics of the current Egyptian regime who supported the 2013 coup and Sisi's presidential bid are aghast at this turn of events. The piece below, penned by the founder of the Social Democratic Party, is a case in point.

Thanks to our friends at Industry Arabic for making this feature possible. Please check them out if you need your documents translated into Arabic, they do a great job with a quick turnaround.

Amending the Constitution Is a Novel Egyptian Disaster

Mohammed Abou al-Ghar, al-Masri al-Youm, 21 August 2017

We have heard the voices of regime mouthpieces – who have personally benefited from the current regime in the form of high-level positions and other privileges – calling for the constitution to be amended. The reason? To extend the president’s term, possibly indefinitely. I would like to remind you that since 1952, none of Egypt’s previous presidents have voluntarily left office. Mohammed Naguib was deposed in a coup, Abdel Nasser died after 18 years in power, Sadat was assassinated after 11 years in office, Mubarak was overthrown by revolution after 29 years of rule, and Morsi was deposed by the people and the army after just a one year. So why would Sisi enter this vicious cycle? Is there some logic in his thinking?

Some say that under dictatorial rule, every president carries out unconstitutional and illegal measures, such that if he ever leaves office, he and his cronies would face trial and retribution. Therefore, in such systems, the president only leaves by force or in death.

The regime’s henchmen are the beneficiaries of this spectacle. They are the ones who adorn any president who undermines the constitution. Then they demand that he remain in office for life, not out of love for him, but out of love for themselves and their positions. Now, are there legal or popular challenges and problems to amending the constitution?

  1. Lawmakers must remember what happened in the days of Mubarak when parliament tried to make controversial amendments to the constitution. That was after all one of the reasons for the end of Mubarak’s rule. They must, no doubt, be cautious. Indeed, the skill, experience and intelligence of Fathi Sorour, the distinguished university professor and the brilliant lawyer, has no equal in the current parliamentary leadership.
  2. The world has completely changed in the 21st century. It is true that terrorism in the Middle East has given the Egyptian regime broad freedom to act with US, European, Gulf, and Israeli support, but these things do not last forever. Moreover, such support bears a high cost that is now being paid for by Egypt’s freedom to make its own decision. The time will come when the president will no longer be able to pay that price; the support will dry up, and with massive foreign and domestic debts, the situation will be an impossible one unless Egypt can maintain political cohesion and keep its people satisfied. The amendments will cause a new rift that will transform Tiran and Sanafir into a profound gulf, with the people on one side and the President on the other.
  3. Extending the president’s first term is legally impossible both in form and substance. The term is a legally binding contract between two parties – the people elected Sisi for 4 years, no more, no less. That cannot be changed with a law or a referendum or anything else, and any attempts at a referendum would be crazy.
  4. The constitution contains an article that clearly states that it is not permissible to change the articles pertaining to election of the president. The wisdom behind that article is well-established, because all of Egypt’s former presidents wanted to rule for life. Any change to this article would have the intention of keeping the president in office indefinitely. Egyptians want to see the day where a former president ends his term and leaves office: they want to experience rotation of power.
  5. Any planned constitutional amendments that have received approval to appear on a constitutional referendum must first present a referendum to abolish the constitution, as this article cannot be amended. Abolishing the Constitution would also mean abolishing the legitimacy of June 30, the very basis on which the current president was elected. Then we would write a new constitution to the current leadership’s liking before presenting it for referendum once again. Are you ready for two referendums in such a short time, followed by presidential elections, just to consolidate the president’s stay in office?
  6. Is the Egyptian regime capable of holding an honest referendum that gives everyone in the media the chance to speak their mind and then follow that up with presidential elections with the same level of transparency? Of course not. The media is almost completely nationalized and will not allow any competitor the opportunity to express his opinion or explain his point of view; it would just as soon assassinate him as let an opposition voice speak freely.
  7. The regime believes itself to be quite strong, and in fact it is quite strong with considerable foreign aid, but there are severe internal weaknesses, including terrorism and the serious erosion of the economy caused by misguided policies and an unwillingness to listen to any other point of view, and due to the imprisonment of thousands, the shredding of the constitution and the law, chaos, and corruption. In such circumstances, we must reach an understanding with the people and agree upon a future policy in order to overcome our terrible problems, and not by drafting dangerous constitutional amendments that paralyze the country and put us in the middle of yet another mess.
  8. Finally, I do not believe that this was [Speaker of Parliament Ali] Abdel Aal’s idea or that of his colleagues because when one of them brought it up not too long ago, he was told to shut up and be silent. Please be careful, Egypt has 21 million angry young men with no permanent or regular work.

Please think a little and wait until next time, there is no need to be so reckless. Leave well enough alone!

Rise up, Egyptian! Egypt always calls on you!

Links 11 July - 18 August 2017

Most of these are from last week, as we slowly gear up after holidays...

LinksThe Editors
On feminism in Tunisia

I visited Tunis last month and one thing I was interested in finding out more about was what kind of discussions Tunisian feminists are having in the aftermath of the Ben Ali regime -- and of the detailed and horrifying revelations of human rights abuses against women (particularly Islamist women) that took place in this most "feminist" of Arab countries, one that does have the most progressive legislation on women's rights in the region. I find the questions raised by state feminism and the divide between secular and Islamic feminists fascinating. I wrote about it for Al Fanar

Meanwhile, independent female activists who criticized the regime faced harassment and vilification. And, as has been revealed by recent testimony collected by the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission, women associated with the Islamist movement were subjected to shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention and forced divorce.

“Was the Tunisian regime ‘feminist’ out of political necessity and to mask a democratic deficit…or out of modernist conviction? Does it even deserve to be called feminist?” writes Bessis. “What’s certain is that the regime was masterful in its ability to use women.”

It was also successful in dividing women. Under Ben Ali, says Mahmoud, Islamist and secularist women “might as well have existed in two different universes.” Secularist leftist women “were engaged in a political struggle with Islamists” and “did not do much to document or help Islamist women with what they were going through.”

“The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Abdellatif told me.