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The Arab Spring in North Africa at One-and-a-Half


Summer 2012


The ‘Sultanistic” authoritarian regimes and tyrants have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya but the euphoria and revolutionary enthusiasm generated in the first few months are now almost obsolete. The political and security scene in the three countries is still in flux, often chaotic and more confusing than ever.


“We do not forgive … do not forget  … expect us … ♥one love … one ‘shaab’ [people]” –-graffiti on a provincial school wall.

After the initial shock people are open to change, longing for social peace and stability—with whatever elements of society that are still functional, even if it’s the military or Islamists. There are major challenges: conceiving a new political and institutional framework; engineering new constitutions to formalize democratic governments; and holding parliamentary, presidential and local elections. These processes are underway in all three countries.

Islamists of both moderate and extremist persuasions are now vying for political power either at the ballot box or by other means—not necessarily peaceful ones. Some clearly hope to introduce Sharia religious law into the political system and enshrine it in the new constitutions. The rights of women, religious minorities, and all sorts of freedoms will accordingly suffer if there are not countervailing guarantees.

Only a few days after the overthrow of the Tunisian regime, self-appointed morality police turned up in the Tunis red-light district, where they threw Molotov cocktails into the brothels and threatened the women. In March 2012 a Salafist militant removed the Tunisian flag and raised the Jihadists’ black flag at the Manouba University near Tunis. A confrontation ensued that triggered the suspension of courses for weeks. A few weeks ago, a group of Salafists stormed an exhibition called “Spring of the Arts.” The rampage was triggered by a picture in which ants formed the words “Praise to God.”

A Salafist slogan on a mosque’s outer wall calling for restoration of  the caliphate خلافة as system of government. 


The Salafist groups have been emboldened by the passive reaction of the security services to stop them from intimidating and attacking anyone and anything they deem “un-Islamic.”



In Egypt, political Islam emerged strengthened from a revolution in which it played no part. The Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Salafists won the country’s first free parliamentary election. The Egyptian constitutional court, however, declared the parliamentary election to be invalid, and the military council curtailed the authority of the president even before the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate came into office, ultimately rendering him a mostly powerless figure.

The real message behind the recent Egyptian election is that the old regime / establishment is alive and well, but that the country is also deeply polarized. The road ahead looks increasingly hazardous and the outcome of any future political dynamic seems unknown.


In Libya, the legacy Gadhafi left behind doesn’t even resemble a workable state, with no political or civic institutions to speak of. The country’s July elections for a constitutional assembly, which will appoint a new interim government and a panel charged with drafting a new constitution surprisingly resulted in a resounding defeat for the political wing of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, bucking a trend of success for Islamist groups in other Arab Spring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.  A moderate National Forces Alliance scored a landslide victory over rival Islamist parties. (The quasi-parliament will convene for 18 months and will have two goals: to appoint a prime minister and a 60-member commission to draft a constitution).

However, the country remains very chaotic and the provisional central government has limited powers. In early June, an armed brigade occupied the airport in the capital Tripoli, and a few days later another militia arrested employees of the International Criminal Court. They had visited the former dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who has been jailed in the provincial city of Zintan since November — one of more than 4,000 Libyans being held prisoner by militias throughout the country.


Street art in Western Libya

Gadhafi asked his notorious “Who are you?” in one of his most frightening speeches in February 2011 addressed to his people. The Libyan’s responds, above, “we’ve been your tenants for the last 42 years.”

“Who are you?” [“Man antom?”] became a slogan during the Libyan Revolution; it’s equivalent to ‘Irhal’ which means “Go” or “Leave”  chanted  in other Arab Spring countries. Turned against Gadhafi by the people, “Who are you?” became a most famous revolutionary slogan along with “Jainag” which means “We are coming to get you.”

!“شبر شبر- بيت بيت- دار دار- زنقا زنقا- فرد فرد”

[Early in the uprising, Gaddafi threatened those who opposed him to pursue and fight them ‘inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley [zanga zanga] … A tautology that worked at his own expense in the end.]


The country consists of three regions: Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. The politicians in the east feel underrepresented and are calling for a confederacy (a loose federal system with substantive independent decision powers for the three regions). Last week, a convoy of jeeps carrying anti-aircraft guns blocked the coastal road between Tripoli and Benghazi. In the absence of any kind of a national military or police force, local militias and armed gangs have run amok in Libya’s cities, towns and villages. Strong separatist forces are also at play. Libya risks being torn apart by longstanding regional and tribal rivalries and by those who oppose even a return to the loose federal arrangement of the 1950s before Gadhafi seized power.

Traditional dancers in the town of Nalut in the western Nafusa mountain region. Notice the Amazigh flag held by the top dancer and the absence of the Libyan national flag

The Amazigh (Berber) flag



In all three Arab Spring countries, halfway between first landmark elections and the next round of voting early next year, the political scene is fractured, security is far from normal, social dissatisfaction widespread and fear of Islamists domination overshadows many sectors of society.



*‘Saved by Philosophy’

The event that triggered the cascading uprisings of the Arab Spring was when a street vendor persecuted for selling fruit without a license set himself on fire and died. More than a year and a half later little has changed in Tunisia’s law enforcement practices. In early July, a widely reported case captured the news headlines for its eerie similarities to the original event. The ‘perpetrator’ was accused of unauthorized street peddling of goods (“exposait sa marchandise d’une manière anarchique!”) Appearing before a judge he pleaded guilty, declaring that indeed he’s not licensed but his social condition did not leave him much choice; he was a third-year philosophy student from a poor family and had no other means to make a living. The judge, in an attempt to gauge his truthfulness, focused his questioning of the student on his putative study major and asked him many pointed questions about philosophy and major contemporary philosophers. The student answered brilliantly. At the end the judge inquired about the student’s current predicament and what philosophical context would it fit. Without hesitation came the answer: “Les misérables of Victor Hugo. Verdict : a fine of five Dollars and 50 cents and return of all his marchandise to the student. After the Tunisian revolution, there’s little doubt that democratic practices and individual freedoms have changed the country beyond recognition. But much else is still the same : Civil, penal and criminal codes date back decades and so are law enforcement practices and ethics.

Sauvé par la philo / Journal Le temps [Archive Dimanche 15 juillet 2012]

Un jeune, la trentaine, a comparu devant le juge du tribunal cantonal de Tunis. Il est accusé d’avoir enfreint à la loi.
Etant marchand ambulant, il exposait sa marchandise d’une manière anarchique dans les artères de la capitale.
Interrogé par le juge, il a déclaré que ce n’est pas son métier mais ses conditions sociales l’ont obligé à l’exercer. Après le décès de son père, son frère aîné s’est marié et a quitté le domicile parental pour vivre avec son épouse. Il a déclaré qu’il est universitaire étudiant en 3ème année Philo et qu’il n’a aucun autre moyen pour continuer ses études et subvenir en même temps à ses besoins.
Le juge a fait preuve d’attention particulière aux déclarations de l’inculpé. Il lui a posé plusieurs questions concernant le domaine de la philosophie et les écrivains contemporains. L’étudiant a brillamment répondu à toutes les questions. La dernière question posée par le juge était sur sa situation actuelle et dans quel cadre philosophique peut-il la placer : l’étudiant a répondu sans aucune réflexion : Les misérables de Victor Hugo.
Dès la fin de l’interrogatoire le juge a annoncé le verdict : Une amende de 9 Dinars et restitution de toue la marchandise qui a été saisie à l’inculpé


Journal Le temps – – Sauvé par la philo.


Man immolates himself in Arab Spring reprise
The Independent, 13 March 2013, 405 words, (English)
World A young cigarette vendor set himself on fire in Tunis yesterday, reviving memories of similar events two years ago that sparked an uprising which spread across the Arab world. [GRAPHIC!]

*Judging People by Their License Plates

In post-Gadhafi Libya, total chaos rules all aspects of life; there’s of course no constitution and no laws governing the country to speak of. A typical example of lawlessness is a phenomenon you notice on Libyan car license plates. For decades during Gadhafi’s rule all plates read the same: “al-Jamahiriyah;” followed by a combination of numbers. (الجماهيرية, al-Jamahiriyah, or, the state of the masses, is a Gadhafi’s invention and a much controversial and hated term discussed in some detail in his Green Book.)

After the Revolution, you see now three kinds of plates: the old ones reading “al-Jamahiriyah” often identifying the owner as a Gadhafi (old system) supporter; the same “al-Jamahiriyah” but smudged, defaced, or painted over; and new ones reading simply Libya.

There’s no new law in the country regulating car or driver’s licensing. So, practically, you can write what you want on your car’s plate, often reflecting your regional, sectarian, political and ideological view point.

Carthage Burning: Salafists Attack Contemporary Art Exhibition معرض للفنون التشكيلية & مستقبل حرية التعبير في تونس

الغضب السلفي




Art show Spurs Salafist Rage in Tunisia



Angered by an art exhibition they say insults Islam, thousands of ultraconservative rampaged through parts of Tunis and other cities, posing one of the biggest threats yet to Tunisia.

In the northern suburb of La Marsa, attackers tried to enter a gallery where salafists had slashed several paintings. The display at the Palais Abdellia (قصر العبدلية ) infuriated ultraconservative Islamists, sparking riots that began Monday evening (June 11th) and ultimately forced authorities to declare an overnight curfew in several Tunisian cities. Protesters hurled rocks and gasoline bombs at police stations, a courthouse and the offices of secular political parties raising concerns about the prospects for freedom of expression in Tunisia.

The work that appears to have caused the most fury spelled out the name of God using insects, while some paintings caricatured Mecca, portrayed a nude woman and ridiculed salafists.

The ministries of interior, justice, culture, religious affairs, and human rights (who did not see the paintings at the time)  issued a cowardly joint statement denouncing the assaults: “These extremist groups are themselves penetrated by criminals and are funded by those who fear accountability and rule of law, i.e. the remnants of former regime, and their goal here is to confuse authorities and sow panic among citizens and thwart the current transition.” But the ministers also condemned the artists saying that their works violated freedom of opinion and expression, and that the goal was to provoke and incite strife and exploit the sensitive and inflammable situation.



The Secretary-General of the Fine Arts Union, said that the violence was “part of repeated attempts to impose a social and cultural pattern based on takfir and criminalisation. Art has nothing to do with what is sacred or religion.”



Artist Ismat Ben Moussa defended his work: “My painting is critical of the salafists and has nothing to do with sanctities or the Prophet.”



The art gallery has since been closed by the government, and Minister of Culture Mehdi Mabrouk has said that while they support freedom of expression, they are opposed to any insults to religion.




17 bin Laden documents / Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)

وثائق بن لادن

Seventeen of the of the 6,000 documents seized from the compound of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 were released May 3, 2012. The documents – provided by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), and totalling 175 pages in the original Arabic and 197 pages in the English translation:

* Original Arabic (.zip) باللغة العربية

* English Translations (.zip) باللغة الانجليزية

نشرت يوم الخميس، 3 أيار/مايو، 17 وثيقة من أصل آلاف الوثائق التي عثر عليها في مجمع أسامة بن لادن في أيار/مايو 2011، بعد يوم على الذكرى الأولى لمقتل زعيم القاعدة

وتصف الوثائق التي نشرها مركز مكافحة الارهاب، ويبلغ عددها 175 صفحة باللغة العربية و197 صفحة مترجمة إلى الانجليزية، آليات عمل التنظيم الداخلية ومنها خلافات داخلية ونصائح للجماعات المرتبطة بالتنظيم ومخاوف لقادة بارزين فيه

The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point website has provided the following summary:

This report is a study of 17 de-classified documents captured during the Abbottabad raid and released to the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC). They consist of electronic letters or draft letters, totaling 175 pages in the original Arabic and 197 pages in the English translation. The earliest is dated September 2006 and the latest April 2011. These internal al-Qa`ida communications were authored by several leaders, most prominently Usama bin Ladin. In contrast to his public statements that focused on the injustice of those he believed to be the “enemies” of Muslims, namely corrupt “apostate” Muslim rulers and their Western “overseers,” the focus of Bin Ladin’s private letters is Muslims’ suffering at the hands of his jihadi “brothers”. He is at pain advising them to abort domestic attacks that cause Muslim civilian casualties and focus on the United States, “our desired goal.” Bin Ladin’s frustration with regional jihadi groups and his seeming inability to exercise control over their actions and public statements is the most compelling story to be told on the basis of the 17 de-classified documents. “Letters from Abbottabad” is an initial exploration and contextualization of 17 documents that will be the grist for future academic debate and discussion.


The 17 documents totaled nearly 200 pages in their English translation. The earliest one is dated 2006. The latest is from 2011, according to the center. Here are the 17 documents and summaries, which were based on a CTC document that accompanied the release of the bin Laden letters.

Text of Document 1

Summary: Bin Laden asks for a lengthy version of Anwar al-Awlaqi’s resume.

Text of Document 2

Summary: American Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn writes on a media strategy for the anniversary of 9/11.

Text of Document 3 

Summary: Bin Laden declines al-Shababa’s request for unity with al-Qaida.

Text of Document 4

Summary: This letter suggests that al-Qaida’s relationship with other terror groups was the subject of internal debate.

Text of Document 5

Summary: This letter is written by Mahmud al-Hasan (Atiyya) and criticizes the tactics of Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Text of Document 6

Summary: Jaysh al-Islam and Atiyya write back and forth on financial matters and legal advice.

Text of Document 7

Summary: This letter is part of another that was not released to CTC, but the author is concerned about al-Qaida’s image. The author was also concerned that because the name al-Qaida lacks religious overtones, the U.S. is able to wage war against the group without offending all Muslims.

Text of Document 8

Summary: Bin Laden lays out his views of the Arab Spring. The letter is dated a week before the raid that killed him.

Text of Document 9

Summary: This letter is addressed to a legal scholar who is alarmed with the conduct of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Text of Document 10

Summary: Atiyya wrote this letter addressed to the sheik, possibly bin Laden. The letter addresses the release of jihadi “brothers” from Iran.

Text of Document 11

Summary: The CTC summary says this document shows al-Qaida’s editing process: An unknown editor (possibly bin Laden) marks up statements form Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Text of Document 12

Summary: This document has two letters that, according to CTC, “read very much like an intelligence assessment, designed to provide Atiyya with some perspective on al-Qaida generally and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) more specifically.”

Text of Document 13

Summary: This letter focuses on issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also mentions the organization’s media plan for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Text of Document 14

Summary: The author of this letter, possibly bin Laden, Atiyya, or both of them, advises al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to focus attacks on the U.S., not Yemen’s government.

Text of Document 15

Summary: This letter focuses on strategy and the need for the group to attack the United States.

Text of Document 16

Summary: This letter is critical of bin Laden and urges him to change al-Qaida’s policy. The author says that people are now repulsed by the term jihad.

Text of Document 17

Summary: This is a long letter written by bin Laden in which he discusses his concern over the mistakes that regional jihadi groups have made.



Key Documents — Al Qaeda & Jihadi Movements Worldwide (volumes 1-50)

Reference Corporation’s on-going Al Qaeda & Jihadi Movements Worldwide (AQJM) reference series, in early 2011, in 50 volumes, has several built-in finding guides to assist researchers. One finding guide is the Key Documents list, a bibliography with extensive cross references and scope notes. However, Key Documents is a large document and cannot be reprinted in every new incremental set of AQJM reference books. For example, the Key Documents list in the cumulative index to the first twenty volumes of AQJM is over 120 pages long. AQJM for volumes 1-50 is 332 pages long.

To make Key Documents more useful, this downloadable Key Documents list is cumulative for all AQJM volumes and will always be current.

This Key Documents edition is a cumulative finding aid for AQJM volumes 1-50

Timbuktu’s Manuscripts, Archives and Patrimony Under Threat

Citizens of Timbuktu, Mali’s historic city and the legendary UNESCO World Heritage Site, are rallying to protect ancient documents dating back to the Golden Age of the 12th and 15th centuries that officials fear may be looted or trafficked under the current occupation by Tuareg groups. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova on Tuesday (April 17th) appealed to Mali’s neighbours to help prevent any looting or destruction of Timbuktu’s centuries-old cultural heritage:  “Reports about the rebel takeover of Timbuktu’s Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Islamic Studies and Research (IHERI-AB) and other cultural institutions are cause for great alarm.”  “These centres contain ancient documents, written or copied locally, and others written in Morocco, Andalusia or some African countries, or sent to Timbuktu by pilgrims from distant Islamic lands hundreds of years ago,” Bokova added.  These documents, she said, date back to “Timbuktu’s golden period of glory between the 12th and 15th centuries” and cover subjects “from religious studies to mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and music”.

Moussa Ag Hamta, owner of a private library, told Magharebia that the concerns of the UNESCO Director-General were shared by the residents of Timbuktu who link their history to these historical centres.

“I’m proud of the documents I own because they contain many sciences,” he said. “However, the takeover of the city by the extremist Islamic groups has put an end to the arrival of European tourists and made me hide these documents lest I should be forced to destroy or turn them in to them.”  “They consider these documents to be a heresy and believe that preserving them is some sort of worship, which contradicts the Islamic Sharia in their opinion,” he concluded.

Local resident Ibrahim Ag Nita described the scene: “Two days ago, some Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda elements entered the Documents Centre at Ahmed Baba Institute and told the attendees that the Islamic Sharia only approves of Islamic religious books because they help boost doctrine, and that books of other sciences, such as math, astronomy and other sciences, are not useful to Muslims and must be removed.”

“After that, they took away rubber bags containing some documents and went to an unknown place,” he said.

“People here fear a repetition of what the Taliban did when it destroyed some Buddha statues as idols worshipped by people,” he added. “This is the same view that these extremists have of human heritage, as they say that this entire heritage is nothing but a heresy that must be disposed of.”

Timbuktu has been a destination for cultural tourism in recent years, as it contains between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts. This is in addition to mosques and shrines of the kings of Sudanese empires that inhabited the Sahara and West Africa, together with buildings dating back to several centuries.


MaliAncient Books Stolen –


Even people who have never heard of Mali have usually heard of Timbuktu, or at least have heard phrases like “from here to Timbuktu.” Founded between the 5th and 11th centuries by Tuareg desert nomads, Timbuktu became a meeting point between north, south and west Africa and a melting pot of black Africans, Berber, Arab and Tuareg desert nomads. The trade of gold, salt, ivory and books made it the richest region in west Africa and it attracted scholars, engineers and architects from around Africa, growing into a major centre of Islamic culture by the 14th century. Timbuktu is home to nearly 100,000 ancient manuscripts, some dating to the 12th century, written in Arabic or Africanized versions of the Arabic alphabets, and preserved in family homes and private libraries under the care of religious scholars. However, the city is poor now, and is at the center of attacks by Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda linked jihadists, while Mali itself is being governed by the head of a botched military coup. It’s feared that the violence will lead to the destruction of the manuscripts and Timbuktu’s great earthen architectural wonders.



More about the Timbuktu manuscripts [with different figures: “700,000 medieval African documents”]


The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project

The Tombouctou Manuscripts Project at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is dedicated to research various aspects of writing and reading the handwritten works of Timbuktu and beyond. Training young researchers is an integral part of its work.

Sauvegarde et Valorisation des Manuscrits pour la Défense de la Culture Islamique


– TF1 News (12 avril 2012) :

– Jeune Afrique (11 avril 2012) :

– Rue89 (Le Nouvel observateur) (10 avril 2012)


Tuareg rebellion (2012) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Interest in ancient books could restore Timbuktu

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; A07

TIMBUKTU, MALI — From a dented metal trunk, Abdoul Wahim Abdarahim Tahar pulled out something sure to make a preservationist’s heart race — or break: a leather-bound book written by hand in the 14th century, containing key verses of the prophet Muhammad, and crumbling at the edge of each yellowed page.

“Every time I touch it, it falls apart,” he said, paging through the book. “Little by little.”

But Tahar saw promise in the brittle volume — for himself, his family and this legendary but now tumbledown town. He is not the only one. A sort of ancient-book fever has gripped Timbuktu in recent years, and residents hope to lure the world to a place known as the end of the Earth by establishing libraries for visitors to see their centuries-old collections of manuscripts.

In a West African town where nomads and traders eke out livings, a revival of world attention to hundreds of thousands of privately held manuscripts — which survived fire, rain, sand and termites — represents an economic opportunity. But researchers and residents say the restoration of the books, most written in Arabic on fragile paper or lambskin, is also vital to showcasing Timbuktu’s — and, by extension, sub-Saharan Africa’s — more glorious past as a vibrant hub of scholarship.

[MORE] …



On Apr 10, 2012, at 9:42 PM, “Jennifer Yanco” <> wrote:

I am writing to alert you to the situation in Mali, which is increasingly volatile. The conflict has spread to Timbuktu, home of thousands of manuscripts documenting the rich heritage of West Africa through the ages.

I write as a member of the scholarly community, which is concerned for the safety of this cultural and intellectual heritage housed in the many libraries and private collections in Timbuktu. I know that this will be of concern to your institution. Our West African colleagues, Drs. Habib Sy and Ibrahima Lo prepared a petition, urging the parties to the conflict to be mindful of the value of the heritage in these manuscripts and to spare them. We were sent a copy of the petition and were able to make an online petition, which you can now find on the WARA website home page ( and at the link copied below.

We are pleased to be able to work in solidarity with our West African colleagues on this and hope that you will be able to post the link to the petition or otherwise pass it along to your colleagues. A major treasure of the world is at stake.
thanking you in advance for joining this effort.



Jennifer J. Yanco, PhD

US Director

West African Research Association

232 Bay State Road

Boston, MA  02215


World Book and Copyright Day Celebrations in Arab Countries

23 April is a symbolic date for world literature, since 23 April 1616 was the date of death of Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. 23 April is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors such as Maurice Druon, K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.This year, Tunis lit the candle for UNESCO’s World Book Day.

The theme of this year’s book day is translation. Since 1979, UNESCO member states have logged more than 2 million translations in their translation index, which is available online.

Five days before the annual UNESCO-sponsored World Book and Copyright Day, hundreds of Tunisian readers took over iconic Habib Bourguiba Avenue with an event called “L’avenue taqra” or “The avenue reads.” Children and adults sat in cafes, on steps, and on the sidewalks to read a variety of books. As the day wore on, many held candles in order to continue reading into the night.

The invitation to the April 18th event in Tunis explained that everyone would bring their own books or magazines to cafés or other public places where they would sit and read silently together for an hour.”  Nas Décaméron, an artistic and literary group based at Ibn Khaldoun Cultural Centre in Tunis called for the initiative. It also organises a salon every week to discuss a world novel. The group’s Kamel Riyahi headed the “Read” initiative.  According to a 2010 Tunisian reading survey, more than 20% of respondents hadn’t read a book in their entire life and of those who did read, 60% read fewer than five books per year.

In Cairo, Shorouk Bookstores is offering the best WB & CD discount, at 20%, but other stores (BookSpot), chains (Alef), and government entities (GEBO) are also offering money-off deals. The Cervantes Institute in Dokki (Cairo) today offers readings of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” in its original Spanish and in Arabic translation. The novel will be read continuously from noon until 7:45 pm.

In Sharjah or Dubai, the children’s reading festival opened today. Moroccans are going to read books before the parliament. The theme is: “Culture in the face of absurdity.” If you’re in Lebanon, Antoine Bookstore is having an exhibition of Spanish books and books about Spain in collaboration with Cervantes Institute in Downtown Beirut.

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