What is more indicative of the change facing the Arab world: continued clashes in Tunisia — the birthplace of the Arab Spring — or the fact that Saudi women are taking the wheel again to lobby for the right to drive? Hard to tell, but both issues get pride of place in Arab dailies on Thursday.
The lead headline of London-based daily Al Quds Al Arabi reads “Tunisia: Onset of dialogue and the prime minister vows to resign — 8 policemen killed in clashes at Sidi Bouzid.” With pictures of Tunisian demonstrators demanding the prime minister’s resignation, the paper says that Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Al-Aridh started a process of national dialogue on Wednesday, promising the opposition he’d step down if the parties could agree on the composition of the interim government to follow. “Yet the Tunisian prime minister did not set a final date for resigning,” Al-Quds warns.
The Tunisian political and security crisis has been steadily escalating during the past few weeks and the main story of the Saudi-owned A-Sharq Al-Awsat reports on violent clashes between “hardline Islamist armed groups” and the Tunisian army and police forces in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, where young vegetable vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in late 2010 and thereby precipitated the Tunisian Revolution.
London-based daily Al-Hayat also leads with a picture of Tunisian protesters, trying to make sense of the complex political rifts besetting the country with various Islamist groups fighting policemen and the army in governorates far from the capital Tunis. At the same time, in the capital, the splintered political parties are staging demonstrations, jockeying for position as the government is about to fall.
Saudi-owned Elaph describes the political rift in Tunisia as a “dispute between the governing Islamists and the opposition,” referring to the ruling party Al-Nahda and its rivals. The Elaph writer is skeptical about the “ambitious plan” to form a new government and endorse a constitution. “During the past two years,” he says, “the Tunisian leadership has been publishing time and again new timetables for endorsing the constitution and for future elections, but there is never a commitment to either.”
Al-Quds Al Arabi’s editorial on Thursday is also devoted to the political crisis in Tunisia, arguing that “a national agreement is necessary for ending the deadlock.” The editorial stresses that national dialogue is the only option and reviews the chronology of the crisis starting with the assassinations earlier this year of secular opposition leaders Muhammad Al-Brahimi and Chokri Belaid. But the rift between the moderate Islamist Al-Nahda and the secular opposition is only one part of the complex puzzle, the paper says, because “Tunisia is no longer immune to religious extremism….many more Islamist armed groups are operating there in a worrisome manner.”
Despite the erratic political situation which the editorial says will make the national dialogue a difficult mission, the writer is hopeful. “None of the political parties has managed to rely on military intervention, and the ruling party Ennahda appears flexible and ready to participate in any proposed solution.”
Following a similar issue, Qatari news channel Al-Jazeera features an op-ed piece Thursday by analyst Nabil Al-Sahli headlined “The Arab revolutions and the rule of the military,” in which he argues that the Arab spring did not change the overwhelming negative effect of the army in Arab countries. Military budgets in the Arab world, Al-Sahli argues, far exceed those in other parts of the world leading to “straightforward negative effects on the development of health care and education as well as human development.”
Furthermore, Al-Sahli says that militaries in Arab Spring countries still suffer from financial corruption and lack of transparency. For example, 99 percent of Egypt’s military budget is totally secret to this day. Al-Sahli calls for major reform of Arab armies so that the Arab peoples can enjoy the development they deserve.
Driving protests in Saudi-Arabia
Saudi women are planning a demonstration that will consist of simply driving — themselves — on Saturday. The seriousness of their plight gets nearly as much weight in Arab media coverage as the desperate struggles involving bloodshed and implacable ideological rivalries in other parts of the Arab world. Al-Jazeera illustrates the weight of the issue by saying that their planned demonstration has “ignited” the twitterverse.
A front-page headline on Al-Quds Al-Arabi describes the Saudi women’s online campaign, mentioning activist Manal Al-Sharif who was imprisoned for nine months two years ago for daring to drive a car in the deeply conservative Wahabi kingdom.
The official line comes from Saudi-owned news channel Al-Arabiya, whose headline reads, “Saudi interior ministry: Demonstrations of women driving are unlawful.” In the article, the ministry asserts that “it will deal forcefully and firmly with those heeding the call to gather on October 26.”