“Breaking the Cycle: Creating Solutions for Water Security in the Middle East”

In 2010, the U.S. World Threat Assessment listed water scarcity in MENA as a global threat. Source: U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

The Hollings Center for International Dialogue asked: How to create solutions for water security in the Middle East? Or “Breaking the Cycle”, if you will, which was supported by Saudi Arabia’s university funded Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program for Strategic Research and studies.  Aside from Saudi Arabia’s 30 million people’s need for water, note the needs beyond the other gulf countries (Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Oman, Yemen and Qatar) — like 33.42 million in Iraq, 85 million in Egypt, and 39.21 million in Algeria.  Given the North African countries’, or Maghreb’s, water stress and scarcity challenges, we must emphasize should NOT be left out of MENA discussions, even if overlooked by panel’s funding partner.

Panelists includes Moore, Research Associate from the Council on Foreign Relations and Raymond Karam, Program Associate from the East/West Center.  The moderator was David Dumke from the above mentioned partner, Prince M. Bin Fahd Program.

In addition to the arid climate challenges, governments, like Saudi Arabia have over-subsidized certain initiatives that have increased water resource challenges.  For this reason, it makes sense that Saudi is trying to take a step back and exploring what additional measures can be taken to address water shortages beyond the conservation efforts.

Aside from government efforts, Arab NGO ACWUA (aqua pun intended) stands for Arab Countries Water Utilities Association established itself in 2006.  This January, ACWUA is behind Arab Water Week.  To what extent are businesses and Middle East governments breaking the cycle in #WaterScarcity?


Water Scarcity Challenges

  • Consider water quality of available water: Contamination from production
  • System of government, like authoritarianism, used to justify management of scarce resources, like water and oil, to ensure access and promote food security.  BUT authoritarian governments tend to rely on subsidy route clashes with options to invest and conserve resources.

Possible Solutions

  • Economically speaking: apply Carbon Tax Model, which has been successfully been adopted by Australia 40 years ago.
  • Implement cap and trade “water rights”.  However this is more difficult to do in the Middle East.
  • Invest in water desalination plants.

Did You Know?

  • Yemen used to be the bread basket of the Roman Empire.
  • On 2% of arable land, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had been the 4th largest exporter of wheat
  • Saudi Arabia is the region’s largest dairy provider

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Libya and #AlgerianAftermath

Libya’s and Algeria’s aftermath since Gaddhafi’s removal includes a shared border.

In Washington, DC, the Arab awakening and uprising discussions primarily focus on Tunisia and Egypt…and sometimes Libya.  Yemen’s successful ouster of its leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, has largely gone unnoticed because of its lackluster economic ties to industrialized countries.  Although the U.S. and Yemen do not share strong economic ties, their relationship is characterized by security interests in the form of a U.S. fleet off Bahrain, bases in Saudi Arabia, and a large concern for militant groups hanging around Red Sea.

The 2011 revolution started in response to corruption, poor governance, rising prices, unemployment and poverty, and there has been no discernible improvement in any of these areas. Half of the roughly 26 million people who live in Yemen do so under the poverty line. Around 60 per cent of Yemen’s children suffer from malnutrition, while 70 per cent of families need assistance from the government and international organisations.

But even regarding Libya, the flavor of discussion tastes anything but sweet given the U.S. experience with subsequent bombings and the increasing role of Libya militias in and around Misrata and Benghazi.  Again, Libya rises in the U.S., British Italian, and French consciousness because of its security and oil issues.  Note though: despite U.S. experiencing the downside of security challenges via civilian losses in Benghazi, the British, Italian and French have resurfaced to some extent in Libya to capitalize on Libya’s oil and gas industries.  Recently, Tunisia’s Foreign Minister called upon Libyan Authorities to act urgently since two Tunisian journalists were abducted.

Nonetheless, let’s explore the “Arab aftermath” in Libya. (Below, we’ll look at neighboring Algeria, which borders two countries that overthrew its leadership in their respective Arab Uprising experiences.)  Despite European countries’ return to Libya for diplomatic and economic reasons, Turkey evacuated its mission from Libya in early January due to their intelligence warning of attacks.  At a time Libya is calling for foreign direct investment, which is arguably a way to rebuild in its aftermath, it is a bit difficult to do when security is perceived as ‘dangerous’.  Consequently, billions of Turkish investment is at stake in Libya.

Construction projects worth $19 billion have been mothballed by Turkish firms because of the fighting, according to the Turkey Contractors’ Association. 

As Turkey evacuates, a few U.S. think tanks ask: What about Libya in 2015?  Former Ambassador Mack, consultant Jason Peck, and Libya scholar, Karim Mezran thought out loud about Libya in this frame “The Scramble for Oil and Scenarios for Transition”.  Mezran illustrated a few Libya scenarios:

  • partition — worst case
  • military win by 1 side — highly unlikely
  • Intervention.

Yet, Ambassador Mack stressed caution before urging the U.S  to promise engagement with Libya.  At the same time, getting towards stronger security must consider how Libya undertakes its national reconciliation process– a shared concern that both Tunisia and Egypt are dealing with as well.  As one commenter warned, “avoid Iraq’s de-Ba’athification mistake,” and asked: What’s the extent to which Qaddafi era officials participate?  The key to national reconciliation is not blacklisting every Qaddhafi regime era official because 1) not each official was complicit to the same degree, and 2) divisiveness among leadership will further embolden militias.

Aside from security challenges, an oil analyst warned about the Dutch Disease phenomena–where natural resource wealth increases economic development but decreases its manufacturing and agricultural production as a result of increase in currency value.  One way to rectify Dutch Disease is for Libya to redistribute its oil revenue as a lump sum and divide it across each citizen to spend or invest as they will.  We want to know why many Libyan sitting in the room responded with with shaking their heads ‘No’.  Why? Because it worked to some extent in Norway, a non Arab country? Or because they do not trust a power to carry out this redistribution package?

Algeria Aftermath

Libya’s Arab Uprising may have produced an upside for its neighbor Algeria’s political and military actors.  According to a panel held at the U.S. based think tank, New America Foundation:

Despite border problems, it broke Algeria’s state monopoly of violence…~Hannah Rae Armstrong

At the same time oil prices have plummeted below even below $50, Algeria is experiencing decreasing government revenue.   In response, the Algerian Prime Minister placed a freeze on public sector employment.

As a sidenote, unemployment levels are not as high in Algeria as in Morocco, but this freeze will not bode well if non-oil sectors do not emerge.  There is no tourism industry in Algeria–so that sector is not going to offer any short to medium term solutions.

Armstrong interviewed Algerians regarding changes in Algeria since 2011.  One Algerian related to her that “
Head of Algeria intelligence services is like God: Everywhere and nowhere at once.”  Crises on the borders help Algerians stay together because it is evidence of what happens when you don’t, says Armstrong.

The thing is: Armstrong focused on police and military culture, and its impact on civil society in Algeria.  However, conducting interviews in Algeria is no easy task as interviewees may not feel comfortable sharing all their views–even for academic scholarship.  So, we at PITAPOLICY humbly disagree with Armstrong’s conclusion that Algeria’s aftermath– since Libya’s uprising — translates as a success for the Algerian leadership.  Yes, Libya may be more “unstable” since getting rid of Gaddhafi, which makes Algeria look even more stable.  But stability is a goalpost (and argument) used by authoritarian leadership and oil companies.


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Pivoting from Dispossession: Arab American’s Entrepreneurial Path

Dear Pita-consumers:

Happy 2015!  We want to start the year off right with some positivity and inspiration.  Thankfully, one of our earliest PITAPALS, Asma Jaber, an Arab-American, has inspired this first week’s posting with her vision and explanation of establishing her entrepreneurial venture: PIVOT, a mobile application and web based platform. Note to all those starting and stopping with their entrepreneurial ventures: to “pivot” is also the the approach needed to adjust to obstacles, as Jaber outlines below, and change strategy–be it business model, target audience, or services.

In 2014, Arab tech news, WAMDA, featured PIVOT.  So read Jaber’s inspiration shared by her at the Network of Arab American Professionals DC chapter seminar.  (It is a shortened version of her remarks.)  Her vision for PIVOT started before studying at the Harvard Kennedy School.  Check out PIVOT, and find her on LinkedIN.



PIVOT: My Entrepreneurial Venture

By Asma Jaber

“’The old will die & the young will forget,’” The first part of this statement is true, as it is for anyone. The second is wrong”

Two years ago during Ramadan my father passed away (May God have mercy on his soul), very suddenly, very tragically; He was also born during Ramadan, 66 years earlier.

Let me take you back fifteen years ago when my daily routine was to say to my late father, “No! Not at the entrance baba. Drop me off here!” hoping my adolescent friends would not see me running from a glaring yellow taxi into my middle school. The taxi was how my father, a twice-displaced Palestinian refugee, provided for our family once we finally reached rural South Carolina.
Inside that taxi I was Palestinian, reliving my father’s childhood as he recalled story after story, and learning about our Palestinian heritage; but as soon as I stepped out, I felt that I did not belong. I was in a completely different world – one in which my classmates thought Palestine was Pakistan and poked fun at my lunch of stuffed grape leaves, or maklouba, really whatever my mom had left over from the night before. I’m sure many of us here had that feeling of not belonging during our youth and even, today.
I chose to go to Palestine because (contrary to the earlier quote, said by former Israeli PM Ben Gurion’s) I did not forget.


Dispossession is going back, no matter how many walls are built on the beautiful land that our ancestors used to till.

It’s growing into the shoes of your ancestors and somehow carrying a burden too heavy to ignore.

While I was driving from Jerusalem to Nazareth the first time I returned to Palestine after my dad’s passing, I wanted him, his stories. I wanted him back there with me. I wanted him to tell me what was beneath my feet, where those Palestinian villages once were, what they looked like, and the history of these places. I couldn’t have him back, but I was still craving that knowledge and that experience that he gave me.

PIVOT: Pinpointing Location Despite Dispossession

This dispossession led me to come back to the U.S. with a passion to build that experience. So my fiancé Sami Jitan and I are building PIVOT, a technology platform & mobile app that will allow you to see what a specific place looked like in the past (first in Palestine and later on throughout the world), with images changing as you select a different time frame. We are collecting disparately located multimedia (photos, videos, sound bytes), (sourcing content from museums, books, archives, and what we like to call “shoebox” archives – the archives that I’m sure everyone’s household possesses). We reference those multimedia to a specific location, allowing those images and sounds to be easily accessed through a mobile app. It’s like looking at a place through a tunnel of time.

My vision is for PIVOT to promote historical and cultural preservation in my homeland of Palestine because it is of utmost importance in an area under constant threats and acts of erasure and ethnic cleaning (especially today as the Israeli government continues to destroy entire neighborhoods in Gaza, the West Bank, including Jerusalem, while at the same time approving 1000s of illegal settlement homes); we plan to later expand to other parts of the world where cultures are at similar risk of being destroyed. It my hope that this will amplify the voice of the downtrodden.

According to entrepreneurship gurus, the definition of entrepreneurship is “the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.” Social entrepreneurship is about pursuing innovative solutions to social problems in order to add value to society, in my case to promote digital cultural and historical preservation.

In laymen terms –it’s about believing and building towards a vision, so much to where you will pass up a full time job offer, live off of ramen noodles, and eat up your savings for a while in order to pursue your calling.
Entrepreneurship is also about navigating obstacles and unknowns.

  • Obstacle 1 – I didn’t have experience building a business, nor was I raised to be a CEO. I didn’t know the first thing about business models, the world of app developers, or venture capitalism.

Lesson 1

The learning curve in a startup/the entrepreneurial world is HUGE. I have learned more from this experience than my entire Master’s degree at Harvard. The first lesson: don’t let not knowing how to do something stop you from learning how to do it. I’m not telling you to fake it until you make it, I’m telling you let your spirit for change drive you to open the doors that you know need to be opened in order to do the things you believe in. A year ago I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship, and of course I’m still learning~

Obstacle 2 – I’m not an app developer. In fact, I kind of didn’t like technology very much before this. Sami, will tell you when I first met him, I was still learning how to use my first iPhone two years ago; but I digress:

Lesson 2

When I let the vision drive me, the pieces fell into place. Even though I’m still somewhat technologically impaired, I am still able to influence our developers (who themselves have developed three award-winning apps) with my own vision and now they want to explore mapping in their own apps and have mentioned to me about taking a trip to Palestine to discover it for themselves.

  • Obstacle 3, and this is a big one- I’m a female – a Palestinian – a Muslim – and I’m speaking in the U.S about Palestinian dispossession and the need for the preservation of Palestinian culture and places under threat by Israel. <whew> There were skeptics, myself included (!),who thought that if I mentioned Israeli-destroyed Palestinian villages in a Harvard-wide startup competition we entered, that we would not have a chance at winning.

Lesson 3

Times are changing because we won the competition, and I know we are on the right side of history!
Times are changing because we are now slowly, but surely, living in a world where you can –and should – discuss human rights abuses openly and condemn and protest the brutal injustices and collective punishment in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and all of over the world.

Times are changing, and we must support women who enter the business world, just like a man, and a woman who does so while wearing a traditional dress on stage if she so desires (points to self). We don’t necessarily have to choose between career, our cultural or religious traditions, and family. We can try to have it all, if we sacrifice some food, sleep and keep the faith – and isn’t that what Ramadan is all about?

In fact, holding onto my culture and remembering my family’s and the collective Palestinian dispossession is what led me to this new career and, really, to what I believe is my greater calling in life. I have been lucky to find a way to stay rooted, to try and preserve places and memories in my homeland at risk of not being preserved, and to honor my father and his memory, all while making a living. Weaving all those together as a Palestinian-American Muslim in a creative way is part of my own definition of personal entrepreneurship.

I stumbled upon entrepreneurship, not because I sat down and wanted to come up with a cool idea (though that can work for some people!);  I stumbled upon this entrepreneurial path because imagination was always part of my identity – sitting in a taxi in South Carolina and imagining what Palestine must have looked like when my father was there. This all naturally grew out of my living in 2 different worlds simultaneously – my American surroundings and my Palestinian heritage, and navigating living in that hyphen- “Palestinian-American”

Message isnt’ to make entrepreneurs out of all of us…

My message isn’t to make entrepreneurs out of all of us (because not everyone wants to eat Ramen Noodles for the first few years of their professional lives). But my message is centered on the fact that many of us here may live in a hyphen – Arab-American, Muslim-American and so on. Perhaps we are not made to ever fully fit in or belong (the same way I felt upon exiting my father’s taxi everyday), which leads us to have, as the great intellectual Edward Said said a “plurality of vision (similar to what our app PIVOT will do, by allowing you to pivot through a place across time). Such vision gives “rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions” And that plurality of vision is what makes us better leaders, entrepreneurs, and global citizens.

We must be able to reconcile the “disparate halves” of our individual identities, perhaps reconciling our humble upbringings with our fancy jobs or ‘ivory tower’ education; or reconciling our privileged American-ness with our connections back home – wherever that may be – to empower people struggling for justice and equality across the ocean. It is not until we can reconcile our identities and, no matter how conflicted they may make us feel, that we can use that to advance human rights and make a better world for everyone.
Let us remember: That we can succeed in our professional lives, while still being connected to the beliefs that drive us, to our histories that brought us to where we are, and to the people, even if they are no longer here, who continue to guide us. And we must NOT forget our roots, no matter who gets old and dies – but rather continue their memory and the quest for social justice in the most productive and faithfully spirited way.


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Beji Caid Essebsi Wins Tunisia’s First Presidential Election–

After Sunday’s elections, Beji Caid Essebsi of the Nida Tounis Party won Tunisia’s first free presidential race and beat his opponent, Moncef Marzouki.  Essebsi won with 55.68 percent of the vote. Congrats and good luck to Essebsi.  He is going to need it — along with a cabinet that will respect Tunisia’s various institutions.

A month after Tunisia held its first round in the presidential run, Noureddine Jebnoun analyzed the polarized politics days before the second run-off in his Al-Jazeera piece “Tunisia Caught Between Fear & Stability“.  Jebnoun teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.  He raised two points that we generally agree with:

  1. Patriarchal politics still manifest itself in the mindset of candidates and in rhetoric– patriarchy means that only the leader can promote a vision as he assumes that the citizens are perpetually uninformed and incapable of independent decision-making. No matter how much one candidate (Moncef Marzouki) may believe he differed in his approach with his opponent, patriarchy in the executive role undermines the role of the potential power others have.  Marzouki underestimates the role that social-political activists and institutions have and continue to play a role in Tunisia’s democratic process.
  2. Dismissing Islamism as a form of political thought, discourse, and organizing force that runs counter to democractization is reductioninist.  Simply stated: those that argue that Islamism is undemocratic, while secularists are inherently democratic, fail to recognize the tenets of democratiziation: inclusive political engagement for all.

An excerpt is below for this week’s PITAPAL points — Source: Al Jazeera, December 19, 2014

The Tunisian transition is perceived as exceptional in the light of the instability in the rest of the region: return of authoritarianism, spread of sectarian and ethnic violence, chaos and civil war. L Carl Brown recently praised the “Tunisian exception” for providing a “less hectic and less bloody revolutionary transition” in the Arab world.

But a closer look at Tunisian politics shows that the perceived exceptionalism of political developments in the country is somewhat overstated and necessitates a more nuanced analysis.

Political fatigue

Three years after Bouazizi’s immolation set off the Arab uprisings, Tunisia is living in the rhythm of elections. Most recently, parliamentary elections where held on October 26, followed by the first round of presidential elections. On December 21, Tunisia will have its presidential runoff between Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) and the incumbent interim President Moncef Marzouki. The outcome of these elections will provide the country with its first democratically elected permanent institutions.

Tunisia youth frustrated by unemployment

But as much as the world is praising these elections, Tunisians do not seem as enthusiastic. While the number of registered voters surpassed 5 million out of more than 8.2 million Tunisians of voting age, barely 3.3 million turned up at the voting stations for the first round of the presidential elections. This indicates a low voter turnout particularly among youth, the most disenfranchised social group whose mobilisation was decisive in the fall of Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

This first round of the presidential elections mirrored the political fatigue and apathy of the Tunisian electorate whose confidence in the potential of democracy to generate positive outcomes has declined. This declining confidence was already observed in the parliamentary elections, which showed that Tunisians apparently have preference for a leader with “a strong hand” who is able to stabilise the country.

Presidential candidates and sensationalist media coverage instrumentalised this desire for stability, seeking to nurture Tunisians’ anxieties and maintain their fear of insecurity in order to affect their vote.

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Which Country Earned ‘Most Improved Nation’ in 2010 for #HumanDev? #OmanSymposium

Dear Pitaconsumers,

Which country earned ‘Most Improved Nation’ in the 2010 Human Development Report?  The country whose major art display reflects on how trade ties go as far back as linking Mesopotamia’s civilization with the Indus civilization.  And who also claims Sinbad the Sailor…or as some refer to as “Sindhbad” the Sailor because of his trips to present-day Pakistan.  By this point, we hope you have arrived at one of the Gulf countries.  The correct answer: Oman.  Last week the Embassy of Oman organized the #OmanSymposium around this central theme: pluralism promotes human development–especially in Oman.  An entire display outlining religious tolerance kicked off the Oman Symposium event.

In 1967, the first development projects began in Oman because there were no docking ports and no color television sets.  IMore importantly, telephones were limited to government ministers.  Until 1970,  Oman had only 1 school.  The seventies represented the greatest period of change in Oman economically, socially, and education-wise.  Politically, not so much.


One of the strongest HDI impacts was the growth of transportation infrastructure.  By 2014, the World Economic Forum ranked Oman as 17th in overall quality of transport infrastructure.  Currently it has a rate of 5% on import duties, which is considered “low”.  Indirectly, other benefits accrued for other sectors, like oil: About .9 million barrels per oil ae produced and transported.  Oman jumped up in its “Doing Business Index” ranking from 114th in 2007 to 47th in 2013.

Oman’s ability to enforce property rights greatly improved from 2007 til now, making it among the top 25 countries to enforce property rights for doing business.

Oman set two 5-Year plans: the Year of Industry and the Year of Agriculture.  Now, Oman is underway with  Vision 2020, an initiative from 1993 that focuses on developing its human capital…which brings us to education: the way to socially engineer any type of human capital.

Education For All… Shift to Quality

Another HDI impact was that the literacy rate among Omani women grew so dramatically that they now represent the majority of university studies.  According to one of the presentations, “percentage of women studying had grown to the point that it became necessary to allocate quotas at Sultan Qaboose University for men.”

Now Oman’s current economic development challenge must integrate a more education labor force with its diverse labor in the form of migrant workers.  At the same time, like its other MENA neighbors: update its education system to prepare the next generation of unemployed but “ready to study abroad” population.

The Best Is Yet To Come

As Governor Jon Huntsman, who served as U.S. Ambassador to China, stated, “Oman was a model of development.”  As the keynote speaker, Huntsman argued for Oman to invest more into its Research & Development sector, R&D.

The best is yet to come. The US can help Oman.

At the same time, how to prepare for the “Best”–when it arrives– requires a bit of adjustment.

  1. Enact a minimum wage for foreign labor workers.
  2. Note that the 68% of local population is under age 30 and REVISE educational curricula to encompass team building homework assignments. (Even super-advanced economies like the U.S. are rethinking how to improve upon Pre-kindergarten learning and challenge the necessity of going to college.)
  3. Define which type of SMEs and size would BEST encompass local population before signing any type of partnership promising to improve this sector.

Big Difference Between SMEs And Same

The main criticism we would highlight from the discussion at the symposium would be the emphasis on small to medium enterprises (SMEs) without emphasizing how general this term really is–which has no baseline for comparison.  What do we mean?  Well, when a speaker says he won’t get into the definition or the criteria, which he remarked as the “nitty-gritty”, then it’s way easier (and convenient) for the speaker to make generalizations.  An SME can range from having 2 employees to 200 employees.  Employee size is only 1 characteristic of SME size, and yet, generally overlooked when reduced to a 10 minute presentation.  How will partnerships, which were heavily sought after in the networking sessions, emerge if the parties can’t even get on the same page of what type or size of SMEs should be targeted.

To the speaker who served as the “expert” on development based on his Iraq and Pakistan experience.  (Clearly the term expert was liberally applied.  It’s not like SMEs catapulted to success in Iraq or Pakistan.) Stop Invoking SMEs As If They’re All the Same!

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Round 2 of Tunisia’s Presidential Election: December 28th, 2014

Sometimes, we wish the U.S. offered as many presidential candidates on the final ballot– like some Arab countries demonstrated in the last four years.  We are not kidding or being facetious.  Why?  Tunisian voters aren’t yet stuck with the two-party choice.  But one thing American elections do share in common with Tunisian elections: certain old guys keep coming back to race.  We call it “fringe benefits of crony constituency”–or “nostalgia-era” candidates depending on their name recognition, more than their actual historical policy association, to move forward, again.-Mehrunisa Qayyum 

On Sunday November 23rd, Tunisia held its first democratically elected presidential election since transitioning from authoritarian rule.  Unlike the U.S., where presidential candidates think of campaigning two years before the November elections–wasting hundreds of millions of dollars in campaigning instead of reinvesting extra funds into public works projects–Tunisia actually listed more than two candidates on the actual ballot–21 were on the ballot.  Unlike the parliamentary elections, The Ennahda Party did not run a presidential candidates.  (Nidaa Tounis Party won the majority in parliament last month.)  The two leading candidates, current interim-President Moncef Marzouki of the Congress for the Republic Party, and Baji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounis Party,  will run off in a second round of voting in one month on December 28th.

Second place candidate, Marzouki, earned 33.43% of the vote.  Criticized by his opponents for living abroad, he continued with his human rights activities while living in France.  (Note, most of the opposition candidates of Ben Ali’s regime lived abroad if they weren’t imprisoned–journalist and TV channel owner, Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, serves as another example of presidential candidates who lived abroad.) He is a human rights activist and physician who was also arrested in the nineties for his political opposition to Ben Ali.   In 2001, Marzouki founded the Congress for the Republic Party, which was banned during the Ben Ali regime, and forced Marzouki to reside in Europe again.   Unlike his opponents, he traveled to South Africa to learn about their post-Apartheid transitional period.

Essebsi earned about 39.46% of the vote.  He presents a cliche case of “regime-era experience” during the time of the Ben Ali policy and practices.  Essebsi is 87 years old and, yes, bring “loads” of experience to the presidential race.  Two questions for Tunisians is: 1) can a relic–excuse us–remnant provide integrity to the political process given that corruption was one of the triggers of discontent? and 2) We repeat, Essebsi is 87 years old… too uncanny of a resemblance to their next door neighbor’s presidential “situation”.

Voting in Tunisia triggered many observations ranging from the helpful to the “You’ve got to be joking” points.  For example, on the helpful front, the International Foundation for Election Systems prepared a visual illustrating voting information as shown below in both Arabic and French for Tunisian voters.

For those interested in looking at the moment to moment observations online, here were the memes focusing on Tunisian elections:

  1. #TNelec2014
  2. #TNelec
  3. #TunisiaVotes
  4. #TnPrez

Our favorite observation was the one shared by @T-78Himself who said:

Dear correspondents: women in have the right to vote since 1957. Women casting their votes isn’t news. FYI.

He’s absolutely right: there’s no need to keep focusing on images of women voting AS IF this is revolutionary…when in fact the revolutionary aspect may be that women voters may have higher expectations of their presidential candidates than male voters–if anybody bothered to ask or survey on issues of policy change.

Voting Results

How did Tunisians vote?  Given that 69% of eligible voters participated in the last election, the current election saw a slight decrease: 65% eligible Tunisian voters voted– still higher than the rates of democracies of the United States, which was 57.2% in the U.S. 2012 Presidential election, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.  Of that 65%, about a 16.89% were voters from Tunisians casting a ballot from abroad, as shown below in the second image after the poll results.


Not Just “Youth”, But Young Adults

Discontent about unemployment and other challenges continued to operate as the leading election concerns.  Yasmine Ryan made a short film on by on ‘s disenchanted youth.  Although a valiant effort,  we would argue such comments are not just “youth experienced” and hesitate to frame these challenges as such because, 32 year olds dissatisfied with underemployment are grown adult men and women and not just a cohort of teen-angst ridden individuals.  The “youth” category is a misnomer because it belittles the responsibilities and role that a large segment of the “youth” have–such as heading households, politically engaging, paying rent, and other adult responsibilities.

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Middle East Institute 68th Annual Conference: “Navigating the Storm” #MiddleEast

“What’s happening in the region is renegotiation of social contracts.”~ Randa Slim, Director for Initiative for Track 2 Dialogues at Middle East Institute

This bodes true for countries that are in the middle of transitioning power… and can be argued for countries that are still not inclusive.  We ask, “who are the ‘middlemen’ in these transitions? (Since we’re feeling cheeky, we ask if countries, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran are Middlemen or Meddlemen?

Middle East In Flux: Opportunities

  • Solar Energy
  • Education Reform
  • Desalinization Plants

Solar power decreased costs for desalinization plants in the Gulf countries, like the UAE, according to Juan Cole.  Specifically, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain have earmarked more than $100 billion in their water sectors between 2011 and 2016 to improve desalination technologies.  Herein lies as  opportunity for investment into Yemen, which is the lowest-income country in the Arabian peninsula and also faces water scarcity.


  • Reductionism
  • Middlemen or Meddlemen? Arabia

Be wary of simplifying the problem through reductionsim of MENA region, warned many scholars, like Charles Schmitz.  (They are not the only ones–bloggers get it too!)  Using sectarianism as a frame, like “Shi’ite Crescent” is not helpful because at the end of the week, conflict is about power.

Containing the Islamic State

Although each panelist from morning panels had something to say about ISIS–since it is what the U.S. perceives as the top MENA priority– at least two reasoned that ISIS emerged “due to ‘unfinished job’ of rebuilding Iraq”.  As Turkish Columnist for Radikal, Cengiz Candar, said: ISIS in Iraq is primarily made up of former soldiers from the Ba’ath party era, Saddam Hussein’s party.  It is a sad irony since the Ba’ath Party was established as a secular party in Iraq and in Syria.  ISIS can be viewed more as an outlet for ideological opportunism.  As Randa Slim shared: “in the war for hearts and minds, the ISIS group has 40k tweets a day.”

Let’s revisit the main issue: Syria.  Why? Syria is the country where ISIS developed with funding from Gulf countries to remove Bashar Assad’s regime –unsuccessfully–from a powerbase dating back to 1971.  Gulf country “intervention” failed.  At the same time, U.S. non-intervention on Syria transformed into intervening against ISIS… in Iraq.

Commentators, like Juan Cole, questioned if the U.S. should even have been a country to intervene militarily at all.  If not the U.S., then who?  So BBC correspondent, Kim Ghattas asked Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish panelists on what each of their country’s role should be in intervening.  The Irani panelist, Hossein Mousavian, who teaches at Princeton University did not mention Iran specifically.  Rather, he said, “We need to cooperate to keep in tact…election needs to be held, supervised by .”

Candar shared this story,” When US jets appeared over , the Kurds start to shout ‘Long Live .”

Travails in Transition: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen

In keeping with the earlier argument–that the MENA region is renegotiating its social contract– the subheading was the theme for the afternoon panel. According to Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, Yemen is also renegotiating its social contract –again–through the Houthi movement.  (Here’s an ethnographic breakdown of who makes up the Houthis since they are not technically a political party, but represent a voice for about one-third of Yemen.) Earlier in November, the Houthi Movement leadership gave a 10 day ultimatum to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to step down, which resulted in Hadi reforming his cabinet…but remaining in power.

Former Minister of Parliament, Amr el-Shobaki, represented the Egyptian perspective.  In Egypt, El-Shobaki is a founding member of the Al-Adl Party, which is against the the ban on labor and political strikes and the use of military trials for civilians.  He served as a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Center for International Peace, based in the US.  In a nutshell, despite the existence of some parties, he argues that Egypt lacks the political infrastructure to broker between competing ideologies.

Moving from Egypt to Libya, Fred Wehrey probed the Libya example with respect to its neighbor’s high-profile presidential leadership because he observed the “Sisi Effect”:  the trend of tremendous support for General turned Interim Leader to President within a year of former President Morsi’s removal.  Similarly, the El-Sisi effect took hold, or “reverberated with young liberals in led to Kalifa Haftar.and argued that Libya needs national reconciliation.  Moreover, Libya cannot be viewed through an Islamist versus non Islamist lens because there is a complex network of town rivalries and patronage networks.  El-Sisi effect reverberated with young liberals in led to Kalifa Haftar.   In a nutshell: When asked if Libya is a failed state?   Wehrey stated, “In Libya there was no state to fail.”

Really? Tunisia should be 2nd Largest Recipient of U.S. Aid?

Regarding Tunisia, there is a school of thought that dominates the DC “Beltway”.  That is “Tunisia’s political success is a great example, not necessarily a model, in MENA. More needed in economy & security though,” according to former U.S. Foreign Service Officer Lawrence.  True, economic downturn existed even before Tunisia’s rejection of the Ben Ali regime, it declined further in 2012. Note “J-Curve” of Tunisian economy after transition…so Tunisia panelist (former U.S. Foreign Service Officer Lawrence) argues that  shld be 2nd largest aid recipient, not 9th.

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Tunisia Elections: Historic Process, or Event?

What makes Tunisia’s elections historic: its process or ‘E-day’?  The Tunisian elections witnessed some historic developments.  We are not just talking about the election event moment, but the overall process.  The election event moment was when The Nidaa Tounes Party, a self-described secularist party, defeated the Ennahda party in parliament.  Founded in 2012, Nidaa Tounes won the most parliamentary seats — around 35% — in its 2014 election held on October 26th.  At the same time, the election process and event were the first parliamentary elections since removing its authoritarian leadership, led by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011

Previously, the  Ennahda, headed by Rachid ElGhannouchi, held the majority of seats in the 2011 election.  (PITAConsumers are well aware of PITAPOLICY’s hesitancy to use blanket terms like “secular”, “islamist”, “Liberal” and “conservative” to describe political aspirations). Maybe this is a stand-alone historic moment for those who focus on Islamist politics and movements — especially with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood’s brief foray into politics.  As one Tunisian voter emailed us, “It (secular party defeating an Islamist party) doesn’t matter so much…will Nidaa Tounes have a plan for the economy — parties need to have an action plan beyond defeating its opposition.”

Some may argue that the elections were historic because the losing party picked up the phone and conceded without dispute.  (Voting recounts happen in liberal democracies too, so there’s no need to be that patronizing.)  Others may argue that he process itself is historic because the 60 percent voter turnout reflects months of organizing and registering voters.  In contrast to the 2012 voter turnout for the constitutional referendum (52 percent), this year’s voter turnout was higher.  The overall process included months of voter registration and education while media outlets and watchdog groups consistently exerted pressure to gain access (while law enforcement monitored borders for security purposes.)
Here is how the 217 parliamentary seats are broken down by leading parties.
• Nidaa Tunes – 85 seats
• Ennahda – 69 seats
• Slim Riahi – 16 seats
• Popular Front – 15 seats
• Afek Tounes – 8
• Others – 24

President Obama’s Response to Tunisian Elections
Here is the entire statement by President Obama on the results of Tunisia’s 2014 Parliamentary Elections.

Elections Support Competes With Infrastructural Developments

“We need to see elections as a PROCESS, not as an EVENT. Focus on voter registration and media access.”~Director of Development, IFES

The  U.S.-based nonprofit, The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, shared some general comments following Tunisia’s peaceful election process.  IFES’s Director of Development & Programs pointed out some election dynamics that warrant some review–even in the most liberated democracies. For example, there’s such a thing as too much money. “It can be counterproductive,” observed Darnholf.  Often, donors provide huge sums of money hoping to target specific initiatives, like investing technology tools.

When huge sums are earmarked for certain initiatives, then we see high expectations invested into tech.  For example,  electronic voting may not suit the local environment.  According to the Chief Information Officer of the International Republican Institute, another democracy-building institution based in the U.S., technology is supposed to make processes easier and more transparent. When asked what would he invest if there was no budget constraint, he remarked “purchasing more Tablets”.

But, when there are obstacles in wide-scale implementation of technologies for smoother voting, or ballot-counting, then technology can not be the solution to everything within the electoral process.   IRI’s CIO noted,”Whatever wifi is available, it’s probably not secure.”  (Given this obstacle, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, for example, are not going to be adopting this by 2016. ) In each case, “expectations must be managed” explained IFES’s Darnholf.

In countries like Tunisia, IFES needs about an 18-month lead time to prepare for elections.  This involves developing systems from scratch because funding for voting systems, registration, training directly competes for donor dollars that focus on the first level of human development.  The reality is: Democracy-building and training organizations compete with initiatives that build infrastructure in education and health.  Consequently, organizations like IFES and IDEA (Institute for Democratic Electoral Assistance), must partner with other groups.

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USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives Celebrates 20th Anniversary


Office of Transition Initiatives is often referred to the first line of development in OTI is an incubator”.~USAID’s New Deputy Administrator,  General Lenhardt

Washington, DC- On October 20th, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives celebrated its 20th anniversary.  The Center for Strategic & International Studies hosted the forum, where USAID’s new Deputy Administrator, Alfonso E. Lenhardt, remarked on the challenges for development.  As a decorated U.S. General, Lenhardt will bring his military experience to USAID… especially since he remarked on the “multipolar” nature of power.  “OTI is an incubator,” remarked Lenhardt, heavily borrowing business terminology to update development mission.   At the end of it all, though, there must be a policy change where priority must be given to human life with the increasing problem of refugees and internally displaced populations.

Since World War II, CSIS has documented 125 conflicts–the majority of them being intra-state.    ‘s 2010 study shows that conflict erupts every 2 weeks around the world.  Of those 125 conflicts, only 20 percent received U.S. intervention.

Security and development are like the kissing cousins of U.S. reconstruction and relief efforts.  Regarding the Middle East & North Africa region, “ provided ambulances in & helped & draft their constitutions,” claimed Lenhardt.  Other examples going as far back to the Pakistan Earthquakes also came up as success stories for the U.S.

For the security side of the discussion, there was a heavy focus on ISIS on the MENA extremism panel.  As Mona Yacoubian stated, “Arab uprisings represent end of an old order, and we don’t know yet what will fill void. That’s why there is chaos.” Violent extremism will continue for decades as the challenge is dynamic, complex and multi-faceted.  In 21st century, power has become more diffuse.

At the same time, violent Extremism NEEDS to be demystified as it is a symptom of a larger problem. “They often have a short-shelf life,” observed D. Hunsicker of USAID.  Nonetheless, as Hunsicker continued, “development transformations in society is a long-term game that plays out in decades.  ‘Streams of info on devices don’t get to root causes of extremism.”

Not too far away, it can take a young woman in some parts of 3 days to 1 week to get to a hospital. -Fawzi Koofi remarked in “Girls At the Center” discussion for the Millennium Development Goals.

Lessons Learned for Development Mission Moving Forward

  • Must accept some failure; OTI has improved its contracting to satisfy local conditions.
  • Conflict between operational (dialogue, preventative diplomacy, and sanctions–the short-term) and structural programs (education and institutional reforms).
  • “Must resist neo-trusteeships” as solution because it’s antithetical to developing local leadership and democracy building.”-David Yang, USAID
  • Even after “liberation” of a country, the transition can actually appear more deadly.  Case in point: Libya, as one panelist stated that he “could hear “huge sucking sound” as international organizations moved from Benghazi to Tripoli after liberated.”
  • “Not worth counting wrong things just because you can count them” when it comes to measuring results. -Yang
  • still hasn’t figured out civilian-military nexus”-Johanna Forman, CSIS [Note: The response “Use grants under contract”, which strategically injects $ in smaller projects wrt Q to translate success.]
  • Need to think about the role of message and messengers.
  • Rule of Law programs need to be structured around social interventions against violent movements.
  • There must be a willingness of parties to devolve power.
  • Must work past binary relationship to deal with transnational threats.
  • Female quotas also produce ceilings.-Baker on downside of political solutions encouraging in
  • After Mona Yacoubia described how ISIS controls one-third of Syria and one-third of Iraq, which is the size of Jordan, she pointed out how ISIS has been providing social services funded by seized oil operations and its related revenues.  We suddenly worried about the Hezbollah model of social services.


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PITAPOLICY Proposes That Hajj 2015 Must Be “Year of Development”

Although Saudi Arabia tries to cap visa quotas per country, and refuses entry for those without accommodations, thousands of pilgrims from neighboring countries enter into Saudi Arabia at unchecked entry points. Last year, 15,000 illegal pilgrims were caught.  This year was no different as many slept in the streets despite the accommodations requirement. Given the associated health challenges with large crowds, it is truly a miracle that Ebola did not surface during Hajj as thousands of pilgrims slept in the streets near sewers. Read Mehrunisa Qayyum’s thoughts on why Hajj 2015 MUST become the Year of Development–rather than another “Year of the Selfie” here!

Helicopter landing for VIPs (e.g. royalty) outside of hotel

Helicopter landing for VIPs (e.g. royalty) outside of hotel

Traffic Jam + Pollution + People Sleeping in Streets

Traffic Jam + Pollution + People Sleeping in Streets

Holiest City in Muslim-World Inhabited by 2 Million people

Holiest City in Muslim-World Inhabited by 2 Million people

Each Level Is Packed With Over Hundreds of Chaperoned Groups Organized by Travel Agencies

Each Level Is Packed With Over Hundreds of Chaperoned Groups Organized by Travel Agencies




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