Posted on January 23, 2014 in Countdown

Tunisia Close to Completing its Transition

There isn’t much good news to report out of the Middle East these days. But amid all the chaos, Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began, is showing promise of achieving the goals of its revolution. Three years ago this month, Tunisians revolted against their government and began what has no doubt been a rocky transition. Only this past summer, an AAI poll found that two-thirds of Tunisians were dissatisfied with their government, and shortly after, the ruling party, Ennahda, stepped down. Despite the ups and downs, Tunisians celebrated the three-year anniversary on a cautiously optimistic note and Tunisia’s constituent assembly came closer to finally completing its draft constitution this week with over two-thirds of the articles being approved. Controversy remained over proposed articles regarding the prohibition of disrespecting religions. The constitution, a compromise between the Islamist Ennahda Party and secular parties, declares Islam as the official religion of Tunisia but does not state that sharia law is a basis of legislation. The constitution must be approved by two-thirds of the assembly to take effect or it will be subject to popular referendum. Pending the approval of the constitution, Tunisians will move toward elections later in 2014 to select a new government and complete its transition. 

Defending Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act

Seven months ago, the Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the Shelby v. Holder ruling, restricting the Justice Department’s authority over changes in election laws in states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls. Now the gavel is back in congressional hands, as a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, reinstating federal oversight over states with voting rights violations. Introduced by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) in the House and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate, the bill has been generating buzz over its changes such as: stopping discriminatory voting changes before they are put into place by allowing individuals to sue immediately if they've been discriminated against, and not requiring proof of intent in instances of discrimination - only providing evidence that discrimination took place. Though the legislation does not appear likely to pass, it's an important first step to restoring a key provision of a landmark civil rights legislation.

Geneva Talks Lacking Key Elements

The Syrian regime and elements of the opposition began talks in Geneva yesterday amid low expectations that any positive, tangible outcome would result. Let’s preface this Countdown entry by saying that we really hope something helpful comes out of Geneva, but one has trouble conceptualizing how the situation on the ground can change without some key players at the negotiating table. Iran, a key ally of the Assad regime was disinvited to attend the meeting after pressure from the United States forced UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to rescind an already extended invitation. Many elements of the Syrian opposition refused to attend. The talks began with bitter accusations from both sides as the Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, accused the Syrian opposition of being “traitors” and supporting terrorism, and John Kerry calling out the Syrian government for committing war crimes. The talks happen as Syria moves closer to the third anniversary of the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011, and, according to the United Nations, after the death of over 100,000 people. While the opening public session saw many inflammatory statements, in the coming days, foreign leaders and the Syrian opposition will be meeting almost in a retreat like format in the quiet town of Montreux, Switzerland to try to begin a process to end the civil war.

Another Review Board Slams NSA Surveillance

While highly anticipated, the President's speech on Friday addressing NSA surveillance fell short of expectations and was deemed "a wasted opportunity" by many advocates. While the President offered reforms that would increase transparency and implement additional safeguards for citizens and non-citizens alike, he failed to acknowledge the abusive nature of mass surveillance. Today, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent agency within the executive branch that advises the President on privacy and civil liberties concerns, concluded that the NSA's dragnet collection of billions of Americans' phone records is illegal and should end. In the report, the PCLOB stated that the statute upon which the program is based (Section 215 of the Patriot Act) "does not provide an adequate basis to support this program." According to the board, the program poses grave threats to civil liberties, has not been of value to countering terrorism, and is not sound public policy. We’re wondering how many review boards need to come out and slam the NSA’s mass surveillance operations for something substantial to change.

Arab American Candidates We're Watching in 2014

A host of Arab American candidates in significant races around the country are making a strong showing for themselves and the community. Here’s a quick rundown: In a landslide victory two weeks ago, Virginia Businessman Sam Rasoul won his race for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates Representing the 11th District. Rasoul, a Democrat, took home 70% of the vote. Further south, South Carolina to be exact, State Senator Vincent Shaheen is gearing up for his campaign challenge against Republican incumbent Governor, Nikki Haley. Unseating Haley will be a tall order, and she is outraising Shaheen at the moment, but Shaheen is proving his ability to swell his political ranks. Across the country in Oregon, Republican Monica Wehby who has entered the race for a seat in the U.S. Senate is giving incumbent Democrat Jeff Merkley a serious run for his money. Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon who was recently highlighted by MSNBC in their “Women to Watch in 2014” list, seems keen to capitalize on the troubled healthcare rollout plaguing the Democratic Party and she’s got all the brains (get it?) necessary to do it. Back over on the east coast in Massachusetts, former DHS official and gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem is vying to replace current Governor Deval Patrick. Kayyem is running an issued-based campaign, pushing for reform of the Massachusetts criminal justice system and has already released her education plan for the state. In the Nation’s Capital, Arab American restaurateur Andy Shallal continues to garner favorable media coverage. Shallal faces a democratic primary jam-packed with city Council members hoping to unseat Mayor Vincent Grey. These races will all be very interesting and exciting to watch. We’ll keep you updated.

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