Category Archives: Columns

Watching Brooklyn in San Francisco

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I stepped out of the theatre and called a Lyft. “You speak Arabic?” was the first question my driver asked me. He was Moroccan; been living in the city for two years he said. “I had the best days of my life in Tunisia; my ex-girlfriend was from there, and I am still in love with her.” He told me all about her, and asked me not to speak in my Tunisian dialect so much because it reminds him of her. We spoke about the bled (in French) and what it meant to us. Excited conversation was followed by a pregnant silence: you know, the kind where you realize that too much had been said but that it was all too sincere. About a minute passed before he finally said, “But I will go back to Casablanca of course. I have no business here. I have a huge house there — you know it cost me about a million dollars to build. It’s home for me.” I tell him I understand the sentiment well, and he continues: “Plus, my mother lives there and I am her only child. I must go back, it’s unfair to either of us to be so far apart.”

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In the film Brooklyn, Eilis’s relationship with her mother is what weighs the most in her attachment to her homeland, Ireland. Following Eilis’s sister’s death, the mother finds herself alone — the house is empty and her last remaining relative is across the Atlantic. Eilis visits Ireland to grieve her sister’s passing, and is tempted to stay — if only to keep her mother company at such old age. After all, her sister’s death took a toll on her, too. In the film, we witness the gut-wrenching moment of Eilis realizing that she cannot attend her sister’s funeral service because it is too arduous and long of a journey to make it before the sister is laid to rest.

I’ve been there myself. My grief was multiplied when I found out that I was unable to go to Tunisia for my grandmother’s funeral. She was my shining light and my closest relative. Being incapable of seeing her one last time — unable to bid her farewell and honor her presence in my life — still remains a seemingly insurmountable source of pain. When Eilis visits her sister’s grave, she tells her: “I cannot believe that I’m married to someone you’ll never know.” We are unable to reconcile facing such grave finality with the glistening novelties life offers us. They will never know.

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Yet it is those very same emotional ties that push Eilis back to New York. She sails back to New York because her heart pulled her back. Eilis began creating something new for herself there, and she must continue building on it. Complicating matters is her marriage to Tony, the Italian-American she met in Brooklyn. She fell in love, and she decided that she couldn’t leave the dream they are pursuing behind.

The film cuts right into the heart of transatlantic senses of belonging and love (and how they overlap). It demonstrates the confusions we are confronted with when experiencing love that is mired with arbitrary geography that is still bigger than us. A heart that feels home here, and there. Brooklyn narrates the necessity of embracing the inevitable when crossing that ocean. It is a human story about, as the Lyft driver describes it, the unfairness of being torn apart between two homes.

Such a humanizing film on the immigrant experience could not have been any timelier.

How the Tunisian Electoral Authority Robbed Me of the Right to Vote

Nidaa Tounes party wins Tunisia parliamentary elections

Chafik Sarsar, the head of the Tunisian electoral authority (ISIE)

It all started when I initially registered myself to vote in the 2014 legislative elections in New York City. I live in Denver, so I figured it is the best office to vote in since I can usually find pretty cheap air tickets to the Big Apple. Besides, I have a few friends there I could always say hello to – never mind that it is close to 1,800 miles away from where I live. Thing is, it was still too expensive to travel.

The electoral commission offered all residents living and voting abroad the option to change their voting locations. The process was simple enough: send in a copy of your passport, a confirmation of your initial registration, and fill out a PDF form that the ISIE provides. Send it in to your regional representatives, and they will send them back to Tunisia for the ISIE to review. Still with me? Alright. Since I would be visiting The Hague, Netherlands, during the presidential elections (21-23 November), I decided to change my voting location to that office.

I sent in all required documentations. Mind you – all North and South American cities and ‘rest of Europe’ voting locations are part of the same voting district. Districts for Tunisians living abroad are as follows: France 1, France 2, Germany, Italy, Arab world countries, and Americas and rest of Europe. In theory, since you are still within the same district, you should be able to vote in any voting location within it, correct? No. Not according to the electoral authority. For the legislative elections, the ISIE made everyone re-register in order to vote, and if you chose New York (or Houston, or Vienna, or whichever city in the same district): you best believe that that is where you will vote. It is like telling someone: hey sorry, I know you’re still within X county, but you must go to that school (miles away) in order to vote.

Moving on. I submitted all of my documentation to the regional office, and they courteously responded to me confirming that my folder had all the required paperwork and that it was complete. They would then send it to the main authority in Tunis, and wait to hear back.

Tonight, the ISIE released the names of those ‘selected’ to vote. My name was not on there – and neither were the names of many, many others in my district who had requested the change. In the Montreal office, only 3 people were accommodated. THREE. We were not given any reason or justification as to why we were not selected.

To say I feel furious is really an understatement. I am a full Tunisian citizen who has yet to vote even once because of (you guessed it) incompetence coming from the electoral authority. I was so excited to finally be voting for the first time, to be exercising the most fundamental of my rights. But the ISIE decided that it could arbitrarily choose who can vote and who cannot. It decided that it has the power to rob citizens of their rights.

The regional representatives did not have much to say but remind those rejected that it is ‘up to the ISIE’ to decide whose request can be accommodated. The photo below quotes: “The fact that your folder is complete does not guarantee an acceptance from ISIE. Almost every day we have published on our page that it is solely ISIE than can or cannot accept the request. We understand your frustration, but we unfortunately have no further answers than you do.”

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Something tells me that politics have to do with it. Though I do not know for certain whether my application was rejected based on political views, I do know this:

  • The ISIE has made it very difficult for Tunisians abroad to practice their right to vote
  • Many instances have been reported where, during the legislative elections, certain individuals would suddenly not find their names in the offices they are registered in (thus, rendering them unable to vote)
  • Some instances have been reported of bureau members convincing their friends (usually with the same political convictions) to go vote, and fill up the booths for the legislative elections

The parliamentary elections were bad enough – extreme disorganization in the offices abroad reigned supreme. Now, the presidential elections will be even worse.

The saddest part is that I have not felt this angry at my country since the times of Ben Ali. Those were the times I felt like my country was constantly rejecting me, making me a second-class citizen every time I tried to open my mouth about this or that, or tried to exercise very basic rights and duties. Today, I feel the very same way.

I feel injustice, and I feel robbed.

I call on the judicial authorities in Tunisia to initiate an investigation and find answers to the following question: under what basis were Tunisian citizens forfeited their right to vote? Why were the location change requests denied? And under what basis? 

Why the world should listen up to Tunisia’s youth movement

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It all started rather spontaneously – one of my friends, Bassem Bouguerra, posted a simple status on Facebook offering to serve in Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa’s new transitional government. He offered to do so for free, and only up to a year. Along with these few lines, he posted a short summary of his academic and professional experience, as well as a program of what he intends to do if selected to serve. Finally, he invited other young adults to do the same.

I followed suit, and a few of my other friends followed suit as well. What was one person became two, and five, and sixteen, and twenty, and now upwards of fifty. All posts showed great motivation, experience, and willingness. Most had graduate degrees (Master’s, PhD’s, JD’s). A Facebook page was created to compile all candidacies – aptly titled ‘7koumetna’ [Our government]. In a mere 24 hours, the page now has close to 10,000 ‘Likes.’

One might ponder: well, it’s all on Facebook – why does this matter anyway? We all know PM Jomaa probably won’t even look at the page, let alone consider appointing some of the individuals to serve in office. However, one should think twice before dismissing the page – and the movement (yes, movement) – so quickly.

We took to Facebook because it is, unfortunately, the Internet for many Tunisians. The social networking page is used to look up news, to see the government’s latest charades, and share jokes. It is, for better or for worse, a social network par excellence. Whatever is posted on Facebook will usually have at least some national buzz offline. But this isn’t why the youth movement is important in Tunisia.

These youth are volunteering their time and effort at a very fragile time for the country. Prior to this moment, so many of us gave up. So many of us thought, “That’s it. Ben Ali is gone, and now it’s time for the rest of them to have their piece of the pie.” We cannot be blamed for having such sentiments. We have seen countless ‘dialogues’ and only suffered as the promises made to us were broken. All of the candidates for prime minister in the national dialogue were upwards of the age of 50 (one was 92 years old. 92!).  We see that our country has the skill, the intelligence, and the energy to move forward – but we also see that nobody is taking the youth seriously. Instead, we have age-old enemies trying to achieve some sort of poetic justice. History tells us that the Tunisian Islamists, Marxists, and nationalists go ‘way back.’ They hated each other since the 1970s ‘in college’ (as my mother describes it). And now, they are fighting to the death for power and prestige in Tunisia’s new era of governance. That’s one side. The other side is the ‘fuloul’ of Ben Ali – the remnants of his regime. So there we have it. Two sides: former activists against the regime (who fight amongst one another other), and former supporters of Ben Ali.

This leaves the Tunisian people with very little hope to find any one party or individual to represent them and their ideas. Very little hope in trusting that any government will do anything to help move the country forward. I was one of these people – as I watched the parties fight amongst each other through the lagging negotiations, I felt that there was no hope. All they wanted was ‘el-kursi’ [the chair, a metaphorical term that means power].

What happens when you start to see fresh faces looking to serve their country – for free? It reinvigorates your spirit and revives that hope. It helps all of us realize that now, there is no way to go but forward. It brings up that feeling we first had when Ben Ali left, or when many of us voted for the first time. Sure, the feeling may be ephemeral, but it means something. It reminds us that not all hope is lost.

Last but not least, just earlier today I saw a headline in the Wall Street Journal reading, “Young Tunisians Embrace Jihad, Raise Tension at Home.” Highlighting youth in terrorism is hot in journalism, I get it. But how come I did not see one article highlighting this very positive development in Tunisia (besides Al-Jazeera and TunisiaLive)? An article that highlights the youth rising up to serve their country effectively, intelligently, temporarily and voluntarily.

In any case, people will believe whatever they want to believe. However, the whole world should be aware of 7koumetna – and should be aware that the revolution will be built by those who created it: the youth. It is our revolution, not theirs.

What the Tunisian government should learn from Egypt

ImageThe deposition of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi: call it what you like – a popular uprising, a military coup, a continuation of the “Arab Spring”, or a hammer blow to democratic reform efforts. Whatever it was, Tunisia is certainly not immune to it. Tunisia’s transition is relatively more protected from such happenings, and the country as a whole has a bit more working for it in the long run (namely a smaller population, less geostrategic pressure, and a historically less politically involved military). However, Tunisian government officials must be keenly aware of what’s brewing beneath them as well as take careful notes on what just happened in Egypt.Whether it is ultimately for better or for worse, it will not take long for Egypt to see more tumultuous days ahead of it and more instability before any semblance of normalcy. The “Egypt scenario,” which may threaten the country’s transition as a whole, can be avoided. Roughly speaking, this is what the Tunisian government should work on to avoid such a scenario:

  1. Encourage and actively support political inclusiveness: the Tunisian government must make active efforts to incorporate the opposition in not only high-level decision making, but in the management of tasks and projects at each ministry. The opposition, too, must work to achieve this political plurality by opening up to collaboration and focusing on the various tasks at hand as opposed to political pretenses.
  2. Avoid regressing on freedom of expression: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion must be available to all. The quick, rash, and hasty trial that 25-year old rapper Weld el 15 underwent cannot be repeated again. Weld el 15, who was hastily sentenced to a 2-year prison sentence that was later reduced to a 6-month probationary term outside of prison, was faced with legal action because of a song entitled “Police are Dogs.” His trial, along with many other instances where the government tried to infringe upon this sacred freedom, mobilized many Tunisians. In some cases, the government retreats. However even when it does, it fails to defend freedom of expression. For example, even when Ennahda – the Islamist party that leads the government – issued a statement condemning the Egyptian military’s arrest of journalists, the party has avoided explicitly defending the freedom of expression. The point is that even if the government believes that a rapper, activist, journalist, filmmaker, etc, has infringed upon the country’s “moral code” (can’t help but roll my eyes here), due process must be followed and fundamental trial rights must be ensured for all defendants. Leading me to my next point…
  3. Redraft the legal code: the government and the assembly’s focus should not be limited to rewriting the constitution. In fact, the majority of Ben Ali’s transgressions did not occur through the constitution – most were executed legitimately through a very flawed legal framework that we have yet to pay much attention to. Did you know that rapping is technically a crime in Tunisia? Such penal codes must be critically looked at and redrafted to make sure that freedom of expression is not only enshrined in the country’s law of the land, but through the very minute workings of the rule of law.
  4. Create realistic employment schemes and strategies: talking about employment and the economy is never enough. We still see protests in Tunisia that decry the lack of employment generation resources such as, a) employment centers, b) public recruitment programs, and c) the active flow of business. Most importantly, it must drag the stalled economy out of crisis as soon as possible – sustainably and efficiently.
  5. Respond to and meet popular demands at all levels: we hear too much about ministerial brouhahas and “he said she said”s stuck around the top level of governance. Seldom, however, do we hear about what the government is doing to meet local demands through the country’s 24 governorates (states) and municipalities. Much of public criticism stems from the ever-present levels of corruption in the municipalities, and if the government, national assembly, and presidency, are at all serious about transitioning into democracy, their eyes must be fixed on the municipalities and reforming them from the bottom up. Too much is happening locally, and the demands resulting from these challenges are consistently ignored.

The Tunisian government is already facing tremendous public ire and disgruntlement, and it should really consider doing the above to not further sully its credentials. Most importantly though, the government should do the aforementioned to move the country forward. And that is in everyone’s interest.

Note: article originally posted on Nawaat.

April 9th, 1938: the struggle continues today.

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It was 1938, and liberation from the French was no longer an ideal. It was no longer a dream chased in the shadows of our collective fantasy. Liberation became a goal that was to be pragmatically achieved.

The uprising that started in university hallways spilled onto the streets. The once hallowed hearts, downtrodden with the reality of colonialism, got back to beating in unison — pumping the blood of a whole country.

On April 9th, Tunisians of all backgrounds took to the streets. They were all Tunisian, all liberationist.

We agitated for self-rule. The chants defied expectations and defied predictions in the events that they foreshadowed. Power to Tunisians. Some banners read: We must have a Tunisian Parliament, and All for a national Tunisian government. 

They arrested us. Accused us of inciting civil war and racism. The ‘inferior race,’ as they called us, had no right to struggle for independence and self-determination. They imprisoned us. And on April 9th, they turned their guns on us and killed us.

The uprising was the spark that led to our independence from France, which came 18 years later in 1956.

The same chants used in 1938 came to define our modern history. Fast forward nearly a century later, and we did the very same thing — we fought the power. Only this time, it was against the colonizers from within.

Over the decades, April 9th has come to be celebrated as Martyr’s Day, a national holiday in Tunisia. To honor the uprising and commemorate our martyrs we traditionally stage demonstrations or rallies, which was exactly what we did last year.

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On April 9, 2012, however, it was the forces of the new regime that shot at us with tear gas. The forces that we elected.

I participated in the protests myself. I took a cab downtown that day. The second I got out, I found myself in the heat of the commotion. A member of the security forces shot a tear gas canister my way. It flew right over my head. I ducked, dove, and my whole body hit the ground. I somehow managed to take a photo as I was falling. Nearby protestors ran towards me and helped me back up. Looking back today, it was all a blur. My injuries were light.

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But I was lucky. Many protestors that day were severely injured, and the day is now remembered as a very dark one. The government called the protests “illegal.” It said we were disrupting the public order. We the demonstrators — not the savages who fired tear gas at us. Not the savages who used their batons against our bodies.

The national assembly promised a thorough investigation of all acts of violence against protestors. Months later, an investigatory commission was formed. As expected, nothing has come out of any said investigations, and the commission was a complete failure.

Most appalling is that martyrs’ families of the 2010-11 uprising have yet to be compensated, and the wounded and injured yet to be treated. Yes, our new government, our post-Ben Ali government, is ALSO ignoring and mistreating our martyrs.

This is all to remind us that the fight is not over. The framework that allowed repression to ferment decades ago still exists today. Security forces (colonial or otherwise) continue to exist in a universe of impunity. As long as we do not reform this framework, violence against peaceful demonstrators will always be renewed and those injured will always be ignored.

Let us remember and commemorate our martyrs: from 1938, 1956, 2010, and today. Our martyrs of all time. Let us remember them by making their voices heard and asserting our dignity. It’s not over. It’s not over.

Tunisia and the make-up of a crisis: burkas, children’s rights, and accented spoken Arabic

I am angry.

I am angry because I do not see my country moving forward. I see it going down a path of uncertainty, a path where my compatriots have forgotten where they come from. Today, I sat down for dinner with my parents. My mother made a delicious pasta and a salad to go along. We had water to drink. The television was set on the Tunisian national channel, blaring the nightly news broadcast. The first bit of news I hear is that the National Constituent Assembly is discussing legislation to protect children’s rights. Several representatives speak in favor of the legislation, and several against. The bloc leading the no vote is primarily composed of Ennahda members. When one of them was asked why he did not support the legislation, he said: “Next thing you know, we will be discussing el-zawaj el-mithli [gay marriage].” My dinner started getting cold, the salad less appetizing.

Next bit of news is about a Wahhabi sheikh from Kuwait, Nabil el-Awadi, who was invited by a Tunisian NGO to give a lecture. Amongst other things, he called for girls below the ages of puberty to start wearing complete veils. In honor of his visit, an event was organized where many little girls attended, accompanied with their parents. The little girls were all wearing burka-style veils in shades of neon pink, purple, green, and gray, that covered the entirety of their bodies. My heart breaks. I shake my head and look back at my dinner, desperately attempting to ignore the TV – I can feel the agony rising from my heart to my mind. Disgust. All I want to eat my dinner and go downstairs to read my constitutional law assignment. But near the corner of my eye still, I see a video montage of a group of the girls holding signs that read, “Hijabi… nouri… [My hijab is my light].” That’s it. Both the salad and pasta were now inedible. I head downstairs and tweet about what I just saw. I stumble upon a Facebook photo album of the event I mentioned above. After taking some close looks, I close the tab.

A few rounds of clicking later, I stumble upon a video of Tunisian Constituent Assembly member Selim Abdesselem giving a speech on the assembly floor. The video was put up in an effort to mock the assembly member’s accent when he speaks Arabic, and the obvious lack of properly accented grammar. Representative Abdessalem hails from the Tunisian community in France. He lived most of his life there, and in fact, he was elected to represent that very same community. In his speech, he spoke about the integral role of an independent judiciary that fairly defines the rule of law and facilitates justice. He argued that its independence is crucial and necessary to effect the purposes of justice. Even though his words will one day be remembered for generations to come in recognition of the country’s founding, nobody paid much attention to what he had to say. All they could do was mock his accent. At the expense of losing such substantial insight, those who made fun of him scarcely know anything at all about the judiciary. His story hits closer to home too – I have the very same problem Representative Abdesselem has. We read, write, and understand advanced technical Arabic. Yet we have trouble getting the tashkeel right (the accents on each letter) when we read classical Arabic out loud. Watching the video did it for me.

The social climate in Tunisia is deteriorating. Many people cannot even find a place to call home, a shelter. Many cannot afford to go to school. Many of the country’s youth remain unemployed (in fact the unemployment rate, according to several sources, has risen in the past year). The cost of living has gone up. For a few weeks, outrage was felt all over the country as many families could not even find a place to buy milk – since now, because of the lack of rule of law, many mafias and trade rings control the flow of certain nutritional products. These mostly economic troubles find their way into the Tunisian’s everyday psychology. People don’t smile at each other in the streets anymore. There is something that is called hiq’d [حقد] between people’s hearts. Hiq’d is a hidden enemity of sorts, an avarice. It’s the thought of hidden malice that looks for every opportunity to exact revenge on someone. Encountering such elemental challenges on a daily basis – not having enough food for the family, not feeling secure enough to go out at night, not trusting people – does this to our hearts. Hearts become hardened, and of course, many turn to more fundamentalist interpretations of Islam to cure this hardening of the heart. For a long time, this is what happened under Ben Ali’s rule. People could not breathe – economically, morally, politically – and so the popularity of satellite TV channels promulgated, including those channels that advocated for rather unsound spiritual practices and priorities (I remember watching a 90-mins long show on how evil and horrid nail polish is. Nail polish, people).

We see this same behavior taking place today. Tunisia has experienced a void in religious / spiritual education ever since President Bourguiba shut down the Zaitouna Institute – a nucleus of knowledge that fed the entire region (it is a well-established fact that Al-Azhar scholars went to school at Zaitouna). This thirst for knowledge, coupled with practical quotidian discomforts and uncertainties, incidentally leads to the likes of Nabil el-Awadi to develop a fan base in the country.

Today, we are confronting what we could credibly call a ‘crisis.’ An identity crisis, a socioeconomic crisis, and most of all, a daily, practical crisis.

Someone once told me that freedom lies in being bold. Let us be bold in acknowledging our weaknesses, and then let us be bold in assessing what we need to do to help make these weaknesses into strengths. We need education, and I cannot emphasize this enough. The whole educational system, from primary school to post-doctoral levels, must be reformed. We need employment. Sustainable energy is a great start that has the potential to generate jobs by the thousands. Most than anything else, however, we need to think before we act and be cognizant of the direction our dear country is heading in. If nothing is done, we might as well kiss our dream of democracy goodbye.

Response to Jadaliyya’s “Tradition and the Anti-Politics Machine,” article re: DAM’s new video

Tonight, I came across this article by Lila Abu Lughod and Maya Mikdashi on Jadaliyya. It is entitled, “Tradition and the Anti-Politics Machine: DAM Seduced by the ‘Honor Crime.'” The article expresses disappointment with DAM’s latest video condemning honor killings. I would advise the reader to read the Jadaliyya article and watch the video prior to reading my response.

I was excited to read an article from two of my favorite Arab scholars. Yet, slowly – I couldn’t help but disagree with almost every claim made in the article, and reject nearly all premises that their arguments were founded upon. Below is a point by point summary of my thoughts. Excuse the poor grammar and writing style, I really was writing in a hurry.

…not freedom from the state or from the violence of settler colonialism that shape her community, but freedom from her family’s decisions about her marriage.

Yes. Freedom from her family’s decisions – true, real freedom starts in the household. If we cannot achieve that first, what makes us think that we can attain freedom from anything else? We live in ecosystems, and the ecosystem closest to us is that of the household. It affects us in the most direct manner. Yes, she protests and fights this type of ignorance first – it is only then that she can partake in broader struggles healthily and fully.

…Young Palestinian women do all of these, every day, in particular places, under specific historical conditions.

In producing this video, I don’t think DAM’s goal is to highlight (the very admirable, strong) women of Palestine. Rather, they were shedding light on a very important issue that some women suffer. Further – the video is about violence against women, not settler colonialism. You can only address so much in 4 minutes.

…What solution is this?

The scene represented a “heaven” of sorts where women who suffered domestic violence, or who died because of an honor killing, go. Not a solution. I think the purpose of this scene is to bring some sort of comfort to the woman who was killed. As in – “Many women suffered your fate.” This is what these women would have liked to be, see, or do in their living days. But instead, they all ended up dying because their father/brother/uncle/cousin killed them.

DAM ignores the committed Palestinian feminist activists who have been working for decades on the various forms of violence Palestinian women suffer.

Dude, really? How? How can the (+) positive addition of one video condemning violence to a wealth of activist expressions against violence insinuate an ignorance of all other efforts? This statement is so unfair.

They have been analyzing what comes together to produce familial violence: economic strangulation; the frustration of occupation and unemployment; the militarization of society; the physical barriers that disrupt movement and police life; the lack of legitimacy of laws and authorities.

Sure. But have all those things ALWAYS existed? Honor killings have been happening for quite some time all over the world. I think of all the factors listed above, the following holds the most merit: lack of legitimate laws and authorities. This factor holds true across several generations and political atmospheres.

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How Gaza is putting the “Arab Spring” to the test

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Many in the Arab world argued that the power transitions taking place within the framework of the so-called Arab Spring will only help Palestinian efforts of self-determination. The logic is as follows: former authoritarian regime protected US and Israeli interests by suppressing the will of the people. By robbing the people of personal freedoms, human rights, and economic flexibility, these regimes have effectively diminished any chance the people had to act in defense of Palestine. Today, citizens can follow through with their own initiatives – to raise awareness or campaign for the Palestinian cause or otherwise.

More importantly, it is argued, the countries that have disposed of their former dictators (notably Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt) have elected representatives that are a genuine sample of the the people’s will and desires. While this is far from being a fully accurate statement, one cannot deny that these new governments are a drastic improvement from those that preceded them.

The latest escalation of violence in Gaza has undoubtedly created outrage within the Arab world. According to the Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza, 24 Palestinians have been killed so far, including 8 children, 4 women, 3 elderly. Over 280 Palestinians have been injured. Demonstrations have been held all across MENA in protest of Israel’s attacks.

A Tunisian delegation, including Tunisia’s foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem and the director of President Marzouki’s cabinet, will visit Gaza on Saturday to offer “all political support” to Hamas and increase Arab pressure on Israel.

Egypt also made an appearance – prime minister Hisham Kandil visited Gaza earlier today to show support for the Palestinian people as well.

What do these visits mean – and what real impact, if any, do they have on stopping Israeli airstrikes?

Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, are mired in tricky and messy transition periods. The real question that should be asked is whether these countries have the institutional and political capacity to leverage influence on the situation.

The Arab League announced that it would be holding an “emergency meeting” for Gaza… on Saturday. This of course, is days after the aggression first begun. Today, the Iraqi representative to the League denied the existence of an Iraqi proposal to “look into” the aggressions. Best case scenario, the league will decide to simply denounce the attacks on a piece of paper. Few take the League seriously anymore, and its reputation has eroded decades ago. This leaves willing countries to take matters into their own hands and bypass the League altogether. But what can they do?

While Tunisia and Egypt’s efforts are certainly noncommittal, they demonstrate a goodwill attempt to do something. However, to actually have any sort of impact, greater coordination and strategy is necessary.

I leave this article open-ended for one reason: I want to hear back from any readers who may have thoughts on this. I have yet to articulate a clear vision as to what the next steps should be for Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya on this issue – and I will surely be writing on this once again in the very near future. Stay tuned.

Arabs Barack-ing the Vote Next Week

According to the Arab-American Institute, there are now nearly 3.5 million Arab-Americans in the United States – up from a total of 1.5 million in 2000, and around 1 per cent of the US population. A whopping 94 per cent reside in metropolitan areas of major cities, while 48 per cent reside in California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Florida. The Arab vote has largely gone unnoticed in US elections due to its heavy concentration in mostly Democratic cities and due to their tendency to lean democrat. However, this has not always been the case. For example in 1996, exit polls reported 54 per cent of Arab-Americans voting for Bill Clinton, 38 per cent for Bob Dole and 7.7 per cent for independent candidate H. Ross Perot.

Since the 1996 elections though, Arab-Americans have become more prominent and homogeneous of a voting block. In a close election such as this year’s, Arab-Americans may just tip the balance – especially in contentious states like Virginia and Michigan, and of course Ohio. According to Zogby, there are 135,000 and 185,000 Arab-Americans in Virginia and Ohio alone, respectively. Maximizing Arab-American turn-out becomes increasingly important, particularly for Democrats working on critical swing states.

The think-tank TUNESS conducted a survey between October 20 and October 26 examining the opinion of the Arab community in the US towards the 2012 elections. The survey included 222 respondents from 26 states, and representing 15 Arab countries. The sample was evenly divided amongst US citizens and those who are not eligible to vote (permanent residents or on visa).  75 per cent of sample’s respondents were of North African descent, and 70 per cent resided in the North East. Weights were applied to map back to the distribution of Arab-Americans by state, as per the 2009 American Community Survey by the Census Bureau.

The survey revealed overwhelming support for Democratic candidate Barack Obama, with 84 per cent saying they would vote for him, and only 5 per cent voting for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. The remaining 11 per cent is undecided or would vote for another party. Similar to other voting groups, the majority of women intend to vote for Obama (87 per cent women said they would vote for him, as opposed to 82 per cent of men).

Demographic divides also echo the views of the rest of the population. Respondents over the age of forty are less likely to vote or choose Obama (82 per cent vs. 87 per cent). Responders who are eligible to vote show lower support for Obama (90 per cent vs 79 per cent), while there is a larger proportion of undecided voters amongst responders who do not follow the elections closely. We observe similar trends when we look at the favorability of the candidates.

Why Do Arabs Like Obama?

The key factors influencing Arab-American voters are, in descending order of importance, foreign policy (24 per cent), the economy (19 per cent), and political program (16 per cent). Surprisingly, only 6 per cent listed the candidate’s likability or affiliation with a political party as key factors in choosing a candidate.

Rating President Obama’s Performance 

61 per cent of respondents rated Obama’s performance as either “good” or “excellent” during his presidency. Obama received the best marks on health care (73 per cent) and education. However, Obama scored low amongst the Arab-American population in regards to Middle East policies, US national debt and immigration. More importantly, only 43 per cent of respondents viewed Obama’s performance on the economy – a key issue in the elections – as good or excellent.

The Arab Spring 

Although Obama is the overwhelming favorite in the Arab community, the response to his performance with respect to the Arab spring is a mixed bag. Obama gets good marks for his intervention and response in Tunisia and Egypt, and to a lesser extent Libya. Yet, he scores very poorly in regards to his response in Bahrain and Yemen. Some respondents feel that, “A tougher hand on the Syrian regime is evidently needed. In Bahrain, some more democracy won’t hurt.” Another comment was that “Obama’s trademark ‘Wait and See’ when it comes to foreign policy. He has failed miserably when it comes to tectonic changes such as those in the Middle East.”

Respondents were also asked which candidate would be more likely to bring a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. About 45 per cent of the sample said that neither candidate is likely to succeed and another 38 per cent said that Obama is more likely to succeed. An Obama presidency is also considered to be a better for the Arab world for the majority of the sample (72 per cent, as opposed to Mitt Romney, receiving only 2 per cent). A significant 17 per cent of the sample feels that neither presidency would be good for the Arab-World.

Implications 

The Arab community believes that Obama’s strengths lie in healthcare and education, while his handling of the Arab Spring, the economy, immigration, and the US national debt are highly criticized. Yet, 82 per cent intend to or would vote for him, and his favorability rating exceeds 80 per cent. As such, despite a mixed bag review with respect to his performance in the office and his handling of the Arab revolutions, Obama enjoys the overwhelming support of the Arab population residing in the United States. This seems tied to the antagonism between the Arabs in the US and the republican party which kept growing since 9/11. A recent survey by the American Arab Institute revealed that 57 per cent of republicans had unfavorable views about Arabs.

Obama and the Democratic Party seem thus to dominate this electoral segment without really having worked hard for it as the Republican party seem to have ceded totally ceded the ‘Arab’ and ‘the muslim’ vote. It would seem a rather risky bet especially in an election that will be decided on the margins.

Survey Methodology

Results for this TUNESS poll were collected on-line and through live in-person  interviews conducted Oct. 20-26, 2012, with a random sample of 220 registered voters, aged 18 and older, living in the United States. For results based on the total sample of Individual of Arab descent, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ± 6.58% percentage points.

Samples are weighted by country of origin and state of residence mapping back to the 2009 US Census data and the JZ Analytics estimates for the population of Arab-Americans

For more details on the polling methodology, please contact: moez_hababou@yahoo.com

The Media and US Embassy in Tunis Fiasco: Force Fitting a Square into a Circle

Ever since the attacks against the US Embassy and American school in Tunis, the world’s attention has been refocused on Tunisia. I have been holding my breath – and biting my tongue – since the events took place. I have read plenty of analyses about the situation in the meantime. Some blame the attacks on the spread of hate filled ideologies. Others blame it on armchair theories that begin with neo– or end with –ism. Others point the finger at the Islamist ruling party, Ennahda, and some others blame it on the governments general failure in instituting a genuine sense of security.

However, there could not be a simpler explanation for what happened last week. While the country set off global alarm bells, it is Tunisia’s internal sociopolitical landscape that points to only one thing: the country is recovering – not from zero but from subzero. It is recovering, not from nothingness, but from the complete and utter chaos that comes with the territory of going through a revolution. And it is recovering against enormous odds.

There exist two angles from which to analyze the embassy protests in Tunisia. The first is an institutional angle: what have governmental institutions been doing to secure a better future for the country? The second angle is a developmental one: how do young teenagers get sucked into joining movements that breed hate and intolerance? Who are these teenagers and what can the neighborhoods they hail from tell us about them? Have terrorist networks (such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, aka AQIM) begun opening operative cells in the country? Will a movement gain ground?

The Ministry of the Interior, which is the premier and sole entity responsible for the country’s general security, has not been maintaining any sense of order. It has failed to perform its prescribed duties and adequately supply security forces with the materials needed for them to do their job. It has also failed to reform the ministry from within: it is no secret that the ministry is ridden with corrupt vestigial remains of the former regime.

Yesterday, September 19, the Minister of the Interior, Ali Laarayedh, spoke before the Constituent Assembly. Laarayedh claimed that there are “organized militias” who are behind the attacks. Laarayedh has presented this excuse several times in the past in explaining similarly chaotic incidents. Yet the Tunisian people has yet to receive any answers in regards to these allegations. Under whose orders are these militias supposedly working, and with whose funding? The ministry has not specified a timetable, has not presented any viable agenda, and has not engaged in any organized efforts to “cleanse” the ministry from within.

It is also the fault of the Ministry of Religious Affairs: who are these imams and what are they preaching in these mosques? Do they have the proper education and expertise in Islamic jurisprudence before they begin to give their sermons every Friday? Before they speak to a youth that is (justly so) thirsty for meaning?

Developmentally, we need to recall what breeds terrorism. History tells us that what typically leads to terrorist acts is socioeconomic desperation. Empirical data through examples from all over the world point to one thing: it is macroeconomic failures that translate into the starvation of a people. Tunisia’s fat unemployment rate and its contribution to the ever widening gap between the rich and poor cannot be ignored. Whereas Tunisia used to have a relatively large middle-class, today, that middle socio-economic bracket is narrowing. Desperation also stems from the lack of proper education. In Tunisia’s case, the Ministry of Education’s has proven unable to solve the nation’s archaic, deteriorating schooling system by executing reforms from within.

It’s that prototypical 19-year-old boy who wakes up in the morning with nothing to do. He has no job and his classes seem absolutely pointless to him in the hopes of attaining employment. It is the young adult who feels that he simply has no agency over his very own life. It is that young man who is deftly recruited by gangs and terrorist networks.

What happened in Tunisia last week is a developmental issue that makes perfect chronological sense: following the euphoria of ousting a dictator, Tunisian society is now feeling the birth pangs of democracy.

Certainly what is most striking about the past week, however, are all the analyses gracing the Internet – particularly those written by authors hailing from the United States and Canada, where there is little understanding of North African politics due to an unfortunate language barrier. Due to the region’s colonial history, most of the current research published on North Africa is in French.

Said authors seem to take any event in Tunisia (or Libya) as evidence of some sort of grandiose neocolonialist, neoimperialist American scheme. What is even more behooving is when an article attributes events such as last week’s to some sort of invisible hand that orchestrates everything from behind a shroud of mystery. Admittedly, some of analyses do raise several points to consider in assessing United States foreign policy in the region – its global military apparatus, executing decades of occupation and political meddling, should not go unaccounted for. Yet, it is irresponsible to overlook the very real and concrete domestic factors that lead to this violence. By doing so, such analyses desperately try to fit what took place in Tunisia and Libya into a persistently simplistic, reductionist narrative. Two main world views are equally culpable in perpetuating this endless cycle of misattribution, too – those that fundamentally reduce the dynamics of Maghrebi politics to playing a peripheral role on the greater East vs. West battlefield, and those that reduce any violence that takes place in the MENA region to “Muslim rage”.*

Contrastingly on Tunisian TV, prime time political shows discuss the happenings through a highly political, highly domestic lens. The discussions center around deadlines, such the Constitution’s completion and ratification and the next elections. Show participants – politicians and members of civil society – are very much attempting to articulate a viable national identity. There is a much larger emphasis on the role of religion in government and society, freedom of expression, and institution-building. This is because the country’s political landscape inherently encompasses issues that are much more complex and far-reaching than an attack on an embassy.

Unfortunately, by reading the international headlines, global readers would never know that Tunisia is undergoing a process of rebirth – which nobody said was easy.

*The phrase used on NEWSWEEK’s Monday 17 September 2012 front page.

 Article originally posted on Nawaat.