Tag Archives: Arab spring

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.

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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.

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.