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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.
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Mainstream Media Coverage on Tunisia: Short, Bittersweet, and Overly Deficient

We all know that after former Tunisian president Ben Ali packed his bags, Egyptian Mubarak and Libyan Gaddafi soon shared similar fates. One was hospitalized for political and moral exhaustion, the other killed in what was a Hollywood-worthy (but slightly gorier) scene. Suddenly, the short-lived spotlight on Tunisia was quickly shifted to Egypt and Libya. The heavy news coverage in Egypt and Libya continues till this day. Tunisia was pushed back to, at best, starring on the headline tickers. The relative international media blackout on Tunisia-related issues, however, can put all parties at a disadvantage. What is at stake here?

Some considerably difficult challenges lie ahead for Tunisia’s rocky transition to democracy. One would think that with all the talk—usually airy and empty—revolving around democracy, especially in the Western world, audiences would be interested in tracking one small country’s ambitions to build a pluralistic society; a country with relative geo-strategic importance perched on Africa’s crown bridging Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Admittedly, keeping out of the headlines does ring in a few benefits for Tunisia. With the exception of the Islamist-Secular dynamics with which the media seem to be overly preoccupied, sensationalism has been kept out of general debates. Further, the Tunisian government, along with civil society, has been afforded the opportunity to go about its business without deeply influential foreign commentary like what we see in Egypt and Libya. Yet, Tunisia being out of the limelight is no new trend. From the early days of the revolts in mid-December, few major news organizations took the movement as seriously as recent history has come to show us. A little before mid-January, however, news started breaking on a more regular basis on major international networks such as the BBC, France24, and others. The small, stable country long described by Westerners as a secular, quiet country, was in up flames. It merited the attention, it seemed, if only as a reminder to Western governments: “Your dictators are not here to stay.”

Sure enough, once the country edged back into stability, news coverage on developments in Tunisia nearly halted.

It is well-accepted in Tunisian folklore that the less attention one receives, the more successful the respective experience will be. “The evil eye is not easy,” it is said, and should be taken seriously. What is most alarming in the lack of media attention may reveal an undercurrent of interest-driven coverage in corporate media channels and another undercurrent of racism/otherness within the audiences consuming the news. The question, as most folks reading this probably realize, is: what news makes money? The second question is: why?

The natural resources (read: oil) Libya has, and Egypt’s proximity to Israel, are two major factors that augment the level of coverage the two countries receive. One factor is material and reads dollar bills, the other is geo-strategic. Tunisia, with nary a natural resource to even sustain the country, does present a crucial interest of study in all countries and academics in the world. The plunge in news coverage on Tunisia exacts a heavy toll on academic efforts in the field of nation building and democratization. The country can be seen as something of a testing vacuum for democracy and Arab sociology. There are several reasons for this.

The country is small, and has a relatively shorter list of “external factors” contributing to the ascension or descent of sociopolitical order—little foreign intervention contributed to Ben Ali’s fall, and most foreign governments took long enough to release statements endorsing the uprisings. It has been demonstrated time and time again that there is little vested interest in the country. Thus, organic movements can have a genuine chance to flourish. It is the perfect atmosphere, then, to put democracy to the test.

Every Constituent Assembly debate should be recorded, transcribed, followed, and reported on, for every one of them reflects the societal nuances that are found all over the region. In constitution drafting, every word, letter, and conjugation should be noted. In the enumeration of presidential candidacy prerequisites, should the word “candidate” be conjugated in the female or male version? The market’s pulse—and how it changes depending on what type of economic system the country eventually adopts—needs to be monitored. What does it mean to go from a closed to an open market in North Africa? How will it contribute to the boom of exports, or the deterioration of the local currency? The conclusions that could be reached from such questions are crucial to our understanding of the modern world.

The honeymoon-reporting phase is over for Tunisia. The euphoria of deposing a long-ruling dictator has ended months ago—a sentiment which could not be more acutely felt than in the country itself.

Even when Tunisia does receive media coverage, it is plagued by constant comparisons with its neighbors. More than anything, apple-orange comparisons with Egypt and Libya rob audiences of understanding the social and economic nuances and contours between the countries. The countries’ diverse colonial history, for instance, impacts modern-day economics and legal frameworks. The Tunisian legal code is a near carbon copy of the French, which influences the methodology the constitution is being written in today. Egypt’s history with the Muslim Brotherhood is decades older than that of Ennahda’s, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is a factor that cannot be ignored. Yet, a plethora of attractive factors still beguile media giants into treating the “Arab Spring” countries as a monolithic entity, with Tunisia receiving an honorable mention of “starting” the trend.

There is more to the news than trendy appeal. There is more to the news than national interests. Serious and regular reporting about Tunisia’s internal challenges is absolutely necessary for our understanding of democratic development and post-Ben Ali North Africa as a whole.

Original article posted on Jadaliyya.