Tag Archives: revolution

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

1091013_10200719485764484_2073355560_o

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.

Advertisements

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.

Tunisia a year later: misplaced priorities

Sure, it’s January 14th, 2012 – marking a year after Ben Ali’s departure from Tunisia. When he fled, most Tunisians were not sure whether they were witnessing reality or a mere passing dream. The ecstasy in the air was a collective one that united all Tunisians.

But in memory of this moment of ecstasy, Tunisians are celebrating separately. In La Chebba, a small city in the coastal state of Mahdia, two celebrations were taking place: supporters of the Islamist party Ennahda held celebrations at a local park, while supporters of left-wing parties (including Ettajdid, the Progressive Democratic Party, and the Tunisian Communist Party) held a march down Chebba’s main street. They chanted, “No America, no Qatar, Tunisia is free,” along with a dash of, “We say no to backwardness – no caliphate.” Now, while I agree wholeheartedly with the general message of non-intervention, I sometimes question why they think today of all days is a good day to spread it. All it takes is a glance over their shoulders to notice that the lady living down the street cannot afford to buy a bottle of gas to cook with. All it takes is a short walk across the street to hear a mother complain about how ever since her children reached 5th grade, she can no longer help them with their homework. The celebrations in the park, on the other hand, were insulated. They insinuated a completion of the “revolution.” It’s all said and done for many of those present – democracy, new government, mission accomplished / la vie en rose. The party they voted for won, and given some ingrained cultural vestiges left by the old regime, that’s more than enough to ensure stability and prosperity in the country.

These ideological divisions are happening due to one reason: the government’s lack of direct and systematically executed communication with the residents of any Tunisian cities besides the capital.

Tunisian leaders now have a new penchant for inviting foreign dignitaries day in and day out. Ever since its inception, all the new government has been doing is inviting various heads of state and making “agreements” – what they entail exactly, most of the Tunisian population has no idea. Some Constituent Assembly members, along with a few ministers, have made trips to the interior. On one of the trips to Gafsa, a minister witnessed yet another incident of self-immolation: Ammar Gharsallah, a father of three, lit himself on fire after the minister refused to meet with him. Gharsallah is unemployed and has actively participated in the sit-ins that have been taking place the past few weeks in front of the Gafsa governmental office. The acts of self-immolation happen for a reason: despair. I hate to be the one stating the obvious but it seems that many of our politicians do not understand how to allay this feeling. As PM Jebali invites Ismail Haniya, people are burning – if not literally, they are burning internally with despair.

In Gafsa, Rdayef, Gassrine, and Sidi Bouzid. As Marzouki speaks with the Emir of Qatar, the President of Algeria, and Head of the Libyan transitional council Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Tunisians are striking. Protesting. Crying for attention from a most humble base. Life cannot – and should not – go as per usual until the demands of these protesters are met. Even though its only been a year since the former regime was overthrown, the months pass by as an eternity for many who, with thwarted dreams, are still waiting. Waiting on remedial action from the new government.

“But the government just recently got its act together – how do you expect them to meet the demands in a month?” This is what I’ve been hearing time and time again. I used to say this myself. This is what the government can do: instead of “visiting” Gassrine, perhaps they can jumpstart the reorganization of internal municipal structures while they’re there. They can start providing training for the enactment of internal democratic procedures. They can begin the development of the interior regions – not through agreements with the Qatari Emir, but rather from the bottom up. Ask local residents what they need – document their needs. Work with local civic organizations in doing so. Then, open up business bids to fulfill these demands. Then, show residents of the cities you are visiting progress reports. In the example of opening up of a new factory, a study can be distributed to local city councils detailing how much is invested in the project, expected output, expected number of jobs, expected net gain to the city. The government (health ministry) can also begin renovating and reconditioning local hospitals. The government can also start by organizing their own respective offices – dividing the workload appropriately and allocating adequate human resources to enter the long-neglected interior areas. I can really go on for another page about what the government can do.

I understand that establishing a new political tone on the international stage is important. But what is more pressing are the domestic issues that absolutely must be faced.

The celebrations held in a local cultural center in Melloulech (a small town about 13 kilometers away from Chebba) were the most heartwarming – and the most honest. There, a united group of local residents gathered for the unveiling of a freshly painted mural, and schoolchildren sang some songs honoring the uprisings. They also had a short play enacting the heroic sacrifices of the young men and women who were brave enough to bare their chests to live fire. They poignantly expressed solidarity with each other as Tunisians. At this celebration, no lofty debates about nationalism and communism and islamism took place. No highbrow mentions of a looming caliphate or an “unclean” media were made. Instead, the air was imbued with patient optimism that recognized the feats of the past while critically looking ahead.

The mural unveiled at Dar el Chabeb in Melloulech

The Libyan revolution and the impact on the American – arguably far – left (Part Two)

“It is a stolen revolution – if you can even call it a revolution.”

The claim that NATO’s intervention in Libya has somehow tainted the Libyans’ quest for human rights has been addressed already. By using the term stolen, we are attributing all credit to NATO: even when the credit is intended to ostracize Western powers, we are in effect stealing the Libyans’ genuine effort and attributing it to NATO. When the protestors of Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain are all cheering on the Libyan revolutionaries, such a claim adopts a human dimension that introduces the collective hopes and desires of a people thirsty for freedom that is difficult to ignore. Yet my fear is that this twisted narrative has a real capacity to grow, especially in progressive circles in the Global North. In the US, some of the Arab peoples’ closest allies have chosen to spew this rhetoric. The theory is admittedly tempting – which increases my worries for the quality of future interaction between post-war Libya and the US left.

By and large, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts have been internalized as peaceful protests that have only encountered violence from their respective former state apparatuses. From what I’ve remarked, this seems to particularly earn the respect of American leftists as more “pure.” Libya, on the other hand, been forced to form its own “rebel” armed units to counter the thousands of mercenary brigades that Gaddafi was bringing in from other African nations, amongst other reasons. Due to the indiscriminate killing that Gaddafi’s state pursued, the people also needed additional protection and armed support and called for the help of many (not just NATO). We should recall that the earliest form of intervention in Libya in regards to the revolts has kicked off with the Arab League asking the UN Security Council to pass a resolution authorizing other countries to protect the civilian population. It is unlike anything that occurred in Tunisia or Egypt. The US progressive community is very aware and sensitive to any forms of foreign intervention and is alert in perceiving signs of neo-colonialism (and rightly so) – thus comes the increased focused on the intervention. I fear that Libya will be start to be institutionally categorized as an exception to the triumphs of the Arab Awakening by those who would typically be considered its staunchest allies. Some elements of the Libyan case simply do not fit the US political-left schema, and I am seeing that for many, it is difficult to reconcile the elements.

This has some very real implications for the way the US provides support to a nascent Libya and MENA in general. On an internal level, we may start seeing levels of support divided along political left-center-right cleavages. Or it may remain contained as a division amongst the left. In either scenario, there is the possibility that Libya will be alienated by some of those who are most able to help. A practical example of this fear is the US Congress voting on an aid package to Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Some strong liberals may get carried away in this narrative’s illusion and oppose sending any aid to Libya. Obviously this is an extreme example (I heavily doubt we have that strong of liberals in our current Congress) – but it gets the point across.

Most importantly in the way the Libyan regime’s fall is perceived is how some theory might spill over onto the rest of the Arab world’s revolts. By possibly harming the Libyan revolutions reputation, there is the possibility that Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutionary progress will also be impacted. It may also impact Yemen and Syria – in fact, it already is influencing a lot of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian revolts. “How come NATO is not intervening in Syria?” I can say this much: it is not due to any lack of – economic but especially political – interest in the region. There is much of that in Syria.

This intersection between pro/anti revolution and pro/anti international intervention is a very interesting one that simply does not fit into any traditional narratives It is, I believe, creating a new political outlook both in the Global North and in MENA that is bound by different priorities and desires…