Countdown to default – Tunisian style

Ineffective outreach strategies left partisans poised to start this week locked in a bitter and messy fight to mobilize voters to take action. Over the weekend, they focused their attention on a two stage proposal. Their goal was to make it more attractive to voters. By Monday afternoon, they thought they were close, the President even offered a televised eappeal on Monday to reach out to the recalcitrant. But by Tuesday, it was unclear whether they could meet the August 2 deadline, with a potential catastrophic impact on all parties for the upcoming elections.

The August 2 deadline is not the U.S. debt ceiling, nor is the President Obama, but the impact could be as far reaching as a financial collapse. While the debt ceiling debate in the U.S. is all important in the American news cycle this week, Tunisians face the same August 2 deadline to legitimize their revolution. In exactly 8 days voter registration closes for Tunisian voters to vote in their first free and fair elections.

Despite a massive publicity campaign, voter registration rates have come in as a trickle, rather than a flood. As of this morning, less than 900,000 Tunisians were registered, out of an estimated 7 million eligible voters.

Despite registration booths staying open over the entire holiday weekend and a call over the weekend for Tunisian bloggers to mobilize their followers, so far less than 15 percent of voters have registered.

The impact of a weak voter registration could have far reaching implications for the political transition in Tunisia, not only potentially deligitimizing the elections, but also disenfranchizing scores of potential voters come October 23 when Tunisians go to the polls.

Over the next 8 days I will be following this story closely.

And for all my Tunisian friends: remember, it’s not just about registering yourself, take your family, friends, and everyone you know to the municipal polling station.

[Edit: After I posted this, I noticed Kacem4Change’s post on the Tunisian blogging effort. It’s a good short summary of the outreach efforts by engaged Tunisians, keeping the revolution alive.

Parties fail to take advantage of political opening

The violence and disruptions of this past weekend, coupled with the most recent address by the Tunisian prime minister, offered an opportunity for political parties to come forward and reach out to voters. By all measures, they are failing the test.

As I noted earlier this week, Prime Minister Essebsi’s speech prompted all of the major political parties in Tunisia to take action. Some condemned his speech (Ennahdha), others lauded it (PDP, Akef). In the end, though, what could have been an opening, has turned into more infighting, and less attention to reaching out to the average Tunisian voter.

Ennahdha took the opportunity to fight back against the Prime Minister, insisting that the government had defiled religious establishments by looking for protesters within mosques in Menzel Bourguiba and Tunis. This played to their base, but it also showed that they were not ready to focus attention exclusively on the next two months of political campaigning and elections.

On the other hand, the centrist parties quickly adopted the narrative of the Prime Minister to condemn violence (which they were quick to subtly blame on religious extremists, and not elements close to the former regime). However, after an almost unanimous vote in the transitional council on political party organizations and campaign finance, the PDP quickly backed away from the vote and accused the chairman of the council of playing political games. This was seen as a cynical move to protect their corporate donations. Adding insult to injury, they walked away, walked back, and then insisted that the law is ok, but just needs to be amended.

The centrist parties organized a rally in central Tunis today, ostensibly against violence, that was mostly an opportunity to distinguish themselves from Ennahdha. The event was poorly attended (I guessed around 500, though other sources placed the turnout at about 3,000), given the number of parties represented.

I think that it is highly probably that this kind of game playing from all sides is one of the biggest reasons for the apathy for voter registration. As of today, less than 400,000 Tunisians have registered to vote out of 7 million voters. They have until August 2 to complete the process in order to vote in this fall’s elections. Certainly there are other reasons for the poor turnout, but the actions of the political parties this week have not helped earn the trust of Tunisian voters.

Decried by activists, Tunisian PM’s speech spurs parties to action

I wrote yesterday about the continuing disorder and violence in Tunisia over the weekend, provoked by activists attempting to reoccupy the Kasbah on Friday. The Tunisian Prime Minister, Béji Caïd Essebsi, responded to this violence in a speech on Monday that upset activists and placed the blame squarely on extremist political parties.

Essebsi had three goals in his speech, by most accounts he has succeeded on two of them, and the third is uncertain.

First, Essebsi wanted to create a cleavage between those who are mostly concerned with preserving the goals of the revolution and those that want to move on to the elections and getting the country back to work. Polls show that the vast majority of Tunisians are glad to have overthrown the regime, but they want to move on and the top priority should be jobs, security, and the economy. However, many activists have been upset at the slow pace of reforms, in particular in the security apparatus and over the weekend, attacks on journalists. Apart from the twittersphere, Essebsi wins this point easily with the masses.

Second, he wanted to bring legitimate political parties back to the table at the transitional commission (la Haute Instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution) in order to set the stage for the political campaigns and the elections. In tandem, he tried to exclude political parties that disrupt the process and call into question the legitimacy of the commission’s work. The latter point was aimed at Ennahda and other political parties who had recently withdrawn from the commission in an attempt to increase their representation.

The response today has been swift from all sides. Ennahda immediately held a press conference in which they lined up with the PM’s ideas about avoiding violence at all costs and making sure that Tunisia stayed on track for a peaceful and fair election. The main trade union (UGTT) also voiced its support for unity and non-violence. Meanwhile, the centrist party Afek Tunis smelled blood and subtly called out Ennahda and the far left parties for their lack of respect for the transitional commission and the trade unions and aligned parties for the continued sit-ins in the country.

Essebsi raised the stakes for those parties who could benefit by saying that on one hand they wanted the transition to go well, but on the other did not want to participate in the agreed upon forum in which to participate. With over 60 percent of Tunisians not having made up their minds on who to vote, this is another win for Essebsi among all except the partisans.

Finally, he wanted to prepare voters for a potentially tumultuous run-up to the October 23 elections by essentially telling them to stay the course, ignore the extremists, and let the police do their work. The question is how long Tunisians will accept the  economic and security situation.

The speech was well-timed and spoke over the cacophony of the political chattering classes. For the time being, he seems to have reached the Tunisian people and garnered support for the transitional process at its most needed time, and he has brought the political parties with him. The risk, as I mentioned yesterday, is that if at some point there is a true split between the government and centrist parties on one side, and Ennahda and perhaps the far left on the other, there could be an added destabilization of the political process leading to further unrest in the country. Furthermore, while his call for calm has been accepted by all sides, one minor event could set things back considerably. Only time will tell.

Tunisian PM doubles down against protesters

This afternoon Tunisian Prime Minister Béji Caïd Essebsi doubled down in the face of protests, addressing the Tunisian people after a weekend of tumult over the security situation and the transitional process. He reiterated several times that the elections will be held on October 23 and that the government, political parties, and people must work together to make sure these take place, regardless of the security fears. (For more information, see the French write-up at Leaders.com)

Some observers had predicted that after the violent weekend across Tunisia that he might pass power to the military. Instead, Essebsi offered support for the security forces and not so subtly criticized certain political parties, notably the Islamist party Ennahda, for not offering constructive support to the commission charged with leading the transitional process (la Haute Instance pour la réalisation des objectifs de la révolution). He also criticized the media for what he called their role in fomenting discord in the country.

Immediate reactions among online Tunisian activists were quite negative. They criticized the fact that the Prime Minister did not mention the victims of violence committed by the police and his criticism of the media. To many, these sounded like government rhetoric under Ben Ali, which used the security apparatus and journalistic crackdowns to ensure its survival.

Essebsi’s speech carries the risk of further alienating both activists and those who think the transition is not moving fast enough. More importantly, his veiled criticisms of Ennahda risks further encouraging the growing theory that the transitional government is not looking to defend the values of the revolution. An increasingly independent press, some of whom were attacked by security forces over the weekend at the Kasbah, will not take kindly to criticisms of their new-found journalistic integrity. However, Essebsi remains one of the most, if not the most popular political figures and it is likely that his speech was aimed at the average Tunisian, who distrusts both the media, and the political parties vying for power.

In either case, there will likely be further fallout over today’s speech and the country is increasingly nervous as the elections approach.

A step backward in Tunisia

Weekend violence in Tunisia has cast a shadow over the transitional process, just as political campaigning and voter registration get underway.

The weekend started badly, with clashes between police and protesters at the Kasbah in Tunis, where “les sit-inners” tried once again to protest against the slow transition of the government. By the end of the day on Friday, protesters had holed up in a nearby mosque, where police continued to clash with them. Friday’s events were followed by further violence on Saturday, including the burning down of a police station north of Tunis, and further clashes in Tunis. Sunday saw more violence, including unconfirmed reports that a 15 year old in Sidi Bouzid may have been killed.

What’s striking about these events is not just the violence itself, but the multitude of theories over who is behind this violence, when the majority of the country is looking for security and stability. The lack of authoritative information and the distrust of the media and the ministry of the interior are at the heart of these conspiracies.

While the ministry of the interior released a statement claiming that religious extremists were behind the attacks, Jeune Afrique reported today that former ruling party members may behind the attacks. The motive: to trigger doubt about the electoral process and sow discord.

The events come at a time when political parties are trying to reach out to voters and just one week into the voter registration campaign by the electoral commission. According to Leaders.com, Afek Tunis, a center right party, had to abort plans for a weekend rally in Sidi Bouzid amidst violence and threats.  Ennahda, the main Islamist party, condemned the violence over the weekend, in particular the attack on protesters at the Kasbah on Friday. In a statement posted on the Muslim Brotherhood’s English website, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi called on the state to “open an independent inquiry into the above events, and bring those responsible for attacks on citizens and the mosque to account.”

These are troubling events that make campaigning difficult and further divide the population. They also play into popular fears that nothing has really changed in Tunisia and that the RCD is still controlling the levers of power. Prime Minister Essebsi’s government may be facing its most important challenge to date. The future of democracy in Tunisia will be based on whether citizens accept the government’s legitimacy and believe it is accountable for its actions. These weekend’s events are a key test, for both the transitional government and the political parties.

Has the real Twitter revolution just begun in Tunisia?

As the initial problems were revealed, the buzz went out across Twitter and Facebook of the problems Tunisians were facing. Some cried conspiracy, some worried about being disenfranchised, and others took the problem in their own hands. This was the first week of voter registration in Tunisia.

Tweeting for free and fair elections in Tunisia

20 days, 7 million voters

The registration process kicked off this past Monday in Tunisia (and in consulates for expatriate Tunisians). Over 20 days, bureaus across the country will try to register over 7 million voters. Some have argued that registering this many people is virtually impossible in that timeframe, but regardless, the independent elections commission (Instance Supérieure Indépendante pour les Elections de Tunisie, or ISIETN) had plowed ahead, recruiting over 2,000 new staff and volunteers to help with registration and launching a nationwide marketing campaign, in print, TV, billboards, and online.

And on Monday morning among this buzz, the community of online democracy activist was ready too. Ready to hold the commission to account and make sure that everyone’s voices were heard.

A responsive government?

As registration kicked off, things didn’t quite go as planned. A server error prevented practically all registrations on the first day. Voters overseas experienced even more problems, as understaffed embassies scrambled to accomodate thousands of voters. Some, looking to cast their first free ballot in their lifetimes, lacked key documents, like national identity cards, that would have helped with the registration.

On day two problems continued to arise, with confusion over what documents were required and and where exactly one should register. Some folks arrived at their designated registration place only to find that the office was on a siesta (with summer heat reaching 40C degrees (109F) this week, perhaps the beach was just irresistible). Other bureaus reported further technical problems.

And just as quickly as these problems arose, online activists were spreading the word. “Why isn’t the bureau in La Marsa open right now?” “I’m at my parents house in Jendouba, but I live in Tunis, where can I register?” They posted on the ISIETN Facebook page, they used the hashtag #IESTN on Twitter. One Parisian activist began recruiting volunteers to help with the registration efforts in Paris.

And in complete and utter surprise to those who know Tunisian bureaucracy, the agency responded. They started responding to registration questions on Twitter and they opened their Facebook wall so that anyone could post or respond to questions. The answer to where one can register: anywhere. Why is my bureau closed: the hours were posted incorrectly, it will be open at 4 p.m.

This is unheard of responsiveness for any government agency, but especially one coming out of the slumber of 23 years of kleptocratic dictatorship, where it didn’t matter whether you performed in your job, as long as you knew someone.

A real social media revolution?

While the task ahead is daunting, and there are many fears and much pessimism, perhaps this is the moment when we will witness the real Facebook revolution. The revolution that will empower citizens to help their government conduct free and fair elections, and hold them to account when they are failing.

The overthrow of Ben Ali has been called a youth revolution. The October 23rd elections and the events leading up to it are the next opportunity for Tunisian youth to steer their country toward a democratic future. As the political process becomes more complicated, this week’s events show that Tunisian youth will not let  fear and pessimism deter their efforts.

New poll reveals upcoming electoral dangers

Over the last few weeks, I’ve raised the issue of the importance of political polling as we approach the October 23 elections. A new poll released this week raises more questions about the precarious political situation in Tunisia and how voters will respond in this Fall’s ballot. It also avoids key questions that would help us understand how the elections might turn and how political parties can reach out to voters.

Voter registration campaign from the independent elections committee

Key highlights

In an era of misinformation and lots of speculation, both in Tunisia and outside, the newIRI poll provides useful data on how Tunisians view their future (including their hopes and fears), the role of secularism/religion, and how Tunisians get their news. Particularly welcome is there publication of their methodology, which other polling firms here have declined to provide).

Overall, the poll showed widespread support for democracy, but their is an increasingly pessimistic attitude toward the future of the country and the political elite. A few points stand out:

  • Almost half (46%) of all Tunisians now believe their country is going in the wrong direction
  • Internal security and unemployment remain the critical issues for Tunisians
  • 43% believe that political parties are only interested in power
  • No individual or party received more than 7% support when Tunisians were asked their voting intentions
  • Only one party was identified by Tunisians when asked about their voting intentions (other responses identified party leaders)

The last two figures are key. Political parties are the key to the upcoming elections and probably the single most understood and undervalued element in the transition period in Tunisia. When voters go to the polls in October, they will be voting for their preferred parties, not individual candidates, within their voting district, a system called proportional list voting.

This proportional list system favors a multitude of parties gaining at least some seats. While it does not favor small parties, it doesn’t exclude them either. Parties with strong support will receive a proportional share, while those receiving fewer votes must meet a minimum threshold in order to gain a seat within each constituency.

With over 100 parties competing in the coming elections, even the most well-informed voter could be confused by the plethora of parties. And as I’ve written about previously this week, most parties identify themselves as centrist, meaning that their is very little differentiation among party platforms.

Consolidation is needed, but polls aren’t helping

Unless there is some serious consolidation among like minded parties, there is a great risk that the elections will be jeopardized by spreading votes too thinly across the many political parties, making the drafting of a new constitution and the day-to-day governance of the country nearly impossible.

Imagine a district with 10 seats where 10,000 votes are required in order to gain a seat. Then imagine that the current front runners, Ennahdha (Islamist) and PDP (center-left), each wins 2 seats. The remaining 6 seats will be given to the next closest parties receiving votes. If we use the current polling data, these seats could essentially be randomly assigned, as no other parties receive statistically significant support from Tunisian voters and there is no way to judge the political slant of the electorate (whether they are leaning right or left).

Under these circumstances, a party leader of a small party has an incentive to consolidate his base by joining forces with another smallish party. For those parties that are ideological, alliances should be fairly straightforward, unless there are big egos involved. Far left wing parties should work with other far left wing parties, etc.

However, most Tunisian parties are centrist. Under normal circumstances, these centrist parties would make some calculations for alliances based on support in various regions and by further differentiating based on ideology (i.e., center left parties join with center left parties, etc).

Unfortunately, once again, the polls fail us. We cannot find data that would point a party leader toward making a calculated choice. None of the polls I’ve examined point to regional variation across the country, nor do they look at how voters would like their elected leaders to solve their problems (ideology).

We simply do not know what side Tunisians fall on, left or right. This information gap makes alliance making extremely difficult and very risky for a political party.

As of now, most of these small parties are testing the waters with voters. They are reaching out to voters across the country and they are no doubt looking at enthusiasm for their positions (and their opponents) at rallies, on the newsstands, and online.

With three months to go before the election, the time to start making these alliances is now. Ramadan, which begins at the end of July, will make campaigning problematic until early September, at which point there will only be seven weeks to go before the election.

Perhaps, as this week’s poll points out, Tunisians are right, political parties are only looking out for their own interests. Or perhaps, they need more information from voters.

Also interesting about the IRI poll:

Their are several ambiguities in the poll. For example, while 54% of respondents approved of a secular government, 59% would like to see political parties that are moderately or strongly Islamist in the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, the percentage of Tunisians whose political opinions are influenced by religious leaders fell from 46% in March (the time of the previous survey), to 34% in May.

None of the public opinion polls conducted so far have included expatriate Tunisian voters, who will for the first time have the chance to vote from abroad.

Postscript: This is the second time I’ve looked closely at IRI data. Lest anyone think I’m only reading U.S. sponsored polls, I am not. However, with the exception Emhrod, no other polling firms have released their polling methodologies, that I know of. Polls by MediaScan, Sigma, and 3C have failed to publish methodologies and complete lists of questions. It’s possible the information I believe is lacking is in fact out there somewhere. If it is, please send it my way and I will happily revise.

Too shy? Why Tunisian political parties need new media – and so do voters

Tunisia is witnessing an explosion in media. In the last 3 months there are over 100 new print publications, 12 new radio stations, including 6 in the capital, and authorization of several new television stations. This will have an important and positive impact on elections – giving Tunisians a real choice at the ballot box this October.

The elections, scheduled for October 16, will be the first chance for Tunisians to express their political preferences since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011. Tunisians will elect political parties to be part of a constitutional assembly, a sort of constitutional convention, which will write the new constitution and prepare the country for the election in 2012 of a new government.

In the run up to the elections, a more pluralistic media will have an impact on both political party decision-making and the ability for voters to make real choices.

With so many parties, confusion reigns

Since the fall of the regime, over 100 political parties have been added to the electoral register in Tunisia, creating a perception of freedom of choice, but also adding to the confusion of the post-revolutionary period. The number of parties is a reflection of the diverse views that have emerged over how the country should be governed and by whom. However, the lack of coherent platforms and inadequate political analysis of the various political parties by Tunisian media has made Tunisians more jaded and fearful of the upcoming elections.

The increase in media sources will be an opportunity to change that as candidates and parties will be required to clearly articulate their political platforms and reach out to an increasingly complex and well-informed electorate.

Until recently, post-revolutionary political parties could reach out to a few key media sources in order to disseminate their messages. In fact, the most common way to do this for most parties was to publish a press release that contained their main messages – though not necessarily their platform. State controlled newspapers would generally publish these without comparative analysis or commentary.

A frustrating and alienating experience – they’re all the same

For voters, the lack of political analysis has been frustrating. Without differentiation between party platforms, they all looked the same – and that looked a lot like the former regime. All of them wanted a “better” Tunisia, with economic opportunities for all, especially the young and unemployed, and unity for the country.

Sound familiar? It has to Tunisians. It sounds like the former regime, which stated the same goals for the last 23 years. Upon releasing these statements through the traditional media, their poll numbers didn’t move. Why? Simple, no one could tell them apart.

Exacerbating the problem was that not only did most parties not talk about their platforms; most parties actually had the same platform, with over half of the newly created parties identifying themselves as centrist parties. Meanwhile, with the exception of the Islamist party, Ennahda, there have been no political leaders who have emerged as identifiable, let alone liked by Tunisians, according to recent polls. And even then, in the most recent poll released by 3C, Ennahda only garnered 14 percent support, despite engaging in intense campaign activities over the last two months. The next closest party, the also well financed Parti Démocratique Progressiste, known by its French acronym PDP, received only 5 percent support. With over 100 parties competing, only two parties have over 5 percent support!?

While the traditional media have reported heavily on the political process, the lack of analysis has failed to inform voters about the real differences between parties. This has lead to a marked rise in apathy, witnessed both anecdotally, and in the aforementioned 3C poll, with over two-thirds of Tunisians undecided over which party to support.

Voters need a choice

One of the most discouraging aspects of the recent attention of Ennahda by both domestic and foreign media (a debate that has been focused on the role of Islam in Tunisia), has been that this has diverted attention away from a debate on issues Tunisians fought for this past January

The reasons behind the revolution have been well documented. The combination of poor economic prospects and the greed and theft of the state by the Ben Ali/Trabelsi clan infuriated average Tunisians. Today, Tunisians want economic freedom, jobs, security, and justice. The October elections should be a referendum on what party can give them that choice.

Ennahda has gained momentum in the polls through effective campaigning and clear differentiation from both the old-regime, under which it was banned. As a result, it has been able to build a base of support without clearly articulating positions on how it would address the problems Tunisians have identified. Unless voters get tired of platitudes or scared of the prospect of political Islam, Ennahda can continue to campaign as it has, though it may eventually hit a wall of support. (For further reading, see  Marc Lynch recent look at the politics behind the Ennahda campaign, see also my criticisms.)

Other parties face the very different challenge of establishing name recognition and building support for their platforms. While fringe parties, such as the Communist Party (PCOT) led by Hamma Hammami, have laid out clear ideological platforms, most parties in the center have failed to properly articulate their positions.

The rise in new media outlets creates an opportunity for an ambitious party to raise its profile with voters and articulate its message without the financial backing enjoyed by the PDP or Ennahda, which despite their substantial means lack broad-based support.

Media as a proxy for polling

I’ve written before (here and here) that the lack of issue polling in Tunisia has been a detriment to political analysis of the upcoming elections. In particular, it has opened the door to the debate over secularism that has so captured the attention of the foreign media. The lack of polls and subsequent analysis of voter attitudes has had a harmful impact on Tunisian political parties, who cannot use polls to judge whether their strategies or platforms are resonating with the public.

The rise in a diverse and critical media may create a proxy for issue-based polling that could help Tunisian parties better understand the political landscape and reach out to voters more effectively.

Competition created by the new media outlets, which are generally more outspoken than state controlled media, will be an opportunity for political strategists within political parties to reach out to different constituencies of the Tunisian electorate by expressing how their platform will address the needs of voters.

In a multi-party race with limited financial backing, this is an opportunity for smaller parties to raise their profile with voters and help reinforce grassroots support.

Much like voters around the world, Tunisians are tired of empty rhetoric and fruitless and unfocused debates. Let’s hope that the political parties in Tunisia will use these new media outlets to get out their messages and help shape a more productive political debate.

A note on social media platforms as a means for political debate: I have not written about electronic and/or social media, which has had an important impact on political discourse debate, and will certainly impact the coming elections. This is for two reasons. One, the average Tunisian does not get their information from the internet (only 33 percent do). Two, political parties have not used social media to present or defend their platforms to voters. Rather, one finds mostly user-generated commentary, not comprehensive analysis of political party platforms from the website’s editorial staff.

A note on Islamism and the securlar debate: I have decided not to take on the issue of secularism and the potential changes that could result from the election of Ennahda. This is an important issue, but Tunisians have not identified it as being the most important one. Perhaps the subject of a future post, I leave it aside at this point

Give me my porno!

There is a pornography war going on in Tunisia right now. On one side are conservatives who want to defend children against harmful images, on the other liberal freedom of speech advocates and internet geeks who know the power of government censorship of the internet. Behind the debate is the history of censorship in Tunisia and the powerful role of the state.

Poster against censorship and internet blocking in Tunisia

Internet censorship – Tunisian style

The first time I came to Tunisia was in 1999, five years before Facebook, 6 years before YouTube, and only a few months after the launch of Google. The dial up connections were pretty slow, and internet cafes were few and far between, but it was definitely possible to connect – as long as you chose the right site. I found that sites like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others were completely blocked. As it turned out, this was just the beginning of one of the longest and most thorough attacks on internet freedom by one of the most fearful and repressive regimes.

By the time I came back to Tunisia in 2010, things were much darker. The tentacles of government censorship were not only longer, they were more invasive into the private lives of individuals. The government no longer wanted its citizens to not access information about its repressive practices, it wanted to know what they were writing on Facebook and to the their friends over email. During this period, a visitor in Tunisia could expect, shortly after they first accessed their email, to see a security message from Facebook or Gmail or Yahoo indicating that someone had tried to access his account and that it may be necessary to change the password. This was the government internet spies, who had purchased elaborate systems to hack user accounts. YouTube was blocked entirely. (For more details on the scale of internet censorship in Tunisia under Ben Ali, see Nate Anderson’s article in Wired from January 2011)

And then came the uprising and the fall of the regime. Within a few weeks, the internet was entirely unblocked. Tunisians were as free as anyone else in the world to access what they wanted online.

That is, until a recent court decision that banned online pornography, following a challenge by three lawyers that claimed that pornography was bad for children, and the state had a duty to protect them.

Rendez-moi mon porno

The story started back in January when the internet was finally opened up completely – including pornography. Subsequent revelations about the extent of the censorship and the technology used added to the fear in Tunisia that any kind of censorship would be a return to the practices of the ancien regime.

Meanwhile, the blogger and Anonymous hero Slim Amamou became a member of the cabinet, championing the cause of internet freedom and opening the government up to the internet.

In May, the era of internet freedom began to unravel. The posting of an online video of Farhat Raji, a former minister, that suggested that the military could overturn an election won by the Islamists caused riots and the government brought back an overnight curfew. Later that month, the military tribunal forced the closure of several facebook pages after the page owners suggested that a coup d’etat was imminent. This led to the resignation of Slim Amamou from the interim government.

As these serious allegations and counter allegations were rocking the government and the internet community, enter the claim of the three lawyers. The claim did not identify specific sites nor was their any group that came forward to back the claim by these lawyers. The government agency that regulates internet traffic in Tunisia, in somewhat of a surprise move, came out against the ban on pornography, winning an injunction against the claim. This was later overruled, but the agency was able to make the case that a blanket ban on pornography would invite much broader censorship than just nudie sites.

For the segment of the Tunisian population that, above all, fears the re-imposition of censorship, the argument is that their are plenty of ways to censure the internet within your own home, the government doesn’t need to do for you. Right? After all, that’s how it works in the West….

Since the ruling was challenged, the question of whether will Tunisians get their porno or not has been one of the most popular stories in the Tunisian blogosphere. It has been one of the most popular issues of the past two months  on Nawaat.org, a Tunisian website that closely tracks post-revolutionary issues and has over 50,000 followers.

In one of the most popular articles (in French only) Rendez-moi mon porno or “Give me Back my Porno,” blogger Adam Jerbi  contests the notion that the State can simply ban a genre of websites based on the complaint of certain members of society. Jerbi’s article was countered and supported by other articles, which have gathered nearly as  many views and comments.

Liberalism is butting up against a society that has always relied on the state as the role model and arbiter for mores. Many of the comments came from readers who likened pornography to rape itself, thus making the state responsible for the protection of the victims of this humiliation. In a society that is still very much conservative, this issue touches at the core of the debates that many Tunisians are having right now. How much freedom is too much? What is the role of the state? Who is responsible for morality?

The West has often had these debates. Zoning laws are still major issues for communities that face the choice of having adult book stores in their communities. The difference is that those who are pushing for internet freedoms in Tunisia are not the Larry Flynts of the world. Nor are they supporters of pornography. They are those that know the power of giving the government the ability to control sources of information. To many of them, the January revolution was about censorship and internet freedom, and they see these recent decisions as a major step back on their quest for democratic institutions.