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.
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.