Will civil rights be under threat in the new Tunisia?

Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly will take its seats within the next two weeks to decide on the constitutional framework of the country. In a country that has known nothing but authoritarianism since its independence, only time will tell whether any of its politicians (Islamist or otherwise), will truly commit to a human rights agenda. There are, however, signs that the coalition of Ennahdha and certain secular parties that will be part of the governing coalition, could lead to the establishment of fundamental rights in newly democratic Tunisia.

The work of the assembly will be multi-faceted,  it will act both as a legislator and sitting government and as a committee to draft the constitution. One of the major preoccupations of Tunisians and the international community will be how it protects civil rights. Many have called for a bill of rights to protect the rights that were eroded by the previous authoritarian regimes.

The elections on October 23 were won by the Islamist party, Ennahdha, which claimed 40 percent of the seats in the assembly.  Ennahdha campaigned as a protector of Tunisian identity (particularly its religion and customs). It also worked to assuage fears that would not follow through on its stated commitment to human rights. Ennahdha’s opponents openly questioned Ennahdha’s true commitment to these freedoms. Reuter’s Andrew Hammond wrote last week that, to many conservative Muslims, Ghannouchi represents the most liberal wing of his party.

In the face of these doubts, the party, orignially an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has not wavered from these commitments following its victory last week. In a press conference on Friday, Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s founder and leader reasserted his party’s commitment to “the principles of freedom of thought, belief, speech and dress.”

While Ennahdha’s membership certainly represents a multiplicity of views, from conservative to liberal, Ennahdha’s leadership understands that its stance on civil rights issues will be under the microscope in the coming year, particularly by the G8, which has committed billions of dollars in aid to assist in the transition. In addition to external pressure, Ennahdha members were victims of egregious civil rights violations under the previous regime. Freedom of worship, assembly, and association were severely limited under Ben Ali, to the detriment of Islamists as much as anyone.

Enter Moncef Marzouki and Mustapha Ben Jafaar, leaders of the two major secular parties that have agreed to work with Ennahdha as part of a unity coalition, the CPR and Ettakatol. These two figures could hold the key to ensuring and codifying commitments to civil rights in Tunisia’s new constitution. Some background: Marzouki and Ben Jafaar were both prominent figures in the opposition to Ben Ali. Marzouki was the head of the Tunisian League of Human Rights and returned from exile after Ben Ali’s fall. Ben Jafaar also worked for greater human rights in Tunisia and is seen as a centrist reformer. Both campaigned as secular candidates, but unlike their fellow center left parties, the PDM and PDP, did not refuse to work with Ennahdha.

Ennahdha, deprived of an absolute majority, will have to work with the CPR and Ettakatol to advance its agenda. Ennahdha has reportedly already offered key posts to both leaders. This will be an opportunity for both Marzouki and Ben Jafaar to prove to their supporters that they can deliver on a centrist, secular agenda, while working with Islamists.

It will also be an opportunity for Ghannouchi to show to Ennahdha’s moderate supporters that their trust in the party’s moderation was well placed. Meanwhile, Ennahdha will be able to deliver some key victories on freedom of worship and dress to its more extreme members and fringe elements, such as salafists. There will be unintended consequences for many of the country’s liberal parties. Ennahdha’s commitment to freedom of dress has been reported in the west as a commitment to not impose the veil on women. But many conservatives in Tunisia will see it as a commitment to ensure that the niqab can be worn, a pre-election issue at the country’s universities. Civil rights and freedom of expression cuts many ways, as was so clearly expressed in the tense debate and protests surrounding the broadcasting of Persepolis following the elections.

The political horse trading that will ensue in the coming months could lead to truly big changes in the conception of rights in the Arab world. The governing coalition will have a unique opportunity to enshrine the most basic rights of freedom of assembly, expression, religion, and speech in its new constitution. Time will tell whether Tunisia’s new leaders will take this opportunity or not.


5 best Tunisian elections videos

Tunisian artists are having their day in the sun after the oppressive regime of Ben Ali. They have put their skills to work for the elections this Sunday to elect the Constituent Assembly. Here are my top five videos urging Tunisians to exercise their rights. I must say, this beats MTV.

Ben Ali Returns to La Goulette – a get out the vote video that shows Tunisians how close the return of dictatorship can be

Enti Essout – an all star cast of Tunisian singers encourages people to use their voice/vote.

Tunisia votes  – One of a series of videos from ISIE encouraging Tunisians to vote

No Woman has the right to work – From the Association of Tunisian Women, encouraging women to defend their rights in the elections

Tunisian Elections – Canberra Australia – The first Tunisian to vote in the 2011 elections is in Australia – ok it’s not artsy, but it’s touching

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.