Independence day in Tunisia – reactions from around the web

Yesterday Tunisians celebrated their independence day. On a beautiful Spring day in the capital, thousands gathered to show their determination to further the gains they have made as a society – not just since independence from the French over 50 years ago, but from the uprising just 15 months ago.

The reactions across the web were plentiful. Although French media focused on the secularist rally in which thousands of Tunisians marched for a civil state, all reports talked about the increasing divisiveness in the country – pitting for the first time Tunisian citizens against Tunisian citizens. President Marzouki’s addressed this issue in a speech focused on national unity:

This festival is an opportunity for us all to rethink our relationships, to live with our differences and despite our differences…National unity cannot last if it is built on misunderstanding, hatred and division.”

Bidules blog criticized Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s speech for ignoring Tunisia’s history:

Despite differences of opinion and all that happened in the post-colonial era, Bourguiba, along with Farhat Hached, Hedi Chaker and others, played a very important role in the independence of Tunisia and the implementation establishment of a modern state and strong institutions. To forget this important day is unfair and smells of of ingratitude.

Reuters reports on the secular demonstration in downtown Tunis:

Carrying Tunisia’s red and white flag, several thousand protesters filled Bourguiba Avenue, a focal point of protests that ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14 last year and sparked the “Arab Spring” uprisings.

“We came in our thousands to say to those who want to change the course of the revolution that we will confront you,” said rights activist Jaber Ben Hasan, amid chants of “the people want a civil state”.

“We are here to bring victory to the civil state,” he said, referring to a state that was not governed by religious law.

Marianne reports ominously of a Tunisia divided in two as secularists demonstrated downtown while religious groups gathered by the thousands in a neighboring suburb:

And now, once again there were two Tunisias on Tuesday, March 20, for Independence Day. The beautiful, rebellious, feminine, youthful, draped in the national flag,with its bright red star as the eye in its cresent. She marched cheerfully down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the very place where she had made the revolution on January 14 that she refuses to see betrayed. And then there was another, the dark, the veiled, the bearded, not laughing, men on one side, women on the other, and nobody moves … frozen between the green flag from the Koran and the Salafist black standard. This one had gathered at the El Menzah Dome, a few miles from the center of Tunis, to proclaim the divine urgency to introduce Sharia law in the Constitution now being developed by the Assembly…

France’s Le Point gets reactions from Tunisians downtown:

“The Tunisian people are divided. If we continue like this, I would not use the term civil war, but … hatred among Tunisians that is emerging could complicate things. I do not want to put a blinders on, but the gap is growing. And if things do not move quickly, I fear that it will become more complicated,” laments Khaled Bouassida, dentist and member of the association Kolna Tunes.

This is a fear shared by Bassem. Proudly wearing his T-shirt which says  “Tolerant Tunisian,” the engineer of 29 years denounced “the attempt to divide the people.” “They want to create a war between Muslims and those they consider less Muslim. But the Tunisian people are diverse.” At his side, Hussam, an accountant, went further: “I am tolerant because I’m Arab and Muslim”

The President of the Association for Women and Dignity, Zahra Marrakchi, writing in Leaders is more optimistic following the day’s events:

Leaving the [Bourguiba] avenue, the protesters were still waving their flags, cars spread through the city in a concert of horns, waving flags. It was a wonderful event that took place without any accident or incident. No slogan called for hatred, exclusion or the use of force…It was a great day with a promises that there will be others.

Similarly inspired, French blogger, and longtime Tunisia resident, Benoit Delmas gives Tunisia an A+ for yesterday’s events:

The multitude of flags was proof that Tunisians do not want Salafist forces. A Republican atmosphere characterized this beautiful day. March 20, we commemorate independence. 56 years ago, France left Tunisia free to her fate. Today we whistled, shouted, smiled so that the country is a peaceful democracy. Tunisia, where veiled women stood alongside unveiled women in tolerance. Today, thousands of people demanded a Tunisia without Sharia. In peace, good humor, with conviction. Mabrouk.

Tunisia Live reports on the mixed feelings Tunisian’s have for their independence, and the increasingly common concern that Gulf countries and the United States are pulling the strings of the government:

Independence day brings mixed feelings for many Tunisians. While the day officially marked the end of the French colonial period, and the beginning of an era where Tunisia was recognized as a modern state, it also began an era of authoritarian rule. One political group was out distributing signs with photos of Tunisia’s first President and leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba. “This is your worst nightmare,” the signs read.

Mohammed, a restaurant owner, said that even after Independence and the Tunisian Revolution he doesn’t feel like Tunisia is a truly independent country. “I don’t believe that Tunisia is really independent, before the Revolution I knew we were controlled by France. Now we are controlled by Qatar or America– I don’t really know and it does not matter, we are not really independent,” he said.

The question of divisiveness is a new and difficult question for many Tunisians. On the positive side, it is a symbol of a newfound pluralism. On the other hand, it has shown the dark side of Tunisia and exposed vast differences in opinion on important issues – including most importantly, religion. It’s a debate we will continue to hear a lot about in the coming months.

The Arab spring lexicon: Tunisian revolution downgraded from revolution to turning point by way of uprising

The Tunisian Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, speaking in Berlin this week, called the events that led to former dictator Ben Ali’s departure a “turning point” – further changing the Tunisian lexicon.

What began as a revolution in Tunisia was eventually downgraded to an uprising by many Tunisian and Arab commentators. The Guardian reported that “Tunisia hovers between uprising and revolution.” Tunisian and foreign bloggers also jumped on the term revolution – with so many state actors still in place, how could it be a true revolution?

A french blogger sums it up:

To speak of popular uprising rather than revolution is a way to emphasize that the recent events in Tunisia did not abolish the Ben Ali system. They swept away the autocrat and his closest network [of family and friends], but the entire edifice on which rested its hegemony is still in place.

According to Islamist and scholar Tariq Ramadan:

No “springtime” has come; no revolution has taken place, as I have insisted ever since the very first uprisings….

…Uprisings need clear regional and international objectives in order to become revolutions. For the time-being, the United States, Europe and Israel – like China, Russia and India – are protecting their own interests, both openly and behind the scenes.

Were the Arab world to lose hope in the wake of its failed uprisings, the great powers would have lost nothing. To succeed, the revolutions of today demand nothing less than an Arab consciousness, which only the people of the region can express. If, and only if, they do not abandon the struggle.

Prime Minister Jebali seems to be further refining the terminology, downgraded from an uprising to a mere “turning point.” The continuity between past and present is assured.

Of course, whether you choose revolution, uprising, or turning point, it’s nothing compared to many Tunisians, who insist on calling it a coup d’etat. This report by France 24 explains how many Tunisian and French analysts (and the public at large), think that the departure of Ben Ali was orchestrated by the American military. Under this theory, while there was a popular uprising, there could not have been a revolution – because an outside force was the principle actor responsible for the dictator’s departure. I suppose you could call it a turning point as well.

The lexicological debate over Tunisia’s “revolution” mirrors the very public debate in the West over the term Arab Spring. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper in the States without some mention of the Arab Spring actually being and Arab Winter.

For one term, however, there is no debate. While Tunisians argue over whether it was an uprising, revolution, turning point, or coup d’etat – everyone knows it wasn’t jasmine.

Perhaps in the end the events in Tunisia last year will be known like the French or American national days, by its calendar date – January 14, 201. How does translate to the Islamic calendar?

[On a personal note: In my writings I initially referred to the overthrow as a revolution, but quickly changed course and have been (mostly) consistent in calling it an uprising.]


Are press freedoms in Tunisia really in the crosshairs? Refuting Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post wasn’t the first to sound the danger alarm – but his op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday was clear, Tunisia is back-sliding on press freedom. The article has been cited numerous times in the last two days as evidence that the Arab Spring, even in Tunisia, is turning cold (see here, here, here, and here).

Unfortunately for Americans, whose news on Tunisia is few and far between, Abrams analysis is inaccurate and prosaic and a miscaracterization of the very important debate Tunisia is having over the judicial system, the media, and basic freedoms.

Abrams says: “Tunisia is everyone’s favorite Arab country nowadays, the one where the Arab Spring started and that has the best chance to “make it” to democracy. So it would be especially disturbing if Tunisia, and its supposedly moderate Islamist government, led by the Ennahda party, went off track…..Yet several prosecutions in Tunisia show that old habits die hard.”

He goes on to highlight two cases as evidence that Tunisia is sliding back into the totalitarian darkness of Ben Ali. The first case involves Nessma TV’s owner Nabil Karoui, who faces criminal charges for disturbing public order and violating sacred values over his station’s airing of the French/Iranian cartoon Persepolis last October. The film depicted God in human form, a sacrilege to most Muslims. (For more background on the case see here and here.)

The second case involves local newspaper publisher Nasreddine Ben Saida. His newspaper, Attounsia, reprinted on its front page a GQ photo of half-Tunisian footballer Sami Khedira with his half-naked wife. Ben Saida also faced criminal charges for his offense, but was let off with a $600 fine.

First of all, Abrams is right – the two cases highlight problems that the country must address if it is to truly be considered to have a free press. Firstly, the fact that both cases were prosecuted under criminal law is deeply disturbing. As Amnesty International observes: “the public prosecutor bypassed a new Press Law which took effect in November 2011, resorting instead to using Article 121 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes the distribution of printed material that disrupts public order or public morals.”

But Abrams dismisses Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s agreement with the use of civil penalties for Ben Saida, and his rejection of what he called “Ben Ali era judgments.” Rather, Abrams is skeptical: “Ghannouchi’s finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed.”

Essentially, Abrams is accusing of the ruling party of attacking the press because of one case that, while still ongoing, took place prior to the elections and another case which is essentially the same as existing American laws on public decency (In fact, if one wants to get technical, Abrams worked for the same administration that in 2006 increased fines for media companies accused of public indecency – and the GQ photo is surprisingly similar to the incident that set off a public debate in the States – the infamous Janet Jackson “nip slip”).

There are legitimate concerns about press freedoms in Tunisia. The country has one of the worst track records for press freedom in the world, and the way in which both cases have been prosecuted raise important concerns. Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others have all actively both lobbied the Tunisian government and raised awareness of free speech among the citizenry. They have also correctly sounded the alarm bells about reported abuses by the government.

While Tunisians won a victory in the high court last month regarding internet censorship, the fight is far from over. As Reporters Without Borders stated: “This is good news, although we would have preferred that the court had given a final ruling…“We call once again on the Tunisian justice system to reject Internet filtering once and for all on appeal.”

As I have written about previously, Ennahdha is unhappy at the press coverage they have received and have called for greater objectivity by the media. Media advocates are being vigilant because these recent statements, which many have called attacks on the free press. While their vigilence is commendable and necessary, it is also important to point out that parties have every right to criticize the media. In fact, it would be difficult to find a partisan Democrat or Republican who did not question the medias intentions and biases.

After reading Mr. Abrams, I do wonder what his real motivations are – are they to encourage real support for democracy in the region? Or is he trying to undermine the U.S. government efforts in the country?

He states: “the U.S. government has been silent [on these cases]. Tunisian liberals say that the U.S. Embassy in Tunis is unengaged with their efforts to make sure the Tunisian model remains one of expanding freedom. The State Department and the White House have said nothing about these incidents.”

I, for one, am happy the the U.S. State Department is not commenting on the Tunisian nipplegate.

Rather, Secretary Clinton decided to focus her visit last month on what matters: visiting civil society and the country’s youth, meeting its political leaders – oh, and committing $190 million in development assistance. Rather than focusing on Tunisian footballers and their model wives, Clinton was focusing on getting funds dispersed to organizations working to make Tunisian civil rights the model for the region.

Perhaps instead of focusing on GQ, Mr. Abrams could have used the opportunity to salute Tunisians on a week in which two women stood up for all Tunisians against obscurantism. Or to raise awareness that today Tunisians around the world are  marking the anniversary of the death of cyber-dissident Zouhair Yahyaoui with Tunisian National Day for Internet Freedom*.

The U.S. can play a positive role in Tunisia. And Mr. Abrams is right about being vigilent with Tunisia’s new government – no one gets a free pass on civil rights. The fight for freedom in Tunisia is far from over. But it takes more than platitudes and misinformation to change a country.

*Mr. Yahyaoui died as a result of ongoing health problems from the torture he suffered as a prisoner in one of Ben Ali’s gulags. He was one of many that died in Tunisia for reporting the truth and his courage inspired a generation of Tunisians to stand up for their rights to information.

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

Tunisia during Ramadan: A month of (political) reflection

The holy month of Ramadan tends to grind most daily activities to a halt in Tunisia. The work day is cut in half, and productivity plummets, especially so this year, as Ramadan coincides with the scorching Tunisian summer.

The night, however, is a different story. After breaking the fast – usually with family – Tunisians take to the streets, cafes, and public spaces to enjoy the cool evenings, listen to music, or chat with friends.

This year, evenings during Ramadan have also included public debates, political rallies, and meetings of civil society. On any given evening in Tunis, usually starting around 10 p.m., one can find Tunisians gathering to debate the future of the country. In many cases, these gatherings evoke previous political or social leaders from Tunisia’s history, such as early Tunisian poet Abou el Kacem el Chebbi or Saleh Ben Youssef. Political rallies tend to be more understated than usual, a reflection of a religious, rather than competitive, mentality.

On a recent evening in the Medina in Tunis, which begins to rouse itself around 9:30, I witnessed gatherings from all kinds of groups, the green parties of Tunisia were discussing climate change, while the center left party PDP was discussing their economic agenda. The Tahar Hadad Club had the the ambiance of a philosophy society  that was thinking about the big ideas Hadad himself contemplated. My Tunisian friends impressed on me the importance of Hadad in Tunisian society. Hadad was a Tunisian thinker from the early 20th century, who fought for women’s and worker’s rights, and against polygamy. Many credit him as the inspiration for the modern, secular society Habib Bourguiba installed in Tunisia upon independence from France. On Saturday, a local radio station broadcast a multi-hour debate on the pros and cons of a parliamentary versus presidential system and the importance of electing a constitutional assembly prior to installing a legitimate government.

In short, it is true that Tunisians remain frustrated at the pace of reform and of the usual cast of characters and issues that dominate the airwaves two months prior to the first free elections in the country’s history. But underneath the bluster, there is a society that is discussing, debating, persuading, and pushing for the ideas that will change this country. It is no surprise that in a country that has been at the vanguard of some of the most important thinkers in the Arab world that these debates are raging. The pace of change may be slow, but it is happening.

High School Civics or Conversations with Taxi Drivers

“Where are you from?” Taxi drivers never fail to ask as you hop into their car. And the question would never fail to be followed by “And what are you doing in Tunisia? Tourism?” and after a look in the mirror, a welcoming smile: “Do you like Tunisia?”

From Tunisia 2011

But since January 14, these conversations now include the follow-up question, “What kind of political system do you have in the US, presidential or parliamentarian?” or “which do you think is the best political system? I mean in an ideal world, what would it be?”

The recent decision by the Tunisian government to delay the election of the constituent assembly (to replace the interim government and form a new constitution) ensures that I will have at least 4 more months of fascinating discussions with taxi drivers, shoe shiners, friends and neighbors about the best system of representative government, conversations that usually have me trying to think back to 10th grade American history classes and what exactly John Stuart Mill meant in On Liberty.

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime in January, one of the fundamental questions for Tunisians has been whether they should continue with the presidential model of government, choose a parliamentary system, or some sort of mix between the two.

While certain political questions remain very sensitive (the role of women or religion, for example), and thus not entirely open for discussion, the system of government is a question that is openly debated in cafes, on the “drive time” call in shows, and in just about every conversation I’ve had with Tunisians over the last 6 months.

On more than one occasion I’ve been told that all Tunisians want is some sort of alternation in power. The fact that Ben Ali hung on for 23 years is the biggest  problem many Tunisians, especially those who prospered under the regime, seem to have. This led to an unnecessarily abusive and corrupt system.

What is interesting, and surprising for me, given Western perceptions about the Arab Spring, is that so much of the hopes of Tunisians is based on the system of government, rather than the ideology of the government. Many people believe that having the proper structure and constitution – along with accountability and competence – will lead to the best outcomes for the country, regardless of the beliefs of any political party in charge.

In this respect, the debate here is often more along the lines of political theorists, like Locke or Rousseau describing the social contract, than it is about freedom, liberty or expression. This academic perspective in turn perpetuates debates that exclude the hard issues – such as what role women or religion have to play in society.

As I reflect on this, and my 10th grade history lessons, I realize that these were probably the same debates that allowed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. The hard issues, such as the role of the federal government or the institution of slavery, were fudged or left for later, and difficult compromises were made. And while leaving these issues for later had serious consequences, it allowed the nation to coalesce around the common values of democracy, basic civil rights (if not for everyone), and above all, the rule of law.

As Tunisians continue their national public debate, and as various political parties try to steer the conversation in one direction or another, I will be looking to see if these debate ground rules hold, or if they will be high-jacked. In either case, the taxi cab civics debate will continue….