The struggle for dignity – Comparing Georgian and Tunisian democracies

I recently had the pleasure to visit the Republic of Georgia. On top of escaping the stifling summer heat for the cool mountains, I was able to talk to a number of Georgians about their country’s  steps down the road of democracy. It was impossible not to compare these thoughts with those that I hear on a daily basis here in Tunisia.

Some background on Georgia:

The Republic of Georgia gained independence from Russia with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. What followed was a period of chaos and civil war that culminated in the election of Eduard Shevardnadze in 1995. A former Soviet statesman and Communist party leader, Shevardnadze led many reforms in Georgia, including a campaign of Westernization and the signing of the Azerbaijan – Black Sea pipeline deal that frustrated already strained relations with Russia. Despite these achievements, his rule was marred by rampant corruption and rent-seeking by senior officials, and his own family. Following flawed elections in 2003, Shevardnadze was forced to resign due to large protests in what became to be known as the Rose Revolution.

In 2004, Mikhael Saakashvili, the leader of the opposition, was elected and embarked on a campaign to root out corruption, while maintaining a staunchly Western-oriented foreign policy (including a disastrous war with Russia in 2008). Saakashvili is credited with jump-starting the economy, but his rule has concerned many as becoming too authoritarian.

During my visit to Georgia, I asked anyone who would talk to me about their thoughts about the country. While many people I spoke to voiced serious concerns about the president, there was no doubt about the country’s commitment to democracy. I asked one person, who had just rattled off a litany of things that were wrong about the country (the security service was too strong and needed reform, the state controlled media was biased, etc), whether the country was really democratic. His response surprised me, “of course it is, it’s just that sometimes democracy needs to be shaken up from time to time.”

In Tunisia, the mood is gloomy. A recent poll indicated that Tunisians are more and more frustrated with the political process and are uncertain about the future of the country. This echoes what one often hears on the street, that the politicians cannot be trusted, that the elections will not bring real change – in essence – that the revolution of January 14 has been highjacked.

It is always dangerous making comparisons between countries with different circumstances, people, and cultures. Even across the countries of the Middle East and the Maghreb it is difficult for analysts to compare countries that have thrown off the shackles of their dictators. It is interesting though that the root causes in Georgia as in the Arab world remain remarkably similar – the search for dignity and opportunity as opposed to corruption, where honest work does not bring greater freedom or justice. Georgians struggled through 12 years of mismanagement and corruption following independence before they found their voice. When they overturned their leadership, they did so prior to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, but the reasons were the same, just as they had been following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While means change, human nature remains remarkably similar. What lessons have Georgians learned from their revolutions, coups, colonialism and unstable neighbors (all present in Tunisia in the last 100 years as well)? As one Georgian told me, Georgians are more vigilant than before they do not take anything for granted.

The upcoming elections are an opportunity for Tunisians to show that their commitment to voicing their opinions will not be a once in a lifetime protest movement, but rather, the beginning of a long and constant struggle to create the republic they deserve.

Six months afterward – the revolution remembered (part 2 of 3)

Part two of my series on posts from Facebook in the days immediately before and after the Tunisian revolution. Part one (here) looked at the days before. Part two discusses the day after Ben Ali’s departure.

RCD Headquarters in La Marsa

From Tunisia 2011

January 15, 2011 – Looking for answers, but safe and sound 

…Now a bit of an update from last night until today….To recap, the fall of the Ben Ali was nothing less than extraordinary. Having been in Tunisia in 1999 (12 years into his reign of terror), and having seen how he silenced the opposition and a vote in which he won 99.9 percent of the vote, I thought I knew a bit his power structure. Coming back here 12 years later it had certainly gotten worse. The wikileaks cables that were released in November described the kleptocracy that the regime had become. And while this was news to me, the stories of pet tigers and wild shopping sprees seemed to be very well known among Tunisians. The first family is reviled here.

And it was the first family’s property that was the first to go last night. The mobs that had formed after the police broke up the peaceful protests yesterday in Tunis went about last night systematically burning and looting their personal property, their mansions, and their business. The car dealerships and the supermarkets that they owned burned. Neighborhoods with their houses were saved while their houses were singled out and destroyed.

As the president fled and martial law was declared the city felt tense, happy with the joy of being rid of the dictator, but nervous about what was next. After all, Ben Ali had set up a security apparatus that some have compared to the Stasi of East Germany, informers everywhere, up to 1 police man for every 40 inhabitants. While the population trusts the army, the police are a different story. And it was they who had the most to lose with Ben Ali’s departure.

While events around our neighborhood seemed calm last night, military helicopters circled overhead and sporadic gunfire could be heard form around the city.

We woke up to calm. We were able to sleep late as the call to prayer was cancelled because of the curfew that was in effect until 7 a.m. We spoke with our neighbors who seemed happy, but nervous. The funeral of a young man killed by the police the day before in our neighborhood was going to happen at 2 p.m. If we wanted to go out, we’d better do it in the morning. So, we ventured out into a somewhat normal, but still very tense city. We’re about a 10-15 minute walk from downtown La Marsa, with a nice walk through the park, by the French ambassador’s house, and finally to the seaside.

As we walked in to town, things seemed pretty calm. There was noticeably less people around, but still enough families and couples for us to remain pretty confident in our safety. As we approached the main train station in the center of town we noticed that at the roundabout an immense tank was parked with about 6 soldiers standing guard around it. Remember, the army is trusted here, so this was reassuring, but the orders they were giving on their megaphones did some seem particularly inviting (are any orders given from a megaphone by a soldier on a tank good orders?). We turned back, went to the market, stocked up on oranges and tomatoes, and headed back home. While things were ok, the tension seemed to be building.

After lunch one of Eloise’s work mates came by the apartment to stay with us. He was alone and it seemed like a good idea for us to stick together.

As sunset approached we could see from our fleeting looks from the balcony that neighborhood men were beginning to assemble. They had clubs and were going to defend their neighborhood. Gangs of rioters (perhaps supporters of the ousted president) were thought to be going around town terrorizing civilians, inciting violence, and looting property. While the military were set up at the major intersections, there weren’t enough to defend the entire population. And so the women gathered rocks and brought them to the rooftops, prepared to throw at any looters, and the men stood guard at the entrance to our small street, baseball bats in hand.

And so we sit. We hear shouts from outside as I write. Most far, some a little closer than any of us would like. The gunfire is sporadic, and the sound of an automatic weapon is always jarring. It’s never been close, thank goodness.

We’ll go to bed soon, try to relax, see what happens tomorrow….

RCD Headquarters La Marsa

From Tunisia 2011

Six months afterward – the revolution remembered (part 1 of 3)

It’s sometimes hard to imagine how much life has changed in Tunisia since the revolution. Before launching the Social Contract, I wrote to my Facebook friends to describe what it felt like. The thoughts here were not meant for the general public, but looking back on them, I can still feel the emotions from that period. I’ve decided to share these as part of the inspiration for A 21st Century Social Contract.

Defending against all attacks

From Tunisia 2011

A couple noteworthy references – one is that I was worried that the government would hack my account, so on the post of January 13th I refrained from making political commentary. Another is that the event was not even being followed by people abroad at that point, just one day prior to the overthrow.

Here are my posts from January 13 and 14.

January 13, 2011 – The day before the fall

I didn’t expect the first post from Tunisia to be about a curfew. For those who haven’t followed, there have been ever increasing protests in Tunisia since mid-December, culminating last night in a curfew for Tunis.
Today it has been calm around the neighborhood, but last night we could hear fighting between the police and civilians about 500m from our house. The army is in the streets since yesterday.
The amazing thing is the extent to which twitter is the source for information/disinformation. While the foreign press has been reporting on the situation, Twitter (and word of mouth) is the only way to know if your neighborhood has been affected. Despite the uncertitude, life continues. The stores were busy this morning, as most shut down at 11 or noon for the rest of the day. … people are stocking up on everything. I’ll refrain from political commentary – no need to cause any more trouble than necessary – but I’d encourage you to google or search twitter for information on what’s going on here. 

Tear gas rises after a day of street fighting. Tunis, Tunisia

From Tunisia 2011

January 14, 2011 – A Monumental Day

I woke up this morning with the thought that it might be over. I thought that the speech from the President Ben Ali last night calmed the frayed nerves of Tunisians, and that things might return to normal. But even then, the first thing I did was jump on the internet to see what was happening.
At the time, it appeared not much. The twitter posts with the hashtag: sidibouzid (the symbol of where all the protests had started from) were merely trickling in, whereas when I went to bed there were hundreds every few minutes. The newspapers had some stories, but nothing major.  
Eloise and I decided to see if the gym was open, finding it wasn’t we walked through the neighborhood where we saw evidence of the protests and a lot of military and security people but not much else. The shops were closed and only a fifth of the normal cars and pedestrians seemed to be out.
It seemed, as Eloise said, like it might be the calm before the storm.  We got back home and went online where we started to see the reports, from the Guardian, le Monde, and BBC, but especially Twitter, that there was a big protest in the center of town.
Everyone had been talking about it the night before, but we weren’t sure it would materialize. The first reports said there were a few hundred, then a few thousand, then more and soon we were seeing pictures of the entire boulevard Habib Bourguiba filled with peaceful protesters.  
Then we started hearing noises outside. The same noises we heard last night, only it was the middle of the day. I was supposed to start working – publishing some webpages and finishing up some loose ends – but after I heard the crowd, I knew it wasn’t going to be like that. I knew that I would be glued to Twitter again, and that things were afoot.  
The view from our apartment is great, it’s at a high point above our neighborhood which is perched on a little hill between the Corniche (the cliff above of the Mediterranean), and a pretty popular/urban neighborhood where we go to buy our baguettes and newspapers and get our keys made at the hundreds of local shops. There’s a major street running through the neighborhood that connects to our little side street, but the view doesn’t allow us to see exactly what’s happening on the street – but you can hear it, and boy did we hear it this afternoon. 
On this otherwise beautiful day a battle broke out between protesters and police. Between volleys of tear gas the youth advanced and retreated, lobbying rocks and yelling in Tunisian dialect.
After an hour or so things calmed down, but the fires were being lit. The air filled with smoke but the protests quieted down.  
Meanwhile, the riots continued downtown. The images and videos came in and the repression seemed brutal. And on the internet rumors circulated that the president might be stepping down. As the sun was setting, the word came that the president was leaving the country. Was the military performing a coup d’etat?
As it seems to have turned out, it’s been a palace coup – the prime minister was taking over. It’s been a long day with way too much time online. We’ll see what tomorrow brings….Thanks to all for the well wishes. Eloise and I are safe and for the moment our stock of fresh mediterranean food is not depleted, so we’re well fed. More updates tomorrow.