Constituent services come to Tunisians abroad – kind of

The magazine 216 (for Tunisians abroad) has established a sort of constituent service for Tunisians to follow their elected representatives in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly. Tunisian abroad are represented by 18 representatives from various constituencies around the world.

From Tunisiensdumonde’s press release:

The service “Follow my representative,” is a contribution to the dialogue between Tunisian citizens abroad and their elected representatives to the Constituent Assembly, published by the magazine and website Tunisiensdumonde 00216, unrelated to any political party or institution. The ultimate goal is to make Tunisians citizens abroad involved in building democracy in Tunisia….

So far so good. What’s more, the site has usefully added pertinent information and bios about all of Tunisia’s elected reps overseas. Unfortunately, it has also decided to filter submitted questions through an editorial board to avoid “overburdening” the officials:

Each user can submit online a subject in the news. To avoid overloading the work of elected officials and ensure timely responses, we limit the number of public issues to 6 per month. An editorial board selects the questions submitted by citizens based on their interest and their relevance to current events. Once these issues are validated and published on the site, a mail notification is sent to the eighteen representatives abroad to invite them to respond.

Of course, if you don’t want to go through an intermediary, you can also contact your assembly member directly, on Twitter.

Will Tunisian elections really be free and fair? From reality to conspiracy

This week I’m addressing some of the keys to success for the October 23 elections in Tunisia. See also, Tunisians get ready to rock the vote.

This Sunday I will witness Tunisian elections for the second time. What a change 12 years make! In 1999 Ben Ali and the RCD “rocked the vote” with one of the most lopsided election of his very lopsided presidency; officially, he garnered 99.45 percent of the vote with 95 percent turnout. It is certainly strange how 12 years later every Tunisian I meet seems to be voting for the first time.

Sunday’s elections will be the first time Tunisians will cast there ballots in free and fair elections. But what leads us to believe they will be fair? Many Tunisians are dubious about the outcome, wondering whether former RCDists, the U.S., France, the West, or the Gulf have predetermined the results.

To dissect this, let’s look at the facts:

As I write, elections observers are gathering steps away from me . International and national observers are learning about the processes to follow and the rules of observation from the Tunisian Elections Authority, ISIE. All of the proceedings are broadcast online for anyone around the world – or the country to observe. This follows an effort by the ISIE to completely reconstruct the electoral lists, which were completely unreliable under the former regime. Despite setbacks in the process, ISIE will proceed with voting by national identity cards, which are mandatory for Tunisians.

Following the registration drive, ISIE began the process of registering parties and ensuring that ballots correctly indicated the party lists for each district. They also began recruiting and training international and national elections observers. Observers from Arab countries, the European Union, Canada and the U.S. will be present. ISIE also sensitized the population to the observation missions and informed citizens of their roles in reporting any malfeasance. This work has been aided by numerous civil society organizations, such as Atide, which has worked with ISIE to coordinate messages about the importance of transparency in the electoral process. Other organizations are also educating voters about their rights, such as Nschoof, or I see in Tunisian.

ISIE and other organizations have undertaken a massive media campaign to ensure voters are aware of the electoral process. This has included text messaging to all mobile phone users and direct lines to ISIE staff. Voters can also ask questions on ISIE’s Facebook and Twitter feed.

Despite these efforts, Tunisians are anything but naive about electoral “irregularities.” Many think that the outcome has been predetermined. Press coverage of Ennahdha’s contacts with officials from the United States has led many to believe that the U.S. will back an Ennahdha government and may have even entered into a secret deal. The U.S. has officially maintained its neutrality and has met with many party leaders. Other theories suggest that Ennahdha will be allowed to receive a certain percentage of the vote, no higher, no lower than a certain mark. This would avoid a situation like that which occurred in Algeria in 1992 when the Islamist party was on its way to a landslide victory before the military intervened.

Tunisia’s history, and that of its neighbors, is a key reason for those who doubt the fairness of the coming elections. Another aspect is the similarity of so many of the parties messages. One of the most common complaints is that all of the parties have the same platform, and they all “talk like politicians.” With the exception of Ennahdha, no party has been able to reach ordinary Tunisians. This disconnect leads to alienation from voters, and subsequently to theories that the whole game is rigged. A similar phenomenon can be seen in many Western democracies.

While the evidence points to clean elections, perceptions are  as important as actions. Despite some reservations about the political games being played, most Tunisians I have spoken to on the subject are happy to cast their first free ballots.

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

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.

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.

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.