Tunisia tweets its way to democracy

Noah Feldman writes: At the Philadelphia convention of 1787, James Madison alone took complete notes in a rapid shorthand, a self-appointed job that he said almost killed him. But today, constitutional debates are recorded in Twitter bursts — and in Tunisia, where the constituent assembly is compiling that nation’s new constitution, the children of the Arab Spring are using the full range of technological tools to ensure a degree of transparency never seen before in such political processes.

At the heart of the technological openness is a Tunisian nongovernmental group called Al Bawsala, which means, roughly, the Compass. Bawsala staffers are 20-something Tunisians dressed in the same skinny jeans and sweaters worn everywhere by young people too cool to be called hipsters. Their look alone marks a contrast with the formally dressed delegates of the National Assembly whom they supervise.

And supervise they do. From the balcony of the main chamber of the National Assembly, in the parliament building called the Bardo, the Bawsala posse keeps an eagle eye on every moment of the proceedings. When an assembly member speaks, at least one Bawsala member tweets a precis of the speaker’s comments in real time — translated into French. The speed and quality of the summaries are amazingly impressive. I’ve been sitting in the balcony myself, and whenever I’ve had trouble following the assembly members’ Arabic — sometimes speakers shift from formal standard Arabic into Tunisian dialect — I would look over a colleague’s shoulder at the Bawsala feed. Invariably, it was already posted and immensely clarifying. Everyone around me was following it, from journalists to international observers. It was the first draft of the first draft of history. It also meant that anyone outside the hall could follow the debates, even without access to Tunisian television. [Continue reading...]


A political deal in a deeply divided Tunisia as Islamists agree to yield power

The New York Times reports: Compromise has been in short supply since Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring nearly three years ago. But this small North African nation has once again broken new ground with a political deal between longtime enemies among the Islamists and the secular old guard.

The deal, announced over the weekend, aims to put in place an independent caretaker government until new elections next year, marking the first time Islamists have agreed in the face of rising public anger to step back from power gained at the ballot box.

Tunisia had been careening toward chaos and political paralysis after two assassinations this year and an inability to finalize a new constitution, and it remains fragile and divided. But months of laborious back-room haggling led by two political leaders helped, at least for now, to avoid the kind of zero-sum politics that have come to define the post-Arab Spring tumult in Egypt, Libya and the battlefield of Syria.

Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who leads a new secular-minded political party, Nidaa Tounes, and Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, have starkly different visions of the country’s future. But since Tunisia’s political crisis flared this year, the two men have met one on one at least five times to try to find a political solution. [Continue reading...]


Tunisia shows the way in the Arab world

Rami G Khouri writes: I have been going back and forth between the United States and Arab countries for my entire life, and every time I visit the United States I am shocked by the mainstream public sphere’s distorted and incomplete view of what is taking place in our region. This is happening again now, as the American media and public sphere in general write off most of the Arab world as a lost cause, having shed their initial interest and even some awe and respect for millions of ordinary Arab men and women (most of them Muslims) who fought for freedom, dignity and perhaps even democracy. In the past week that I have been in New York, Philadelphia and Boston, the only mentions of the Arab uprisings (the “Arab Spring,” as it is commonly called here) that I have heard have almost always been negative, and in the past tense, with special concerns voiced about the rise of Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists in Syria. Iraq, with its daily killings of 50 or 100 people, is hardly mentioned. The point of such comments is that Arabs tried earnestly to remove dictators and establish democratic systems, but they failed, leaving the region in a state of deep turmoil, uncertainty and danger.

This superficial, incomplete and largely unfair assessment of what is actually happening in different Arab countries is contrasted by those pockets of sobriety and a more nuanced understanding that some hope actually exists in an Arab landscape of political turbulence and violence.

This is especially true for the two countries – Tunisia and Egypt – where the Arab uprisings began, and where citizens continue doggedly to grapple with the complexities of transforming autocracies into democracies in a relatively short period of time. Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, on the other hand, remain mired in some degree of violence, turbulence or stalemate that will need years to be resolved.

It seems to me unfair and inaccurate to write off the possibility that some Arab countries can successfully achieve a democratic transition, especially given the short period of time since the uprisings began. I suspect the real problem is in the inability of most Americans to acknowledge those ongoing dynamics and real achievements that have been recorded, especially in Tunisia, rather than the actual inability of Arabs to democratize. [Continue reading...]


Tunisia’s government falls, Arab democracy is born

Noah Feldman writes: If you blinked, you missed it, but the democratically elected Islamist government of an Arab country just promised to resign peacefully, with no threat of a coup d’etat in sight.

Tunisia is still a long way from political stability. Yet once again, the nation that started the Arab Spring is showing the rest of the region how it’s supposed to be done. Reasonable people facing deep disagreements are negotiating and power-sharing their way to the Holy Grail of legitimate constitutional democracy.

Start with the deal. Ennahda, the Islamic democratic party that formed a government after Tunisia’s free elections in 2011, didn’t agree to step down for nothing. In exchange for agreeing to resign in favor of a caretaker government of nonpartisan technocrats, Ennahda got the opposition to agree to ratify a draft constitution that has been painstakingly drafted and debated over the last year and a half.

Under the rules of the road, adopted after the old regime fell in January 2011, the constituent assembly can approve the constitution if two-thirds of its members vote in favor. That structure put a premium on consensus, the political value most valued by Tunisian political culture. It also put Ennahda in a tough position during the drafting process: Its slight coalition majority in the assembly gave it almost no leverage, because it needed lots of opposition votes to get to two-thirds. The only alternative was to go to the public, which might have approved the constitution by a bare majority. But that would have violated the goal of consensus, and Ennahda consistently refused to treat it as an option. [Continue reading...]


Ruling Islamist party in Tunisia to step down

The New York Times reports: Tunisia’s governing Islamist party, Ennahda, thrust into power by the Arab Spring, has agreed to step down after months of political wrangling with a hard-bargaining opposition.

In three weeks, the Ennahda-led government is to hand over power to an independent caretaker government that will lead the country through elections in the spring. The deal comes as part of negotiations to restart Tunisia’s democratic transition after secular opposition groups, protesting the assassinations of two of their politicians, stalled work on a new constitution and an election law this summer.

The two sides will enter discussions this week mediated by the Tunisian General Labor Union, the nation’s largest. Its deputy secretary general, Bouali Mbarki, announced Ennahda’s acceptance of the plan on Saturday.

The move comes less than three months after the Islamist government of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, also elected during the Arab Spring uprisings, was ousted by the military.

Ennahda officials have repeatedly made statements in recent weeks signaling the party’s readiness to resign as a way to break the political impasse. The opposition, and the union, have until now pressed for more concrete action. [Continue reading...]


Tunisia crisis: Tens of thousands join protest

BBC News reports: Tens of thousands of protesters have marched in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, to demand the resignation of the Islamist-led government.

It is the largest demonstration of its kind since the latest political crisis began two weeks ago when a prominent opposition politician was assassinated.

Earlier, the constituent assembly was suspended until the government and opposition open negotiations.

The assembly is drawing up a new constitution.

The protest in central Tunis was called by the opposition to demand the assembly’s dissolution and the resignation of the government, and to mark the six-month anniversary of the assassination of prominent secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid.


Topless Femen activists jailed in Tunisia for indecency

The Independent reports: Three European, female activists who protested topless outside the Tunisian Palace of Justice have been sentenced to four months in prison in Tunisia. The two French women and one German are members of the controversial Femen protest group and were charged with indecency.

“The three Femen protesters are shocked by this sentence. The judge has given them each four months in prison for violating decency and modesty,” said their Tunisian lawyer Souhaib Bohri.

The prison sentence was seen as harsh by many who thought that the women would be acquitted or fined and deported from the country. This sentence also comes only two weeks after the twenty Tunisians accused of attacking the American Embassy in Tunis last year, setting fire to cars and damaging property, were given a suspended sentence. The three Femen activists will appeal and it is unclear as yet if they will have to serve the full sentence.


Tunisia is no longer a revolutionary poster-child

Rachel Shabi writes: Amid the shock and grief at a terrible murder, there is an angry accusation. When forthright opposition leader Chokri Belaid was gunned down in broad daylight outside his home in Tunis, furious protesters marched on the offices around the country of the ruling Ennahda party. Belaid’s brother, Abdel Majid, accused the Islamist party – which dominates the three-way coalition government – of the murder. Ennahda has denounced the assassination. Chillingly, Belaid, a secularist and vocal critic of Ennahda, warned of the rise of political violence when he appeared on Tunisian TV the night before he was killed.

Jalila Hedhli-Peugnet, president of the NGO Think Ahead for Tunisia, reflected the prevailing sentiment on Wednesday when she told France 24 that Belaid “was not assassinated under the dictatorship of Ben Ali, now he is assassinated under the democracy of Ennahda”. If the government didn’t kill him, she said, it also didn’t protect him from such a tragedy.

Tension has been building, then, within a revolution that is too often billed a success story. Tunisia has not suffered the level of turmoil and violence of Egypt, or the agonising death and displacement of Syria, and so it appears to be handling the transition from dictatorship to democracy well. Other post-uprising countries look to Tunisia as both inspiration and weathervane. But Tunisians themselves bemoan their role as revolutionary poster-child as it can lead to the outside world ignoring or dismissing the very real problems there.

One such problem is the escalating political violence in Tunisia in the past year. A report just released by Human Rights Watch cites attacks on activists, journalists, intellectual and political figures – all the incidents apparently “motivated by a religious agenda”. [Continue reading...]


Tunisia: Murder most foul

Al Jazeera reports: Tunisians of all political stripes are in shock after the killing of Shokri Belaid, leader of the Democratic Patriots party.

Of all the political turmoil the country has experienced since the 2010-11 uprising, the slaying of the leftist politician – a well-known opposition figure and vocal critic of the ruling coalition – marks a new low.

The resulting crisis has led to the collapse of the government, and could potentially doom the election that was set to take place later this year.

Many say the killing is unsurprising, and that the Islamist-led government bears a heavy responsibility for tolerating and fuelling a deep partisan divide and a culture of political violence.

A star of the Popular Front, a leftist political alliance of which his party is a member, Belaid had many supporters among those who accused the current government of failing to deliver on social justice and economic development.

He was a figurehead of the protests in Siliana last November, when tensions over unemployment and stalling economic progress erupted. Ali Laarayedh, Tunisia’s interior minister, accused Belaid of inciting the protesters against the police. Belaid in turn said the interior ministry was guilty of tyranny.

Belaid, a lawyer and activist, had also been at the forefront of the early lawyer’s protests in December 2010, which grew to become the uprising that toppled the Tunisian government in January 2011. The Ennahdha movement and most of the country’s opposition parties did not give the uprising their explicit backing until the last days.

Wednesday’s shooting is the second suspected killing of an opposition politician since the uprising, and one of many violent attacks. [Continue reading...]


Tunisian government dissolved after opposition leader’s killing sparks fury

Reuters reports: Tunisia’s ruling Islamists dissolved the government on Wednesday and promised rapid elections in a bid to calm the biggest street protests since the revolution two years ago, sparked by the killing of an opposition leader.

The prime minister’s announcement that an interim cabinet of technocrats would replace his Islamist-led coalition came at the end of a day which had begun with the gunning down of Chokri Belaid, a left-wing lawyer with a modest political following but who spoke for many who fear religious radicals are stifling freedoms won in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings.

During the day, protesters battled police in the streets of the capital and other cities, including Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Jasmine Revolution that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

In Tunis, the crowd set fire to the headquarters of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party which won the most seats in an legislative election 16 months ago.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali of Ennahda spoke on television in the evening to declare that weeks of talks among the various political parties on reshaping the government had failed and that he would replace his entire cabinet with non-partisan technocrats until elections could be held as soon as possible. [Continue reading...]


In Tunisia the embers of unrest remain hot

Bloomberg reports: Two years after he set himself on fire, Mohamed Bouazizi remains history’s most famous fruit vendor. Like many enterprising Tunisians, Bouazizi, 26, was subject to constant fines of as much as 10 times his daily earnings as he tried to make a living on the streets of Sidi Bouzid. After his scale and cart were seized on Dec. 17, 2010, he doused himself with a liter of paint solvent while standing in front of the provincial governor’s office. A flick of a lighter and …

What then? Tunisia’s revolution and the Arab Spring that followed created a list of dead, imprisoned, or exiled autocrats—including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Tunisia’s own Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. (Syria’s Bashar Assad hangs on, brutally.) But hope and vengeance are very different from progress, as Ben Ali’s successor as president, the physician and ex-opposition leader Moncef Marzouki, has discovered.

On Dec. 17, 2012, Marzouki went to Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the man and the moment that began all the changes in the region, only to be greeted by angry chants of “Leave! Leave!” When he told the crowd he lacked a “magic wand” to cure Tunisia’s ills, the response was a hailstorm of rocks and tomatoes. Marzouki had to be hustled into a car and sped away from the stage.

“Nothing has changed, and that’s the sad reality,” says Mohamed Amri, a close friend of the Bouazizi family. Unemployment is officially 18 percent, but a September study published by the Middle East Economic Association says about 50 percent of young Tunisians with higher education are without work. At 33, Amri is unemployed and relies on an allowance from his father to cover soaring food and living costs. “I feel like I need to be optimistic, but in the end, I’m pessimistic.” [Continue reading...]


Video: Al Jazeera talks to Rachid Ghannouchi — re-imagining Tunisia


Extradition of Gaddafi deputy plunges Tunisia into political crisis

Time.com reports: With political upheaval in Egypt and Libya and calamitous violence in Syria, the one stable point of the Arab Spring seemed to be Tunisia, where the wave of revolutions began 19 months ago. Now even that looks in doubt. Before dawn last Sunday, Tunisian officials dragged the country’s highest-value detainee — Muammar Gaddafi’s last Prime Minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi — from his prison bed, then handed him to Libyan officials, who flew him to a Libyan jail an hour away. Why the cloak-and-dagger extradition? The operation occurred under the nose of Tunisia’s own President, who at the time was sound asleep in his sprawling seaside palace, just a few kilometers away.

The political furor in Tunisia has since laid bare deep rifts between the country’s secular liberals and Islamists, two factions wrestling for the country’s future in wake of the dictatorship’s collapse in January 2011. In some ways, the conflict mirrors the political struggles playing out in Libya and Egypt too, as all three countries try to rebuild after decades of one-man rule. In Tunisia, a three-way coalition has ruled the country since the first democratic elections last October, with the popular Islamic party Ennahda — long outlawed under the dictatorship — controlling the government under a Prime Minister, and the two major secular parties in control each of the presidency and the constitution-writing assembly.

But the clamor over al-Mahmoudi’s fate now threatens to torpedo the arrangement, placing the Islamists in firm control over the most secular country in North Africa.

For months, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki fiercely opposed Libyan requests to send al-Mahmoudi back. As the argument dragged on, it became a litmus test not only for what kind of justice system the new Tunisia might have, but also for what kind of President there will be once the new constitution is approved some time next year: one with big powers, like the American President, or a figurehead — as some suspect the newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy might ultimately be. [Continue reading...]


Video: Tunisian president has ‘nightmares’ of yet another revolution


Video: Tunisia’s multiplying media


Tunisian court case exposes rift over free speech in new democracy

The Washington Post reports: Outside the courthouse, 16 armed police officers screen all comers, including hundreds of lawyers in flowing black robes. Beyond a wall of barbed wire, a throng of bearded young men angrily shout slogans. The scene sends a clear message: Could be trouble here.

The subject of all this attention is a short, hyperactive, wise-cracking TV mogul who smokes fat stogies, has 25 bodyguards on his payroll and is on trial over charges of libeling Islam.

Nabil Karoui owns the HBO of Tunisia, a satellite TV channel called Nessma (“Breeze”) that shows Hollywood movies and TV series.

A week before Tunisians voted in the fall for their first freely elected government since 1956, Nessma aired the French-language animated movie “Persepolis,” based on an Iranian exile’s graphic novel about a girl who comes of age during Iran’s 1979 revolution. In the weeks after the broadcast, Karoui’s house was destroyed by a mob of vandals and Nessma’s offices were repeatedly attacked — all because of a short scene in which the girl imagines herself talking to God, who appears as an old man with a long, white beard.

Now, Karoui’s on trial, and so is Tunisia’s year-old revolution and the young democracy it has wrought. For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.

Last month, on this capital city’s main boulevard, Islamist activists attacked actors who were celebrating World Theater Day; Islamists smashed musical instruments and hurled eggs. A hard-line preacher stood in front of Tunis’s Grand Synagogue and called for the murder of Tunisian Jews. And a Tunisian philosopher who showed up at a TV station for a debate on Islam was shouted down by extremists, who said he was no scholar of the faith because he has no beard.

In each case, calls for a state crackdown on offensive speech banged up against cries for the government to defend even unpopular expression. Karoui’s day in court became a nonstop, seven-hour shoutfest that will determine whether he is fined, imprisoned, or worse.

Time now reports: After months of legal battle, Nessma TV owner Nabil Karoui was fined 2,400 Tunisian dinars (about $1,400) for violating public morals and disturbing public order, a small sum for a man whose channel is wildly popular across North Africa for its glitzy entertainment shows like Star Academy, the region’s equivalent of American Idol, and for sponsoring sporting events.

The timing of Thursday’s judgment against Karoui could hardly be more awkward for this government. It came, no less, on World Press Freedom Day, whose U.N.-sponsored meeting is taking place this year in Tunis, where the government has pitched itself as a moderate Western-friendly ally since the 24-year dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali collapsed in January last year, setting off the revolutionary wave that has upended this entire region. Hundreds of journalists and diplomats on Thursday began gathering in this breezy Mediterranean capital for meetings about free speech on Friday and Saturday. In the presidential palace, Tunisia’s interim President Moncef Marzouki told TIME that while the country has an independent judiciary, he himself abhorred the judge’s decision against Karoui. “I think this verdict is bad for the image of Tunisia,” he said. “Now people in the rest of the world will only be talking about this when they talk about Tunisia.”


Neoliberals, not Islamists, are the real threat to Tunisia

Matt Kennard writes: I meet Mustafa and Kamal on Avenue Bourguiba, where they protested in January 2011 to get rid of the dictator who ruled their country with an iron-fist for 23 years. Tunisia has changed a lot since then – and celebrated its 56th independence day last week as a free nation. Both men said they will be out again to consolidate the gains of the revolution. “We couldn’t have [talked like this] before, no way,” says Mustafa, a 25-year-old originally from Tabarka in the north of Tunisia. “The only thing I could have told you is how great Ben Ali is, what a good man he is.”

But how independent is free Tunisia from the grips of its former colonial master and its allies? A demonstration last week by a group of fringe fundamentalists calling for sharia law has got some secular Tunisians in a funk again, as well as worrying the French, who are opposed to Ennahda. An opposition politician told me there are even rumours of a French-supported coup. It is clear that the next stage of western connivance in the subjugation of the Tunisian people is the widespread media and political fear over the democratically elected Ennahda party, which is Islamist. But despite constant derision by the western media, Ennahda revealed on Monday that they would not make sharia, or Islamic law, the main source of legislation for the new constitution. Wouldn’t it be better to judge them on their actions rather than conspiracies about their intentions? “We realise we have a historic responsibility to get this right, we are genuinely inclusive,” Said Ferjani, who sits on the Ennahda politburo, told me.

The course from actively arming a kleptocratic dictator to pushing for the Tunisians to support “western values” is familiar. As Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “As soon as the native begins to pull on his moorings, and to cause anxiety to the settler, he is handed over to well-meaning souls who … point out to him the specificity and wealth of western values.”


Video: Tunisia debates religion’s role in new constitution