Steven Goldberg: Tuesday Night in Tunisia

I left last Wednesday for Tunisia as part of a legal/human rights delegation. I’m representing the National Lawyers Guild along with three other lawyers. Our delegation also includes lawyers from England, Turkey and one from Tunisia living in London, as well as assorted academics and human rights advocates. It’s a wonderful group.

There were several purposes to the delegation: Showing support for the revolution in Tunisia, exploring the involvement of western governments with the prior Ben-Ali regime which was extraordinarily corrupt and repressive, and trying to understand the changes which are happening in the Middle East. I arrived last Thursday night, spent Friday adjusting to the time change. Saturday most of the delegates arrived, and we spent time getting organized. Our real work began on Sunday. Most delegates leave next Saturday, although I don’t leave until Monday, March 22nd.

I have been on such delegations before, and they are always extraordinarily interesting and exhausting experiences. We literally begin meetings each day at around 9:00, and are moving from place to place, interview to interview, often (as tonight) until 10:00 or later. Then it’s back to my room to deal with emails, being to think about the next day. Meals are often helter-skelter affairs.

To give you some flavor for this, in the past three days I’ve attend a rally celebrating the release (or memory) of individuals killed or tortured by the past regime, met with the new Tunisian prime minister, with political prisoners, human rights organizations, the Tunisian Bar Association, labor federation leaders, the counselor for political and economic affairs from the U.S. Embassy. We had a wrenching conversation with a Tunisian who was held in Guantanamo for 5 1/2 years until he was released to Tunisia, only to be imprisoned here until the revolution. Tonight we had a fascinating discussion with young people who were instrumental in the recent revolution, facilitating political change through the use of facebook and blogs and other social media. From all of this, these are some random thoughts:

The prior regime had been in power since 1987. It was corrupt and cruel beyond description. Much of this has been documented by Human Rights Watch reports. But our own State Department documented much of this in its annual report covering Tunisia. Most fascinating were the Wikileaks documents which were further evidence that the U.S. clearly understood the political situation.

Every individual Tunisian and organization we’ve met with believes the U.S. was complicit in supporting the old regime. The reality is that your taxpayer dollars were in fact used for some economic aid, but primarily in aid to the Tunisian military which was not really a represssive institution; it was much more the Secret Police. When we met with the US Embassy, they absolutely acknowledged that they knew about the corruption and torture, but strenuously denied that any funds were used to support these activities. In fact, they say they consistently made their abhorence of the prior regime’s represssion known. But no Tunisian will agree with this. Why?

Much of the repression in the prior regime was of Muslims. Any young person who prayed or was a devout Muslim was immediately arrested and imprisoned and tortured as a terrorist. The regime sold itself to Washington as one of our best allies in fighting terrorism, and we obliged by providing million of dollars in aid. In reality, there has been little evidence linking Tunisians to terrorist acts. There was one incident when a Candian organized a cell of 8 Tunisians to work against the U.S. 2 were involved in a bombing in Iraq in 2008. But the Muslim political party — which will likely win the election planned in July (there is a transitional government in place)– is primarily moderate in their political views, much like in Turkey. The party’s position is in favor of a secular government for Tunisia. In fact, walking the streets in Tunis, most women are not covered, and are often wearing very western clothing. Alcohol is freely available. The city is vibrant and busy, although unemployment is around 15%.

I believe the U.S. could and should have done more to show their displeasure with the prior regime. When we disagree with a foreign government’s policy, we often find ways of putting pressure on those governments — eg. Cuba, North Korea, Iran — although our efforts our often futile. Again, people here seem clear that we supported the prior regime by our willingness to provide aid and do little more than express our displeasure. That, coupled with our policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our support of Israel, does not make the U.S. government terribly popular.

The other thing that is apparent is that this is a terribly fragile situation. When democracy and freedom comes so quickly (and quickly it did. The former government was toppled within weeks of mass demonstrations starting), people’s appetites are whetted and they want more — particularly economic improvement. There are demonstrations every day — by government workers for more money, by students for jobs, in opposition to Hillary Clinton’s visit tomorrow. The government is starving for investment, even by the US, although that brings further concerns. Will conditions be imposed? Will the US government give funds to support only certain political parties, and certain media?

. . . All of which makes this trip so interesting. I’m not certain our delegation will do much more than witness history. But we hope to grapple with some of these issues in our follow-up report. And my sense is that people here are so grateful to see Americans and Europeans (people as opposed to governments) come here to witness the new world they’ve created. So long as we come with respect and a desire to learn from this experience, not to tell Tunisians what they must do or how they must do it. Indeed given the political situation in the US these days, we may have far more to learn from the Tunisians than vice versa.

Enough for now.

Steven Goldberg

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