Faces of the Tunisian Revolution

As we have spent the past week in Tunisia, we have met with an array of individuals — from the Prime Minister and Justice Minister in their fine offices, to Tunisian labor and human rights leaders, to a Tunisian imprisoned in Guantanamo for over 5 years who emerged as a proud but deeply wounded person. There are so many faces and stories behind this revolution.

It’s Thursday. We began our day in a meeting with Yahyaoui Mokhtar, a Tunisian judge who was removed from his position after refusing to accede to pressure from the State Police in a corruption case. Judge Mokhtar understood the limits of functioning within a repressive regime as he witnessed numerous cases of torture and political repression, but understood the ramifications of speaking out. When he finally did, he was removed as a judge.

Judge Mokhtar spoke of the support received from groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, from diplomats from the U.S., U.K. and especially the Netherlands and Switzerland. But while he greatly appreciated that support, there was always the realization of the dichotomy between support for human rights, and the support for democracy. Although these diplomats objected to human rights violations, their support for true change in the Tunisian government was tempered by their fears of what the face, and religion, of a new government could be.

We spent the rest of the day meeting with the leaders of two political parties in Tunisia, the Communist Party and the Islamic (and likely majority) party, Nahdha. The two leaders from Nahdha had been, most directly, victims of the Ben-Ali regime’s repression, respectively spending 14 years and over 17 years in prison. Ashmi Ouribi described in horrifying detail the manner of his torture. We learned so much was from these discussions about Tunisia’s history, but two points were striking.

First, in this revolution, the social movement (led by young people, and fueled by their use of social media) was well ahead of the political movement and the political parties. The older leaders thought the young people and students were disinterested in politics, unaffected by the Ben-Ali’s regime of political repression (unless they were Muslim). They were wrong.

Second, what was perhaps most inspiring was that despite the ideological and obviously religious differences between these, and other, political parties in Tunisia, they understood that those differences must be put aside if revolution was to happen. In 2005, the 18th of October Coalition for Freedom and Rights drafted a series of agreements in which these parties united over various principles. There must be freedom of religion in Tunisia, people must be allowed to hold their own political beliefs, the vision of the future democracy in Tunisia must be secular. There were more agreements but all understood that this was the only way to democracy.

As a new constitution is drafted and government established over the next months, the sense is that for the first several years it will likely be a national coalition government until parties — transparently and over time – develop their programs and convey their messages to the Tunisian people. This work has been impossible as parties had been illegal and repressed, their leaders and members imprisoned and tortured. As many have told us, this revolution is only half way through. But what a first half it has been.

Steven Goldberg
Portland, Oregon, USA


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