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


Photographs from Tunisia Delegation

Photos credit Azadeh Shahshahani

At the Tunisian people's celebration of the release of political prisoners the other day...the poster says: "torture is a crime; you cannot be silent about it."

Demonstration today in front of our hotel (L'avenue Habib Bourguiba) on occasion of Hilary Clinton's visit to Tunisia

Members of delegation with Interim Justice Minister of Tunisia and the President of the Tunisian Bar Association.


Facebook: Friend of the Revolution?

The Revolution will not be televised…but it is on facebook. One recurring theme during our conversations with all the grassroots Tunisian activists we have spoken to is the key role that new media played in propelling the revolution beyond Sidi Bouzid and into the consciousness of all Tunisian people. We were fortunate enough to meet with a number of key new media journalists and writers, all of whom played a significant role in spreading the message.

Liliah Westlay spoke of her frustration with her bosses at the magazine she was working on, as they tried to restrain her from reporting on incidents of repression and torture she knew to be going on under the Ben Ali regime. She was told that if she spoke out, she would have problems. He went as far as to encourage her to join the then ruling RCD party with a view to making the political changes she craved from inside the establishment. Her reaction was to publish her material instead on blogs and Facebook.

In order to avoid bring harassment on herself and her family, she would frequently have to change her online identity, IP address and email and she was always careful not to give too much personal information away in her posts.

Other bloggers such as Henda Hendoud were less concerned, blogging in a personal capacity under her own name and speaking out on controversial issues such as religion and sexuality as well as politics.

Liliah described it as a need to shock people into realising what was happening. There were always rumours about torture and repression by the political police but there was never anything reported in the mainstream (and government controlled) media. Blogs and Facebook allowed young people to expose the secrets of the Ben Ali. And the message started spreading like wildfire.

Towards the end of 2010, Henda had received about 1 million hits to her blog and there were numerous others like hers. This gives you a sense of the size of the phenomenon. This of course was a totally grass-roots movement, untouched by the internal politics and government interventions that plagued event the best intentioned trade unions and other activist organisations. This is something that the organisations themselves now recognise and they know that they have to work to engage the youth of Tunisia and to remain accountable them as the revolution continues as it is clear that they will not tolerate a return to the bad old days of cronyism.

Facebook also deserves a special mention here. Some in the west think of the ubiquitous social networking site as potentially intrusive and banal but it’s role as an open platform for the instant exchange of ideas, information and as a tool of revolutionary organisation can not be underestimated. Just one look at an open profile such as

What is even more unexpected is the lengths that Facebook itself went to in order to assist the revolutionaries. Many Tunisian activists were having their sites hacked, blocked and corrupted. Many complained to Facebook’s administrators and Liliah Westlay sent a list of names of people who had been blocked presumably by the government. Joey Sullivan, head of security for Facebook acknowledged that they never had such problems with people trying to block and hack into Facebook as they had with Tunisia. Facebook then took the step of improving their security and when a Tunisian page became blocked, providing them with a secure domain (https://) in order to allow their posting to continue.

The bloggers continue to promote the revolution. One group, nawaat.org was recently awarded the 2011 Netizen Prize by Reporters Sans Frontiers and others dream of jobs in a new, free press. Whatever happens in the coming months in Tunisia, you can bet that you can read it here first;

http://nawaat.org/portail/

http://www.facebook.com/TunisianRevolt

https://twitter.com/#!/actu_tunisie

Anna Morris


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


Tunisia has many terrorists but no terrorism

Samir Ben Amor is a Tunisian lawyer who has practised throughout the Ben Ali regime. We had made contact with Monsieur Ben Amor through a colleague of mine who had worked with him in the past and we arranged a meeting one afternoon for that evening. I knew nothing of the man yet the reaction of a Tunisian colleague was telling; our host had fled persecution in Tunisia some 20 years earlier and told us it had long been his ambition to meet Ben Amor in person and though tired after another hectic day was keen to interpret during our meeting.

Ben Amor’s work currently includes representing those held in Guantanamo Bay and some detainees who have since returned from the American internment camp. He spoke with confidence about the likelihood of the transitional government respecting the amnesty for those of his clients yet to return home. He was less optimistic that many of his clients would ever see compensation from Tunisian or American administrations.

As Secretary General of the AISPP he is at the forefront of discussions which will identify critical reforms and he assured us that notions of truth and reconciliation were being explored. He was indignant as to the future of the Judiciary: the Tunisian people will not tolerate anything less than a wholly independent Judicial system. We were, he told us, only to look at how even politicians whose current role in government was one of stewardship had quickly fallen when the people realised that they had not left along with Ben Ali.

The question was obvious but none the less required addressing: Have you suffered at the hands of the state because of your work? The better question, Ben Amor responded, dead-pan, without blinking, is ‘Have you ever practised your profession for one day in a normal way?’ He told us of harassment and contrived accusations all designed to disrupt his personal and professional life. And though his face bore the lines of worry and shades betraying days without sleep, what I did not see was any trace of fear in his eyes.

When asked to comment on the use of Tunisia’s controversial 2003 anti-terrorism legislation to repress political dissidents and young Muslims for simply practising their religion he again showed a dry humour noting that “Tunisia has many “terrorists” but no terrorism”. There have been calls from the Tunisian lawyers we have met for the repeal of this law.

Russell Fraser


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


Mixed messages about united labour movement in Tunisia

It seems Tunisian trade unionism is plagued by the same problems as elsewhere in the world, and on top of that there’s the slight issue of more than 60 years of brutal repression. There’s a significant gap between the leadership and rank and file members in Tunisia’s largest union and some say the union was slow off the mark to join the Revolution, but many remain hopeful that this new epoch will bring real unity.

We met Abdeljabel al Bedoui, in charge of studies and research for the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s largest union founded in 1946 – we are told one of the first in the Arab world. The UGTT, like almost every sector in civil society, was heavily pressurised by the Ben Ali regime to toe the government line. Even under the previous regime of Bourgiba, Tunisia’s first post-colonial president who was in power between 1957 and 1987, the UGTT was subjected to at least three coups by the governing party: in 1965, from 1978 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1989. The 1978 attack on the UGTT’s sovereignty occurred when the union called a general strike. On all three occasions, the leadership was imprisoned and a new, pro-government, leadership was imposed. But time and again the state was eventually forced to capitulate when workers simply refused to recognise the authority of the imposed leadership.

The UGTT was also under siege from the inside: its general council contained a significant number of members of Ben Ali’s party throughout his reign, who always pushed for the union to back the regime. Despite the internal and external pressure, there were those who always fought for the union’s independence, in particular the socialist and communist factions within the union, despite such dissidence often resulting in brutal repression. Sadly, these voices of opposition were sometimes a minority, and in 2009 the UGTT backed Ben Ali as the presidential candidate.

But whilst the union’s leadership collaborated with the Ben Ali regime, its members certainly did not. In 2008, miners in the mining area of Gafsa went on strike. They were savagely oppressed by the government; a number of miners were killed, the leadership was imprisoned and families suffered terribly. The UGTT’s leadership refused to support the strike, until eventually they capitulated to pressure from sectoral and regional representatives’ pressure.  A regional representative of the primary school teachers said that the leadership’s failure enabled the government to repress the strike in such a brutal fashion.

On an aside, the Gafsa miners’ strike is often heralded as the start of the Tunisian Revolution. But nobody outside the country has heard much about it because the media were prevented from covering it. More about this later.

Abdeljabel al Bedoui didn’t directly respond to the question we put to him about the UGTT being slow off the mark. He did provide an interesting insight into the broader role the UGGT fulfilled during Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Mr. al Bedoui said that because all political parties were banned the UGTT was the only forum within which activists could operate in any kind of public way. The interesting implication of this is that activists from different political persuasions worked together more closely than they otherwise ever would. Does that mean that Tunisia’s moderate Islamists will be more inclined to form a coalition with leftist and other factions to fill the post-revolutionary power vacuum? We are meeting Al-Nahda, or the Renaissance Party, the moderate Islamist party, and the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party  (POCT) tomorrow and will keep you posted.

Our regional teacher says that, in fairness to the UGTT leadership, the extensive external pressure placed on them as well as the internal factions that exist meant that decision-making at the top of the union was a long and arduous process. And when the UGTT in Tunis did finally get its act together, it promptly called a general strike and, they say, started the calls for Ben Ali to step down – the famous slogan of Degage or ‘Get out’. The UGTT has also played an important role in preserving the integrity of the revolution, refusing to cooperate with the interim government when it included members of Ben Ali’s overthrown government, effectively forcing them to resign.

Abdeljabel al Bedoui nonetheless gave us some cause for concern for the future. We asked his views on how workers’ rights could be protected in the future. We put it to him that if there were to be greater political stability and plurality in the future, this would make Tunisia a lot more attractive for foreign investors. Was he worried that they would undermine workers’ rights and power? In our collective experience the introduction of trans-national corporations rarely meant workers were better off, and benefits like subsistence allowances would be reduced. Fear not, he said, if foreign investors will appreciate that subsistence allowances will mean they can reduce wages. A union welcoming the opportunity to reduce its members’ wages? We’re not sure he fully understood our concerns?

But Tunisians carrying out grass roots work never cease to amaze us, and we hope to visit the Gafsa miners on Friday. Smaller unions, such as Tunisia’s National Union of Journalists, showed incredible bravery in the face of persecution and torture. Journalists as a whole, and new media activists and bloggers, are acknowledged as having played a crucial part in the revolution.

Katherine Craig