SHE TALKS PEACE: Tunisia: Emerging Democracy No More?

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 26 June) — Dear readers,  let me start by sharing an urgent open letter sent by my friend and colleague, Radwan Masmoudi,  founding president of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID).  Based in Washington DC, CSID is  dedicated to promoting freedom, democracy, and good governance in the Arab and Muslim world, as well as improving relations between the United States and the Muslim world. 

I met Radwan in 2002 while I was a Senior Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace.  He and I were concerned about the post 9/11 view, that Islam is incompatible with democracy, that Islam itself nurtures seeds of violence against the West.  Many political commentators at that time would even equate the “madrasah” or Islamic school as an incubator for terrorists. When I got back to the Philippines after a year at USIP, I sought fellow Muslim democrats and started the Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy (PCID).  I even brought Radwan and Muslim scholars to Mindanao to have discussions with our leaders on the position of Islam on human rights, peace and democracy. 

Radwan, a Tunisian by birth, worked tirelessly to have conferences and discussions on political reforms in then authoritarian countries such as North Africa’s Libya, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.  By the time the Arab Spring burst onto the scene, Radwan had groups in North Africa who were part of the democratic discourse. 

Seeds of democracy started to flower in the Middle East and North Africa or MENA after the Arab Spring that  began in Tunisia in December 2010, when mass demonstrations erupted to protest the oppressive system that made a street vendor set fire to himself.  Mohamed Bouazizi, an impoverished young man who was the main financial support of his family, had enough of harassment by local officials.    Youth from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and the Middle East were enraged and staged massive demonstrations protesting the death of Mohamed and challenging entrenched regimes. Regimes started to topple – Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya.  In Tunisia, the President fled.   Free elections were held in October 2011. Other MENA countries quickly looked into implementing reforms to assuage the anger of their citizens.    

I watched the developments in MENA avidly, hopeful that the democratic institutions would take root.  Alas, my hopes have been dashed.  Following the news these past decades, it appears that the well-established political and military groups, the Islamic Brotherhood, have become the controlling forces.  Laws have become more repressive, corruption and poverty.  

Radwan and CSID have focused much attention to the need to support democratic institutions in MENA, to shed light on the oppressive institutions that caused a young street vendor to sacrifice himself in protest.  Are they merely whistling in the dark?  Here is Radwan’s letter:

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

I am writing to you about the grave situation of HE Hamadi Jebali, former Prime Minister of Tunisia and a full member of the Club de Madrid. On June 24, 2022, HE Hamadi Jebali was arrested and then unlawfully kidnapped by a squad from the Ministry of Interior. He has been removed from his car to an unknown destination in the absence of his lawyer, and without a legal arrest warrant. The police did not have the slightest consideration for his status, health or his wife who was with him in the car. 

Given his age (73 years), HE Hamadi Jebali is suffering from several chronic diseases and health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. According to his daughter, he announced today that he started a hunger strike until his release. I want to remind you that HE Hamadi Jebali spent 17 years of his life unlawfully imprisoned by former dictator Ben Ali for his political activities. 

Following the revolution and the first democratic elections, he became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Tunisia. In 2013, he put the country before his party and resigned from his position, and later resigned from the leadership of the Ennahdha party. He left the power with no income and worked hard to start a small business, where he still works to put honest food on the table. 

I have known HE Hamadi Jebali for more than 11 years and have witnessed an honest, hard-working, respectful individual with irreproachable morality and integrity. I call on you and others to exercise all possible pressure on the Tunisian President and government to immediately release HE Hamadi Jebali and ensure his rights are respected under the rule of law. 

Please write to your member of Congress, and cc: the Ambassador of Tunisia in Washington DC:

Her Excellency Hanene Tajouri Bessassi
Embassy of the Republic of Tunisia
1515 Massachusetts Ave.  N.W.
Washington D.C.  20005
E-mail: AT.Washington@Tunisianembassy.org 
Phone : (202) 862-1850 Fax: (202) 862-1858

My guest on “She Talks Peace” is a young democracy advocate, one of the activists of the Arab Spring (though she does not like that phrase, saying it’s a Western description that can be misleading).  I could not help but wonder what our guest is doing today, as I can see her fighting for democracy in Tunisia.  

Ahlem Nasraoui is an  influencer for inclusive youth engagement with 
marginalized groups. After finishing her master’s degree in Business Communication she worked to support the Tunisian Democratic Transition. In an interview years ago, Ahlem said: “In my hometown, where I come from, nobody is expecting that you are a leader or that you can be one.” But a leader she is today. 

Ahlem is the founder of the Young Leaders Entrepreneurs Association, which has managed hackathons, boot camps, and startups supporting the democratic transition through youth leadership coaching. In 2016, she was selected by the State Department as a top 10 young emerging leader. She was described as a Tunisian woman who pushed past a culture of low expectations in her hometown, who has started a program to confront terrorism and extremism, and who has launched several initiatives designed to train women. 

We spoke of the strike and demonstrations organized by judges these past three weeks in protest against what they call President Kais Saied’s “interference” in the judiciary.  Saied dismissed 57 judges on June 1, accusing them of corruption and protecting “terrorists,” froze the parliament.  A coalition of 10 international human rights groups stated that Saied had dealt “a deep blow to judicial independence.”   

If you are interested in what Ahlem has to say on the explosive situation in Tunisia, do listen to “She Talks Peace” and why she does not like the term “Arab Spring”.

Spotify

Apple

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/ep-46-ahlem-nasraoui-talks-democracy-in-tunisia/id1579999446?i=1000567718542

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Amina Rasul is the President of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, an advocate for Mindanao and the Bangsamoro, peace, human rights, and democracy)