Tunisia will make it!

The last stop on our Middle East trip: Tunisia.
The next one already in mind.
We spent 5 days here, mostly in Tunis.
A city I really fell in love with.

I was here 18 month ago.
At that time an activist attacked me with a knife because I was working with NATO to prepare their summit in Chicago.
We were running we-nato.org an online platform aiming to link netizens with NATO staff and ambassadors.
We started with a live stream between Joi Ito and Steffi Babst, these days head of public diplomacy at NATO, discussing Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book “The Age of the Unthinkable”. Unfortunately this premiere remained the one and only “conversation” between the two groups – at least in the way we intended to design them.

I quit the job before the summit took place.
I would say: we couldn’t synch our interests;-)
Or: NATO’s organizational structure wasn’t (and probably still isn’t) ready for the speed of the online world.
NATO probably would say: We pushed them too hard to give up classic PR.
What so ever.

I returned to Tunisia.
And I really enjoyed my stay.
I still do.
I am sitting in one of Sidi Bousaid’s cozy cafes, writing this post.

Before I continue let me say one thing:
Absolutely safe!
We should support the country’s economy by NOT sweeping it off from our travel destinations list!

I started “to report” from Tunisia on December 31, 2010 – long before western media jumped on the train and long before Lina Ben Mhenni became a synonym for the revolution in Tunisia. We met Lina last night in the Cafe Baba Club on the Habib Bourguiba Boulevard, the “boulevard of broken dreams” – as we named it. She seemed pretty disenchanted. Currently protected by the police because she is threatened by the Salafists, by the government itself and by the democrats (as she told us) – she said she has NO IDEA where the country is headed. She described the situation as unstable, and not at all in concert with the people and their problems. Religion became the overwhelming topic. We’ve heard this many times.

When the Tunisians went to the polls in October 2011 – they didn’t vote for a new government.
They voted for the National Constituent Assembly (NCA).
Just like the Egyptians.
The NCA is the body in charge of devising a new constitution for the post Ben Ali era. 
217 democratic elected representatives of the people.
Their ONLY task is to write the new constitution for Tunisia.
NOT TO SET UP a new government.
More than 150 parties (!) competed.
Ahmet Hamza, Program Coordinator at Women Enterprise for Sustainability, told us that he and his wife attended the pre-election events from all the parties in their hometown Kairouan. They were hungry for information – naturally, since it was the first time they had been allowed to vote. When they went to an Ennahda event, they were surprised that the seats for men and women were separated. They choose to sit on the far end of each section, so that they could sit together but still respect Ennahda’s given order. However,  “officials” wanted them to sit away from each other. So they left. And Ennahda lost two votes.

Six parties and 44 unaffiliated members made it into the NCA.
Ennahda became the strongest. They won 89 of the 217 seats.
The schedule was to deliver a binding constitution within one year.
And only after the constitution has been finalized are new elections for the first post-Ben Ali government planned, based upon the principles of this new constitution.

But so far the NCA has only delivered a provisional constitution.
Which hasn’t much more to offer than Bourguiba’s social reforms had in the fifties.
Nothing new. Nothing what the people are yearning for.
Nothing which deals with the problems of the people and the country.
The most crucial question turned out to be, which form of government to implement.
And are Islamic principles included or excluded.

In the current draft they are included.
If the constitution were to pass as it is drafted right now, it would cut-off women rights in a profound way. It would include Sharia law. 
Tunisian people don’t accept this. 
They go back into the streets.
Women. Men. The youth.
There are many demonstrations and sit-ins.
And all more or less peacefully, even though two important opposition leaders have been killed.
People say by Salafists.

Many Tunisians fight for one cause: To keep government and religion separate.
They believe that religion is something personal.
Something which belongs to the individual.
They are Muslims, yes.
95% of the Tunisians are Muslims.
And they want to practice Islam.
But they want to practice it as THEY want.
Not in a way a political party or a government tells them to do.
Hence they won’t accept an “Islamic” constitution.
People are deeply disappointed from Ennahda.
They considered them as moderate Muslims.
But it turned out that they shifted towards fundamentalism.
And now Ennahda is loosing support significantly .
They are losing the people.
Hence they have no interest to complete the constitution soon.
Ennahda wants to remain in power.
A dangerous game.

What the people are desperately waiting for, are solutions for their daily problems.
The economy is down.
Unemployment rates are increasing.
Prices and costs of living are increasing.
Foreign investments are significantly decreasing.
So is tourism.
Medical care becomes insufficient.
Media is still controlled.
Public services are “on sale”.
Corruption is getting worse.
Garbage is all over in the streets.
Raw materials in some areas run short.
There is a huge “vacuum” in the interpretation of law.

What the people don’t fear, is their military.
Tunisians are very much aware that the military is weak.
It always has been weak – as they say.
Ben Ali, being afraid of a coup, always kept it small.
Today this is a huge plus for the people – especially when we compare it to Egypt.

Tunisians also realize that the transition to democracy takes time.

They don’t expect it to happen over night.

And they don’t expect it to be perfect.

They are willing to fail.

And ready to learn.

Most of them are willing to work for their democracy.

And – if necessary – to fight for it.

Not really knowing how it might look like.

Only a few are willing to give up the liberty they have finally achieved.

The liberty to hold free meetings.

To speak out freely.

To vote.

To have a choice.

The freedom not to be controlled.

Occasionally we felt a slight breeze of nostalgia – the good old Ben Ali days!
Despite all the trouble, Tunisians are optimistic.
Especially the youth.
But not only the youth.
One older woman in Kairoaun said: “It’s the job of the parents to support their children to live their dream and to build a better future!”

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