Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tunisia's Energy Sector Investigation

The following is an excerpt from my latest investigation into Tunisia's oil & gas sector for Foreign Policy:

But when the National Constituent Assembly’s energy committee started using its oversight power this year to review contracts signed between the state and foreign oil companies, other state institutions reacted fiercely. Bureaucrats from the Ministry of Industry, which has traditionally had near-exclusive jurisdiction over energy contracts, pushed back on legal grounds to make sure that the energy committee would not have a say over any more contract extensions. Even the executive branch pushed back against the committee; at a budget presentation this summer, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa warned assembly members to stop impeding the work of foreign oil companies. Jomaa’s argument was that the committee’s intervention was hurting Tunisia’s economic development — but his critics say that Jomaa’s many years working at a sister company of the international oil company Total make him too cozy with the sector. Even his current industry minister, Kamel Bennaceur, is a former longtime executive at the world’s largest oilfield services company, Schlumberger....

To read the full piece, click here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Three Media Heavyweights: Interview Excerpts


In the months of May and June 2014, I conducted over a dozen interviews with some of the top players in the Tunisian media sector. These interviews were all part of the research that went into my subsequent report for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab’s, A Tale of Two Decrees (June 11, 2014). The report documents the fight over the sector, efforts at reform, the importance of reform for democracy, and the threats against reform.

Of the interviews I conducted, three stand out as particularly important. So, I am publishing excerpts of these three interviews here.

The first is with Nabil Karoui, the head of one of the most important private TV stations in Tunisia. His channel, Nessma, was one of only two private TV stations allowed to operate in Tunisia prior to the uprising of 2011. He is now fighting tooth-and-nail the reforms proposed by the media reform commission HAICA.

The second is with Hichem Snoussi, one of the nine members of HAICA’s board. He offers tough words against the heads of private TV stations (without naming them) and lays out the challenges facing media reform.

The third is with Sami Ben Gharbia, one of the cofounders of the citizen journalist blogging website Nawaat. Nawaat is one of the very few groups in the Tunisian media sector that was completely banned under Ben Ali, and Ben Gharbia was a political refugee for speaking out against the previous regime. His analysis of the way that the media has been used against the goals of the uprising and against democratic reform are particularly interesting.


Interview with Nabil Karoui, the head of Nessma TV (June 6, 2014)

One journalist told me that you are closely aligned with Nida Tunis, the political party led Beji Caid Sebsi. How do you respond?

I am the guy who put together Beji Sebsi and [Ennahda leader Rached] Ghannouchi in Ramadan, one year ago.

I know there were others who also helped broker a dialogue between them, for example businessman Slim Riahi hosted them in Paris, correct?

Slim Riahi, he just rented a plane for Ghannouchi. But I am the guy who organized the meeting and I organized some other meetings at my place. We organized six or seven meetings and you see the results: Tunisia is good, it’s not as bad as Egypt or Libya because of that.

I’m a friend of Ghannouchi, as I’m close to Sebsi as well, and I like both of them and I help because it’s a small country and we don’t have the traditions of democracy and we don’t have tradition of media as well. Real media, because with Ben Ali I don’t think we had media.

Some have said that you are against the cahier de charge because it bans the heads of TV stations from also running political parties, and there are reports that you have started your own party, Tahya Tunis. What is your response?

I don’t have a political party. It was a rumor. I don’t have a plan to make a political party.

We don’t like the cahier de charge because it is unprofessional and impossible to apply. The cahier de charge transgresses at least eight laws.

We start to think as Tunisians that creating an independent structure like HAICA is really a panacea. Which is completely stupid because now we have nine people [that] issue their own law, and they apply it, and no one can control them.

HAICA, these guys don’t understand what it is to regulate. The nine of them are coming from ministries -- they are civil servants. And they are bad civil servants, because if they were successful in their business, they wouldn’t want to come to HAICA. If you have a good judge and he is successful, why does he have to come to HAICA? Now we have nine civil servants, they don’t understand the role, they don’t understand media, they never talk to us. Even the business of advertising they don’t understand. And they decided, because they are civil servants, to create a new ministry, because when civil servants are together, they don’t know how to regulate. Their reflex, their DNAs, they spent 20 years as civil servants, they think they have the power.

Let me tell you, they give us a license for seven years and the license is not renewable. Can you believe an industry like television can spend millions of dollars on studio on people etc. but after seven years it stops? [HAICA] can renew it or not renew it, it’s their call, and they don’t have to tell you why. This is in the cahier de charge.

We’re losing money, all of us because of the crisis. We are really bankrupt because of the crisis. The market, the business of advertising in TV and radio it shrunk by 70% in three years. We lost 70% of value of market in Tunisia.

These guys, they’re deciding to give us eight minutes-per-hour for ads. We don’t have ads. And 12 [minutes-per-hour] in Ramadan. In Ramadan, we do famous series. If I sell my 12 minutes all around Ramadan, I will match half of my cost. The public [TV stations] have no restrictions; they can do half hour ads, but the private has to be restricted for eight minutes. They don’t understand anything about the business, the TV stations. They decide that if you have one TV station, you can’t buy another one. They think we are all Murdochs, but we are all so miserable. They want to control us.

You’re saying that the cahier de charge makes it impossible for you to stay profitable?

They are ridiculous. Of course, we can’t pay it. I have to compete against MBC whose owner is from the Saudi family, with Al Jazeera, with Dubai television stations run by the ruler of Dubai. We are the small things.

In what country in the world, in what business if you have one TV [station] you cant have another TV [station]? Maybe they can say someone can’t have 50% of the audience in a sophisticated country. We don’t even have a majority of the audience.

They oblige me in the cahier de charge to have 30% journalists [as employees]. Why should I have that? If my business is only entertainment, if I’m only doing series, why should I hire journalists?

Do you believe that there should be no regulation of the private TV stations?

This cahier can stop our freedom of speech. Even when I had a license under Ben Ali, I didn’t have to send the programs before for approval. Is that regulation or censorship? Regulation means there are rules -- they don’t have to go into the business [ends of things].

HAICA is a clan: leftist, communist, they pushed law 116, and behind them there are one or two small parties. Now they want to get their hands on media.

They called me last summer, they told me your programs are not balanced. Ennahda boycotted me, they wouldn’t come - what do you want me to do? [I told them:] this is the [phone] number of Ennahda - next time I want to do a show, call them and oblige them to come to me. [Ennahda] went to another channel six times and not to me. Sebsi came to me three times and not to [TV station] Hannibal -- oblige them to go them.

There is another channel that’s [controlled by] Islamists and [Ennahda members appear on that channel] every day. Why should we be balanced? We’re not a public channel. I told [HAICA]: “Do you think Fox [news] is balanced?”

Do you think that the cahier de charge will succeed in being applied?

[The cahier de charge], it’s stopped. It’s inapplicable. We’re in court. [The cahier is] against the law; it can’t pass.

[HAICA] called me last time to ask me if I have dirty money and I said: Yes, what’s your problem? Are you policemen? Are you attorneys or judges? HAICA [members] now take the places of judges, or police or the central bank. They gave themselves this power.

They have this idea, they are like knights arriving to save the republic from dirty money, from politics which mixes with money, that mixes with the media. Of course we’re lucky they’re here, they are pure the people who come. One journalist asked me: ‘Do you contest the independence of the people in HAICA?” I said: ‘No, I contest the independence of 11 million Tunisians. Who is independent?’

If HAICA is not independent, who is behind them?

CPR [Congress for the Republic party], [President Moncef] Marzouki nominated them all and pushed them. What CPR did was not nominate them all through the presidency. The woman who was the head of the syndicate [SNJT, National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists former head Najiba Hamrouni], she was under them.

Today in HAICA, there are three who had problems with political divisions. [The other] six guys don’t understand anything.

What will happen to HAICA?

HAICA is a joke my friend. HAICA is temporary. Now these idiots found a way to put HAICA in the constitution.

There is an article that says after the future election of parliament they will issue a new law of media and after they will nominate a constitutional HAICA. This HAICA is just temporary. They will disappear in December. In December they will leave, all of them. We saw the danger; all the parties saw the danger as well. We are writing a new law of media. We don’t care who they nominate; if we have the text of the law to protect us we don’t care.

Who do you mean by “we”? Who is writing the new media law?

It’s our union with the UGTT, with political parties; it will be consensual.


Interview with Hichem Snoussi, one of nine board members of the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) (May 15, 2014)

What is HAICA?

It’s a regulatory body. You find these bodies in democratic countries. It’s an intermediary between executive power, society, the different actors and journalists, and its role is not control; its role is [to determine] how to apply the independence and freedom of media, all while respecting the rules, be they judicial or ethical.

What are HAICA’s priorities?

Practically, there are three priorities for HAICA. The first is how to organize the media for the electoral phase, and there it requires many decisions and lots of setting up, and for this reason, HAICA will set up a monitoring service. [It’s about ensuring] pluralism in the media, diversity, access to the media for political actors. This action will be done in collaboration with [the independent electoral commission] ISIE.

The second priority it’s the transition of state media to public media, towards a public media that renders a public service for Tunisian society. For example, when you see the structure of the state media until this day, it is the same structure of the Ben Ali epoch, the epoch of the dictator. Now, it is necessary to install a new governance. HAICA, for example, we started with insisting that the nomination of managing directors [of state media institutions] must not be done by the government. [This is] because the government at the end of the day, has a political sensibility; it represents a political orientation, and for this reason [managing directors of media] must be named in accordance with norms which are objective. They must be independent; they must not represent the political parties. We have to protect the independence of these directors against the government, and not just the government, but others who can influence them.

The third priority for us is freedom of expression. It’s how to protect and guarantee this right of free expression in a society that does not have the tradition of freedom of expression. Unfortunately there are a lot of journalists and media bosses that have misunderstood the freedom of expression and for them, everything is authorized. It is necessary to make people understand that if they really want to protect this freedom of expression, it is necessary to adapt to international norms in this domain.

How would you describe the overall media environment today, nearly three years after the uprising?

There are the same reflexes, even if Ben Ali isn’t there. The first priority is to reform the structure, because the HAICA is not a powerful structure that can do everything.

Normally, HAICA is not a party to conflict; it plays the role of arbiter. But unfortunately, some media executive want to give the expression that HAICA has made itself a party to the conflict. HAICA has presented the cahier de charge. Of course there are obligations in the cahier, especially for the old media executives who have big institutions since the old regime. They don’t want these clauses, like the anti-monopoly law. They don’t want the limits on advertisements. The cahier bans political parties from owning broadcast stations -- they don’t want that. They say this is against human rights, that it’s anti-constitutional. This is not true, if one looks at the big democratic countries, they have anti-concentration laws, limits to advertisements. For example in Norway, the UK, Austria, Germany, it’s illegal for a political party to have a TV or radio itself, because it will open the door to propaganda for the old practices, the bad practices. That is why HAICA is against it. We have some problems with some media executives, the big bosses.

Who are these media executives?

They are the executives who owned radio and TV during the old regime. During the old regime there wasn’t much radio, there was the state TV and radio, and there was nothing except two private TV stations and three private radios. Other citizens didn’t have an opportunity to have a TV or radio station. To have a TV or Radio was to have a great fortune. They were influential on public opinion. We [HAICA] don’t want to do what was done, for example, in Czechoslovakia after communism where they banned those people from working. For us, no, we want those people to work, to have the right to work.

Is transparency in the media sector a priority for HAICA? For example, I know the businessman Slim Riahi supposedly purchased the frequency of the Ettounsiya TV station, but the details of the channel’s ownership still seem opaque. Couldn’t this opacity be a problem in reforming the sector?

Thank you for that question. In the cahier de charge, there are clauses that concern transparency. TV stations must be publicize their sources [of funding], their advertising volume. If they sell ownership, they must inform the authorities. The executives are against these clauses as well; they say HAICA is becoming a financial service or something like this.

The challenges before HAICA seem quite daunting. How do you hope to succeed?

Tunisians chose an open approach. It’s not the same approach as Egypt. We have allies around the world. This open approach benefited from people with competence, whether from the Arab world or The West. International organizations, civil society, they helped enormously this democratic transition, and if today we have this respect for international standards and norms, if we have fought for a constitution based on these norms, it is thanks first to Tunisian intelligence but also thanks to our allies and civil society. I think international civil society can play a positive role.

Is levying a fine HAICA’s main tool for enforcing regulation?

We try, since it’s a new culture, to resolve issues in a pedagogical approach, but in certain times, we are obliged to [levy fines].

The revenue collected from fines, where does it go?

They go into the treasury.

What is the biggest challenge facing the Tunisian media landscape?

It is necessary to not combine the three: politics, money and media. We have seen the results with Berlusconi, with Murdoch. For HAICA, it’s clear: leaders of political parties or political parties themselves don’t have the right to own a radio or TV. Someone who wants to invest in audiovisual domain can’t have more than one radio and one TV; it’s an anti-concentration law. We find the same law in democratic countries.

In pushing for good practice, we have real allies. But as usual, the allies in this domain are people who are not influential; they are intellectuals, democrats. But for them they are in the process of putting pressure, even on political actors. Unfortunately some political parties in Tunisia don’t have a democratic background. They don’t have great sensitivity in this field. They are old communists, or old nationalists or Islamists. For these three leanings, they are not founded ideologically on individual liberties. For us, whether we want or not, we are in the context of individual liberties. That’s why we have difficulty making these old political partisans understand the concept, the philosophy of freedom of expression.

Under the American system, the concept of press freedom is a bit more absolute than in most countries. Even an interview with Osama Bin Laden was broadcast in America. However, when Tunisian journalist Samir Wafi interviewed a Salafi preacher last year who expressed views interpreted as sympathetic to religious militants, he was condemned by most Tunisian journalists and HAICA banned the segment from being rebroadcast. Could you explain this decision?

When there is a discourse that encourages hate and violence, there we must treat them according to international norms, especially article three [“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are limits in international norms, for the rights of expression.

[The preacher], he demanded that people prepare themselves to be martyrs against Tunisian citizens. One must not be idealist, even naïve, in this point.

Interview with Sami Ben Gharbia, co-founder of the citizen journalism blog Nawaat (May 22, 2014)

What is Nawaat?

It was a collective blog first. It’s an open space where everyone can publish his opinion and debate about subjects that were supposed to be taboo, from human rights abuses to corruption, nepotism, all kinds of stuff that mainstream media in Tunisia wasn’t really covering. Of course we were censored in Tunisia since we started, a couple weeks after the website launched, so people from within the country could only access our website through circumvention technologies, proxies, Tor etc.

What is your background?

Well I was a political refugee at the time in the Netherlands, since 1998, first as an asylum seeker then as a refugee. So I fled Tunisia. I was arrested and then I managed to flee. I lived in the Netherlands for the last almost 13 years.

Since the fall, we used to live abroad, all of us, the three founders and one collaborator. Then we came back home, at least three of us. We established this NGO, this collective blog became an NGO. We got our first staff and we got our first funding in 2011. Before that we never had any funding; we were financing the project ourselves. It didn’t require a lot of funding, just the hosting service and the domain name. But after the revolution we managed to get an entire staff.

What is the focus of Nawaat?

We cover all kinds of political events, sit-ins, demonstrations, social economic topics. We have a strong focus on the investigative journalism aspect of our work; it’s kind of a new pillar. We have a good section of leaks. Most of our investigative work is based on leaks that we get through Facebook, through electronic means. We also have a platform for this service, Nawaat Leaks, which allows people to send us their documenets while protecting their identities, so even us we don’t know we don’t get any information about IP addresses or geographic location or email address.

What is the role of Nawaat in the Tunisian media landscape?

The role is to push the limits of what can be said, what can be covered and to be beyond this polarized scene of ideological and political polarization and try to address all kinds of topics without political or ideological considerations. So we try to be beyond all these clashes and we target everyone and everything with critical distance and in-depth investigation and articles. So we don’t do desk news, we don’t cover daily events what’s going on. We try to deconstruct political discourse and deconstruct events and go deep into the behind-the-scene happening.

Do you believe that an activist can be a journalist? Where do you draw the line?

We don’t draw the line. We never pretend to be journalists. We’re not journalists although we have in our staff good, established journalists. We are rooted in the advocacy and activism field. We still try to have this info-activism, or media-activism formula and medium that allows us not to be neutral in certain values and principles. We are not neutral. We are objective but not neutral. We stand for certain values and principles that we defend and advocate for and we push the limits for that: free speech, human rights, free access to information, anti-censorship, anti-repression, anti-corruption, anti-nepotism, and we work towards reforming all those things.

How would you describe the current Tunisian media landscape?

If you are talking about TV or radio they still kind of establish things that are linked to parties or certain groups or lobbies, they push for a certain political agenda or a certain vision of Tunisian society or identity. There is a strong link between businessmen and media, so it’s not quite independent media at all. This is a struggle that the HAICA is still trying to reform at least in terms of this cahier de charge. From our perspective, we try to analyze the discourse. We are writing many articles on the journalistic discourse within the news outlets; we try to analyze the trends of discourse, during the troika government, during the Jomaa government – what changed? The semantics, the terms and the words they are using and trying to deconstruct them and understand what they’re doing and how they want to shape public opinion about certain issues and topics.

Do you think Nawaat’s work is putting pressure for internal reform in other media outlets?

We don’t worry; we don’t care about what they are and what they’re doing. We try to push the roof so high that at least maybe some initiatives, mainly grassroots or citizen media initiatives, could emerge from this media ecosystem. I still see the media ecosystem as polarized, especially from the Bardo sit-ins, or even before. They hijacked certain demands of the revolution and turned them into an identity crisis: Tunisia whether it is religious or secular, the problem of the veil, exaggerated terrorism rhetoric. All those debates that emerged through media and by the media for certain purposes, I think the goal was to hijack the real demands of the revolution from justice, equality and dignity and freedom to certain topics that don’t really touch the core of why we toppled the dictatorship.

What do you think about HAICA and its current efforts to reform the sector?

I think they’re doing good work, although we can find a few critiques within the cahier de charge, but still it is a body that was created recently and that tried at least to regulate the media scene, mainly these media that are influential, because they enter every house and every car and every taxi and every shutter in Tunisia, so we need a kind of regulation. I’m not calling for censorship or auto-regulation, but at least a body, an independent body, that is beyond any ideology or political struggle that tries to push for the respect for the ethical code of the media. That doesn’t mean that it is perfect, or that it doesn’t make some mistakes, but if we look at the struggle between the owners of media, TV and radio, and HAICA, I stand on the side of HAICA against those businessmen who own and shape public opinion.

How can Nawaat compete with the traditional unreformed media outlets that still reach a broader audience?

We are adopting what we call the long tail of journalism. We try to publish stories that survive the political or socio-economic events that become reference that researchers or journalists or activists or politicians or ourselves will use later on for deeper investigation or deeper research on what’s going on in Tunisia…

Our audience is not an average citizen. The audience that we target and try to reach are not normal citizens. Our audience is activists, politicians, the establishment, whether it’s politics or security or economy or social movement. We try to influence the influencers.

People who read Washington Post or New York Times long articles still are people that are in the establishment or on the margins of the establishment. The average citizens won’t read, they will read tabloids and they will read bullshit stories. That’s not our audience.

What is Nawaat’s editorial policy?

We don’t have an editorial policy. At least we try to have, every article should at least have documents, leaks, graph, picture that support a story, or video that support a story, interviews with concerned political figures or people that we are trying to write about.

Do you think it is possible for those journalists who worked at a time when real journalism was illegal under Ben Ali can be the same ones who reform the sector now after the uprising?

We need a generation of journalists and activists, and they are emerging and they will emerge and they will be stronger in the future. I don’t think it is possible to reform a sector that was corrupted, that was part of the propaganda machine and an arm of the Ben Ali regime by will or by pressure.

Now in the university they are giving a course on investigative journalism with high-profile teachers from around the world coming to Tunisia to train people about investigative journalism. I think this trend will get bigger in the future.

We are the first to do this kind of journalism. They started talking about investigative journalism in Tunisia because of Nawaat. Nawaat established this trend in Tunisia. Although we did a lot of mistakes, we’re not professional journalists, we don’t claim to be, but we are learning from our experience and we are refining our expertise. 

What mistakes did Nawaat make?

Regarding security leaks that we released and the investigation that we ran around… we relied on leaks most of the time coming from security people, and by experience, those whistleblowers giving info from within the security apparatus are manipulating the media for a certain agenda, and I think we were in a way manipulated by them.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Narrow Mediterranean Passage

An excerpt from my latest article for Middle East Eye, the story of one migrant's nightmarish journey from Tunisia to Italy and the hellish route back:

“It’s not easy for migrants to just get on a boat and just go to the sea. You hand yourself to death,” Mohammed Haj Frej says at a cafe in the coastal Tunisian town of Monastir.

Frej knows only too well the risks young Tunisians are taking to try and reach a better life in Europe. Perilous journeys he has attempted in recent years have left him physically injured and mentally shaken. 

He tried his first and second crossings in 2008 when he was just 23 – one of a sea of young and often educated Tunisians who attempt the trip. Frej has a degree in IT, but like many other says he didn’t have the right connections to get a job.

While his first two attempts failed, in 2011 an apparent window of opportunity opened. Following the overthrow of President Zine Abidine Ben Ali, rumours began circulating that Tunisian security forces had stopped patrolling the waters and the path to Europe was clear.

Emboldened by the reports, Frej scrounged 1,500 dinars ($950) and paid the captain of a seven-metre boat to take him from the Tunisian town of Zarzis to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Nearly 200 other Tunisians made the journey with him.

The following excerpt was not included in the article online, but I find these quotations give us a bit more understanding of the historical context:


“They would curse me and I would curse them even more. And I would always focus on one phrase. I would say Forza Hitler, and that’s the thing they hate the most,” he says, possibly a reference to the Italian political party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Forza Italia, whose members have veered into perceived racist rhetoric.

Mohammed Haj Salem, a friend of Frej’s, hails from the same seaside town of Qseybt al-Madyouni. According to Salem, the older generation of people living in the town used to travel to Italy freely for temporary work.

“Before, in the 1970s, for example, my father or his father,” Salem says, pointing to Frej, “used to be able to go and work in agriculture without a visa. They would take the boat as if going to some other part of Tunisia. You work and you come back and no one bothers you. They would make some money.”

“There were agricultural areas in Sicily where there wasn’t enough labor, so Tunisians would go in summer, for example, and harvest the tomatoes and the peppers. They would go for two or three months, then the rest of the year they would be in Tunisia.  And that worked, they were satisfied. But then with the EU, they introduced the visa.”
 Read the rest of the online article here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tunisia's Strange Relationship with Israel

An excerpt from my latest article for Foreign Policy on Tunisia's strange relationship with Israel:

But about 80 members of Tunisia's national assembly weren't willing to leave it at that. They drafted a letter calling on Karboul and Sfar to appear before the assembly to respond to allegations that their moves to clarify the rules on visits by Israeli citizens amount to a "normalization" of ties with Israel. Tunisia opened a "diplomatic interest section," a sort of de facto embassy, in Israel in 1996, but shut it down four years later as a gesture of support for the Palestinian intifada. Since then, the Tunisian government has maintained a public stance of hostility to Israel, which it refuses to recognize. It's worth remembering that Tunisia hosted the Palestinian Liberation Organization for a time in the 1980s. (According to one historian, however, the government in Tunis granted the PLO this privilege only reluctantly, under considerable pressure from the United States.) Away from the public eye, Tunisia and Israel had continued to talk until the Tunisian uprising.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor says that, prior to the fall of former dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Israel had "good working relations" with Tunisian diplomats stationed in Ramallah, who used to handle Israeli visa requests.

"Since regime change, [Tunisian] diplomatic representatives have severed all ties with Israeli authorities," he says, although he's unwilling to offer an explanation for the sudden shift in policy. 
 To read the full article, click here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tunisian Youth Continue Their Revolution

An excerpt from my latest piece of reporting from Tunisia for the new online news outlet, Middle East Eye:

When young Tunisians gathered in the streets and braved bullets more than three years ago, their demands were clear: freedom, dignity and employment. With continued pressure, they pushed out former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, secured free and fair elections, and forced an old regime and a largely older generation to heed their calls. 
After a series of governments, continued unrest, political assassinations, and fierce ideological battles, Tunisia finally passed a new constitution this January. The country now has a new caretaker government led by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa who has made some tentative gestures toward democracy, recently concluded a trip to Washington where he requested international support to invest in Tunisia’s “startup democracy”.
Despite these steps, many Tunisian youths find themselves in the same predicament as three years ago, their futures as bleak or even bleaker than before the uprising.
“The youth who contributed or played a role in the revolution, they helped get certain people to power and now those people are putting these youth in prison and they’re trying to oppress them,” says 28-year-old activist Amal Ayari.
Since the revolution, hundreds of young people have been arrested as simmering discontent has regularly boiled over into protests and sometimes violent clashes with police.
Ayari leads an organisation called “Ikolna Siliana” or “We are all Siliana”, named after a neglected farming town in central of Tunisia, where thousands of youth took to the streets in November 2012.  
Less than two years after the initial Tunisian uprising, the young protestors wanted to reiterate the demands of the revolution. Over the span of a couple days, however, special police forces violently quashed the protests by firing into the crowds.
 To read the entire piece, click here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Transatlantic Partnership after the Arab Uprisings

An excerpt from my latest argument with Benjamin Preisler (@LKwesiJ) in Tufts University's Fletcher Forum of World Affairs:

The uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 were a historic political awakening of peoples long held captive by decrepit systems of control and oppression. However, the United States and its European allies have so far failed to reckon with this geopolitical earthquake. This lack of appreciation is exemplified by a recent White House policy review that pared Middle East priorities down to three issues, only one of which was related to the uprisings. Rather than adapting and coordinating long-term policies to account for the political mobilization of the masses and its causes, Brussels and Washington have largely reverted to pursuing short-term stability and security. This failure not only threatens the West’s ability to influence the region, leaving other actors to fill the void, but it risks losing the region to greater instability and insecurity in the future.
However, there is still time for leaders to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the uprisings and formulate win-win, long-term policies. This will require the same paradigm shift found in U.S. foreign policy after World War II. After the war devastated Europe, the stability, democratic nature, and equity of today’s Europe were far from a certain outcome. Yet acting out of enlightened self-interest, the United States remained engaged economically and politically with the continent. This engagement fostered a mutually beneficial partnership and flowered into an alliance that has predominantly shaped the international framework since. Following their uprisings, North African countries face the same watershed moment as their northern neighbors did over half a century ago. The Transatlantic partnership, looking at its own history and success as a model, ought to engage with Arab reformers as real partners instead of following the failed policies of the past, namely embracing as clients whichever strongman emerges from the entropy.

To read the entire piece, click here.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Police Are Dogs



An excerpt from my latest piece in Foreign Policy:

One day in November, Fawzia Ben Ahmed sits down in her living room in the hardscrabble Tunis neighborhood of Bab Jdid to watch a video of her son being detained by police. Ben Ahmed, a lady of small frame, is dressed simply and conservatively with two pieces of brown cloth covering her hair and torso, thick glasses covering her expressive eyes. Her 17-year-old daughter Hedia sits next to her on the sofa. Today is her mother's birthday.

"Look, he's smiling even as they bring him out," says Fawzia with pride. The television screen shows police pushing Ahmed Ben Ahmed, better known as rapper Klay BBJ, out of his dressing room at the cultural center in the beach town resort of Hammamet.

The trouble at the Hammamet concert late last August, started when Klay and fellow rapper Weld el 15 (real name Alaa al-Yacoubi) performed Weld's song "Boulicia Kleb" ("The Police Are Dogs"). During an intermission soon after, the police killed the music, cut the spotlights, and stormed the two musicians' dressing rooms. The police brought the rappers out, put them in a van, and proceeded to beat them on the way to the police station, according to Klay.

"The first person I saw, I also saw a slap coming from him at the same time. It was like he was saying: 'Hi,'" says the 22-year-old Klay. The singer has an oval face, an underbite, and puffy lips. (In the photo above, Klay (right) poses with Weld el 15 upon arriving at court on Dec. 5.) His smoky and slightly nasal voice has a laid-back quality that almost hints of southern California (despite the fact that his favorite rappers are East-Coast legends Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls). He's sitting on a couch in the hallway just outside the living room, sporting an Orlando Magic jersey, sweatpants, and granddad slippers. Even when he's not rapping, he speaks lyrically.
"When they started beating us, Alaa and I were just looking at them and saying: 'Why?' And they replied: 'Yeah, you're insulting the police, and since 2011, no one has arrested you. Well, now you're going to pay for everything,'" says Klay as his bleached-blonde girlfriend pets his back softly. "More than 30 police officers came in. The ones who didn't beat me just threw in a punch." 

To read the entire piece, click here.