Election Day

Voting has started in Tunisia, and it is beautiful.

Yesterday, Le Quotidien newspaper ran a weather forecast – an actual weather forecast – with the headline, “Forecast for Election Day: Sunny Skies, Barring the Unforeseen.” It was a perfect statement of the mood beginning today. The nation is united around this vote. There is an excitement around the nation that citizens of long-established democracies, who have voted all their lives, simply cannot understand. Among my co-workers, the pride is mixed with a small amount of wonder.

But the second half of the Quotidien headline is present, and everyone can feel it. This is the first free and open election for Tunisia since independence, and being first, it is unpredictable. People became agitated in long lines this morning, and citizens who found the electoral commission’s instant-message help line dysfunctional went out of their way to demand that journalists investigate. Twitter erupted when men and women formed separate lines at polling stations, though in some neighborhoods, that may have been organic. Continue reading

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Don’t Follow the Leader

Anyone interested in the Arab world is already well aware that the first election in a post-Arab Spring country will be held this Sunday in Tunisia. International coverage has begun to ramp up, and Western journalists are not presenting the scene adequately.

As I argued in a recent opinion piece for Al Jazeera English, the specific outcome of the election is less important than international media coverage may suggest. Over the past two weeks, the public sphere has been dominated by the French-Iranian animated film Persepolis and its perceived disrespect toward Islam. At one point, the film depicts its main character holding an angry discourse with Allah, pictured in her imagination as an old man. Private Tunisian TV channel Nessma TV aired the show, dubbed into Tunisian for the first time, on October 7th, and protests struck channel headquarters on the 9th. After Friday prayers on the 14th, Tunisians gathered in the Kasbah, calling for Nessma to be shut down. Police responded with tear gas, and the “Tunisia” section of my Google News feed was filled with familiar images of young people scattered amidst grey gas.

The angle by most English-language coverage has been to pair the Salafists at the heart of these protests with the mainstream Islamic party, Ennahda. Whether explicit or not, the implication is that Ennahda is fueling the protests, a charge that secular rivals make daily. Continue reading

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Arab Spring Occupies Wall Street

It never fails to surprise me: someone in Tunisia will make some mild comment about how Americans could learn something on a certain subject from the Tunisian or Arab example, and I bristle a little bit. I have the self-control to be polite and recognize when there is, in fact, a valuable lesson to be learned, but the initial reaction has repeated itself countless times since I arrived in Tunis. We’ve got it figured out, says my nationalist brain stem, it’s you people struggling to patch together a free and fair election.

So, when Tunisian friends and colleagues point to the Occupy Wall Street movement and say that the Arab Spring has arrived in New York City, I grin and scoff. Don’t count on a revolution, I say.

I am confident that Occupy Wall Street will not produce a revolution. But I am slowly opening myself to the possibility that my generation could and should draw inspiration from protests in the Arab world. We have largely rejected the approach our parents took in the turbulent 1960s, largely because it was the approach of our parents but partly because the protest culture of the 1960s has become monetized and therefore cheap. On our own, we are content to laugh with John Stewart at our incompetent, dysfunctional system, but fundamentally we have shunned true engagement. Perhaps it is cynicism. Continue reading

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Fairy Tales From Taxi Drivers

A Tunisian man has an American girlfriend, and he wishes to marry her. She agrees, but his parents do not. They say no, she is American and she is not Muslim, you cannot marry her.

Distraught, he explains the situation to his girlfriend, and she says, well what is this Islam all about anyway. He finds her a copy of the Koran and gives it to her. She flips through it and says, give me three months to read and consider. Continue reading

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Impressions from Kairouan to Sfax

At a certain level of fatigue, when my head hits the pillow, my body gives up on remaining fixed in space and disconnects from physical boundaries, floating with unspecific movements like a boat on two tethers. The effort of being definite becomes too much, and Allan fuzzes out into some indefinite state, like the electron, where location and momentum cannot be properly fixed. I enjoy the feeling. Seconds later, I fall asleep.

Kairouan is a city in central Tunisia, though it is not truly of the same class as interior cities like Sidi Bouzid or Kasserine. Those towns have seen decades of marginalization, but Kairouan feels like the seat of authentic Tunisian identity, modern and up-to-date but still fundamental. It is known as the fourth capital of the Islamic world, in large part because its ninth-century mosque was the seat of the mighty Aghlabid Empire.

Whatever else I expected, I did not think it would be raining when I arrived. Continue reading

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Self-Interest as a Moderating Force

The case can be made that Tunisia’s transition to democracy is already complete. Major parties across various ideological divisions share a basic rhetoric about democracy, freedom of speech, and even women’s rights.

Granted, Tunisians are nervous and grossly ill-informed about the October 23rd constituent assembly elections. Today a young man, a surprising few centimeters taller than myself, helped me find a late-night pharmacy to treat a sudden sore throat, and when I asked him in French about the upcoming election, he did not even recognize the word. Once I explained, he said yes, the country would choose a new president on the 23rd. I tried “assemblée constituent,” knowing that if he did not know the word for election he would hardly recognize the technical phrase for a body elected to draft a new constitution.

And granted, the specific powers of that constituent assembly are vague. It could run past its mandate and begin functioning as a governing body. I have written that there is danger to this fuzziness, but I should amend that observation with a more important truth: if the end point is a functional democracy, any path to get there is equally serviceable. If the constituent assembly is the product of a free and fair election, then it may serve Tunisia very well to put the new body to work as legislators as fast as possible, whatever their intended mandate. Recall that the body that wrote the American Constitution was originally organized to revise the Articles of Confederation, not replace them. Continue reading

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The Limits of a Constituent Assembly

One of Tunisia’s current challenges is that the interim government suffers from a lack of legitimacy, and without true popular support it cannot pursue a bold policy agenda. As the nation endures a protracted unemployment crisis, the inability of government to act decisively needs to be fixed, and fast.

I’ve been brewing a post for several weeks about how this problem is not about to disappear after the October 23rd constituent assembly elections. Tunisians will vote for delegates to an assembly on October 23rd, and that assembly is supposed to write a new constitution for the nation.

Needless to say, it is important that seats be awarded based on clean and fair elections, and the Independent High Authority for the Elections (ISIE) appears to be doing a good job on that front. And it is important that the constituent assembly write a quality constitution. But overall, the thesis I have been kicking around is that the basic problem of impotent government will remain, because the constituent assembly is not a legislative body. Continue reading

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Cult of Personality

On October 23rd, Tunisians go to the polls for what should be the nation’s first free and fair election in living memory. They will elect a constituent assembly that will draft the nation’s new constitution, and presumably another election will then be held to fill seats in the new Tunisian Congress or Parliament.

Advertisement for the PDP featuring Maya Jribi (left) and Nejib Chebbi (right).

The Tunisian electoral system for the October 23rd elections, known as a proportional closed-list system, at first seemed counter-intuitive to this American. Each governorate will be represented by a certain number of seats, and if a party wants to contest a governorate, they register a list of candidates equal in length to the number of seats available. So in Ben Arous, which will receive 10 seats, each party registers a list of ten candidates. Then, when the party wins 30% of the vote (for eaxample), their top three candidates win a seat. Continue reading

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Tunisian Inexperience

I’ve written tangentially about the inexperience of Tunisian society as a result of the Ben Ali dictatorship. Journalists, long told what to write (or else!), do not have any experience upholding international standards of journalism. Would-be businessmen, knowing the only way up was through connections with the mafia state, left the country or lost the entrepreneurial spark. And young people, having spent their entire lives watching government families feast on public wealth, are reluctant even to vote because any participation in government grants it a legitimacy that they are not yet sure it deserves.

In an interview with Tunisia Live, prominent blogger Slim Amamou explains that young people do not understand the link between good governance and good jobs. The more distant and more vital connection between voter participation and quality of life is more difficult still.

Some cases of inexperience are simply comical. Continue reading

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All Business, All The Time

Last Tuesday night, a social event in Carthage exposed to me an unfortunate truth: developing the habits of a successful businessman was not a focus of my American education. I learned to read and write quickly and efficiently as a history major, and after several college-level calculus courses and a minor in statistics, I have more than enough math skills to go as far as my business personality will send me. But it is that personality, the heart and mind of a businessman, that will contribute to my success or failure as an editor at a new media startup, perhaps more so than my education.

The event last Tuesday was organized by InterNations.org, which is basically a Facebook for expatriates and other internationally-minded people. The drinks were expensive and the room too loud for me to make any headway in French, so I spent the first few minutes standing awkwardly, wondering if I had made the whole trip just to stand around watching younger-middle-aged French speakers at a singles event. Continue reading

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