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Tunisia, One Year Later: A Conversation with Sihem Bensedrine

Sihem Bensedrine is a Tunisian journalist and award-winning human rights activist who operates Kalima, a radio station based in Tunis. Through her leadership, Kalima broadcasted the initial reports of protests in Tunisia at the outset of the Arab Spring. In December, Bensedrine sat down with Freedom to Write to discuss landmark moments in Tunisia’s revolution and the challenges that lie ahead for the burgeoning democracy.

FREEDOM TO WRITE: December 17 marked the one-year anniversary of the day street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the treatment that he had received from police—an event many have credited with triggering what we now call the Arab Spring. Can you take us back to Tunisia one year ago, before any of this happened?

BENSEDRINE: One year ago there were two Tunisias: one occupied by the people of Tunisia, another by the powerful class that surrounded the President. And there was a big gap between the two.

The government spent a lot of money on propaganda to hide this divide and to say that Tunisia is modern, that Tunisia’s is a miracle, that the economy’s growing, and everything is perfect. The government paid foreign journalists—Arabic-speaking, English-speaking, and so on, and paid for the propaganda to appear in TV shows, radio shows, and print media.

In reality, the economic growth was hampered by corruption and bad governance; there were no freedoms. But there were huge inequalities: people never had the freedom to speak out; they never had the right to criticize. And as soon as they did, even if they were not an opponent of a well-known person, even if they were a normal citizen, they would face harassment completely disproportionate to their actions. For example, just for telling the policeman who arrested you that it was your right to protest, you would pay for it. You would be sent to prison. You would lose your job. Your children would be attacked. Your life would be blocked. But this kind of ongoing harassment and political repression made it possible to show a false face to Europe, America, and Canada, and to claim that Tunisia was a “really modern country.”

At the same time, the Internet existed, and it allowed us to circumvent censorship. Tunisians had access to information through web sites—they could listen to news or watch videos. Of course the sites were officially blocked, but young Tunisians were clever and knew how to circumvent government censorship. And NGOs had help from PEN and international experts who were working with PEN International and other organizations to defeat this censorship.

A year ago today, our station Radio Kalima was broadcasting from exile, and we were broadcasting what was really happening in Tunisia. Our broadcasting team was scattered across Europe but our reporters were located deep in the regions of Tunisia that were completely marginalized from so-called “normal life.” Listening to our reports you could hear that for the first time, months before December 17, normal people were speaking out. Something was going on. They were criticizing the dictator Ben Ali. They had less fear than their opponents and they were much more critical than the political class.

So you could see this gap growing between the elite, who were much more domesticated, and the people, who were in conflict with both the national government and with local representatives. In fact, nine people burned themselves to death in protest in the six months leading up to December 17. But Bouazizi’s death sparked a rebellion, a resurrection.

FTW: What was different about Bouazizi’s death? Why then and not earlier, with one of the others?

BENSEDRINE: Bouazizi was in Sidi Bouzid, a small city with strong ties between people, stronger than in the big cities. When he killed himself, women protested in front of the governor’s office. One woman in particular was the leader: Bouazizi’s mother. She gathered all the women of the community together and they went to the governor’s building. The police reacted violently, going so far as to beat the women, even the older women. It was humiliating. And when that happened, when the women were beaten, the men were touched in their virility and they came out and protested, saying, “You are beating our women. We have to protect our women.” Police fired on the protestors. It was the first time the police used guns. And as soon as they started shooting people, they began their own downfall.

So it wasn’t only the self-immolation that started the uprising; it was the protest by women, by Bouazizi’s mother.

FTW: How did that local rebellion become a mass, national movement?

BENSEDRINE: After the police shootings, the government laid siege to Sidi Bouzid and blocked all access to the city. Close by, in Menzel Bouzaiane, a city where people had family ties to Sidi Bouzid, they decided to break the siege. And the whole city of Menzel Bouzaiane began to protest. The police opened fire on them, too, killing Mohamed Ammari. After that, the towns of Kasserine, Thala, Fériana and Kef began protesting. That’s how Ben Ali’s regime killed itself: it put the people as a whole in the position of rebellion.

Of course, everything that happened—every minute and every hour—was being recorded and reported via cell phone. The government cut the electricity in Sidi Bouzid as part of the siege, but that didn’t stop young people from sending video from their cell phones. In Tunis, people streamed those files to Facebook. Al Jazeera, which wasn’t allowed to have a correspondent in Tunisia at the time, picked up all these recordings and began broadcasting them by satellite television. Very few people have Internet access in Tunisia, but even in places where the electricity was cut, they had power generators, and all Tunisians own satellite television dishes. Everyone was watching Al Jazeera because it was broadcasting almost live what was happening in each city.

During the first weeks, the international media was re-broadcasting those reports from Al Jazeera. But no one understood how deep and important those events were. They thought it was like the 2008 riots in Southern Tunisia that were contained and didn’t spread to other regions. This is the big difference between the two uprisings: in 2011 the rebellion didn’t happen in just one place; it happened in many places at the same time. When the government tried to suppress one uprising, another would spring up. Opening fire on protesters and killing people in one city inspired protests in another. It kept spreading this way until the two big cities got involved, Sfax and Tunis. In Tunis, a strike was announced on Facebook and everybody went to the streets; it was the last city to join.

FTW: Who was organizing all this?

BENSEDRINE: It was really organized from the bottom up. From the beginning of the protests, the slogan was: “You are a liar, Ben Ali, you and your family are thieves. Give us back our money. Give us back our country.” This was the first time something like this had happened—the political elite never had the courage to formulate such slogans.

But it’s important to underline that the protests weren’t as spontaneous as they appear. The protests were organized by the local elite, not the national elite, through structures like the labor unions, where the protests found refuge and support. In Tunisia every city had these structures, even small cities.

FTW: We in the West like to think that we’re responsible for everything. And one of the stories we heard about the Arab Spring in Tunisia is the role WikiLeaks played by leaking diplomatic cables that showed that the United States knew perfectly well how corrupt Ben Ali and his family were. Is that true? Did the people really notice this?

BENSEDRINE: WikiLeaks was important. It was definitely something that facilitated the rebellion. People always thought that America and Europe would support Ben Ali until the last hours. As soon as people understood that America had withdrawn its support of Ben Ali’s regime, they thought, “We can go ahead.” It gave them a lot of courage.

FTW: So what has all this meant for Radio Kalima?

BENSEDRINE: A year ago, our newsroom was Skype. Because we didn’t have much money, the staff was based wherever they happened to be living. I’m the Editor-in-Chief, and I was based in Barcelona. Our Program Editing Technician was in Marseille. Our Webmaster was in Munich, Germany. Our News Reader, who collected all the materials and ran the news program, was in Bonn. Our French editor was in Belgium. We broadcasted mainly in Arabic but we had a few programs in French, including a news program in French.

FTW: You were broadcasting around the clock online?

BENSEDRINE: Yes. And we weren’t just broadcasting on the Internet; we were on satellite television, too. Then in April of 2010, before the rebellion started, our satellite service provider pulled our channel down under pressure from Ben Ali—they claimed we didn’t have a license. Of course, we were not broadcasting from Tunis, remember, we were broadcasting from Europe. The provider was a French company and they demanded that we provide a broadcasting license issued in Tunisia if we wanted to be put back on the air. They were obviously collaborating with the regime. After that, yes, we still broadcasted twenty-four hours a day over the Internet, mostly social reports and feature articles with some news segments as well.

FTW: And now?

BENSEDRINE: I actually flew back to Tunis on January 14, 2011, the morning the regime fell. My plane was the last plane to leave before the airspace was closed. I was so happy: of course I had no idea he would be fleeing the country at that exact time!

As soon as we were back, we consolidated our work in Tunis and we now work solely out of the capital. We still have one program hosted in Marseille because of a partnership with a local radio station in French. We feel it’s a way to connect with the Tunisian community in France.

FTW: What about the aftermath of all this for Tunisian society as a whole? We were watching these huge changes happening and thinking, for instance, of those policemen who were part of the government, and how they behaved towards their own people. There must be long memories of all those who served the regime. What happened to them? What is said about them? What is done to them? What confessions have they made?

BENSEDRINE: As soon as the regime fell, we began working on police reform using a transitional justice framework. As a police state, the police were involved in everything, not just security issues: healthcare, the universities, media, the economy, customs. They were used to controlling everything and knew exactly how to deal with society. They kept full files on everyone; they knew the behavior of each and every person. This is a big problem because even though the head has been cut off, the police machine is still there. That’s why police reform is so crucial for us.

Of course, that machine is made up of both powerful and not very powerful people. About seventy percent were not really powerful, just agents. This seventy percent want to change their image and their behavior. They want people to forgive them for what they have done. So the questions we’re asking ourselves now are: How can we help them change their behavior? How can they help themselves and their country? How can they become a security force that serves the country and not the regime or the mafia? I believe a lot of them genuinely want to change. But we can’t change the police unless we change its structure.

So we started talking to them. First, we suggested that they form a police trade union that would help protect them from orders they receive from above. They formed one. Second, we held conferences with the police and with international experts on police reform. We discussed certain questions very frankly: how can we move from a police state that upheld a dictatorship to a police force for a democratic state? What are the international standards? How can we implement these international standards in Tunisia? Every country has its specific case and you can’t just duplicate any police force anywhere.

We’ve also had some good contact with high-level policemen who truly want to change. But this is a tricky situation. Former colleagues and bosses came to us and said, “This one is corrupt. He has a lot of money.” And I would answer, “I know. There is not one policeman who is not corrupt, but maybe he is only thirty percent corrupt or only forty percent. But you, you are 100 percent corrupt.” I would like to work with the thirty percent and put them in a position to make changes. Only the police can change themselves. I can’t do it for them.

FTW: And what about those police files? What happened to them?

BENSEDRINE: After the revolution the police burned some of their archives, but not all of them. It turns out that high-level police were guarding certain files. Just last week a friend of the man who had been in charge of Internet censorship contacted me …

FTW: To be clear: before the revolution, Tunisia had one of the most aggressive Internet censorship operations in the world.

BENSEDRINE: Yes, and this was the man who was publicly identified as the one in charge of censorship. He said, “I’m not in charge, I’m just the guy who published the content! There was a big machine behind me. I wasn’t the decision-maker. Why is everyone saying it was me?”

And I said, “Do you have evidence of that?” He said he did. It turns out everyone took files to protect themselves. They knew that if they were denounced, they would need them. Nobody wanted to be a scapegoat. Everyone wanted to protect themselves. So I said, “Give me the files and I can help you. I can say that it wasn’t you who censored people; it was the others. I can even help you if you go before a court of law.” We now know that even if parts of our archives were completely destroyed, we can retrieve the truth.

FTW: Looking to the future, you just had elections. The world is watching and having a big debate, asking “Is the Arab Spring going to turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing?” You had an Islamist majority win an election in Tunisia and an Islamist majority clearly won elections in Egypt. Many in the United States are extremely nervous about this. How nervous are you?

BENSEDRINE: I’m not nervous. I am really optimistic. I know that no group has all the keys to the future, and I know what part of the Islamists’ power is our power. First of all, if we succeed in having democratic institutions, we will hold all the keys to our future. If not, then maybe we will fail.

Second, we had the first free election in my lifetime. We’ve never had an election without fraud. This is very important to Tunisian citizens.

Third, the election was organized by a commission that had very short notice and didn’t do things in exactly the right way. We lost about one third of the votes, votes that were invalidated because people did not know where to mark “X,” for instance. I’m sure this one-third would not have voted for the Islamist party. The Islamists received their votes because they were well structured, and they did a good job of organizing supporters.

The Islamist Al Nahda party got forty percent of the seats in parliament. So yes, they’re the majority in parliament—but sixty percent are not members of this party. Forming the first government is not necessarily a good position to be in: The Islamists have a lot of problems to deal with such as economic problems. They must deal with the worst period of rebuilding. And soon, people will start to ask, “What have you achieved?” We have another election in 18 months, one they might not win.

Tunisia has always had a very strong civil society, even during the dictatorship. Our civil society began rewriting our constitution with the goal of enshrining universal values. As we’re doing that, we’re also preparing for the next election. At the same time, we are working on transitional justice in order to set up accountability for the past and make sure that we never reproduce what happened before. It takes time, but if we can keep all these things on track I am sure time will support us. The Islamists may have gained some political space now, but they will not be the majority in the long term. I am really optimistic.

FTW: Have all the political prisoners been freed, and are some of them exercising leadership now?

BENSEDRINE: Yes. The political prisoners were mainly Islamist, actually, and a lot of them are now involved in the new government.

One very good thing, and something that I am very proud of, is that our President, Dr. Moncef Marzouki, is a prominent human rights defender who is also in charge of human rights. It is extremely important and significant that the image of a police state be replaced by the image of human rights defender.

FTW: What about the role of women in the new government? Women were such an important part of the protests, they were such a catalyst. Do you think that having an Islamist government will prevent them from getting their proper due in this new democratic state? Will women be able to participate in and lead the political process?

BENSEDRINE: The newly-elected parliament is twenty-five percent women. In fact, a majority of these women are from the Islamist Party; the Al Nahda party put more women in office than the secular parties. Even modern and secular groups put very few women on the list of candidates. Misogyny and segregation are not Islamic issues; they are common issues. It is a big fight across the board.

Tunisian women are very strong, and we will never let men put us out completely, because after living for so long without gains during the dictatorship, we are finally making progress. Men are cleverly putting themselves in line first, but in the long-term I’m sure women will have the place they deserve.

FTW: It has been such an incredible year. What started in Tunisia really has reverberated around the world. In December, Time magazine named “The Protester” as its Person of the Year. Do you see connections between your experience and the Occupy Wall Street movement here, for example?

BENSEDRINE: We are happy for it! We feel proud! Tunisians are saying, “Americans are following our way!”

It really is a matter of the vivacity of the society. We sometimes feel that society is completely sclerotic. It doesn’t matter if this energy comes from below, as in the Occupy movement, or even if it is weak and not strategic. The Western system has become very lethargic; it needs to be renewed, and that’s what the young are trying to do. The protesters are trying to cut through that lethargy and are offering new ways to approach important issues. Maybe they don’t have a complete strategy on how to do it, but they are inspiring people and they may help society formulate another perspective, another world where human beings are more important than dollars.

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