Monthly Archives: June 2014

Zitouna Mosque in the Old Medina of Tunis

Visiting Tunisia’s old Medina – the historical district of the Tunis – online is now possible through the web site, medinatunis.com. Palaces, residences, mosques, and many other historical treasures are featured on the site, which will take you into every nook and cranny of one of the most beautiful medinas in the Arab world. These virtual tours will make visitors feel as though they are really there.

The idea was conceived by the Arab League of Education, Culture, and Sciences (ALECSO), and the project aims to make old Arab cities known to the world and encourage cultural tourism.

Through the virtual tour, visitors can experience all the different sites within Tunis’ Medina, including its multiple mosques, souks, cafes, and restaurants. You can also discover the unique architecture of the city, influenced by Hafsid, Aghlabid, Andalusian, Roman, Byzantinian, and Arab civilizations.

The project only covers Tunis, but will expand to other Arab cities, such as Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus, Muscat, Aleppo, Sanaa and Algiers.

According to the communication manager of ALECSO, the idea was first developed during a conference, entitled, “Protection of Heritage and Relics,” in Algeria, and was received with resounding approval. ”Our aim is to develop cultural tourism. Instead of just going to the beach or visiting the desert, tourists can also learn about the culture of each city and discover the history,” he added.

According to the same source, the project is also meant to serve as a resource for tourists researching prospective locations for their upcoming vacations. “80% of tourists all over the world consult the internet before visiting a place. So the website is really beneficial for tourists coming from the “Western” world, Asia, or the Arab world,” he asserted.

ALECSO is an intergovernmental agency comprised of twenty-two member states, and its headquarters are located in Tunis. It facilitates the development and coordination of activities related to education, culture, and science in the Arab world, and also aims at developing international cooperation in these areas.

According to a new survey conducted by “I Watch,” an independent Tunisian organization, President Moncef Marzouki saw his popularity decline from 69% in January to 62% in February, while the popularity of his political party, Congress for the Republic (CPR), remained steady at 22% over the same period.

Ennahdha’s popularity decreased from 56% in January to 52% in February, while the popularity of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and Ettakattol both increased slightly by 1% from 10% to 11% and 8% to 9% respectively.

53% of people thought that Constituent Assembly members either serve their own interests or those of their parties, whereas 47% perceived that they truly represent the interests of the country.

In a press conference held today, illustrated by pie charts, the President of “I watch,” Mouhab Guarwi, explained that Ennahdha’s popularity is progressing in the interior of the country, and declining in the capital as well as the coastal regions. On the other hand, the PDP, CPR, and Ettakattol showed progress on the coastal regions, and a decline the capital.

The survey was conducted with 15,000 Tunisian citizens. Participants, whose ages ranged from 19 to 60 years, were selected in equal numbers in all governorates. The participants were  equally split up along gender. The poll consisted of ten questions concerning the political transition, such as the priorities of Tunisians, their expectations for the Constituent Assembly, their opinion of Tunisian foreign policy in the region, and their trust in Mustapha Ben Jaafer, Moncef Marzouki, and Hamadi Jebali.

This survey was carried out not only by “I Watch,” but also by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an American NGO, and Mobile Accord, an American company that specializes in polling. The fact that two American organizations spent nearly US$ 150,000 in the survey raised concern among the attendants of the press conference, who questioned the poll’s objectivity. “We are working independently of these institutions (…) We have coordination among each other, but we would never try to tinker with the results in a way that could influence Tunisian politics,” asserted Guarwi.

The ten questions were sent via SMS in French. However, it is not guaranteed that all of those who participated in this poll are entirely proficient in French. For this reason, there has been a debate over the veracity and reliability of the poll’s result, and whether or not all the questions had been understood fully.

A Tuareg, dressed in army fatigues.

Early Thursday morning, March 22, 2012, Malian President Amadou Tomani Toure fled the Presidential Palace when the Malian military took control of the capital city, Bamako. The leaders of this renegade military group, who call themselves the National Committee for the Return of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDR), went on state television at around 4:30 a.m., saying, “My dear compatriots; consider the notorious incapacity of the regime to manage the crisis that rages in the north of the country, consider the inaction of the government to supply adequate means to the armed forces…consider the climate of uncertainty created by the authorities for the general elections of 2012…the CNRDR reclaims the armed forces in defense of the security of Mali…and to take responsibility for ending the regime of the incompetent and disavowed Mister Amadou Toumani Toure.”

The crisis in the North that they referred to is the latest Tuareg rebellion, one in a long line of wars waged by the Islamic ethnic group against the Malian government to form their own independent state.

The coup in Mali has shocked and appalled the international community, who were unprepared for an upset in the democratic West African nation. The European Union has suspended its development aid to the region until civilian rule is restored. The Guardian reported that Toure had already promised to step down in the next elections, which are scheduled for the end of April, leading some to question why the military chose this week to stage an overthrow of the government.

But the root causes of Mali’s conflict go deeper than the current military rule. They are centuries old, dating back to the Tuareg community’s first interaction with colonial invaders. They are also entrenched in a hierarchical system that blends classist society with Islamic principles. None of the causes are simple. And none are likely to be solved by the Malian military’s attempted take-over of the seat of government.

Ifadahit Dicko* is a Tuareg social worker who runs community services for his people in Timbuktu. The wide range of programs he is involved in shows the scope of issues that modern Tuareg face- poverty, abandoned children, hunger, lack of education, health issues, and a scarcity of the kind of skills needed in today’s Mali. And yet, Dicko claimed that his people have never been marginalized in Mali, but that hunger has caused them to migrate to other countries. One of those was Libya, where they joined Gaddafi’s cause. “They will never be satisfied until they rule two thirds of the country,” Dicko said of the Tuareg.

Historically, the Tuareg people are a hierarchical society, with lords, other nobles, Islamic religious leaders, smiths and other tradesmen at the top, and a diverse group of slaves at the bottom. When France colonized Mali, they abolished slavery, freeing a large swath of Tuareg indentured servants. Lahyerou Ag Aly, of the University of Mauritius, calls the Tuareg by their linguistic name, Kel Tamacheck (or those who speak Tamacheck). She writes that the French were unable to assimilate the Kel Tamacheck, and that they continued to live their tribal norms while much of the rest of Mali learned the language of the foreigners in French schools.

When Mali gained its independence in 1960, slavery was again outlawed in the country. However, Dicko said that some slaves stayed with their masters, either for economic reasons, or because the deeply religious people were told that Allah hates slaves who run away.

A few years after Mali’s independence, some Tuareg shepherd boys stole arms from the Malian army in the Kidal area. The government believed it to be an act of rebellion and used the army to violently crack down on any would-be dissidents. A number of people were killed, and the army committed what Dicko said were “shameful acts never forgotten by ascendants even today.”

Then in 1973, a drought wiped out herds of nomadic cattle and other animals. The last remaining group of slaves, the “bush slaves”, were no longer needed and had to leave their Tuareg masters. Many migrated to neighboring countries, in particular Libya, where then President Muammar Gaddafi welcomed them as his family, claiming that he had Tuareg blood in his veins. This was the first stage in the Tuareg’s transformation from nomadic herders into guerrilla fighters.

Gaddafi used his Tuareg mercenaries for the conflicts he waged in West Sahara, Chad and even Lebanon. He paid the Tuareg well, and the nomadic people found a home- until Western countries began to intervene in Libya. The 1980s embargo against Libya “strangled” the country, Dicko said, and Gaddafi told foreigners to leave. Gaddafi encouraged the Tuareg to return to Mali and restore their place of heritage and their identity in their homeland. He gave them the weapons they had used to fight his wars, and they returned to Mali.

In the Journal of Peace Research from November of 2008, International Environment and Development Studies scholar Tor A. Benjaminsen writes, “…the droughts led to the migration of young men to Algeria and Libya, where they were exposed to revolutionary discourses. There was already a strong feeling among nomads and Tuareg in Mali of being marginalized by state policies of modernization and sedentarization.” The Tuareg people, still burning with anger from the massacres of the 1960s, took in Gaddafi’s rhetoric of rebellion and funneled it into hatred for the Malian government.

Armed with combat knowledge and weapons, the Tuareg began a revolt to assert their independence in Mali in June of 1990, focusing on the area of Menaka. Their leader was Iyad ag Ghali, who became a hero and went on to act as an adviser in Saudi Arabia, as well as a negotiator when terrorist groups kidnapped Westerners in the Sahara dessert. Tuaregs from Nigeria joined their cousins in the fight for Mali. The United Nations intervened in the rebellion, and treaties were signed to calm insurgency in Tamanrasset in 1992. A “Flame of Peace” monument was lit in Timbuktu in 1996 as a symbol of the agreements.

Lieutenant Colonel Kalifa Keita of the Malian Army has done extensive academic research into this turbulent period in Mali’s history. He writes that the Tuareg civil war in the north coincided with “public dissatisfaction with the economy, social conditions, and government policies.” A solution to the Tuareg problem had to be found in order to stabilize the country. Current President Toure was then a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, hailed by his people as a hero in protecting the people from violence. Keita himself was involved with the integration of Tuareg men into the Malian forces, which he credits as being a large part of the tentative peace that remained in place for a decade.

But in 2006 Gaddafi visited Timbuktu. A month later rebellion broke out again, and again agreements were made for peace. In 2009, it was the same story.

In 2011, the Tuaregs returned to Libya as mercenaries when Gaddafi asked for help with his war against NATO and France. However, Dicko claims that France struck a better deal with leader Ghali: if he would bring the Tuareg back to Mali, President Sarkozy would support them for their own independent state, to be called Azawad. African news sites have reported that sources close to Malian President Toure have accused France of helping the Tuareg leader “get what he wanted from Mali.”

Battle-hardened and armed with sophisticated weaponry, the Tuareg returned to Mali in January of this year. In recent clashes the Malian army has been no match for the arms and tactics of these former mercenaries.

Meanwhile, Dicko related that Tuareg from nearby countries- Niger, Algeria and Chad- are coming to Mali to fuel the fight for independence. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is also supported by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram of Nigeria, and other Salafist and Islamic terrorist networks, he explained. Iyad has formed his own Islamic movement, calling for Shariaa law in Mali.

All of this has created a perfect storm for the Malian government. In recent months, the families of Malian soldiers have become increasingly upset at what they feel is a lack of resources allocated to the war against the Tuareg. In February, widows of fallen soldiers staged a protest against the government. Filifing Diakhite, a Malian journalist, said that the former Malian government has hidden information on how many soldiers have been killed in the northern war. “Any information is hidden about the deaths,” he explained over a muffled cell phone connection. “The statistics are not known. We cannot say how many people, how many children have died, only how many people have been displaced.”

Whatever the number, the Malian army will no longer abide their casualties. They have taken the situation into their own hands and attempted to gain control of the government. Despite the calls for calm from military leaders, vandals are said to have robbed Tuareg and Arab groups in Bamako and Kati, creating a climate of fear that has led many to flee these areas.

Since this most recent Tuareg rebellion, around 200,000 refugees have fled Mali. Dicko suggested that there may be double that number of internal refugees who are displaced in the north of the country- and they are starving. “If they don’t get help they will go to find food in other countries,” he said.

Dicko said that the coup has put Mali ten years back in terms of democracy and progress. Now he is afraid that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) will involve itself in the fight, and that Mali, “will lose freedom and hope in all democratic values for genuine development to all citizens without discrimination of race, color or faith.” Dicko and his family, who are Christians, fear that they will be targeted by terrorist groups as the chaos continues.

The Malian coup has shone a spotlight on a decades-old conflict between the nomadic Tuareg and their darker-skinned countrymen. With famine currently sweeping the region, violence is just one more reason for Malians to find safer grounds in UNHCR run refugee camps. If the military does succeed, Dicko believes that they will devote resources to quash the Tuareg rebellion. But there is a chance that the population will be divided in their loyalty between the president and the military. As for the Tuareg, they are not likely to give up the dream of their own state. They will rise again, and again, till a solution is found that either integrates them as equal citizens of Mali, or gives them what they want- a country to call their own.

Megan Radford is an editor with Tunisia Live who spent six years living in West Africa. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Social Justice and Peace Studies and a Master of Arts in Journalism.

*Name has been changed to protect the safety of the source and his family.

UGTT

The  American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO), has decided to honor the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) – Tunisia’s largest and most powerful union.

“On March 15, the UGTT received a message from the AFL–CIO announcing its intention to honor the UGTT for its role during the Tunisian Revolution and the transitional period,” stated  Sami Tahri, communication manager of the UGTT.

Elements of the UGTT have been credited with playing a major role in the mobilization of demonstrators during the uprisings that preceded the ouster of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

According to Tahri, a delegation will be formed to represent the union during an upcoming ceremony hosted by the AFL-CIO.” A ceremony will be held in Washington at the office of the federation. The UGTT will send a delegation to participate in the ceremony held in their honor,” Tahri added.

The AFL–CIO, is the largest  federation of national unions in the United States, representing more than 12 million workers. It was formed after a long estrangement between the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which finally merged in 1955. From 1955 until 2005 the AFL–CIO’s member unions have represented nearly all unionized workers in the United States.

According to Tahri, the AFL–CIO and the UGTT have a standing relationship with each other, and this honor is meant to encourage union activism around the world.

The UGTT was founded January 20, 1946, and has 517,000 members.

Tunisian National Constituent Assembly

Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) has begun the process of drafting the country’s new constitution, and consequently different political movements have lobbied tirelessly to influence the composition of the new constitution.

Inevitably, the question of how Tunisia’s Arab Muslim identity should be expressed has been central to the debate surrounding the formation of the country’s new constitution.

Adel Almi is the president and founder of the Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform, a civil society organization that advocates for the implementation of Islamic law.

Almi was among the organizers of a demonstration held last Friday in front of the NCA, during which a number of associations and thousands of demonstrators gathered together to urge the members of the NCA to use shariaa – Islamic law – as the fundamental source of legislation for Tunisia’s constitution.

“This is not a new demand…This is an extension of our ancestors’ struggle against the attempts of former Tunisian presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali to erase the Tunisian Islamic identity,” Almi declared.

Almi asserted that founding a new, purely Islamic state goes hand in hand with Tunisia’s civil character. Almi said that Tunisia will be a pioneer in establishing a civil Islamic state, abiding by teachings of the Quran instead of “Western” laws. Almi argued that Tunisian laws that contradict Islamic teachings should be amended so as to conform to standards suitable  of a “Muslim country” and “Muslim people.”

Among those Tunisian laws that conflict with some interpretations of shariaa, are those that allow individuals who adopt a child, or single mothers, to give it their surname. This practice is considered haram -meaning forbidden in Arabic – as it may result in jumbled origins and even in incestuous relationships.

Tunisian law also punishes men who marry more than one wife. According to Almi, this law challenges the teachings of Allah and the Prophet Mohamed, as Islam allows for men to engage in polygamy.

Additionally, Almi has proposed legislation that would criminalize eating in public during the Islamic, holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims are supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset – and drinking alcohol.

However, Almi’s plan is not only limited to Tunisian domestic law. Almi suggested that international treaties that contradict Islamic teachings should be disregarded. “We don’t need these treaties…protecting human rights is a part of Islam…We should withdraw from these international treaties that advocate gay rights, which I’d rather call animal rights,” he stated.

A sign that reads "No for Implying Al Chariaa in the constitution" during last Tuesday demonstration on Habib Bourguiba Avenue

However, convictions such as these have raised concerns that the implementation of some interpretations of shariaa could compromise civic integrity of the nation’s future constitution.

On March 20th, thousands of Tunisians flooded Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main thoroughfare running through downtown Tunis. The protesters celebrated Tunisia’s Independence Day, and expressed their commitment to the civil character of the Tunisian republic. Some of the demonstrators brandished signs, asserting that Tunisia is a Muslim country without needing to resort the implementation of shariaa within the constitution.

Abd Sattar Ben Moussa, president of Tunisian League of Human Rights, described attempts to use shariaa law as a source of legislation as, “a nightmare.”

“We are part of an international community. We cannot live in an ivory tower and forget about universal values,” he argued, highlighting the importance of international treaties in protecting domestic civil rights.

Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the former secretary general of the center-left Ettakatol party and current president of the NCA, announced in an televised interview last Sunday that there is no way for including shariaa in the text of the Tunisian constitution.

“Shariaa is open to several interpretations, because it is not a Quran - agreed upon by the different Islamic interpretations and groups. Referring to it [shariaa] in the constitution may cause a deep rift within the Tunisian society, and spur unwanted social discord,” he added.

Ben Jaafar stated that though shariaa law was never explicitly mentioned in the previous Tunisian constitution, Tunisia succeeded in remaining a moderate Muslim society, open to universal values. “In our land, Islam is not jeopardized,” he added.

“This new constitution will be the constitution of Tunisia and not the constitution of Ettakatol, Ennahda, or CPR [the parties that constitute Tunisia's ruling, tripartite coalition],” he concluded.

While some chose to protest and celebrate in the street on March 20th, others opted to attend a conference held by a number of Islamic civil society organizations to discuss the role shariaa law in Tunisia’s new constitution. NCA members affiliated with Ennahda, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist movement and the dominant party in the country’s ruling coalition, participated in the debate.

Oussama Ben Amor Sghaier, an NCA member representing Ennahda, stated that there are different opinions within his party, ranging from using shariaa to define the constitution to using it as one source of legislation – among others. Nevertheless, Sghaier asserted Ennahda’s commitment to a civil state. “Islam only recognizes a civil state,” he added.

Some Tunisians consider the mere existence of this debate as futile and redundant. Tunisia’s first constitution, founded in 1959, explicitly states in its first article that Tunisia is a free, sovereign, and independent state, whose religion is Islam, language is Arabic, and regime is republic. This reference to Islam as the religion of the state serves as evidence for some that the country’s constitution has always been founded on the basis of shariaa.

Abd Fatteh Mourou, a Tunisian Islamist politician and head of an independent list that didn’t win any seats during last October‘s elections, conveyed that having this debate in Tunisia now is premature. Mourou also stated that this issue cannot be settled through a vote, and stressed the need for a national debate to decide on such a delicate controversy.

“Whether to use shariaa should be determined by national dialogue and consensus, not by the vote of the majority. The majority is not eternal and things can drastically change overnight,” he said.

For Mourou, the first article of the Tunisian constitution is sufficient to protect the Arab-Muslim identity. He also stressed that the leading party should not take advantage of its electoral hegemony to try to pass an ill-timed social initiative. “We have other priorities and other freedoms that need to be protected by the new constitution,” he asserted.

Sadako Ogata, President of JICA

After meeting with Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali this morning, Sadako Ogata, the President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), announced that Japan remains committed to completing all currently scheduled development projects in Tunisia.

“Revitalization of industry, environmental protection, and the reduction of the marginalization of people living in interior regions are the priorities of JICA’s development efforts,” said Ogata in her announcement.

Ogata met with Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdelssalem and Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Riad Bettaieb and also held a working lunch with President Moncef Marzouki.

According to the Tunisian state news agency TAP, JICA has funded 38 development projects totaling over $2 billion in Tunisia since it first opened its Tunis office in 1977. JICA-funded projects have included the technological park in Borj Cedria, the La Goulette-Rades bridge, a highway connecting Sfax with El Jem, and the establishment of the National Television station.

This past February, two loan agreements were signed by JICA, amounting to 358 million dinars Рone to finance the construction of a highway connecting Gab̬s to M̩denine and the other to improve the supply of drinking water to urban areas.

The Director General of JICA in Tunisia, Ryuichi Tomizawa, said that Ogata would be retiring from her position as president of JICA at the end of the month and is making a final trip to discuss the progress of JICA’s projects in Arab Spring countries. She visited Egypt before coming to Tunisia.

Bettaieb and Abdessalem mentioned the need for assistance with sewage treatment as well as the mitigation of floods in the Mejdara river basin even though those proposals are currently being studied by JICA and are not the main purpose of Ogata’s visit.

Governorate of Sidi Bouzid, the Cradle of Tunisian Revolution

For the third consecutive day, Sidi Bouzid residents are protesting over acute water shortages, but today rising emotions have been further incensed by recent comments made by the Minister of Higher Education.

Demonstrators in the region of Saiida are blocking the road linking the city of Sfax to the region of Regueb.

“People in the region do not have any clean water because the local water company did not pay its electricity bill. Therefore, the electric company cut electricity for the water company making it difficult for water to be delivered to the people. Residents are calling for the government to intervene and solve this problem,” explained Ali Felhi, a journalist with Radio Gafsa living in the city of Sidi Bouzid.

According to Felhi, tension in the city of Sidi Bouzid has been mounting during the past months. “Many strikes and protests have been taking place in the city of Sidi Bouzid, people are asking for different things and they are generally not satisfied with the government’s performance so far,” he added.

Felhi further added that the city as a whole is running low on patience, and many are calling for a general strike. “Citizens of Sidi Bouzid are so angry, especially after the last remarks made by the Minister of Higher Education Moncef Ben Salem, which the citizens in Sidi Bouzid found offensive and inconsiderate of the people’s demands,” he asserted.

According to Felhi, during an interview in Canada Ben Salem spoke sarcastically about the demands of Sidi Bouzid locals. “The minister was talking as if he was making fun of the people’s request to build a college in Sidi Bouzid… He spoke of an incident involving a group of people who demanded the construction of a university camps in Sidi Bouzid, otherwise they would set themselves on fire… They were infuriated by this. In fact, people protested about this very incident,” he said.

According to a communiqué released yesterday by the Ministry of Higher Education, the minister did not mean to disregard or exclude, “the valid concerns and demands of Sidi Bouzid’s people.”

Updated March 23, 2012

The German government donated medical equipment to the Military Hospital of Tunis to help the Tunisian national army deal more effectively with the situation in the refugee camps in southern Tunisia.

Freuden Hammer, the chargé d’affaires of the German Embassy, declared that the medical equipment is intended to support the efforts of the Tunisian national army in the refugee camp of Shusha, Medenine.

The materials donated include therapeutic devices for mobile surgery, as well as equipment for operating rooms, said the hospital director, Habib Boughoul, during a ceremony held yesterday at the military hospital.

Hammer praised the national army’s handling of the Libyan refugee crisis – on both the medical and humanitarian level- following the influx of thousands of Libyan asylum seekers at the onset of the Libyan crisis, in February 2011.

Source: TAP

Member nations of the Arab League are in green

Today, the Arabic-speaking world commemorates the 67th anniversary of the establishment of the Arab League – an organization of 22 nations from the Middle East and Africa. It was established on March 22, 1945 to promote pan-Arab collaboration in economic, commercial, cultural and political issues.

The Arab League headquarters are located in Cairo, and the current Secretary General is Egyptian politician Nabil Alaraby. The member nations are represented by presidents and ministers of foreign affairs.

Since the establishment of the Arab League, 33 summits have been held – 22 ordinary summits, nine extraordinary summits, and two economic summits. Tunisia has hosted two summits – one in 1979 and one in 2004 – however, this year’s forum will be held in Baghdad, Iraq on March 29. Arab presidents are scheduled to meet on this day, while Arab Ministers of Foreign Affairs will meet on Monday, March 28th.

In recent weeks Iraq has been witnessing escalating waves of violence. On Monday, March 20, a number of bombings rocked several cities resulting in at least 39 deaths and 180 wounded. However, according to Saad Raad, a staffer at the Iraqi embassy in Tunis, “The security forces stand ready to host this summit, and the Iraqi Government has taken many procedures towards ensuring the [security of] delegations participating in this summit and the journalists.

The Director of the Tunisian Presidential Cabinet, Imed Deymi, confirmed that the Tunisian government has received an invitation from Iraq, and that Tunisian decision-makers will participate in the summit. Concerning the security circumstances, Deymi has expressed his satisfaction regarding the security reassurances stating, “There are some elements which threaten to disturb this summit, but we trust Iraqi security efforts.”

According to Deymi, the Tunisian delegation will strive to reinforce bilateral and multilateral cooperation at the summit. Additionally, the delegation aims to reach consensus regarding a solution to the Syrian crisis, and to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

Tunisian delegation also intends to address unresolved issues with their Iraqi counterparts, namely the question of Tunisian prisoners in Iraq. “A Tunisian committee will visit Iraq next week to negotiate this issue with Iraqi counterparts” added Deymi.

Voters line up at a polling station in La Marsa

Tunisia’s first organized elections, held within 9 months of Ben Ali’s ouster on October 23, 2011, were billed as the first free and fair elections in the region. At a conference held by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) March 12-13, several electoral and legal experts discussed the challenges encountered in the October 23rd elections and evaluated potential remedies. One of the biggest issues faced last year was the relatively low proportion of registered voters.

The turnout of registered voters, which neared 90% in some districts, was hailed worldwide as a reassuring sign of Tunisia’s democratic ambitions. However, the turnout of Tunisians as a whole tells a different story.

The “Instance Superièure Independante pour les Elections,” or ISIE, is an independent electoral body set in place by the interim government. According to their post-electoral report from February 2012, only 51.24% of eligible voters – a possible 7.5 million voters – registered.

The ISIE is credited with a smooth execution of the elections, especially given the fragile socio-political atmosphere the country was experiencing after the popular uprising. The commission established several polling stations around the country and abroad, and ran many educational media campaigns.

While citizens were given a little over a month to voluntarily register (from July 11 until August 14, 2011), systemic registration was implemented in the few days prior to election day. The ISIE enabled this form of automatic registration in an effort to combat the possibility of low voter turn-out, which could invalidate the entire election.

Ballot boxes waiting to be counted in the ISIE headquarters in Sousse

The issues raised at the IFES conference show that merely ensuring systemic registration is not enough. Chafik Sarsar, the director of the political science department at the University of Law and Political Science in Tunis, cited the country’s high illiteracy rate as a barrier to voter registration efforts. According to Sarsar, around 1.6 million Tunisians above the age of 15 cannot read or write. Most of these citizens were not properly educated on the elections, its importance, and the consequences of not voting.

The issue of who is allowed to vote was also cited as a major reason in the “narrowing of political rights,” according to Abdessalem Lachaâl, a lawyer and professor at the University of Legal, Social, and Political Sciences in Tunis. Lachaâl claimed that many citizens holding a criminal record – no matter how petty the offense – were not allowed to vote. “Many of those who have already paid a fine or served time in prison due to a committed offense were prohibited from voting,” he said, hinting that the fault lies with poor communication between administrations.

Other speakers at the conference mentioned that Tunisia’s registration turnout was also hindered by a lack of clear and objective definitions of who was allowed to vote. For example, a 1968 law prohibits members of the armed forces from registering or running for elections. During the latest elections, Lachaâl claimed that many young citizens were prohibited from voting due to simply serving mandatory armed service requirements. It was suggested that the ISIE should become consistent with international norms and to rely more heavily on the country’s judicial system in defining voter eligibility.

Classrooms were converted into polling stations for the election

Finally, many experts at the conference emphasized that access to voting booths must be equalized, particularly for the ill or disabled. Organizing precinct-based mail-in or absentee ballots was highlighted as a method to overcome access issues.

After decades of ballot stuffing by the former regime, the ISIE must work to ensure the highest level of political participation to move the country towards a robust democracy. Comprehensive assessment of voter registration efforts and addressing registration challenges encountered in the previous elections hold the key to such participation. “Garnering the widest participation of voters is no easy feat, but it is one that we must begin planning for well in advance of the next elections,” concluded Chafik.