Monthly Archives: March 2012

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.

Two Tunisian scientists – Dr. Mounira Hmani-Aifa and Emna Harigua - have recently been selected for the UNESCO-L’Oréal International Fellowship Program for Young Women in Life Sciences.

Each year UNESCO-L’Oréal International provides grants to female researchers from around the world who have distinguished themselves through their contributions to science. This year, the awards will be presented on March 29 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Dr. Mounira Hmani-Aifa, a professor of human molecular genetics and a researcher at the Center of Biotechnology of Sfax, was previously awarded the UNESCO-L’Oréal prize for female scientists in 2002. Emna Harigua is currently working toward a PhD in molecular biology at the Pasteur Institute in Tunis.

Dr. Hmami-Aifa feels that it is an honor for Tunisian women to be selected for this international prize.  “Every successful Arab and Muslim woman faces challenges. She has many tasks to accomplish – like familial duties,” Hmami-Aida stated.

She described the pride she felt upon receiving the award. “After each challenge there is success … Inchallah [God willing] I will be up to the task,” she concluded.

For Emna Harigua, the second grantee, the contribution and overall presence of female scientists in Tunisia has been noteworthy in a variety of scientific fields. “They [Tunisian women] have not been underrepresented. They have been very competent in recent years,” she stated. Harigua cited the lack of financial support as a major challenge for female scientists. “Tunisian women have to be more confident in order to promote their work effectively,” Harigua concluded.

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics, July 2011

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, women accounted for 47.4% of researchers in Tunisia in 2008, placing it first among its neighboring countries.

Established in 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science partnership aims at bridging the gender gap in science by promoting and encouraging the careers of female scientists. Each year the initiative awards five women from five regions – Africa and Arabic-speaking world, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, North America – for their contributions to the advancement of science.

Under the logo “The World Needs Science. Science Needs Women,” UNESCO-L’Oréal awards have been presented to 64 laureates from 30 countries since its inception in 1998. An additional 1,200 fellowships have been granted to women in 103 countries, allowing them to pursue their research both at home and abroad.

Scientists from around the world are invited to submit nominations. The final selection is determined by an international jury comprised of Nobel laureates and distinguished members of the scientific community.

By Rafik Ouerchefani

Habib Bourguiba signed Tunisia’s declaration of independence on March 20th, 1956 terminating 75 years of what is still confusing most Tunisians. Many are still unsure which term they should use to describe the French presence in their country: occupation, colonialism or protectorate.

Tunisia maintained a very strong relationship with France after independence. As of March 2012, 54 percent of all expat Tunisians are living in France. Among this registered community of 625,000, there are many others living in France illegally.

In France, Tunisians, like other Arab immigrants suffer from racism on a daily basis.

Immigration has been turned into a hot political topic during France’s 2012 election campaign, where current President Nicolas Sarkozy is adopting positions of the far-right on immigration, competing for votes with National Front Party candidate Marine Le Pen.

The Tunisian context has changed today. In January 2011, while the people were fighting for freedom, France offered Ben Ali its help “to reestablish the public order.” Many Tunisians felt betrayed.

More importantly, many Tunisians in exile during Ben Ali’s regime avoided living in France. They knew that they were not safe in that country. Many lived in the Anglophone world. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs, Rafik Abdessalem, was mocked by some on social networks for not speaking French.

The issue of language is even deeper now in Tunisia. Quite often, activists from the Islamist party Ennahda call the secularists “orphans of France” as they adopted the French living style and are more fluent in French than in Arabic.

In the meanwhile, Tunisian teachers are still telling children that France’s occupation of their country was only for their own good. Nearly nothing is taught on the atrocities committed by French troops. Tunisian school books glorify France.

This needs to change. The 75 years occupation should be labelled for what it was – bloody colonization motivated by the French hunger for power. Tunisia’s history needs to be revisited, to explain that France invaded Tunisia in order to extend its territory. France is not an innocent angel. France bombarded, besieged and killed the people it claimed to protect.

Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba with French General Charles de Gaulle Source:

Tunisia’s education system is still polluted by French influence. At university, most students will never write a single word in Arabic. Although only Arabic is the official language of Tunisia, most government forms are in French or are bi-lingual.

After winning the last elections, the first democratic election now over, Ennahda expressed a desire to initiate an arabisation program.

It’s time for Tunisia to think about more than just independence on paper. Tunisia needs real psychological, cultural and economic independence.

Rafik Ouerchefani is a masters student in genetics and molecular biology at Faculty of Sciences in Tunis.

Former Tunisian ambassador to UNESCO, Mezri Haddad, has refused to shake hands with Qatari Ambassador Ali Zinal, on March 7th due to Qatar’s interference in Tunisian affairs Algerian news website ElKhabar has reported on March 14th.

According to Haddad, Qatar conspires against and has destroyed the Arab world and Algeria will be Qatar’s next target.

Haddad told ElKhabar that he refused to shake hands with Zinal and that he told him “You destroyed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. You created division in Syria and you plot against Algeria. You represent an enemy of the Arabs […] it would dishonor me to shake your hand.”

Haddad has long claimed that the Tunisian Revolution has sewn discord in the country and empowered the most extreme actors in Tunisian society.

“Behind the intoxication of freedom and the triumph of democracy, loom three deadly poisons: the temptation of fundamentalism, the sublimation of anarchism and the abandonment of sovereignty,” wrote Haddad in his book, The Hidden Side of the Tunisian Revolution: Islamism and the West, a High-risk Alliance.

Tunisia’s former ambassador to UNESCO described Ben Ali’s regime as a dictatorship that was the least bloody in the Arab world, the most economically prosperous in the African continent, although he acknowledges that it was politically one of the most mediocre during the last decade.

“What smelled like jasmine in the first days, a few months later emits a foul odor, that of tribalism and obscurantism,” said Haddad.

During the last weeks before Ben Ali’s ousting, Haddad was a frequent commentator on various French TV channels, defending Ben Ali’s regime.

The Tunisian Ministry of Investment and International Cooperation is in discussions with Volkswagen and Ford to build manufacturing plants in Tunisia according to Riadh Bettaieb, the Minister of Investment and International Cooperation.

“We are currently negotiating with Volkswagen and Ford to launch a major car industrialization project  in Tunisia,” declared Bettaieb in an interview on local radio station Express FM.

Bettaieb also announced that the pledged foreign investment for Tunisia in 2012 is an 80% increase over the foreign direct investment attracted to Tunisia in 2010.

“The statistics for January and February 2012 are really good compared to the statistics for those months in the two previous years. We have a 4% increase in foreign direct investment [for those two months], mostly in manufacturing and food product production,” asserted Bettaieb.

Bettaieb also noted that while no progress has been made in attracting investors to the textile sector this particular sector has great potential to expand. “Tunisia has expertise and experience in textile manufacturing which needs to be explored in a better way,” said Bettaieb.

Airbus, the world’s top aircraft manufacturer, announced on Monday, March 19th the company’s intention to set up a civil aviation park in Tunisia over the next few years following a meeting between Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Airbus Middle East President Habib Fekih.

While the project’s location is currently being reviewed by the aerospace company, the project will be an extension of the Aerolia  Ben Arous-based plant which is specialized in manufacturing aircraft components.

According to Fekih, the initiative will support the Tunisian government’s efforts at reducing the unemployment rate in Tunisia. When fully functional the plant will provide over 1,700 new skilled job positions. The current Ben Arous plant employs over 400 persons. Within the new project’s current framework, Airbus is expected to more than quadruple its Tunisia based workforce.

During the meeting, Jebali and Fekih reviewed a number of issues related to professional training, development of basic infrastructure and logistics prior to launching the project, according to the Tunisian State News Agency, TAP.

The Tunisian Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Riadh Bettaieb, expressed his optimism for the success of the project on local radio station Express FM.

“We have received several investment proposals in the field of aircraft manufacturing, most notably, the world-renown company– Airbus. The presence of Airbus in Tunisia will make Tunisia a highly attractive destination  for foreign investors around the world,” Bettaieb said.


A demonstration will be held March 20, 2012 at 11:00 am, on Tunisia’s 56th Independence anniversary, to “defend democracy.”

This demonstration was called as a response to last Friday’s protest that called for the adoption of Shariaa law as the main basis of the Tunisian constitution.

Mohamed Hedi Maghrebi, a member of Doustourna (a left-leaning political party), confirmed that the party plans to take to the streets to celebrate Independence Day, and to defend the state’s civil character.

“We plan on sending a clear message reiterating that there is only room for a civil Tunisian state. I expect that every free Tunisian is going to participate in such an event,” said Maghrebi.

Representatives from opposition parties such as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and Afek Tounes said that their parties would not participate in the demonstration on an official level.

The protest will be held on Avenue Habib Bouguiba, in downtown Tunis.

Radhia Nasraoui - Tunisian Lawyer and Human Right's ActivistÂ

Tunisian Lawyer Radhia Nasraoui has been awarded the Kamal Joumblatt Prize for Human Rights in the Arab World by the Friends of Kamal Joumblatt Association. The award was announced and presented to the winner on March 16, 2012 – the anniversary of the death of Kamal Joumblatt.

Nasraoui asserted that she is very proud to have won the award, particularly given its association with the prominent Lebanese militant figure who defended the rights of the poor and sought to champion the cause of the Palestinians.

Nasraoui is the co-founder of the Tunisian Anti Torture Association (ALTT), and has been fighting for human rights for more than 30 years. She was a key figure in the campaign for women’s rights, independent judiciary, and the anti-torture campaigns during the era of ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

“I’m even happier given that the prize is awarded by an Arab country,” she said when asked about the award.

The Kamal Joumblatt Prize is presented once every two years in recognition of individuals who have shown extraordinary commitment and innovation in the advancement of human rights. The award is also meant to honor human rights advocates currently risking their safety in the service of others.

The head of the Friends of Kamal Joumblatt association, former Lebanese minister Abbas Khalaf, confirmed that numerous candidates throughout the Arabic-speaking world were nominated this year, particularly from Egypt. “We decided to nominate Radhia Nasraoui thanks to her prolonged struggle and effectiveness,” Khalaf explained.

“This year we  wanted to honor Arab women, which is why we chose Radhia. She is a role model of the struggle of Arab women, and was subjected to oppression for so long under the Ben Ali regime,” he said.

The award is named after Kamal Joumblatt, a Lebanese politician and a prominent figure in the Lebanese Civil War. Jaoublatt was assassinated on March 16, 1977, due to his eminence as a leader among the opposition forces.  The Friends of Kamal Joumblatt Association was established to share his thoughts and ideals through publications and lectures. The organization’s membership includes a number of his friends, admirers, supporters, and former comrades who continue to draw inspiration from the teachings of Jumblatt – or the Moallem (the teacher) as he known by his followers.

Nasraoui is also the winner of the Roland Berger Foundation Human Dignity Award, and is featured on Amnesty International’s “Stories to Inspire” page.

Democratic Leader of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi expressed her worry over the state of women’s rights and media freedom in Tunisia during meetings with Tunisian government officials yesterday, according to an official in the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The US Congressional delegation, led by Pelosi, met with Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and Speaker of the Constituent Assembly Dr. Mustapha Ben Jaafar. According to the source, the meetings focused on strategies to boost foreign direct investment and financial assistance to Tunisia.

For Pelosi, it was imperative that Tunisia maintain an untarnished image abroad if American businesses are to feel comfortable in investing in Tunisia, stated the official.

Recent events gave Pelosi the impression that media freedom and womens’ rights are under threat in Tunisia, confirmed the foreign ministry official.

Pelosi mentioned the arrest of three newsmen for having run on the front page a racy photo of Real Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira and his girlfriend Lena Gercke and the growing visibility of religious hardliners in Tunisian society as alarming trends that caused some concern, according to the Foreign Ministry official.

Tunisian officials reassured Pelosi and the other members of the US Congress that the government is committed to upholding civil liberties as the country continues down the path of its democratic transition, said the source.

The Congressional delegation included Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York, Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Congressman George Miller of California, and Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia.

Today, the delegation was in Libya to meet with Libyan Prime Minister Abdurrahim Al-Keib.