Today, the Arabic-speaking world commemorates the 67thÂ 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.Â 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.Â 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 theÂ 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, wereÂ 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 SuperiÃ¨ure 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 LachaÃ¢l, a lawyer and professor at the University of Legal, Social, and Political Sciences in Tunis. LachaÃ¢l 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, LachaÃ¢l claimed that many young citizens were prohibited from voting due to simply serving mandatory armed service requirements.Â 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.
Dr. Hmami-Aifa feels that it is an honor for Tunisian womenÂ to be selected for this international prize. Â ”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 …Â InchallahÂ [God willing]Â I will be up to the task,” she concluded.
For Emna Harigua, the second grantee, the contribution and overall presence of femaleÂ 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.
Scientists from around the world are invited to submit nominations. The final selection is determined by an international jury comprised ofÂ Nobel laureates andÂ distinguished members of the scientific community.
FormerÂ Tunisian ambassadorÂ to UNESCO,Â Mezri Haddad, has refused toÂ shake hands withÂ QatariÂ AmbassadorÂ AliÂ Zinal,Â on March 7th due to Qatarâ€™s interference in Tunisian affairs Algerian news website ElKhabar has reported on March 14th.
According to Haddad, Qatar conspires againstÂ and hasÂ destroyedÂ the Arab world and Algeria will be Qatar’s next target.
Haddad told ElKhabar that he refusedÂ to shake handsÂ withÂ Zinal and that he told him “You destroyedÂ Tunisia,Â EgyptÂ and Libya.Â You created divisionÂ in SyriaÂ andÂ you plotÂ against Algeria. YouÂ representÂ an enemyÂ of the ArabsÂ [...] itÂ would dishonorÂ me to shake yourÂ hand.”
Haddad has long claimed that the Tunisian Revolution has sewn discord in the country and empowered the most extreme actors in Tunisian society.
â€œBehind theÂ intoxication of freedomÂ andÂ theÂ triumph of democracy, loomÂ threeÂ deadly poisons:Â the temptationÂ of fundamentalism,Â the sublimationÂ of anarchismÂ andÂ the abandonmentÂ of sovereignty,â€ wrote Haddad in his book, The Hidden Side ofÂ the Tunisian Revolution: IslamismÂ andÂ the West,Â a High-risk Alliance.
Tunisiaâ€™s former ambassador to UNESCO described Ben Aliâ€™s regime as a dictatorship thatÂ was theÂ leastÂ bloodyÂ in the Arab world,Â the most economicallyÂ prosperousÂ in the African continent,Â although heÂ acknowledgesÂ that itÂ wasÂ politically one of the mostÂ mediocre during theÂ last decade.
â€œWhat smelled like jasmineÂ in the first days, a few months later emits a foul odor,Â that ofÂ tribalismÂ and obscurantism,â€ 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 RiadhÂ Bettaieb, the Minister of InvestmentÂ andÂ International Cooperation.
“We are currently negotiatingÂ with Volkswagen andÂ Ford to launch a major carÂ industrialization projectÂ 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.
â€œThe 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,â€ assertedÂ 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. â€œTunisia has expertise and experience in textile manufacturing which needs to be explored in a better way,â€ said Bettaieb.
Airbus, the world’s top aircraft manufacturer, announced on Monday, March 19thÂ 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 AeroliaÂ 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 Â for foreign investors around the world,” Bettaieb said.
A demonstration will be held March 20, 2012 at 11:00 am, on Tunisiaâ€™s 56thÂ 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 andÂ 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.
â€œI’m even happier given that the prize is awarded by an Arab country,â€ 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. â€œWe decided to nominate Radhia Nasraoui thanks to her prolonged struggle and effectiveness,â€ Khalaf explained.
“This year we Â 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 oppressionÂ for so long under the Ben Ali regime,â€ 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.Â 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.
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 womensâ€™ 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.
Lamia Farhani, sister of martyr Anis Farhani
While some Tunisians saw the revolution as an opportunity to start anew, others remain trapped in the memories of a painful past.
Lamia Farhani, a Tunisian lawyer whose brother was shot with a bullet to the neck on January 13th 2011, is one of those. â€œI canâ€™t call what happened in Tunisia the Jasmine Revolutionâ€¦Those who call it the Jasmine Revolution did not smell the horrible scent of martyrsâ€™ blood and only smelled the scent of Jasmine from far away. They only saw one side of the events and did not see the ugly face of the revolution. They did not witness Tunisians running in the halls of the hospitals trying to save an amputated arm or a gouged eye,â€ she said.
Farhani and others testified last Thursday at a conference organized by Freedom House Tunisia. The event aimed to tackle the issue of transitional justice in post-revolutionary Tunisia and provide the victims of the former regimes with an opportunity to share their painful experiences.
Farhani was devastated when she lost her teenage brother, Anis Farhani. She decided to devote much of her time to helping victims of the Tunisian uprising. She founded an association named, â€œAwfiaa,â€ or â€œfaithful,â€ to advocate for the rights of the victims and wounded of the revolution.
The Tunisian revolution allowed many oppressed voices to open up and speak out about their past grievances either under Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or his predecessor Habib Bourguiba. Neither president had much tolerance for dissent.
Amel Bennour, wife and mother of three, became one of Ben Ali’s victims when she was jailed for eight months without a fair trial. Wearing the Islamic headscarf was her crime. She was a mother raising three children on her own as her husband, an Islamic studies teacher, had already been imprisoned for his religiosity. When the security forces came to arrest her, they told her that they were taking her to see her husband. â€œMy sister had to drop out of school in order to take care of my children,â€ recounted Bennour.
Bennour described her time in jailÂ as her worst nightmare. â€œI was abused verbally and physicallyâ€¦They made me sign things that I did not say. Under torture, I would sign anything as long as they didnâ€™t sexually abuse meâ€¦I was so scared of that. Thank God, they did not rape me or sexually harass me,â€ she added.
Bennourâ€™s story did not end when she was released from jail. â€œEven after leaving prison, the regime attempted to prevent me and my husband from working and providing a decent life for our children. The regime tried to blockade usâ€¦ My children suffered from psychological problems. They were so young to understand what was happening around themâ€¦They thought their parents were criminals.â€
Abdedayem Noumi is also a former political prisoner. He was married and had two daughters when they arrested him in 1991 for being affiliated with the Islamist Movement. The political police forced Noumiâ€™s wife to get a divorce after humiliating her and threatening to put her in jail.
“I spent eight years in prison. I know all the different types of torture. I can spend hours and hours telling the atrocities that were exercised against political prisonersâ€¦ Not only Islamists suffered under the Ben Ali regime.The regime did not make the difference between rightists or leftists or activists.â€
Noumi also revealed how the prisonsâ€™ medical staff colluded with the regime to torture the prisoners:
â€œIn one day, I was beaten so hard on my belly that I had an internal hemorrhage. They took me to the hospital and I went through surgeryâ€¦But to increase my pains, the doctors left the wounds open and I was taken back to my cell in the same day of the surgery,â€ he explained while showingÂ the scars that he still carries.
Noumi admitted that he is still unable to help his family move away from their sad past. â€œAfter spending eight years in prison and after missing my daughtersâ€™ childhood, I was like a stranger to them. Until now, my daughters are unable to call me dadâ€¦ It is still so hard for them to get over the deprivation of affection that they endured in their childhood.â€
The newly created Ministry of Transitional Justice and Human Rights, along with civil society organizations and victims of the former regime, are deciding on the best approach to bring justice to those whose lives suffered grave hardships under the Ben Ali and Bourguiba governments.
Gabes Governorate, in Southern Tunisia, contains a great variety of natural landscapes, including mountains, coastal areas, deserts, oases, and forests. Along its coastline is a great abundance of marine life. Tourists are also drawn to the traditional Souq in nearby Jara, the...