Giving birth to democracy – Tunisian baby at risk of being still-born?

This past week-end, Lina Ben Mhenni and Stéphane Hessel took part in several public debates in France [1] in which the topics of democracy and the influence of new social media were on the agenda. In particular in relation to the upcoming elections in Tunisia later this month. What they had to say would sober up any giddy guest at the democratic “victory” parties.

Lina was this years runner-up to the Nobel Peace Prize – better known as the “Tunisian Girl” from the name of her blog. She is widely recognized as having played an important role in bringing about regime-change in Tunisia through her courageous and effective use of social media to report on events as they unfolded and rallying support across the globe.

Stéphane is perhaps the last person still alive involved in drafting the UN “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” as secretary to the commission charged with the task. He is also a survivor from an extended visit to Buchenwald – curtesy of the Nazi rulers of his birth nation. His latest pamphlet – “Indignez Vous!” – has become an international bestseller with more than four million copies sold in just one year. The English version (“Time for Outrage”) can be found on Amazon. Fair warning: The guy is 93 and in his own words: “… at this age I’m fairly certain nobody will care to punch my face to pulp for what I say, so …”

A battle has been won but the war isn’t over. Not by a long shot. On October 23, the world expects to see a significant percentage of Tunisians go to the polls to elect a “constituent assembly” – the men and women who will be given one year to draw up a new constitution for the country. Once that important piece of business taken care of, the first regular elections to a new parliament will be held. But all that might not play out quite according to script.

For starters, there are no less than 105 parties to choose from – this in a country of ten million. Some will argue that it is simply called democracy: Rally enough people, get the signatures, fill in the forms and you have a party. However, there is a darker side to the many parties. Suspicions are rampant that many of the parties have been created by people of the old regime who are still in office and often in high positions of power and influence. A sort of spamming tactic through insane numerical superiority in terms of parties. The situation is so muddled that several sites have sprung up helping people to find the “right” party to vote for. For example this one and this one. A sort of Google or Yahoo search engines in the forest of parties. But who knows what the search algorithms look like under the hood?

Then there are the numerous troubles that plague the preparatory process leading up to the poll: Initially people had to register to be allowed to vote. This led to a disaster whereby, in early September, only some two million voters had been tallied. To remedy the situation, everybody with a valid ID card from the interior ministry would be allowed to vote. That number is officially 8.4 million – except that a little more than 1 million of those cards belong to dead people. (when you note that the Interior Ministry isn’t one of the most respected institutions of the old regime, it is easy to see why pessimism begin to emerge)

Finally there is the question of money and media. On one hand there are the genuine new parties who have had precious little time to get organized, raise money and get the word out. On the other, there are the “cut-n-paste” template parties backed by deep pockets and with easy access to the media (much of it part of the old boys network still in place from the old regime).

As a final nail in the coffin it should be mentioned that an estimated 25% of the population are effectively illiterate – a number that hides the even worse situation for women where upwards of 35% are thought to live with that entirely unnecessary handicap. These voters will form their opinions based on “trustworthy” local sources and the broadcast media. You do the math.

Lina is right not to put down her Internet arms: The need for someone to midwife the birth of democracy in Tunisia is greater than ever. Let us hope this baby won’t be just another infant death or stillborn in the statistics in some Ministry database.

[1] : Festival des livres Oct. 7-9, 2011, Mouans Sartoux, France

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