Monday, December 19, 2011

Sidi Bouzid: Some hope in the heart of the Arab Spring

The following is an excerpt from my latest piece in Al Masry Al Youm, which can be viewed in full here:

Locals in unfurl a banner of local hero and "Arab Spring" figure, Muhammad Bouazizi, in downtown Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia on December, 17, 2011, the anniversary of Bouazizi's self-immolation.

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Many have called Sidi Bouzid the birthplace of the Arab Spring after vegetable seller Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest his humiliation and extortion at the hands of local police. Bouazizi’s act served as the spark that ignited the country, with protesters forcing the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Popular uprisings followed throughout the region.

However, one year after Bouazizi’s act, many Sidi Bouzidans insist that nothing has changed.

“We all love Bouazizi. I can’t describe this day — it’s like I entered paradise,” says Hisham Laife, a 24-year-old vegetable seller who says he and Bouazizi had been friends since childhood. Yet, as over 10,000 Tunisians hold celebrations — blocks away from the vegetable seller’s cart — honoring the one-year anniversary of when Bouazizi burned himself alive, Laife remains pessimistic.

“Not a thing has changed since the revolution,” he says.

A neighboring vegetable seller, a 60-year-old by the name of Rabah Rabihi, nods his head in agreement only a few steps behind Laife.

“There haven’t been any changes. They need to solve unemployment,” says Rabihi.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Faces of Tunisia’s ‘sit-in’ protesters

Protesters of numerous political stripes demonstrate outside Tunisia's new Constituent Assembly in Tunis, Tunisia on December, 6, 2011.

December, 6th marked day six of a sit-in protest in front of Tunisia’s newly elected constituent assembly in the Tunis district of Bardo. Dozens have camped out in tents, while thousands from diverse groups with diverse political objectives have come to make their voice heard as the country’s newly elected governing body begins plenary sessions. Many of the demonstrators appear to be in agreement on at least two things: they want more checks on the power of the constituent assembly, and they want the government to tackle the high rate of unemployment.

“We want to prevent the imposition of a new dictatorship - the dictatorship of the majority,” says Wassim Meddeb, a recent university graduate and filmmaker.

Meddeb came to Tunis from the coastal town of Klibia and has been living in a tent adorned with political placards with fellow demonstrators for almost a week.

“We need a civil, liberal state, one that addresses unemployment,” says Meddeb, who has himself been looking for jobs for over a year.

The Islamist Ennahda party won roughly 40 percent of the votes in Tunisia’s historic October 23 election. They have since worked to create a coalition with the leftist parties CPR, which came in second in the elections, and Ettakatol, which came in fourth. Ennahda Secretary General Hamadi Jebali took the post of Prime Minister, CPR leader Moncef Marzouki is set to become President, and Ettakatol leader Mustafa Ben Jaafar is President of the Assembly. However, many are worried that the President’s role in decision-making may be limited, providing little check on Ennahda’s ability to govern without consensus.

“The other party leaders will become figureheads without real power,” says Sonia Dridi, an English student at Tunis’s High Institute of Human Sciences. “[The constituent assembly] has to divide power between the Prime Minister and the President.”

Other protesters held placards calling for a proper separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of power. Many say they want all legislation in the assembly to be passed with a two-thirds rather than a simple majority. Tlijani Hassane, a youth union leader who rooms with Meddeb in his makeshift shelter, believes that government ministers should not come from the ranks of the elected constituent assembly.

“We want a parliamentary system with precautions. If they combine powers, there will be one power that will dominate the system,” he says.

Others are calling for greater accountability and transparency by asking the government to televise all the assembly’s proceedings on a separate, national television station.

“We want parliamentary TV. We want to see with our own eyes,” says Dridi. “We don’t have confidence in our journalists. They are biased, with no critical views.”

The constituent assembly is tasked primarily with writing a new constitution and laying the groundwork for the next elections. At the same time, the assembly is also tasked with the role of creating an interim governing mechanism. Prior to elections, many civil society groups in Tunisia advocated for holding a referendum, parallel to elections, that would limit the assembly’s power and duration. The referendum was never held, but a group of 11 parties agreed amongst themselves to limit the duration of the assembly to one year before holding the next elections.

However many are concerned that the apparent lack of systemic checks on the assembly will lead to a concentration of power.

“There is no democratic system in the world that does not have a separation of powers,” says Mechergui Haifa, a medical student who is working as a volunteer at the Bardo protests.


Haifa, along with several other volunteers, has been visiting the tents, providing check ups and medicine to those spending cold nights outside the assembly. Most of her patients are unemployed, and she says that fears over unemployment, which according to the latest figures stands at 18 percent, run just as high as fears over concentration of power.

“The situation is miserable. We cannot work. Even doctors cannot find work,” she says.

One person at the sit-in that Haifa checks up on is Ridha Amara. Amara, a 35-year-old from the phosphate mining town of Gafsa, has been out of work for 5 years despite holding a master’s degree. He, along with dozens of other out of work miners from Gafsa, came to Tunis to join the Bardo sit-in a week ago.

“They have disputes over the next president, but we just want a job. They leave us here,” he says.

Mouldi Shanafi, an English teacher who also says he has been out of work for five years, has come to the Bardo protests three days in a row.

“They are simple people just defending their right to work, like me for example,” he says describing many at the protests.

However, he says there is second group among the protesters with a more political agenda.

“They want to break this victory of Ennahda and to win the presidential post in the next elections. They are preparing now for the next elections,” Shanafi says, pointing at what he calls the “election losers.”

But some, like Amara, are just sick of the whole system.

“We are here for a new revolution against a new dictatorship,” Amara says.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The obscure future of women in a new Tunisia

Below is an excerpt from my piece in Al Masry Al Youm:

The Islamist Ennahdha party’s election victory in Tunisia has come to mean many things to many people. For many outside observers wary of how the “Arab Spring” might reshape regional politics, their victory signals a trend that will allow more conservative elements in the region to follow suit and succeed to power. For others, the victory is a positive sign that political Islam in the region has become ‘moderate’ and will adhere to a model of democracy a la Turkey.
But for women’s rights activists in Tunisia, the victory is a worrying sign that their battle for equality has suddenly become a great deal more difficult.
Days after Tunisia’s historic 23 October elections for a constituent assembly, tasked primarily with writing a new constitution, Tunisian feminists held an emergency meeting at Tunis’ feminist university to discuss strategy options.
“Our conviction now is that we have to fight for the preservation of the women’s rights that were included in the previous constitution,” says Salma Hajri, a physician and a member of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, or ATFD by its French acronym.
Ennahdha, which bills itself not as an Islamist party but as a party “in reference to Islam,” won roughly 40 percent of the vote and took 89 out of 217 seats in the new assembly, three times more than their closest opponents. The victory has set off alarm bells for many women’s rights activists who are concerned that instead of pushing to achieve legal parity, they will now be forced to defend the rights that Tunisian women have already won. “We have to be very watchful and very focused,” says Hajri.
Tunisian women enjoy relatively strong legal protection of their rights in comparison to neighboring countries. The Code of Personal Status, promulgated in 1957 by Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, abolished polygamy, created stricter divorce laws aimed at protecting women, and improved women’s access to higher education. Subsequent amendments to the code have further bolstered women’s rights.
However, Tunisia is not a constitutionally secular state, and women’s rights are still subject legally to a reading of Islamic law in one particular and important case: inheritance. Tunisia’s inheritance law, based on Islamic law, or Sharia, grants the greater share of inheritance to male heirs. ATFD saw such Islamic influence over the law as a threat to women’s rights and are concerned over greater reliance on the Sharia following Ennahdha’s win. “Feminism is really completely the opposite of the philosophy and conviction of the Islamists,” Hajri says.

The full article can be viewed here:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Syria, Iraq: Turkey’s foreign policy headaches

Noticed a couple things on my recent trips to Istanbul and Ankara. The media in Turkey these days is awash with stories on Syria, predictably. Somewhat less predictable is how Turkey will respond to the turmoil across its border.

Some Syrian anti-regime demonstrations have morphed into an armed resistance, with the Telegraph reporting this week that Libya’s new leaders intended to send hundreds of fighters and weapons to anti-regime forces in Syria. Some in Libya believe that the alleged proposal was a rogue one made by the Islamist, Libyan militia commander Abdul Hakim Bel Haj. While it is unclear how many Syrian anti-regime demonstrators have turned to armed resistance and exactly which outside parties are helping which side and to what extent, developments indicate that violence and repression are set to escalate in Syria.

The consequences of such an escalation would directly affect Turkey. Syrian refugees in Turkey who are staying in camps on the border number over 7000 currently. However, if the death toll keeps rising and certain key groups in Syria turn against the regime, the ensuing hostilities may force tens, possibly hundreds of thousands more streaming across the border. Leaders of the Free Syrian Army opposition group, made up mainly of former Syrian Armed Forces members who defected, are currently based near the Syrian border in southern Turkey. The Turkish government has failed to clarify what support, if any, they are providing to this group; however, it can be argued that Turkey, de facto, is harboring a group bent on violent regime change in a neighboring country. So much for Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy.

While the Turkish government has made it clear in recent weeks that they would like to see Assad step down, and that his regime has lost legitimacy, it is unclear how Turkish foreign policy makers will proceed. Turkish officials are quick to insist that the term “regime change” is not in their diplomatic vocabulary. However, it seems as if global consensus is pushing towards building pressure on the Assad regime. On Saturday, the Arab League agreed to impose sanctions on Syria, after Assad declined to respond to an Arab League proposal (Assad had been given a deadline to respond by 11 am GMT Friday) that would have set a course for a diplomatic solution. On Wednesday, Turkey followed suit and imposed its own sanctions. Both Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan have suggested that a militarily secure buffer zone might be set up on the Syrian border if things get out of hand. It is so far unclear which side of the border this buffer zone would need to be set up on in order to achieve its intended purpose, but many have speculated that such a move could provoke the Syrian regime and its Iranian backers. Any sort of intervention or peace-keeping mission, even a NATO-backed one, would place much of the burden on Turkey. With the country's large military and shared border, Turkey would be expected to take the lead in any NATO mission, something which would put Turkey in the uncomfortable position both domestically and across the Arab world of appearing to do the bidding of the West in a confrontation in the Middle East.

Along with sanctions, Davutoğlu also announced that Syrian trade routes would be detoured through Iraq. Turkey will host U.S. Vice President Joe Biden first in Ankara and then in Istanbul. The visit is important as Biden handles the White House’s Iraq portfolio, and American troops are set to withdraw from Iraq by the end of this year. While Washington has said that the troop withdrawal will not mean a complete U.S. disengagement from Iraq, Turkey is anxiously looking to the December withdrawal date. Any power vacuum in Iraq could lead to greater Iranian influence in the country, particularly in the south and amongst the Shia population. A power vacuum could also allow the PKK, the separatist Kurdish terrorist group based in northern Iraq, to have greater freedom of mobility and operations, a direct threat to Turkey.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Tunisian Election Predictions

Tunisian polling stations are just closing now, at 7pm local time, but voting will continue until all those in voting bureaus at the time of closing have voted. The Independent High Electoral Commission, or ISIE by its French Acronym, has announced that final results will likely not be available until Tuesday evening. As we wait for results to come in, I would like to venture a couple predictions, assuming voting and counting take place fairly.

1- Islamist-oriented Ennahdha is likely to win over 40%

Ennahdha is the best organized party in Tunisia, and by far the most popular. There are several reasons for this. As one Ennahdha member told me earlier this week, before Ennahdha was a political party, before it was even a movement, it was an organization - mainly of religiously oriented, underground political activists - which has its roots in the early 1980's. It has invaluable grassroots experience, which it has used to organize rallies (and according to unverified rumors - weddings, religious ceremonies, and community giveaways) and motivate their broad-based constituency. While the latest polls, which came out prior to the campaign season, put Ennahdha support at about 20-30%, undecided voters, which made up over 50%, are likely to swing in favor of Ennahdha.

Dozens of taxi drivers have told me, "the others are all thieves" in their eyes - Of course this must be taken with a grain of salt, but perception is important and the anecdote seems to hold water. Prior to the campaign season, the two parties at the top of the polls, Ennadha and the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), were also the two with the biggest name recognition. While both Ennahdha leaders and PDP leaders spent time in jail under Ben Ali's regime, more Ennahdha leaders spent considerably more time in prison than PDP leaders. On top of that, PDP was a legal party under Ben Ali, trying desperately to be the voice of opposition in a political entity that tightly controlled opposition. These differences have worked to convince many Tunisians that Ennahdha was truly the voice of opposition against the old regime.

2- PDM is likely to come in second

PDM, or Al-Qotb, or the Pole Democratique Moderniste, is a coalition grouping of 4 leftist parties and 5 citizen initiatives. The best known of the parties, Ettajdid, is an old party that branched out from the communists and was legal under the former regime. The grouping has worked hard to be the voice of the Tunisian left without distancing itself from Islam. They have managed to organize impressive rallies that draw enthusiastic crowds, made up primarily of young Tunisians. They have also included numerous young candidates in their candidature lists. By grouping together, the movement has managed to tailor its message, with one party targeting artists, another evolved communists, and yet another internet activists who want an internet free from corporate interests and censorship. Meanwhile, Tunisia's best known communist party, POCT, has lost considerable support from leftists after hints from its leader, Hamma Hammami, that it will work together in coalition with Ennahdha. As for more centrist parties, like PDP and CPR, it seems as if Tunisians are likely to stay away from the "safe choice/center" parties the first time they cast their ballots.

Tunisia's Identity politics

Here is a brief excerpt from my piece in Al-Masry Al-Youm this week:

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamic-oriented Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, drew attention this week when he suggested in several interviews that his party would win a majority in the upcoming parliament. However, at a press conference in Tunis on Wednesday, Ghannouchi warned that "there is a risk of the election results being manipulated.”

“If there is manipulation, we will rejoin the forces and the guardians of the revolution which ousted Ben Ali and the first [interim] government. We are ready to oust up to ten governments if needed,” he was quoted as saying.

The comment has drawn concern from other Tunisian political parties, including the the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).

“We are not going to work with them, especially after this last declaration,” says Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the PDP’s executive committee. However, PDP insists that it will respect the results of the election, regardless of the results. “We believe these elections will be fair. We will accept them because we are democrats. If Ennahda wins the majority, we will accept the result.”

Ennahda insists on shucking the “Islamist” label, instead saying that it is a party with an Arab-Islamic “reference.”

“For us, the respect of Islam, of our history, our civilization, that’s the base of our party,” says Nourreddine Arbaoui, a member of Ennahda's political bureau.

The entire piece is available at

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tunisia's bumpy path to democracy

Here is a brief excerpt of my latest piece in Foreign Policy:

TUNIS, Tunisia — On the eighth floor of a whitewashed building in downtown Tunis, Kamel Jendoubi sits bleary-eyed at a desk drowning in papers, his day full of meetings and far from over despite the darkening sky outside his window.

Jendoubi is president of Tunisia's Independent High Election Committee (ISIE by its French initials), tasked with supervising the country's first elections since the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Scheduled for Oct. 23, they will also be the first popular elections in any country whose ruler was ousted by the Arab Spring. Unlike Libya, Tunisia has experienced relatively little violence, and unlike Egypt, the old regime has relatively little power to perpetuate itself.

But Jendoubi's task isn't easy. He's beset with a growing roster of concerns, ranging from reports of election corruption to limited resources and experience. "For me, we don't have enough election officials. … We are hearing rumors of parties and candidates giving money to voters," he says.

The full article is available here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

‘Arab Bloggers’ convene following some regional success

Bloggers, social media activists, and digital journalists convened in Tunis this week to discuss their role, responsibility, and challenges following the surprise, although incomplete, success of what many have termed the ‘Arab Spring.’

The ‘Third Arab Bloggers Meeting,’ the first to be held in almost two years, brought together voices from across the region, each telling their stories about how they have witnessed, recounted and participated in assertions of civic identities in what had previously been a region devoid of a strong civil society.

A Syrian woman, Razan Ghazzawi, who in recent months has begun to write on the political situation, braved speaking about her country’s domestic turmoil.

“Some people were against the protests. So many denied the protests,” She said.

It was difficult for many in Syria to believe that there were people demonstrating against the government, as, she says, protests taking place were often “flash protests,” dissolving after 2, 3 or 10 minutes. However, the fact that images of the protests were posted on the internet and social media websites refuted official narratives that there was no civic strife.

“The image brought down the lie,” said Ghazzawi.

Meanwhile Libyan blogger and essayist Ghazi Gheblawi, working from London to publicize the Libyan revolution, said that social media networks played an important role in pushing the cause of the revolution.

“The internet played a major role when Benghazi was totally isolated,” said Gheblawi. “Many people were smuggling videos [from Libya] – first to Tunisia, then uploaded to Youtube and Twitter. Youtube and Twitter magnified the events.”

A Blogger Nobel Peace Prize nominee?

Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who, according to rumors was in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize, was also in attendance at the blogger meetings. She expressed to this journalist how happy she was to have been nominated, but is disturbed and confused by increasing attacks on her by the Tunisian media.

She warns that Tunisian bloggers still face challenges following an uprising that resulted in the ouster of longtime dictator Zine al Abidine Ben Ali earlier this year.

“Yes we are free, but you know, some two weeks ago a blogger was beaten by the police. Sometimes they just arrest bloggers because they are taking photos,” said Ben Mhenni. “[There is] no more censorship, but aggression is continuing.”

An Unexpected Visitor

Despite the concerns of some Tunisians that the January ‘revolution’ did not secure freedom of speech for all Tunisians, dramatic changes have taken place. The Tunisian government body charged with overseeing and censoring internet in Tunisia, made an appearance at Monday’s opening session, not to shut down the meeting, but to lend support to the conference. Moez Chackchouk, CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, or ATI, said that his agency, following the ‘revolution,’ was no longer the enemy of internet activists or free speech.

“We were the enemy of internet activists, but, after the revolution, we were able to open our doors to you,” Chakchouk told the stunned audience at Cite Des Sciences conference hall in Tunis.

While Chakchouk says that “the Ben Ali regime subsidized the development of a sophisticated censorship system” for the internet, he insists that now, “there is no taboo subject anymore for the new ATI.”

Several bloggers stood up after Chakchouk’s presentation, expressing their happy surprise at the fact that a government official was joining them at the conference.

“Eight or nine months ago, I would not have believed a government official would be talking like this,” said one blogger who addressed the audience.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Managing" the Arab Spring's economic woes

At the heart of the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ post-revolution Tunisia is still beset by the problem of a young, unemployed, and educated population. This is particularly pronounced in the less developed interior of the country in towns like Sidi Bouzid, where a young vegetable seller by the name of Muhammad Bou Azzizi first ignited the Arab spring by an act of self immolation.

“The biggest challenge now is to manage expectations, the expectation of the young population, those among them who are unemployed,” said interim Tunisian Finance Minister Jalloul Ayed, before heading to Washington for the annual IMF/World Bank meetings.

Many Tunisians see unemployment as the biggest challenge to the revolution. Countrywide, unemployment rose from 14 percent in 2010, to 19 percent by the end of July, when new graduates and Tunisians fleeing the violence in neighboring Libya flooded the job market. In the interior of the country, unemployment runs upwards of 18 percent, with the number rising to between 31 and 48 percent among graduates, according to government figures.

“Prosperity consolidates democracy,” says Ayed. “Tangible prosperity: better living conditions, jobs for the unemployed, better prospects for the country, so that particularly the young population starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel and that they feel comfortable and confident about their future.”

However, those who remain unemployed have not been waiting patiently for October 23, when elections will be held for a constituent assembly that will write Tunisia’s new constitution. Last week, five unemployed teachers attempted a coordinated suicide in the southern town of Kasserine, hanging themselves from nooses tied to a goal post before onlookers quickly took them down and transported them to a hospital. The National Council for Liberty in Tunisia, a non-governmental organization that works closely with activists in Kasserine, say that the five made their suicide attempt after going on a hunger strike for 5 days, calling on the interim education minister and the prime minister to change the law that prevents people over the age of 40 from entering the public sector. Their calls were ignored.

Meanwhile, this month saw the repeated imposition and lifting of curfews in the southern towns of Sbeitla, and Sidi Bouzid as well as Kasserine after demonstrations and sometimes violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Here again, unemployment was the main catalyst of unrest.

Before leaving for Washington, Ayed announced the five year “Jasmine Economic and Social Plan,” which outlines a medium and long term solution to Tunisia’s economic woes by creating one million jobs while seeking to address the “short term economic and social emergency issues” to satisfy the growing impatience among Tunisia’s population. Financing for the plan is dependent to a great extent on the $38 billion international donor aid promised by the G8 under the May 27 Deauville partnership to help Arab countries in their transition to free and democratic societies. None of that money has yet been received.

The international aid, which was initially promised to Egypt and Tunisia, must now be expanded to cover Jordan, Morocco and possibly Libya following a decision at a G8 summit in Marseille earlier this month. Ayed says that he is confident that they “really mean to provide that support,” even though the G8 countries “haven’t touched the bilateral” figures, which he says are determined by their political relationship with Tunisia. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if specifics of the plan are discussed at the Washington meetings.

However, many young Tunisians remain wary of the country’s future economic prospects. At a rally early this month in front of interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi’s office in downtown Tunis, several young university students left their classrooms to join policemen protesting the decision to ban police unions from holding strikes. A university student named Iskander said he was worried that the elections would not change anything. Iskander pointed to his pocket where the top of a green Tunisian passport was visible.

“I already have my visa for Italy ready,” he said.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tunisian Women in politics

This photo shows women from Tunisian party AFAQ registering their candidacy at the high election committee's office in the town of Monastir

Tunisia is preparing for its first elections since a revolution ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With only a few weeks to go before polls open, dozens of newly formed parties are taking their first steps towards democracy. As campaign season gears up, Tunisian women are making their presence felt. Recently I followed four Tunisian women who submitted their candidacies in the seaside city of Monastir. This is their story:

Neyla Charchour is no stranger to Tunisian politics. In 2002, she set up the Liberal Mediterranean Party, promoting her views using a blog and the party’s website. When her party attracted the attention of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, she was interrogated by the police, her internet was cut off, and her husband was jailed for ten months on trumped up charges, she says.

Today, in a post-revolutionary Tunisia, Charchour is back in politics. She says that while Civil Society organizations play an important role, she felt it was necessary to reenter politics in order to make her voice heard

“Bringing your ideas into laws, make them come true, not only keep them as an idea. When you want parity between men and women, it needs laws, and if you wants laws to be adopted, you need to go through a party,” Charchour says.

On a Wednesday morning in early September, the last day for those running in the election to submit their candidacies, Charchour sets out from the capital Tunis with fellow members of her economically liberal Afaq, or Horizon party, to their hometown of Monastir. One of those fellow party members is Meriem Bourguiba.

Bourguiba is the granddaughter of Habib Bourguiba, who became Tunisia’s first President after being one of the leaders to win Tunisia’s independence from the French. He cultivated ties with the West, upheld secular principles, and put in place Tunisia’s Code of Personal Status, a law which came into effect in 1957 and which aimed to institute equality between men and women. In the words chosen by himself for his mausoleum, Bourguiba liberated the women of Tunisia.

Bourguiba says that her grandfather’s vision for Tunisia, one defined by pragmatic approaches to solving Tunisia’s problems, is just what the country needs as the country finds its footing following the revolution.

“Pragmatism: This is the ideology that works for Tunisia, pragmatism. What you need is the hot issues have to be dealt with, beyond any ideology,” she says. “And we see it today, the people cannot wait. They want a job and they want to eat, and without those two, even democracy cannot prevail,” says Bourguiba.

However, with over 105 political parties registered following the ouster of Ben Ali, there are a multitude of diverse ideologies competing for a voice, with everything from communists to capitalists and everything in between.

One party making its presence felt on the Tunisian political scene is the Islamist party Ennahda. An August poll conducted by the state news agency TAP shows Ennahda way ahead, with 23% support, followed by the Progressive Democratic party, with 9% support. The winners of the October 23rd elections will participate in a constituent assembly with a mandate to write a new constitution for Tunisia, a system designed by the interim government in a decision referred to as Kasbah 2.

These numbers trouble Henda Fennira Ben Fadhel, another Afaq woman registering her candidacy for the first time. She fears that if they win, Islamists will work towards reversing the Code of Personal Status.

“I have three girls, and after Kasbah 2, I had the feeling that the organization of the Islamists and the decision to go for a constitution in which these guys will have a hand in and a say in, made me feel like my girls are in danger,” Ben Fadhel says.

Many in Tunisia worry that the elections are not going to be the free and open elections that they hope for. Some accuse ex-regime figures of trying to foment instability; others say foreign money is being funneled in to influence the elections. However, the women say they must stay optimistic.

“If it doesn’t happen on the 24th of October, what we can say is ‘we tried.’ We’ll have tried. We didn’t stay on the fence. And in ten, fifteen years time, our children, her daughters will ask us the question and we’ll say ‘we tried,’ says Bourguiba.

In a sunlit conference room in Monastir with high walls, two secretaries accept documents from Charchour as the candidates make last minute calls to find out the exact names of relatives to fill out elections forms. After handing in the forms and getting their candidacy documents stamped, there is a round of handshakes among the women, with congratulations going first from the older ladies in the group to the youngest, Amira Laajimi, 25, for her first foray into politics. The event is quickly followed by a family photo full of grins. As the process winds down, Charchour looks across the table to Ben Fadhel and says in English “We did it.”