The European: You returned to Tunisia after the revolution to found the NGO “Al Bawsala.” What is the focus of your work?
Yahyaoui: We cover the constitutional assembly through the internet platform marsad.tn, we publish the voting results, the attendance records of the representatives and their voting records. In late August, we sued the assembly over their restrictive handling of information.
The European: Similar projects exist elsewhere as well…
Yahyaoui: Marsad.tn launched in the fall of 2011. I later got to know Gregor Hackmack, who runs the German platform “Abgeordnetenwatch.” I was very impressed by their work and especially by the ability to facilitate interaction between politicians and their constituents online. We will implement a question-and-answer system in Tunisia later this year, and we have cooperated closely with the Germans to make it happen.
The European: There’s one crucial difference: Germany is an established democracy, Tunisia is not. Do you think that online political engagement will work in Tunisia?
Yahyaoui: It’s already working! You don’t have to live in a democracy to want democracy – the Arab Spring showed as much. The first voting results we published created quite a stir. The vote concerned the chairmanship of the Tunisian National Bank, and the government had proposed a candidate from the old regime. For the first time, Tunisians could see how their representatives voted, or if they were even in attendance. Some members of the government party voted against the proposed candidate and have now become very popular. Others have been attacked by their colleagues for failing to attend.
The European: Many politicians must not like this increased transparency…
Yahyaoui: Every time I go to the parliament, I am being followed at each step. I don’t have the right to attend committee meetings, but when nobody is there I open the door and walk right in. And I tweet whatever people say, up to the point where I am kicked out again. Of course they don’t like it, and of course they don’t like to see voting results published. The results aren’t usually made public, but we go to parliament with cameras and film the voting. If we are not sure how someone voted, we call them and ask.
The European: You put all information online. How many people do you reach?
Yahyaoui: Not many. In Tunisia, only 37% of the population has internet access, and many think that internet equals Facebook. Our articles are spread quite widely through Facebook, and that’s good. But we also want to see journalists writing about the work we do. That’s how we can reach more people. It’s our next step.
The European: It’s been almost one year since Tunisians elected their constitutional convention. Has democracy taken root? We still hear a lot about Egypt in the West, but barely anything about Tunisia…
Yahyaoui: It’s too peaceful here. 300 people died during the revolution. To us, that was a huge shock, but it’s nothing in comparison to the stories that my Libyan friends tell me. I was in France when president Ben Ali began to open fire on civilians. The biggest part of my work was to spread information about what was happening in Tunisia. I went to the television station France2 and told them that four people had died, and asked whether they could cover it during the news segments. They didn’t, because the number of victims wasn’t high enough. The same is true today: look at the coverage of attacks on American embassies. The focus is usually on Libya because the American ambassador died. But people die in other places, too.
The European: Not all is well in Tunisia?
Yahyaoui: Right. The proposed constitution is very bad. It doesn’t precisely spell out our rights and freedoms because it aims at restricting them. Freedom of speech is curbed whenever religious issues are concerned, for example. Nobody talks about that!
The European: When Western media outlets write about Tunisia, it’s often in the context of Islamism.
Yahyaoui: When I’m traveling abroad, people often say to me: “You don’t deserve democracy. You voted for the Islamists!”
The European: And your response is?
Yahyaoui: Of course we deserve democracy! People only learn what democracy means when they practice it. Yes, the salafists are a problem and the influence of Islamic groups. That’s all correct. But it’s also correct that Islamist parties would only win 25% of the vote if we held elections tomorrow, not the 40% they won a year ago. Religious parties have demonstrated their utter incompetence in economic questions – corruption is at least as high now as it was under Ben Ali’s regime.
The European: This seems to be the big task: to prevent people from desiring a return to the old regime.
Yahyaoui: The majority of people who wish to go back to Ben Ali used to be corrupt and benefited from the old regime. They didn’t make the revolution, they stood by as Tunisia experienced fifty years of dictatorship. Let me give you an example: shortly after the revolution, photos were circulating on Facebook that showed the lack of basic goods for the poor: there was no electricity, no running water, nothing. The people were dirt poor. I come from one of those regions and I know that poverty is a problem in Tunisia. But that’s not the case for everybody. A lot of people commented on the photos and wrote, “Stop lying! That’s from Morocco!”
The European: A denial of Tunisian realities?
Yahyaoui: Right. Poverty is the biggest problem of my country. Let’s return to the attack on the American embassy. In one photo we can see young people looting the compound and carrying away computers. Some even took tennis rackets and tennis balls because everything else had already been taken. If I were poor and someone came to me and said, “Let’s go to the American embassy tomorrow. They have computers and many other things.” – I would go. Many from the old guard won’t recognize this as a problem. That’s why we see a lot of alarmist messages at the moment about the need to stand up to radicals. But we don’t need a second dictator – we need to make sure that young people can get an education.
The European: The young generation was instrumental to the revolution. What has changed for the youth since 2011?
Yahyaoui: I received three offers to work for the government, but I didn’t want to. Many others had similar experiences. My point is: some young people are working to change things. But the rest needs to get moving as well. We often wait too long in the Arab world for someone to hand us something. We haven’t quite learned to take things. Until now, no equality existed and work wasn’t rewarded. Many young people hold university degrees or even PhDs, but they are unemployed. Only those with good family networks can hope for jobs. We need a revolution of the educated unemployed!
The European: We appear to be living through a period of democratic discontent in the West, but complaints rarely translate into action. What’s your advice to the rest of the world?
Yahyaoui: It’s very important to us that the established democracies remain role models. The more Western countries wane in their commitment to a healthy democracy, the harder it will be for countries like Tunisia to strive for it. I don’t understand how someone could be bored by democracy, especially in a time of crisis! It’s obvious that the governance model is flawed and that we have to reform it. And I don’t know anyone except the young generation that would be capable of picking up the baton.