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Tunisia Speaks Up, Shakily

PARIS, Feb 7 2011 (IPS) - Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press are the big gains of Tunisia’s so-called Jasmine Revolution, according to a top Tunisian economist, writer and opposition figure. But he warns that dark days still lie ahead.

Mahmoud Ben Romdhane Credit: A.D.McKenzie

Mahmoud Ben Romdhane Credit: A.D.McKenzie

“Not even political scientists could have imagined people’s deep hunger for democracy,” says Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, author of the just published ‘Tunisie: Etat, économie et société’ and one of the keynote speakers at the 17th Maghreb Literary Fair (Maghreb des Livres) that ended here Sunday night.

“Tunisians have shown that democracy is not a foreign value,” Romdhane told IPS. “They have shown that our need for freedom and international human rights values is no less important that it is in the established democracies.”

Romdhane was one of the invited writers at the literary fair, which took place within the grand, gilded halls of the Paris Hôtel de ville. It drew more than 5,000 people who came to buy books and to listen to North African writers discussing the revolutions taking place in their region.

The two-day annual fair focuses each year on one particular country in the Maghreb. This year, coincidental to current political events, the chosen country was Tunisia, giving the event an added layer of significance because of the growing upheavals that began with the revolution there and that have since spread to Egypt and other countries.

Some 30 of the 132 authors who participated came from Tunisia while others represented Morocco, Algeria and the Maghrebi communities in France. At the last moment, the fair’s organizers added a session to the programme titled ‘Tunisia: Regaining the Word’ that was widely attended.

“You can see on television and know from what you read in the newspapers that freedom has arisen again,” Romdhane said, as the public crowded around tables piled with books and as debates unfolded in the background.

“The revolution succeeded in the destruction of a tyrannical regime, which was thought impossible to destroy, and we’ve had the release of every political prisoner, including writers,” he said.

He added, however, that Tunisia’s problems will not go away any time soon as the national unemployment rate among the country’s university graduates is more than 30 percent. It will near 60 this year in Sidi Bouzid, where the protests began after a young street vendor set himself on fire Dec. 14.

“Thousands of graduates are leaving the universities and there is no work for them,” Romdhane said.

He and other writers stressed that solid economic growth will be among the factors needed to help the new government to succeed and to shore up civil liberties. He told IPS that lasting press freedom will also have to form part of the changes for any new regime to be accepted by the people.

Already human rights groups have accused the security authorities under the interim government of continuing to take sporadic repressive actions against the press. Romdhane’s opposition Tajdid party has a minister in the new administration but he says this does not “imply we support the current government.”

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has noted assaults on media workers since the fall of the administration of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. These include the roughing up of a French photographer when he filmed the police clubbing and kicking a youth.

On Saturday, even as the writers in Paris discussed the revolution, police in northwestern Tunisia fired into a crowd that was attacking a police station, reportedly killing two people and injuring several others.

“I think it’s too early to say that things have changed fully,” Ernest Sagaga, IFJ human rights and information officer, told IPS. “On the ground, yes, there have been changes, including promises by the new regime to respect press freedom and to refrain from interfering in media affairs. But this government is still very shaky.”

PEN, the international organization of writers, said it welcomed “the release of all Tunisian journalists, bloggers and other political prisoners, following the protests which ended 23 years of President Ben Ali’s rule.”

The group, which has campaigned for many years on behalf of detained writers and journalists, said it hoped for a “full recognition of free speech and the right to assembly in Tunisia.”

“This is one of those extraordinary moments when there is an opening up because the president and his family have left,” PEN International’s president John Ralston Saul told IPS by telephone.

“But the country is still in an interim phase where people of goodwill are working for change, while there are others who would like to keep elements of the old regime. Tunisian writers know that they are going to have to be vigilant to make sure that the end result is not going to be a similar regime. We can’t be romantic about it.”

Separately, PEN said it was also alarmed and concerned by “the trampling on the rights of citizens to transparency, information, knowledge and freedom of assembly elsewhere, most recently in Egypt over the past several days.”

The group said it feared that opposition activists, writers and journalists in Yemen and Syria were at increased risk of arrest.

While these countries are not part of the Maghreb, their future and that of the Middle East in general was an unavoidable topic at the Maghreb literary fair here.

“History is a question of chance,” said Georges Morin, president of Coup de soleil, the civic group that organizes the fair in association with the Paris mayor’s office. “It’s just coincidence that the fair is taking place at the same time as the revolutions, but it meant more people came out to listen.”

France is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations (estimated at five million and 600,000 respectively), and Morin’s Coup de soleil group works to strengthen links among those from the Maghreb, whether they are “Arab-Berbers, Jews or Europeans”. The literary fair is one such initiative.

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