The 4th Arab Bloggers meeting

I`m very excited to be joining the upcoming 4th edition of the Arab bloggers meeting in Amman (20-23 January). In the past years, I attended two editions of this amazing gathering of techies and activists from the Region (and wrote about it here and here and here, and  in an academic book still to be published): one in Beirut (2009) and the other one in Tunis (2011).

The Beirut meeting was truly special: it was the first time I attended such a gathering with activists from all across the Arab world. It was exciting. There was a momentum. The Region was filled with enthusiasm, wind of change, energy, excitement for new ways in which technology could eventually have helped social movements to raise and become stronger and stronger. I was living in Damascus at the time, and I had convinced my dear friend Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi to come with me to Beirut and join the meeting. It was his first time with that crowd. Before, he would most likely have joined a geeky crowd, people mostly focused on tech stuff. We enjoyed so much being there. That meeting changed our lives.

Today, two weeks ahead of the Amman meeting, I cannot help thinking about the message that Bassel has sent us from Adra prison in Syria where he has been held for almost two years. I re-publish it here below:

“In 2009, I was honored to have my body and soul with you in Beirut. That meeting taught me a lot and charged me for the next years of civic activism and for the now, with more challenges facing activists, bloggers, and countries. I know for sure that your future is in your hands, and it will be bright since you are still meeting!

I’m honored again to have my soul with you in this meeting while my body is still locked in jail. Which doesn’t matter since we will win the future.”

The Amman meeting is gonna be challenging. We`re gonna be there, and so many of us will be missed, like Bassel, like Alaa, held again by Egyptian authorities.

This is not an easy time for activists, bloggers, human rights believers. Especially in the Arab world. Those who have easily – and too quickly – labelled the uprisings as “Arab Springs” are now changing this definition into “Arab winters”.

Yet, it is not a matter of springs and winters. It is perhaps a matter of seeing change in a broader, long-term perspective. And that`s why we`re gonna be in Amman to talk about mistakes, challenges, upcoming fights. Also for those like Bassel, who cannot be with us; yet, they believe it`s still worth trying.

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First Creative Commons Salon Tunis: a celebration of openness, creativity, freedom of expression

Yesterday`s first Tunis Creative Commons Salon was one of the most coherent I`ve ever seen. After assisting to a 2 hours and half performance of different artists and activists working in different fields (from music to comics to cyber activism and blogging) one could feel like having met with Tunisia`s freedom of expression “hard core”movement. Each artist and activist, in his/her own field – whether visual art or blogging,etc- was fighting for two very simple things: expressing thoughts freely and have the right to access  information and knowledge in an open, transparent way.

Tunisian rap group Armada Bizerta -who is now a regular in Creative Commons` meetings, having performed at the “Sharing the Spring” concert in Tunis last July and at the CC global meeting in Warsaw in September 2011- opened the Salon with an unplugged set accompanied by the multi-talented Kerim Bouzoita (who is a blogger, a scholar, a film maker, a musician). Armada Bizerta`s rap shows how much politics matter for this new generation of Tunisians, and how the revolution is an ongoing process which did not stop on January 14th, when Ben Ali left. “I say NO!”, one of the group`s latest song, takes inspiration from recent protests against Qatar`s intervention in Tunisia`s domestic affairs and the Gulf country`s support to religious parties in a country that, as Armada shouts in its rap, “has not made the revolution to find itself ruled by a foreigner”. “La wizara qatarya fel aradi at-tunsya” (no to Qatari presence on Tunisian lands), shouted Armada in a very powerful unplugged rap that rocked the crowd at the CC Salon.

Then Nadia Willis (who also hosted the Salon in the beautiful boutique and art gallery Arty Show), from Yaka comics collective, explained how the comics-makers, illustrators, visual artists in Tunis have organized themselves in different collectives after the revolution to boost freedom of expression and protect it.  She smiled when recalled that, after Ben Ali`s departure, the artists enjoyed themselves a great deal by doing graffiti and illustrations in apartments that were former property of Leila Trabelsi`s, a symbolic act where the citizens  have finally taken back what was stolen by dictatorship.

Nawaat`s Sami Ben Gharbeia`showed how the web platform worked before, during and after the revolution. He showed stuff from the first online demonstration against Ben Ali, “yezzi fock”, to the collection of pictures that have spotted the presidential airplane landing in different European airports to take Leila Ben Ali go shopping without any excuse of being on an official visit. Nawaat`s strategy before the revolution has been to show the average Tunisian citizen -with a simple language and tangible examples- that he was not living in the Tunisian “postcard” that Ben Ali was selling out to the West. Once the revolution erupted, Nawaat`s role was focused on curating news and videos, translating, tagging and archiving them, in order to give the Pan-Arab and international media professional news material to work on, in order to produce news items and updates on what was happening in Tunisia between December 2010 and January 2011. And now that Ben Ali is gone, Nawaat finally has a legal status: it became an association, opened an awesome office near the Casbah in Tunis and is doing plenty of activities, including hosting the hackspace curated by Chamseddine Ben Jomaa and Ali Hentati.

Chamseddine, alias Kangolya, another symbol of Tunisian activism, presented the hackspace to the CC Salon crowd and beautifully explained the meaning of the opengov movement tracking it back to ancient Greece.

The newly born association of Tunisian bloggers illustrated how they are now getting together,  organizing themselves and trying to give themselves editorial rules, too. Blogging has been for years the only counter-voice to an official press which was totally submitted to the regime, therefore bloggers have developed incredibly professional skills and a “grassroot” ethics of cross-checking sources, quoting and linking them, etc. They probably can teach the official press and “professional” journalists how to re-organize themselves, now that the former dictator is gone.

CC Salon Tunis was able to offer an overview of all these experiences that are related one to another by the will of these folks to advocate for transparency, openness, freedom of expression, creativity. These light talks were punctuated by the music –Armada, Saloua ben Salah, Undergaa, Kerim Bouzoita-. A film on the former Tunisian cyber police, “Memory at risk”, directed by Kerim Bouzoita and licensed under CC, was also shown.

The energy flowing at Arty show gallery yesterday was a tangible sign that a new Tunisia is coming out, and will rock the world.

La revolution est morte, vive la revolution!

The results of the first elections held in post-Ben Ali`s Tunisia are  finally official. The ISIE announced few hours ago the final numbers which confirm the majority of seats (90) -over 217 composing the future Constituent Assembly- to be assigned to Ennahdha party. 

So, Ennahdha  has won, as expected. There is no surprise in this. We have been talking about these elections for months and the victory of Ennahdha was largely predicted by analysts.

Nevertheless, it seems there are at least two categories of people who are surprised (even shocked).

The first category is made up by some Western press, led by the French. It is such a big scandal for the civilized republique to see the “Jasmine revolution” hijacked by a bunch of “barbus”! How is it possible that the gentle, the soft, the “bloodless” “Facebook and Twitter revolution”, the revolution led by this globalized tech-savvy youth has been taken over by a bunch of Islamists who are now ready to turn the Jasmine country into an Islamic-inspired state where Westerners would possibly not be able to enjoy the beauty of the “carte postale” they have fabricated for the eyes of Club Med lovers only… How is it possible to have betrayed the “real spirit” of this “peaceful”, “secular”, “electronic” revolution?

We should rather ask ourselves: how is it possible that the same West -US, Europe, and particularly France- that has supported financially and militarily Tunisia`s neighbor Libya`s revolution -clearly marked by an “Islamic” flavor- are now feeling so “offended” by Ennahdha`s victory  in the first post-Ben Ali`s elections?

Is it possible for us to accept such a double standard? The financial and military interest behind Western support to Libya`s armed revolution is so clear that it`s even not worthy to spend more time discussing it. The disgusting part, however, is that we are still fearing for an Islamic caliphate to be established in Tunisia at the same time we are thinking to oil revenues to be generated in the future shariaa ruled free Libya.

Don`t you think that we have been discussing Ennahdha`s victory for too many months now and maybe, the mere fact that we have been so much discussing it has even contributed to their success? Sometimes demonizing “the enemy” does result in raising his popularity. A strategy based on acting against something instead of acting pro-something has never led to positive results.

The other category of surprised people are Tunisian elites, mostly leftists, progressive, secularized. The sentence I`ve been hearing the most in their circles and cafes and lounges is: “who are we, the Tunisians?We thought we were educated, open minded, progressive whereas we are backward, populist and against modernity”. Tunisian elites are under shock. As if they are up after a nightmare and they can`t believe it wasn`t actually a nightmare but it is the reality that they have to face.

Frankly, I can understand the shock but not the surprise. The only real surprise to me was to see this Mr Hemshi Hemdi, leader of the new formed movement Arida Chaabia, to gain so many seats by sitting comfortably in London where he has been residing for years and years. He is the probably the only one who really made an “Internet revolution”: he has built his political movement virtually, from scratch, gaining 19 seats . And not by chance, the majority of his supporters are in the place which has give “birth” to the 14 Janvi revolution, Sidi bouzid.

Why these fierce people, who have first revolted against Ben Ali`s regime and inspired so many others to do the same, why should they vote for a guy like Hemdi? Hemdi is the founder of the TV channel al Moustaqilla (the independent) which was the first TV channel to oppose the former regime, broadcasting from London since 1999. But apparently a deal between Hemdi and Ben Ali took place, and the channel  has lowered its opposition voice becoming a sort of populist and even Islamic-flavored pro-regime channel.

Why the fierce population of Sidi bouzid should have voted for this guy? and not only voted: few hours ago protests erupted in town and Ennahdha office there was set to fire, as a response to the ISIE`s decision to invalidate 19 seats gained by Hemchi`s Aridha Chaabia.

I believe the key of Hemchi`s success are in a couple of things that should let us to some more in-depth considerations.

First, “The People’s Petition party includes three broad popular ideas and key demands: the formation of a democratic constitution, the adoption of a system of free health care, and the dispensation of grants to the  unemployed”. Words like free, health care, grants, unemployed should have sound as honey for the Sidi bouzid`s people, especially the youth. They have felt neglected after 14 janvi. Despite being  praised and glorified by everybody, none of the interim governments in the post-Ben Ali has really adopted any concrete move towards them -even the simplest, but with the highest symbolic value: paying a visit to the place where the revolution has started-. It is a kind of revenge: you have ignored us, we will ignore you.

Second, breaking any possible bond with the former (and classical) party-structure, even the one of opposition parties like the PDP, seems to be a reason  behind this vote. It is a vote of protest, a vote which says “enough” with the past. Ironically enough, none of these people has thought that Hemchi himself is indeed the past, by having been former opposition and then, all of a sudden, very friendly to the Ben Ali`s regime. Moreover, many of former RCDs members have joined Arida Chaabia, representing a continuity more than a rupture with the past.

Third, Hemchi comes from Sidi bouzid. He is “one of them”, despite having been living for years abroad and despite the fact that he didnt even come back to his birth place for the elections campaign. Sidi bouzid rarely had its “sons” joining central power and its instances were never heard in a structure of power mostly made by a ruling elite coming from the Sahel part of Tunisia (like Ben Ali himself). Voting for him is a parochial choice at the best, a “tribal” choice at the worst.

Ignoring all these aspects and not working on them is like playing with fire in future Tunisia.

Just as an example, how to ignore what  this vote seems to show, i.e. Tunisian society is still very much shaped around a tribal family structure culture rather than a nuclear family one? How to ignore that the gap between central Tunisia on the one hand and coastal Tunisia (including the capital) on the other hand are world apart?

Whilst the elite used to think that almost everybody had a “urban culture” background in Tunisia, this vote could show instead that there is a wide gap still in place between the city and the countryside as opposite cultures.

The communication gap between the elites and the sha3b (people) has been existing for decades, but maybe overshadowed by dictatorship. The heavy burden of Ben Ali`s regime has prevented Tunisians to see that there was a lack of communication hence a lack of cooperation between the two sides.

The fact itself that the PDP and many other leftist coalitions`s campaigns were designed around issues like secularism, maintaining civil rights, etc proves that they missed the point. Talking about secularism to people who want to listen about jobs, houses and hope does not sound as the right choice. And then religion has worked out its role too.

Having witnessed Ennahdha supporters` spontaneous celebrations two days ago was very instructive. People, mostly women, were chanting with energy and passion: “as-sha3b yurid al-nahdha min jedid” (the people want a new re-birth). They were so clever to build on the most important slogan of the Arab Springs: “as-sha3b yurid” (il popolo vuole). Then the name of the party itself -Ennahdha- means “re-birth”, so it suits pretty much to this idea of a new future of hope.

Les jeux sont faits for now. Tunisians really need to work to reduce this gap between Tunisians and Tunisians that Ben Ali has alimented and at the same time kept hidden for decades.

Wrapping up the Third Arab Bloggers meeting

I`ve just returned after a long week  of travels, the most exciting of them being the days spent in Tunis for the third Arab Bloggers meeting (#AB11).

I attended the second one in Beirut, 2009, and thought this was awesome. The atmosphere at the time was that of “something in the making”.

It was two years ago and that feeling has proved right. This crowd has been the protagonist, each of them in his/her own country, of  this phenomenal 2011. Each of these people, together with the Arab youth of each country, had proven to be able to contribute, online and offline, to the shaping of a new future of the Arab region.

Two years ago I felt there was a kind of “cultural panarabism”, a feeling of unity pervading the meeting. This time it was even stronger.

When the Palestinian bloggers and activists were denied the entry visa by the Tunisian Ministry of Interior (without giving any acceptable reason), all the other Arab participants have raised in solidarity. We have made petitions,formal statements, press-releases, got all the mainstream media to talk about this (the evidence: when, few days ago, I walked into my Monaco hotel to join the jury of the Anna Lindht award, all the people there -a totally different crowd from the Arab bloggers- pointed out: it`s a real shame that the new Tunisia prevented the Palestinians to join the #AB11 meeting!). We have had a Skype call with them to let them join the sessions and put all their pictures on empty chairs in a symbolic protest for their unjustified absence.

picture by Ibtihel Zaatouri under CC BY license

I`ve attended so many conferences where officials make statements about Palestine and Palestians, and inter-Arab solidarity. This is the first time I`ve felt people being together, despite not being physically together.

There is something this Arab youth shares, beyond rhetoric. The Arab Springs have strengthened this feeling which has been in the making during the past years thanks to physical meet-ups but of course thanks to the Internet and the social networks.

Now there are best practices shared, together with pictures, videos, links, information.

This Arab youth is truly Pan-Arab. One`s revolution is everybody else`s revolution. One`s freedom is gonna be everybody else`s freedom.

The tools are there. Again, the #AB11 is a great mix of tech training (whether it is about learning cyber security or how to live video stream from the streets) and learning from others` experiences and direct participation. Sami Ben Gharbeia, Malek Khadhraoui and Astrubaal `s reflections on Tunisian revolution and the role played by their portal Nawaat have enlightened and inspired so many people in the #AB11 crowd. Bloggers from Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, have also contributed to the debate by  bringing focusing on each of these countries and on their own direct experience in terms of citizens and activists. Pearls that you will never get on mainstream media.

But the novelty of this edition is how do we move to the next step, i.e. how do we empower people to do a better and citizen-media based cover for the upcoming elections in Tunisia and Egypt, and generally speaking how do we get people actively involved in the democratic process of rebuilding the institutions and the country itself. A very interesting panel, coordinated by Global Voices` Solana Saurus, has been held at the #AB11 on this very issue, with lots of insights coming from Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans,too.

For me one of the most interesting panel was the one which featured the Tunisian bloggers who are running for elections debating about their different visions of the constitutional assembly, the alliances among them or with other groups, their ideas towards mobilizing people, etc. Thanks to Jillian c.York we have great notes of the session.

The key question during the upcoming months is exactly this: how do we turn the regime change that was accomplished in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, into political and social change? and how do we turn the blogging and activism that was “in opposition” to dictatorships into a proactive force that reaches out to the ground and helps democracy to emerge?

#AB11 variety of panels and voices has given a great contribution to this debate. In two weeks Tunis will make the first move, by hosting the first democratic elections in the Region since long time. And the Tunisian bloggers and activists will play an important role in these elections which hopefully will later be a key role in the future of the country, too.

 

You can find a great coverage of the meeting on the Arab Bloggers official website, on Global Voices and on some blogs (like Jillian C. York`s).

Arab Bloggers site has also collected many interesting videos from Tunisia Live and hopefully will publish soon the sessions that have been filmed.

Ibtihel Zaatouri has a great Flickr stream of the meeting and there is also a Storify report about it.

Thanks to Sami and the Nawaat team, all the wonderful Global Voices people, Doreen and Hiba from Heinrich Boll for organizing this inspiring meeting.