By Valentina Colombo
On 10th February, I met Sélim Jeddi, Habib Sayah and some other young Tunisians living in Paris, who have recently founded the website El-Mouwaten (“The Citizen”) (www.elmouwaten.com) following the Jasmine revolution with the aim of helping their country from abroad. Meeting them, I had the feeling that I was missing the point of the transitions taking place in countries like Tunisia and Egypt.
As a matter of fact, Tunisians, Egyptians and all other Arab peoples have or will have soon to learn how to be “responsible citizens,” possessing both rights and duties. As Jeddi and Sayah note on their website “…the fall of the dictatorship marked the advent of full citizenship in Tunisia. The Tunisians regained their freedom and their dignity. Nevertheless, this emancipation is still fragile. We must therefore enhance the political culture and civic consciousness in Tunisia to ensure that this freedom can be fully utilised.” El Mouwaten constitutes part of this effort to venture an area of debate which, so far, has been off limits.
Learning to be free
When asked about the main problems faced by Tunisians in the post-Ben Ali era, they responded: “They have to learn what it means to be free.” They pointed out that journalists in their country must be taught to think and write in a new way. After years of being limited in what they can write, they must now learn to use their own initiative.
El Mouwaten’s proposals echo 19th Century Tunisian intellectual and politician, Khayr al-Din al-Tunsi, who in his treatise “The surest path to knowledge concerning the conditions of countries” noted a substantial difference between the Islamic meaning of freedom and the European one, which implies “freedom of expression, press and thought.”
Contemporary Tunisians must now learn how to be free and responsible citizens. On the El Mouwaten website the founders state their main aims as the following: “Defend freedom of expression, media independence and free access to all sources of information without restriction.
Defend freedom of conscience and promote the model of a tolerant and open society. Promote an independent judiciary in the context of a strict separation of powers. Defend and enhance women’s freedom. Replace the values of meritocracy at the center of Tunisian society while struggling against social injustice and corruption”.
Speaking out against extremism
Most of the articles they publish they write themselves, as young people between 20 and 25 of age. They want to ignite a debate on many issues but the main one is of course “citizenship”, which must remain separate from religion. For this reason, they keep on publishing articles against the Islamisation of Tunisia, speaking out against those who want Tunisians to be defined by their religion.
After the demonstrations at the Tunis Synagogue on 11th February, where slogans were shouted against Tunisian Jews, El Mouwaten posted articles stating that Tunisian Jews are part of the country’s history and collective memory. On 19th February Myriam Cheikh wrote that enlightened and tolerant Tunisians “who respect other cultures, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion” should “react quickly so that what we are now calling a ‘revolution’ will not turn into ‘regression’”. Myriam ends her brave article by inviting Tunisians to act so that fanatics will not be able to impose a law that is not Tunisian at all.
In another article Mohamed Sayah writes “the Tunisian is now a free person with rights because he is a citizen who can ask the government to act in his interest”, reminding us of the government’s duty to interact with citizens who must also act and react. On 2nd April Nedra Ben Smail’s article “The trauma of the revolution and the fear of freedom” was published. “The exercise of freedom is not a time to rest,” the author writes and El Mouwaten shows that there are young Tunisians who do not want to rest, they want to help their countrymen to take advantage of a unique chance to change Tunisia’s destiny. However, they can only succeed if their minds are totally free from the chains of ideology.
Even if Sèlim Jeddi and his friends did not take part in the Jasmine revolution itself, because they live in Paris, they are definitely part of it with their ideas, their writings and their strong faith in the power of the new Tunisian citizen.
Valentina Colombo is Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels.