The Guarini Institute Hosts a Panel Discussion on Tunisia and the Arab Spring

Valentina Colombo, Maria Ponce de Leon, and Ouejdane Mejri

Valentina Colombo, Maria Ponce de Leon, and Ouejdane Mejri

On March 16th, just two days before the murderous terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs welcomed three distinguished experts to host a panel entitled “Tunisia: An Exception to the Arab Spring?” The event began with a screening of the film Our Best Years directed by Matteo Calore and Stefano Collizzolli, which interviews young Tunisians who fled to Italy during or after the 2010-11 revolution, followed by reflections and insight from the panel.

“I came to find freedom here”, Mouez tells us during one of the first scenes of the documentary. Later, Adel explains that “freedom is to express oneself in any way without hurting anyone; freedom is going anywhere you want in Europe; it’s seeing things.” It is the lack of freedom given by the political repression in their homeland, Tunisia, and the possibility to live a free life in Italy that motivates young people such as Adel, Mouez and Mehrez to leave their country, friends and families – to abandon their lives with the hope of starting better ones. But “burning the frontiers” is not a choice, it’s a necessity; “even if I am alive, I am a dead man here,” Mehrez tells us, as a result of the dehumanizing social conditions of poverty, misery and unrecognized basic human rights. Freedom of expression was banned under the government of Ben Ali, as he controlled the TV and the press and torture techniques were used on political dissidents. Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who set himself on fire on the street as an act of rebellion against the despotic system, is described by one of the Tunisian activists as “a revolutionary symbol of freedom, dignity, and democracy.” Once Tunisians have obtained the freedom to leave Tunisia and come to Europe, the expectations of democracy and possibility of living happy lives collapses. The men are labeled as “political refugees” and even categorized by some politicians as “illegal immigrants” and they are not allowed to exit from the refugee camps that they see as prisons.

Maria Ponce de Leon, a professor of Italian at Temple University who moved to Tunisia to teach in 2011, began the discussion by noting how the film brought back the emotions she had felt when she lived through the overthrow of Ben Ali. She spoke of the euphoria and excitement surrounding the Arab Spring, which you could “breathe in the air”.

Ouejdane Mejri, a distinguished researcher and Tunisian native, President of the PONTES association of Tunisians in Italy, shed light on what it is like to grow up in a dictatorship. She spoke of how Tunisians knew what freedom was even though they could not exercise it. Valentina Colombo, a researcher and professor of the Islamic world, followed up on Mejri’s remarks by saying that Tunisians, specifically journalists, wanted to learn how to use their new freedom in the aftermath of the revolution. According to Mejri, Tunisia had the infrastructure and constitutional parliament already in place before the revolution. Civil society needed to learn how to function now that it was no longer controlled by the regime. Associations quickly began to form in order to take control, as freedom allowed Tunisians to discover just how diverse and multicolored their population and interests were. Mejri’s conclusion was that the largest goal was and still is to create both a democratic state and a democratic societal reality.

Colombo admitted that though she would love to be enthusiastic, she has concerns about the future of Tunisia. She fears that external Tunisian opposition and Islamist parties are pragmatic enough to begin to control the population. The Ennahda party specifically has already won a majority of votes by providing money and organization to rally Tunisians who seek freedom but do not have enough means.

Mejri responded to these concerns by saying that she recognizes that creating a true democracy will be difficult, but she must continue to have a revolutionary way of thinking and look towards the future. She has faith in the social, culture, and educational background of Tunisians. The event concluded with thoughtful questions from students, professionals, and Middle Eastern natives. Many of the questions focused on what religious leaders like Rached Ghannouchi could offer to society, if anything, and comparisons to revolutions in other Middle Eastern countries.

The three panelists offered great insights into Tunisia and sparked an engaging conversation among all of the guests in attendance. It seems that Tunisia will need to be monitored for years to come to see if the country is truly successful enough to be an exception to the Arab Spring.

The devastating attack of March 18th was an all too clear warning on how difficult such path will be.