#04 media
Oualid Hamdi / Eva-Maria Verfürth

Interview: A Vote-o-Matic for Tunisia

Oualid Hamdi was not in his Tunisian homeland while the revolution burned, but he followed events from Germany. In an interview he explains the role the internet played in this first Arabic revolt and that it is still very important today when building a new state.

The wave of protest that has engulfed large parts of the Arabic world began in Tunisia. How has the media landscape changed since the beginning of the revolution?

The internet and the Web 2.0 in particular have become a very important source of information in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, all traditional media were state controlled. The internet was the only means of accessing alternative information. Around 30 percent of all Tunisians are active internet users, these are 3 million people. 2 million of those have a Facebook account – that is 15 percent more than before the revolution.

While fighting is still fierce in Yemen and Libya, Tunisia has already enjoyed almost five months of "freedom" without Ben Ali. Has the internet lost some of its importance?

On the contrary. Traditional media are even trying to join the new trend. By going online, they want to improve their image, which suffered a great deal during the years of dictatorship. This is why all the big television broadcasters have internet sites by now. You can also see a change in reporting: The reports are more reflective and critical, the big media have hired new reporters and even improved their technical equipment. Correspondents from international media, such a Al Jazeera, are coming into the country to report directly from Tunisia – this has never been possible before.

So reporting on the internet is now viewed as a sign of quality?

To a certain extent – yes. Of course there are a lot of false reports published on Facebook as well. But for a long time this was the only place independent information was available. For example, the Tunisian government under Ben Ali had always only promoted the East Coast of the country and never invested in the West. Not until these new technologies conquered the country did people in the East see how poorly those in the West were doing. That made them furious – we are one people, after all! Many musicians too, who could not perform or sell recordings because of their critical lyrics, published their videos online on Facebook.

Under Ben Ali, how did information on the web manage to work its way past the censors -- wasn't the net monitored just as closely as other media?

They tried but were not successful. In 2008 the government tried for the first time to close Facebook because the youth opposition was uniting there. But resistance was so intense that they quickly backed off. I can also imagine that other political forces ensured that the internet was never completely shut down. Tunisia is a strategically important country – right between Europe and Africa – and the creation of a black box would not be in the interest of foreign powers. This was why Facebook was always accessible in Tunisia even during the revolution. The government preferred to practice censorship in other ways: They hacked into and monitored personal accounts, directly deleted uploaded videos, closed whole groups or arrested important people. Only video sites like YouTube and Dailymotion were blocked for a long time. Ben Ali's famous sentence one day before he fled – "I have understood you" – was in reference to this censorship, by the way. As of that moment, all video sites were open again, but it was simply too late.

Ben Ali's regime was brought to its knees by opposition formed on the internet. Are politicians afraid of the internet?

Not any more. Politics are even using the net these days to demonstrate transparency and to show that a new wind is blowing. The Ministry of the Interior was the first authority present on Facebook and many others have followed. Its page now has thousands of fans who have animated discussions. All the newly founded parties have also set up Facebook pages to present their election platforms and seek followers.

Of all the platforms, Facebook seems to be the most used.

Facebook is clearly a medium of the people, while Twitter is used more by intellectuals and journalists. The advantage of Facebook is that you can upload multimedia content such a photos and videos, which gives it a strong emotional appeal.

What, then, is the importance of the bloggers who have received so much praise?

Long, reflective texts can be better published on blogs. Users often have a short concentration span, though, which is why comments on Facebook are read more often than extensive blog reports. The good blogs tend to rather reach the intellectuals instead and all those who are really interested in exploring an issue. This doesn't reduce their influence though. After all, people who stayed informed via independent blogs passed this information along and ultimately brought people out into the streets. There are many independent bloggers, including Lina ben Mhenni, Teaching Assistant and Translator at the University of Tunis, who writes the famous "A Tunisian Girl" blog. Or Nawaat, which recently received a Reporters without Borders award.

The authors of Nawaat recently turned down another blogger prize since it was supposed to be awarded in Bahrain and they do not recognise the current regime there. How great is the political influence of bloggers and their opinions today?

Nawaat is a recognised voice and this response certainly had a great symbolic effect. The important role played by bloggers in Tunisian politics today can be seen through the example of Slim Amamous. During the revolution he was in prison as part of the opposition. After Ben Ali fled, however, he was named State Secretary of Youth Affairs by the transitional government. He went from being a blogger to becoming a politician. This is why Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle met with him during his visit to Tunisia.

Since the fall of Ben Ali in mid-January, Tunisia has been making great strides in preparing for democratic change.

In October a committee of more than 250 people will be elected to write a new constitution that will serve as the cornerstone of our new democracy. This leaves enough time for parties to develop and strengthen. This is important, since the revolution was just five months ago and Tunisia has no political culture at all. If elections are called too quickly and people are not well prepared, there is a real danger that rash decisions will be made.

I suppose, that this fear of people taking rash and uninformed political decisions is why you started your project: Together with other Tunisians, you are creating a Vote-O-Matic for Tunisia. Can you describe this in detail?

Since the revolution, organisations in the Tunisian Diaspora community have been popping up all over Europe like mushrooms. Now we can really do something! Before, even humanitarian assistance wasn't an option because everything had to go through the dictator's administrative machinery. Personally, I am active in TuniComp, the Tunisian Competency Network. We work in humanitarian aid. We have donated clothes to the south of our country where droves of Libyan refugees are flooding in. We support social and economic development, and do media work. This includes the Vote-O-Matic project being developed based on the German model. With one big difference though: there are only a handful of parties in Germany, whereas there are now already 70 parties registered in Tunisia and many are still waiting for official recognition. Asking each one about their programmes is a lot of work. But it is important to explain the political situation to the people and give them some idea of who might best be able to represent their objectives.

How do you plan to reach people in Tunisia from here?

I'm not worried about that at all: TuniComp has already been featured three or four times in Tunisian newspapers and we'll soon be on television as well. We use these opportunities to spread the word about our projects like the Vote-O-Matic. What concerns us more at the moment is how to get more assistance from Germany.

How could German foundations or organisations support you?

German foundations in particular have a lot of experience with fostering democracy. They could provide technical and financial assistance and help us develop the Vote-O-Matic. We don't have the experience and IT infrastructure we need and are therefore desperately looking for experts and sponsors from Germany to support us. I would love to hear from interested parties and supporters, either in response to this article or on our homepage at www.tunicomp.net.

Eva-Maria Verfürth conducted the interview.