“If we are able to say that a poor, majority Muslim, and conservative society is capable of making a democracy of international standard, other countries in the region will have no excuse not to follow us,” says Amira Yahyaoui . “But Tunisia won’t succeed unless we continue to be bold. We must be audacious in our ambitions.”
Yahyaoui, president and founder of Tunisian NGO Al Bawsala , meaning the Compass, may be best known for bringing the first lawsuit against the Tunisian government over access to information.
“I started out trying to defend freedom of expression,” says Yahyaoui, “but I realized that you can’t pressure your government if you don’t know what’s going on inside. We wanted Tunisian citizens to be able to know how their representatives were representing them, what they were defending, and how they were voting.”
I sat with Ms. Yayhaoui during the aftermath of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s resignation last month. According to Yahyaoui, the crisis was caused, in part, because “Tunisian politicians don’t yet have the habit of sharing – instead – they have the attitude of football teams – that it’s a zero sum game.
“Too often, we have no problem playing with the law or the election results by saying that because there were so many of us at the protest, the government must resign,” Yahyaoui says. “But we cannot keep doing this we must follow the rule of law – even in times of crisis.”
In order to instill the rule of law, Yahyaoui thinks that finalizing the Constitution should be a top priority. Her work at Al Bawsala is aimed at ensuring that the drafting process is done with the utmost transparency.
Every day the assembly is in session, Al Bawsala monitors its work. It live-tweets from plenary and committee meetings and, most importantly, puts everything online. The website, Marsad.tn , contains information on every deputy, including their committee assignments, voting records, and even their attendance. Some politicians have joined the cause as well – it’s not infrequent to see Twitter conversations between Al Bawsala staffers and assembly members clarifying parliamentary order and sharing documents that should be public – but somehow were not available.
Not every politician in Tunisia is happy about the spotlight on their work. “One of the assembly members approached my colleague who was taking attendance, asking her, ‘don’t you have anything better to do from morning to night than look at us and record whether we’re here or not?’ Her response: ‘That’s exactly what I’m paid for’.”
With sass like that, it becomes less surprising that it is Al Bawsala that is suing the government over access to information. At issue was whether the assembly was publishing committee meeting minutes as required under the country’s access to information law.
After filing the lawsuit, the assembly began publishing more information. Nevertheless, Yahyaoui still plans on pursuing the case in the courts.
She thinks the law on access to information (2011-41), which was passed in May 2011, “is the only truly revolutionary law that has been passed since our revolution. It’s extremely important.” But what is missing is implementation – and that comes with public awareness and a more professionalized NGO community – and for that you need new blood.
“Al Bawsala is a young association, 26 years is the average age of our staff. People make jokes about us, saying that we’re young and crazy. I was at a debate last year with a constitutional lawyer of a certain age. After the debate, he told me ‘you have the swagger of youth.’ I told him, ’absolutely’ and since then where ever I go I say that we have the swagger of youth. Youth need to play a much greater role in this country.”
Yahyaoui’s swagger runs in the family. Daughter of a judge and a computer scientist, her family comes from Tataouine, far in the country’s south. Her parents were beneficiaries of a society that has seemed to become harder and harder for younger generations of Tunisians.
Yahyaoui’s father, Mokhtar, had come under fire during Ben Ali’s presidency after publicly condemning the regime’s control over the judiciary. Fired and forbidden from traveling, he was a founding member of an association to support political prisoners in Tunisia.
“I grew up in a democracy in the middle of a dictatorship,” she says. “I don’t always agree with my dad, but if there’s one thing he taught me it is to take stances and stand behind them.”
With the success of Al Bawsala, Yahyaoui has set her sights on bigger goals.
“I’m fighting for a more professional civil society. Right now, Tunisian civil society is mostly voluntary. For us to carry real political weight it must be a full time job and we must collaborate with each other. Real advocacy requires you to pay attention full time.”
Yahyaoui’s message to Tunisians: “We must have a clear vision and be audacious enough to make a great country.”
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