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Profile: The audacity to dream big in Tunisia

Erik Churchill's picture
Also available in: العربية | Français
Leading Youthful Voices is a series of occasional blog profiles in which our regular bloggers will take a snapshot of an impressive young person making a mark in the changing Arab world. Some of these young people will have their own blogs, they will surely be tweeps and they will probably be too busy to pause and blog for us. So to share their insights, we've asked their permission to report on the time we spent in conversation with them.

Photo Source: Yoann Cimier | www.yoanncimier.com“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.”

Do you know someone in the Arab world to whom the world should be paying more attention? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on
Very inspiring! How about the audacity to dream big in Lebanon? Check for example the work that Georges Sassine is doing at www.georgessassine.com

Submitted by Karim DiaaEldin on
I believe that poverty- like injustice- both are killers of ambition. This was exactly what I saw and felt in people's eyes, and what I concluded during my political participation in my country Egypt, I saw it all over during my visits to the small villages in different Egyptians governorates. With this conclusion and determination always in mind, I started thinking it is the right time to start focusing on the micro-economy and small projects. Especially when we look to the Arab spring countries hardly you can know which economic system they follow, they are a mix between capitalism, socialism and Islamic system since long time back. Mixing between the different economic systems is not bad but when it is based on a strong basis and at least has a clear identity.

I believe that Egypt needs a good system for its poor people to help them overcoming the poverty and improving their income, what I mean is that: after some studies I did on some of the poor and unemployed people; I found that all they need to start their own business is a small capital without strict guarantees. Another problem facing them is the high interest rate which makes them stuck with poverty and almost all of those small projects eventually shut down.

Banks and governments didn't understand that the problem is those people working only to pay the installments and the interests to the banks only and they don’t make any thing to themselves. So they become poorer and poorer and some of them face the jail punishment.

I believe the solution is in the partnership in the small and micro businesses, by creating the tools and finance systems to participate in establishing a very small (Macro) business with poor and unemployed people. The initiative should target those who possess feasible ideas for business but can’t find the capital to start.

Submitted by Lorraine on
Hello,

I'm just a Canadian woman who has dedicated the last decade thinking of all this. First, I command this young woman for her people loyalty! It's really not about who is rich or poor, its about bring young and old together to create better world.

Together, we can change the world, not only in our countries!

Best wishes!

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