Tunisia commemorates its revolution

Two years!

It's been two years since Ben Ali packed his suitcase along with the passwords to his foreign bank accounts and fled, in extremis, the wrath of the courageous people of Tunisia, leaving behind some incredibly tacky trinkets and a country in need of fundamental rebuilding -- but which first had to discover the full extent of the damage done.

And until now, Tunisia still has not finished this process of "discovering."

Last week, the revolutionary flag-bearer blog Nawaat published a long investigation [Fr, Ar] regarding a possible paramilitary apparatus connected to the ruling Ennahda party. The week prior, two teenagers were arrested for (gasp!) kissing in public. On the evening of January 13, unknown criminals set fire to the famous mausoleum of religious cleric Sidi Bou Said in the historic and touristic city of the same name, burning it to the ground. Shortly thereafter, a group of extremists were arrested in another Tunisian suburb for setting fire to a similar mausoleum.

The government reaction to the criminal vandalism was delayed more than 24 hours. When President Marzouki finally made his way to the bereft town -- on the eve of the January 14 anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power -- he was met by a small and angry crowd chanting "Dégage!" ("Go Away!") -- the same chant from 2011.

Another debate raging in Tunis concerns the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, an umbrella organization borrowing its name and legitimacy from the neighborhood protection committees that citizens had set up to guard their neighborhoods during the high time of the upheaval two years ago. Now a large segment of the population suspects the Leagues of acting as the Ennahda party's enforcers. After earlier calling for the dissolution of the Leagues, President Marzouki met with them on Saturday, reiterating, as he did in an interview Monday night, that "violence is a red line" not to be crossed.

These are but a few examples of the societal and political schisms Tunisians are grappling with. Religious extremists are not a good thing to have in a country where the state no longer has a monopoly to exercise violence (an essential precondition for government).

Tunisia today is not where it hoped to be in January of 2011. This is what happens, however, when high expectations meet the cold reality of politics. Nothing changes that quickly.

The mood on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis is, according to friends, less festive than it was a year ago. This year's celebrations were dominated by political parties, and seemed more like people trying to convince themselves and others that celebration was justified.

And yet justified it is. Tunisia is unequivocally better off. Freedom of expression is the obvious example, but even the political transition is advancing steadily. Negotiations on the new constitution are well under way and the Constitutional Assembly will soon deliver a draft. This week marked a new step in internet liberalization, with a new amendment no longer requiring internet providers to operate through the governmental Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), the regulatory body once in charge of internet censorship.

Perhaps, as Marc Lynch wrote for FP, difficulties and disappointments are inevitable in the transition phase. A reality check is needed -- in respect to expectations as well as to the political process. The nation that seemed so united two years ago is now divided by a deep political gulf; so perhaps co-habitation is the most likely prospect, not seamless unity. Writing from Cairo, I am sending the warmest wishes to all my friends in Tunis. And I can tell them that, if anything, they are doing much, much better than we are here.

Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images


Indonesia fights misogyny on Twitter

Judge Muhammad Daming Sunusi didn't see anything wrong when he said that rape victims and their perpetrators must have enjoyed their sexual intercourse. But then neither did the members of the Indonesian parliamentary commission who were conducting a confirmation hearing for his appointment to the Supreme Court. The judge made the remarks as he rejected proposals to introduce capital punishment for rapists.

Judge Daming had the chance to redeem himself when confronted by journalists immediately after the hearing. Instead, he defended himself saying the banter was intended to break the ice of an otherwise tense hearing. Proving his point, he revealed, was that many House members in the room laughed along with him. 

That sick joke, however, is almost certain to cost him a spot on the nation's top court. While none of the House members reprimanded him, news of his remarks quickly went viral in the social media, most particularly on Twitter and Facebook. Within the hour, angry condemnations came swift and fast. Some went as far as suggesting that his wife and daughter should be raped, if only to put some sense into the judge. 

It took him a full 24 hours before he came out and publicly apologized. In a tearful television appearance, he said that when he got home that night, his family confronted him and told him that he had been out of line. It was not clear whether the tears were genuinely for his error of judgment, or for losing the chance of promotion. 

The major political parties have already told their representatives in the House not to endorse Daming's appointment. The Judicial Commission plans an investigation into whether the judge violated the profession's code of ethics. Daming could lose his hammer and even be disrobed if found guilty. The joke is clearly on him.

All this thanks to social media. 

Cyberspace has now become the major battleground in the fight against misogyny, racism, and bigotry. At times, online campaigns are far more effective than organizing street protests. 

The latest outcry clearly has not stopped with the judge. Social media is still buzzing with questions about the attitude of House members present in the room. Why did they laugh along with the judge? And why didn't anyone reprimand him on the spot? 

The conclusion can be very disturbing: Sexism is prevalent and is not confined to the judge and the handful politicians who laughed or kept silent. It is a reflection of how many people in Indonesia are still insensitive to issues like rape and rape victims. Taking your battle online doesn't necessarily mean that you always win. 

But there are some heartening examples. The district chief of Garut in West Java is almost certain to lose his job after the local legislative council moved to recommend his impeachment. His sin? He divorced his 17-year old wife after only four days of marriage because she was no longer a virgin. Aceng Fikri, the 40-year old district chief, would have gotten away with his move had news of his action not gone viral on the  internet. The protests, and the calls for his removal, were so strong that the local legislative council quickly got in the act. His fate is now in the hands of the central government. 

The mayor of Lhokseumawe, in the natural gas-rich province of Aceh on Sumatra, looks like he will win his battle against his detractors. Mayor Suaidi Yahya has ruled that women cannot straddle the pillion when riding motorcycles because men would find it too sexy. He said it was "un-Islamic" for women to spread their legs in public; instead they should sit with both legs to one side. Never mind comfort or safety -- morality comes first, he argues. 

The mayor refused to back down in spite of massive protests, because he had the support of the Muslim religious establishment and the Islamist political parties. The ban on women sitting astride will come into force in May.

Racism is also a topic that has recently moved into cyberspace. An unknown lawyer with the unrealistic ambition of becoming Indonesia's next president tweeted attacks on the deputy governor of Jakarta, Basuki "Ahok" Purnama, because of his Chinese ethnicity. The lawyer, Farhat Abbas, was widely criticized. It's not clear who won this particular battle. Abbas got the public attention he sought, if briefly, but it has not raised his chances in the slightest of getting onto a presidential ticket.  

Bigotry will be harder to fight if only because the attitude is so strong and pervasive in Indonesia. In October, gay activist Dede Oetomo was literally taunted in the House of Representatives during an election to choose members of the National Commission on Human Rights. Having made the shortlist of 13 candidates for the commission, he faced a tough campaign from conservative Muslims who opposed his election on the basis of his sexual orientation. Conservatives used social media effectively to mobilize public pressure on the House to reject Dede's selection. When the commission members were finally elected, he only got one vote. And he was jeered by the House members along the way. 

Misogyny, racism, and bigotry may be on the rise -- or perhaps they're just becoming more visible, given the openness of Indonesian society. From now on, though, it's clear that both sides will be resorting increasingly to the online realm to fight it out.

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images