Transitions

Tunisians, we are also African

 

The multilingual residents of Tunis, Tunisia's capital, fancy their city on the Mediterranean to be a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis. But not everyone is welcome. "Not a day goes by without a black African suffering from racial abuse. The most often-used insult is guira guira which, according to some means in a local dialect ‘big monkey'" says a student from Côte d'Ivoire. "For many Tunisians, we black Africans are savages."

Last week a student from Senegal screamed for help as a group of men started throwing stones at his apartment. He called the police -- but it was he who was arrested instead; evidently the color of his skin means that he is not wanted in this cultural heartland. The man lived in the neighborhood of Lafayette, in an apartment complex residents call "the blacks' building." The tenants are often students from sub-Saharan Africa enrolled in private universities.

According to a witness who filmed the events leading up to her neighbor's arrest, the fight began earlier in the day when a taxi driver called the Senegalese man guira guira during an argument. Things began to escalate when the taxi driver took out a baton to "teach" him a lesson. After being fought off, the driver came back later in the evening to take revenge -- and he was not alone. Backed by a group of men equipped with stones and sticks, they shouted: "Ben Ali is gone. This is Tunisia, not Africa!"

When the police arrived, it was the victim who was forced into the patrol car. Two hours later he was released, yet the armed men who threatened him got away scot-free.

The incident was strange to many Tunisians. We are part of the African continent; our roots as Africans are deeply embedded in our cultural heritage. But today, some of my fellow Tunisians think that our African neighbors are "intruders" who want to "taint our purity." The fall of the Ben Ali regime unveiled the previously overlooked phenomenon of xenophobia, especially regarding those from south of the Sahara.

Now in a climate of free speech, the uproar from the victims of discrimination has reached fever pitch. In an apparent security vacuum, attacks against the country's many African students and migrant workers are on the rise. Before the revolution, the rule of law was intact and the rights of the African immigrants were preserved since the former dictator Ben Ali was concerned with propagating an embellished image of Tunisia where stability and peace would reign. But discrimination based on skin color existed even in the "golden" days of "stability" and "peace" under the dictatorship of Ben Ali. The myth of Tunisian tolerance needs to be revealed for what it is: a myth. The stigmatization of skin color applies even with Arab Tunisian, as those with darker skin are also subject to bigotry and mockery.

It is upsetting that Tunisians still use the word wassif to refer to dark-skinned people, an Arabic term from when it was common in the Middle East to have African slaves. Unfortunately, this injustice was not swept away along with the 2011 revolution; racism abounds as many dark-skinned citizens of Tunisia still bear the legacy of slavery. During the reign of Ben Ali, racism was a taboo subject not discussed. Even though the phenomenon was endemic and rife; "black" Tunisians simply suffered in silence. To the outside world, Tunisia was promoted as the cradle of tolerance.

Overcoming racism should be prioritized as we fight for the transition to democracy. Politicians, religious leaders, teachers, activists, and all Tunisians should combine their efforts to eradicate it, because equality and human dignity of all citizens it essential for a prosperous and successful democracy.

Meriem Dhaouadi is a graduate student majoring in English Language and Civilizations at the University of Tunis, Tunisia. She is also a regular contributor to openDemocracy.net.

Transitions

Isolation Law harms Libya's democratic transition

Over the weekend, Libya's interim legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), voted overwhelming in favor of a controversial political isolation law that will ban Qaddafi-era officials from holding public office. As many as 164 voted in favor of the law, while four members voted against it and 19 members did not show up for the voting session. The circumstances under which the vote passed were far from ideal for deciding important legislation: The capital of Tripoli was effectively being taken over by armed supporters of the law. Militias besieged numerous government ministry buildings for more than a week, and several ministries continue to be blockaded even after the passing of the law. Many lawmakers are demanding Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's resignation.

The isolation law is draconian and unfair, targeting all officials who ever worked with Qaddafi, spanning a period from day one of his infamous coup on September 1, 1969, to October 23, 2011, when liberation from his regime was declared in Benghazi. The ban applies regardless of the types of jobs held by the individuals in question or whether they opposed Qaddafi before or during the revolution. The families of many officers and officials killed during the war fighting Qaddafi will undoubtedly feel betrayed to see their relatives categorized as persona non grata.

Many leading Libyan politicians will be prevented from seeking office in the new Libya for ten years. Some of these politicians include Mohamed Magariaf (the current president of the GNC), Mahmoud Jibril (a former Prime Minister), Mustafa Abdul Jalil (Chairman of the National Transitional Council), and other leading figures who were part of the February 17th revolutionary movement that began the civil war.

The isolation law effectively places Magariaf, Jibril, and Abdul Jalil in the same category as those who sided with Qaddafi in his war against the Libyan people. This is not a coincidence. It was designed to remove as many prominent opponents of the political isolation movement as possible, from all sides of the political spectrum. The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya seems to be the least affected by this law, and it is most likely to benefit if prominent figures are pushed out of the political scene. Despite being one of the most organized political movements in Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood has so far failed to win the trust of the people, in clear contrast to its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia.

The law is intended to come into effect on June 6, and the GNC has a mechanism to replace the now-isolated members who were elected by the Libyan people as their representatives in July of last year. The runner-up candidates will replace the "isolated" representatives that ran as independents, and candidates who ran under a party banner will be replaced by the next candidate on the party list, assuming that they have not been "isolated" themselves.

With the elections for the constituent assembly approaching (to take place by the end of the summer by some accounts), the isolation law will have a significant impact on who can run as a candidate for the 60-member assembly. The events that led to the approval of the isolation law -- that is, the actions by armed militias determined to pressure the government -- will open the door for other armed groups to push their agendas. The federalists in Cyrenaica in eastern Libya, who in March 2012 declared autonomy for Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic), will see the Tripoli militias' success as a green light to use weapons to enforce their view of federalism in Libya. The Amazigh, natives of North Africa before the Arab invasion (also known as Berbers), will likely be pushing for full recognition of their rights in the constitution. (According to the official Facebook page of their leader Fathi Khalifa, they are also preparing their first military parade in Libya -- a sign that a display of "might" is necessary). And let's not forget the Islamist hardliners who want sharia law in its strictest form to be upheld in the constitution.

The isolation process will deepen the divisions in Libyan society, which has, until now, maintained a good sense of unity. Human Rights Watch urged Libyans to reject the isolation law in its current form: Its vague terminology and extensive scope render it susceptible to abuse for squeezing out opponents, and can harm Libya's stability and democratic transition in the long term.

Libya has now institutionalized discrimination and division within society by approving this law. It will affect not only the targeted individuals, but also their immediate families and relatives for the next ten years. Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibri estimated that the number of Libyans isolated by the law is around half a million. It's not clear how this segment of society will react.

Many Libyans have taken to social media to point out similarities between the groups behind the isolation law and the revolutionary committees that Qaddafi established after his coup in 1969. The committees invaded all government institutions and installed a "Revolutionary Guard." It seems that history is repeating itself.

There are questions being raised about the legality and constitutionality of the isolation law (and the circumstances that led to its approval), including claims from some GNC members that certain articles targeting the Muslim Brotherhood were suddenly dropped just before the vote took place. Legal experts said the upcoming constitution vote could nullify this law if the Constituent Assembly does not enshrine it or provide it with immunity from Supreme Court interference. Immunity would mean that the Supreme Court would have no power to assess the constitutionality of the law as it violates the terms of equal civil and political rights for all citizens. 

Unfortunately, all this will undermine Libyans' trust in democratic processes, as they watch armed groups blackmailing their elected authorities. The recent events in Libya are a major setback for the country. It will take years to recover unless urgent counter measures are put in place.

The isolation law will not prevent corruption and will not improve the lives of ordinary Libyans. What we need instead are proper anti-corruption regulations. Unless the current system is quickly overhauled, new corruption networks will form.  For this reason, the isolation law is a step backwards. 

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images