A postcard from Tunisia

Elijah Zarwan, the author of the recently released HRW report on internet censorship in the Middle East, sent me a long email about his experience so far in Tunisia. He agreed to let me share it here:

I'm always paranoid when I'm in Tunis. Maybe it's the ubiquitous Amn al-Dawla thugs following me, loitering in the lobby, hanging out in the cafes. Maybe it's the strange behavior of my email accounts. Maybe its the blank responses to my text messages to human rights advocates or journalists. Whenever the paranoia lifts and I start thinking this is actually quite a nice place, something happens to sour my impression of the country.
That was the case on my first full day here. It was a beautiful morning. I was up early and decided to walk to a meeting at the Goethe Institut to discuss the Citizen's Summit on the Information Society, planned as a parallel event for NGOs that didn't have official recognition at WSIS. The Citizen's Summit itself had been cancelled after the hotel that was to host it abruptly cancelled the venue, citing the sudden need to repair the conference room. Meetings that are expected to air critical views are often cancelled for the same reason.
I got to the Goethe Institut at around 9 a.m. and saw human rights advocates and former political prisoners I'd met in September standing around on the sidewalk. I went over to say hello. They told me plainclothes police had prevented them from entering the building. I looked around. Sure enough, there were crowds of plainclothes police gathering around us, glaring, talking on their radios. More seemed to be showing up as we tried to figure out what to do. Eventually, the plainclothes police converged on us. The Tunisians were afraid they'd be arrested. When they hid behind me and the other internationals, the Amn al-Dawla thugs pushed and shoved us too. They kept it up for about six or seven blocks until we all got into separate taxi cabs and the international NGO types gathered in a cafe to do what NGO types do: issue a statement and a press release.
Back at the Goethe Institut, a Belgian TV cameraman had his camera confiscated and the German ambassador was unable to convince the cops to let the Tunisians in. The Human Rights Watch delegation had to rush off to the official summit for a panel discussion we'd planned on freedom of expression and the right to information online.
The panel was attended mostly by Tunisian GONGOs (Government NGOs, or OVG -- organisations veritablement gouvernmental -- as they're known here). They showed up at every panel I spoke at and made the same speeches. The gist is always the same: RSF is a terrorist organization, that's why their Web site is blocked, Tunisia is a moderate, rights-respecting country, why are we picking on Tunisia and Middle Eastern countries instead of focusing on Iraq and Guantanamo (we do that too), and so on. They get really worked up. After one panel, I came up to one of the women, thanked her for her question, and told her that the HRW report also notes that Tunisia has made progress in recent years. She pulled me into the bowels of the summit, into the administrative area where the first-aid and maintenance facilities are housed, and made me repeat what I'd told her to a man I inferred was the GONGO dispatcher for the summit, the guy watching the schedule for any event that looked likely to mention anything bad about Tunisia and dispatching people with speeches. They don't do any harm, they just fill up the time with firery oratory to make sure the government's view gets across and other questions can't be asked.
The next day we launched the report at a fairly dull press conference, did our interviews afterwards, and then held another press conference at the hotel for opposition journalists, international journalist friends, and civil-society types who weren't accredited for the formal summit. There were two vans full of Security guys out front and a few standing around in the lobby. They didn't do anything. It was just intimidation.
The next day, the Swiss president made a strong speech criticizing Tunisia's record on free expression, standing right next to Kofi Annan and President Ben Ali. First translation, then the video feed cut out on Tunisian TV. Shirin Ebadi spoke at the Tunisian League for Human Rights' (LTDH by its French acronym), but I missed her speech because I was interviewing the brother of a guy detained for allegedly posting terrorist threats online (his brother says he only saved the html file of threats made by a Palestinian group on his computer).  The crowd broke out into chants of "Horreya, horreya!" as  Ebadi spoke. 
The rest of the night was spent between radio interviews and visits to two groups of hunger-strikers. First, I went out to Belkis and Sihem Zerrouk’s home in a suburb of Tunis. Sihem and her 16-year-old daughter Belkis have gone without food or water since November 6 in solidarity with Sihem’s husband Hatem. Hatem is a long-term political prisoner held for his alleged connection to the banned Islamist al-Nahdha Party. Hatem has gone without food and water since November 4. When Tunisian and international journalists and human rights advocates arrived at the women’s home, they found the usual plainclothes security agents stationed at the corner. Inside, the women lay wasted, near death. Posters calling for Hatem’s release hung behind the bed. Though she clearly was trying to maintain her composure and her dignity, Sihem was wracked by painful spasms and occasionally cried out in pain. Upon seeing the two, a doctor from the LTDH immediately called out for someone to call an ambulance immediately. The mother was suffering from severe calcium deficiencies and might not last the night, he said. Family members tried to put on a brave face, but periodically wiped tears from their eyes and hugged each other for sympathy. Their faces were lined with worry. I left when the paramedics arrived.
The HRW people then went to the better-known core group of eight hunger strikers at at 23 Mokhtar Attieh Street, a law office converted into a protest headquarters outfitted with rows of beds and photos of political prisoners. The strikers, lawyers Mohamed Nouri, Semir Dilou, Ayyachi Hammami, former judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui, opposition party figures Nejib Chebbi, Hamma Hammami, and Abderraouf Ayadi and journalist Lotfi Hajji, were gaunt and sober. The official press first refused to carry news about the hunger strike, while the private, pro-government papers ran stories attacking the organizers as disloyal Tunisians.
The next day, the Tunisian government unsuccessfully tried to stop a panel on free expression conducted by the Open Net Initiative and the Berkman Institute from taking place.  I was in the audience, listening to Nart Villeneuve talk about online censorship worldwide and to a panel of Chinese, Zimbabwean, and Iranian bloggers with such attention I didn't notice anything was amiss. Apparently the conference organizers were busy "running interference" outside the door, trying to keep Security from shutting the thing down.
That night, my friends from the HRW delegation went to our usual Internet cafe and found the same Security guy who'd directed the pushing and the shoving at the Goethe Institute already there.
The last day of the summit, HRW did another panel on privacy rights with other groups from Europe and China and spent the afternoon in government meetings. I caught up with friends in the evening and got a good, if cynical, lecture about Tunisian politics. My friend is as disillusioned with the human rights and opposition types as she is with the government, and can marshal some good reasons why. Well, there you go. It's the same everywhere.
Tonight I'm off to the south of Tunisia to meet with Abdalla Zouari. Zouari spent 12 years in prison for his connection to the banned Islamist al-Nahdha Party. Since his release a few years ago, he's been under administrative control, which means, in his case, that he has to live in a rural area of southern Tunisia, far from his family and international visitors. He's under round-the-clock surveillance, can't leave the village, and reportedly can't go to neighborhood Internet cafes to go online. I'll be glad to get back to Egypt.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.