Tunisian society has been engaging with both the concept and realities of post-revolution reform for the last three years. As last week’s attack at the Tunisian minister of interior’s house shows, the process has been hard going.
The transformation of an entire country where there are multiple pressing priorities is an extraordinary project. Extending far beyond traditional transitional justice profiles, everything is on the table: security sector reform, the justice system, the structures of state, the relationship between religion and politics, the role of citizens in the media, the distribution of the country’s wealth and economic and social justice, gender and patriarchies and institutionalized (and non-) power dynamics. All at the same time. And with varying and contested levels of legitimacy and urgency.
In December 2010, Tunisian grocery seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest what he and his family said was unabated harassment and humiliation by police. His action came out of a broader context of economic desperation, and sparked country-wide demonstrations against political repression and massive economic disparity, which led to the rapid flight of its president, Europe’s darling dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to Saudi Arabia where he remains.
The Tunisian revolution is the primary catalyst for what is now known as the Arab Spring; setting off a chain of events that includes revolution in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, civil war in Syria and its subsequent spillover into Lebanon, and massive protests and consequent police and military crackdowns in Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan. Some commentators consider the Arab Spring inspiration for protests in Spain, Greece, and parts of the US; it has certainly had a global impact on many fronts, not least of which how we think about the power of people to create change in their societies, as well as the vast and reciprocal support networks that exist across activist circles globally that have not only acted as demonstrations of solidarity, but also as tools for amplifying and sharpening the voices of protestors.
Tunisians have created a situation that is the envy of activists the world over: the leveling of old structures of power and the chance to recreate their country anew. In Tunisia, that discussion is taking place not just in the constitutional committees and between political parties, where a new constitution and subsequent transitional justice law have recently been passed, but also on the streets, online, in the expanding civil society sector, and within institutions that were formerly vehicles of the Ben Ali regime.
This revolution’s vanguard, and its watchdog, has been civil society and internet activists, and critical voices especially linked to independent media online. Where mainstream media is silent and owned by a shrinking group of key political actors, bloggers online have been forcing issues into public consciousness continuously.
It is fitting, then, that the one institution that has undergone constant and steady reform to general widespread satisfaction is internet governance. The Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was the former regime’s sole internet service provider and the body which was the technical arm of the regime’s practice of surveillance and censorship of its citizens. Internet governance has shifted considerably since the fall of Ben Ali, and the ATI’s approach to reform has been inclusive, creative, and almost entirely under the radar of the transitional justice process.