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Can you tell me more about your expectations for your country?

During the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, we followed the uprisings, demonstrations and optimism through the anti-government blogs of Afrah Nasser (Yemen) and Lina Ben Mhenni (Tunisia). Three years later they are exchanging emails of their stories about developments in their respective countries, exclusively for PEN/Opp.

Credits Text: Afrah Nasser, Lina Ben Mhenni September 10 2014

25 July, 2014

Dear Lina,
How have you been? And how is Tunisia? You know that I have a greater sense of Pan-Arabism since I have been living in Sweden. Magically, I'm closer to all Arab countries while I'm in Sweden than when I used to be while living in Yemen. I attribute this to the fact that Sweden hosts tens of platforms to discuss issues related to the Arab world and the fact that I had the chance to meet many Arab revolutionaries across Europe; for instance, I met you twice over the past three years—once in Sweden and once in Norway. I must say, being a political refugee in Sweden following the start of the uprising in Yemen changed the way I see the world. Everything became political for me, which includes my increased sense of Pan-Arabism. One of the powerful moments I had was when I thought about how we Arabs share the same struggle and aspirations. This occurred when I watched you talk about how important it is to be politically active and to expose what the dictators are doing to our nations.

It was end of 2010 in Sana'a. I was cleaning our house while the TV was on. There was a video report on the German TV channel, Deutsche Welle, about the situation in Tunisia and you were interviewed at the heart of the events, dodging the police tear gas used against the protesters and talking about your work with the blog.

“Wow! How is this young blogger so brave,” I wondered. “If she can do it, than I can do it,” I secretly and determinedly told myself.

I appreciate that you have inspired me to blog and that I became an active blogger on my country's human rights situation. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings about the Arab Spring. It was a source of liberation and regression equally. I know that I'm proud that I was part of this glory—taking the streets to protest, raising our voices against injustice, and toppling dictators—but I also feel the burden of the grand regression we're experiencing, mainly on the political and economical level.

I sip my cup of coffee as I watch the new TV drama serial, entitled “Empire of Whom?” which is being run for Ramadan this year, and I laugh for how they made our post-Arab Spring concerns a matter of irony. It's hard to overlook the drastic changes that occurred over many Arab countries and I find this serial to be very relevant and timely. Then when what I watch sinks in, I start to wonder, “What kind of monster have we created?”

“I wish time could go back and we would never start this fucking Arab Spring,” I confess to my other refugee friend living in Sweden. The despair is too much and the bloodshed seems not to stop. The feeling of regret is only because we lost more than what we gained.

“The price of freedom is high and we must sacrifice to gain our dignity,” my friend replies.

True it is! Most of the Arab countries which experienced revolutions have been under autocratic regimes for three, four, or even more decades, and solving all our problems overnight is impossible. However, the youth have been frustrated as the repercussions of the new governments mount—during the first days and months of the revolutions, Arab peoples in the diaspora used to return to embrace their countries and take part in the historical changes happening. Today, those people have gone back and many locals want to immigrate because the situation is going from bad to worse.

No doubt, there were advantages besides the disadvantages of those revolutions. I talk about Yemen in specific and I can tell you that our biggest advantage we experienced was in empowering more women in the decision making process.

We went from only one woman out of the 301 seats in the country’s parliament to 30 percent of the seats for women in the post uprising semi-parliament, the National Dialogue Conference. That was the best merit of the uprising in my opinion. On the other hand, we had impunity for murderers, we had zero elections of any form over the past three years, we suffer from infinitely powerful militias, around half of the 25 million populations are starving, the war against free media still continues, and the road is still bumpy.

What frustrates me the most is that the US administration and neighbouring royal countries, like KSA and UAE, have been pushing for their own political agenda in our uprising and hence our country. How can I advocate for my country's sovereignty while all my people care about is surviving? People have more urgent concerns. They are worried about the sky-rocketing food prices, the fuel shortage, the electricity blackouts, the water shortage; democracy and freedom of the press are the least of the people's priorities at the moment.

Then my inner dilemma comes. I know that the power of words is incredible, and as a writer and blogger I have a duty in advocating for justice and respect for human rights. I do what I can do but most of my energy is wasted in resisting the frustration. You and I know exactly that things are not going forward as we wish them to be, and that is the reality for us and the public in the Arab world. How do you deal with that dilemma, Lina? How do you keep on fighting like that? Are you happy with how things have been in the post-revolution Tunisia? I don't know which one is much better, to let your dictator have an impunity or to let him escape to Saudi Arabia? #IWasBeingCynical

You have always been so brave and diligent, what's the secret to that?

The way I comfort myself for the misery my country is going through is by considering the fact that we had more than three decades of political stagnation and it will be a long and difficult process to get things to a stable democracy. Change takes time, but where can we find the commitment and patience?

I look forward to your reply!

Truly yours,

* * *

26 July, 2014

Dear Afrah,
How are you? I really miss you. Two years have already elapsed since we met for the last time. Do you remember our first real meeting? It was in Stockholm for an event organized by PEN Sweden in 2011. At the time, our Tunisian revolution was really fresh. I was really optimistic and full of hope for my country and all the countries that are part of what the occident wrongly calls “the Arab Spring,” including yours. Well, I don’t know if you share my point of view or not, but I really hate the labels like “Arab Spring” and “Jasmine Revolution.” Those who coined them do not know that what happened in Tunisia has nothing to do with the seacoasts and the Jasmine bunches that we see on postcards. I have the feeling that they have never realized that hundreds of people had lost their lives to achieve the revolution. And I think it is the same for the term “Arab Spring.” I absolutely think that every country of the region has its political, geographic, historical, and social characteristics. In this sense, we cannot put them all in the same basket. For that matter, the different outcomes of the revolutions and uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain are great. They are proof that we cannot evoke an “Arab Spring.”

Well, I really do not know where to start. But let me give you a clearer idea about what is happening in Tunisia. Indeed, I can imagine your eagerness to know what is going on in each single country of North Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, I noticed that the media are either overestimating or underestimating what is going here.

Do you remember my happiness and enthusiasm? I was then dreaming of the fulfilment of the aims of our revolution. I don’t really know how to describe my feelings now. A plethora of events happened since we last met.

After the departure of the dictator Ben Ali, many transitional governments ruled the country. We have opted for the option of electing a constituent assembly who would draft a new constitution within a period of one year in the hope of having a real change and a new departure. We had so-called “transparent and fair” elections. “Ennahdha” an Islamist party won a plurality in the elections. The world applauded Tunisia and congratulated us for this success in the democratic process. “Ennahdha” was thought to be a moderate Islamist party. But let me tell you this secret off record: I have never believed this story. I personally think that politics and religion do not mix. Moderate Islamism is just a big lie, a rumour and myth. I strongly believe that what happened next is a great proof of my sayings.

It is true that “Ennahdha” has sought to reassure us, as a great number of Tunisians, and mainly secularists, were nervous about the prospect of Islamists having the rule in Tunisia. They said they wouldn’t ban alcohol, stop tourists from wearing bikinis on the beaches, or impose Islamic banking. But what happened next showed that this was not true. A few days after the election, we started to hear discourses about the use of Sharia as the main source of legislation in the new constitution. We heard some Islamist leaders talking about the amendment of some articles regarding the code of personal status, the series of laws guaranteeing women’s rights, and organizing relationships within the family, mainly the one banning polygamy. Those discourses have been followed by attempts to apply these changes. In the summer of 2012, the Islamist representatives of the constituent assembly tried to use the word complementarity between men and women instead of equality between men and women. The civil society had to play the role of watchdog to prevent any attacks on the secularity of the country, on human rights in general, and women rights in particular. Yes, my dear, instead of discussing the real problems of our country, which are mainly economic, social, and those linked to freedom and dignity, they derailed the discourse into one that is linked to religion and identity. It was a useless and false debate that divided Tunisians.

Meanwhile, signs of the rise of an extremist wave of Islamists were clear and instead of limiting and putting an end to their actions, the Islamist government had been too lenient to their different violent acts, discourses of hatred, and defamations targeting secularists. This allowed them to infiltrate Tunisian society and to plant their seeds and to proliferate everywhere.

As I told you earlier, the elected representatives of the constituent assembly were supposed to draft a new constitution within a period of one year, but we had to wait for about three years to have this constitution and its price has been very expensive: Two political assassinations and dozens of assassinations within the army and the police. Yes, terrorism found its way to Tunisia due to the lenience and clemency of our Islamist rulers with religious extremists. Dreams of freedom and dignity turned into a very awful nightmare.

The economic situation is very bad, too, and so are the security and human rights conditions. It is true that the world applauded and greeted us for this new constitution, qualifying it as revolutionary, secular, and modernist. Nevertheless, a meticulous reading of the text will show us the different gaps and tricks included in the different articles. Their vagueness and their broadness open the door for different interpretations. Indeed, we can find the thing in its opposite in the same article, as in the case of Article 6, which states that:

“The State is the guardian of religion. It guarantees liberty of conscience and of belief, the free exercise of religious worship and the neutrality of the mosques and of the places of worship from all partisan instrumentalization. The State commits itself to the dissemination of the values of moderation and tolerance and to the protection of the sacred and the prohibition of any offense thereto. It commits itself, equally, to the prohibition of, and the fight against, appeals to Takfir [charges of apostasy] and incitement to violence and hatred.”

This article is full of inconsistencies and overloaded with meaning and references that are filled with contradictions. Moreover it is too vague and might thus allow repressive interpretations. The new constitution is full of such examples. But let’s suppose that this constitution is the most revolutionary constitution on earth and that it is one that protects human rights and that introduces real changes. Is it enough to have ink on paper? What about putting it into practice?

A few months ago, a senior reporter from the UN visited Tunisia and declared that the old practices of the previous regime are almost the same when it comes to the respect of human rights. He mainly focused on torture in police stations and prisons. Let me say that I totally agree with him I’ve been myself victim of the violence of the police more than once while taking part in peaceful demonstrations.

A few months after the departure of the dictator, when asked about the things we have obtained, I used to say that it is mainly freedom and freedom of speech. Today I do not think that I have an answer to such a question. I have the feeling that they are anew trying to stifle us and to prevent us from expressing ourselves. Today you can express yourself freely but you have to expect arrest and prison, or even death, like what happened with the two martyrs, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi.

Dear Afrah, as I told you at the beginning of my letter, I can’t describe my feelings, and I can’t organize my thoughts. The situation is sometimes chaotic and it is vague all the time. You have asked me about my ability to keep on fighting for my country. I really do not know how to answer this question. Let me say it is the love I have for Tunisia and for my people. It is linked to the principles and ideals that my father engraved in my soul. Today, I am living under the close protection of the police, as my name was found in different death lists found in the houses of terrorists raided by the security forces. This gives me more power, energy, and willingness to fight for Tunisia. This is a great proof that what I am doing has an important impact.

Just like you, we have dreamt of building a new country where every citizen would enjoy citizenship and take part in the process of improving the situation. Unfortunately, the task is not as easy as we have imagined it. Toppling a dictator is not sufficient to change things. Today, I see the return of the figures of the old regime on the political scene and their unions with their retrograde forces. Today I have great fears. I am afraid that terrorism will conquer my country and other parts of the Arab world; furthermore, I am worried to think that Tunisia will be a police state anew. Indeed, faced with the rise of extremism, people started to talk about allowing the police forces to react without limits, to give them all the prerogatives to act freely, and to avoid talking about the protection of human rights as long as they are fighting terrorism. Unfortunately, this is how we loose our rights and dignity.

But I am still fighting. I am still dreaming and I am full of hope. I guess that you are having the same feelings, too. Can you tell me more about your expectations for your country? I want to have a clearer idea about what is happening.


* * *

31 July, 2014

Dear Lina,
As I read your letter, I had the realization that the better description of where we are today is not a “post- Arab Spring phase”; it is rather a “post-utopia phase.” That glory we once saw during the first days of our revolutions was just a myth. I believe it is time to brace ourselves for, probably, the toughest time in our lives. I'm afraid the Arab Spring generation will be as traumatized as the Al-Naksah (1967 Arab—Israeli war) generation. Each tasted some kind of defeat.

First of all, I understand that you oppose the label “Arab Spring” and how the international media has been calling our souls, bodies, blood, and sacrifices a so-called spring. I agree with your point of view and I might add a fact that not all people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are uniquely Arabs. The ethnic scope in the MENA region is wide. For instance, there are Jewish, Coptics, and other minorities. But, to be honest, I think in history books it’s going to be called the “so-called Arab Spring.” I meant that humorously.

Secondly, hearing about the bad situation in Tunisia makes me only think of how Yemen is way behind in its political reform steps. I hear your frustration but I really admire the progress Tunisia has made, nevertheless. Take Yemen! We are still at the drafting stage for our coming constitution. But that does not mean whatsoever that I'm undermining the regression in Tunisia, which you mentioned in your letter.

Regarding your question, before I tell you about my expectations for my country, let me give you a snapshot of how distorted the path of our revolution has been. Our country has been cursed with an opposition political power that is as corrupt and unjust as the ruling political power itself. During the early stage of Yemen’s Uprising, it made a strong stance in support of the people’s revolution and when the security forces’ crackdown on protesters became heavier, the opposition made a compromise with the ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, for a power-transfer deal, made with the sponsorship of the US administration, the Saudis, and the Emirates. Since then, we have no voice in making any decision in the country. As I told you in my previous letter, we had ZERO election over the past three years. But I have to tell you something very important about Yemen’s politics: it is extremely influenced by a tribal structure, in which the tribe has its own system and it’s like a small state inside the state. For instance, the ousted president, Ali Abduallah Saleh, belonged to one of the largest tribes in Yemen and that gave him a specific tribal power in mobilizing the fellows in his tribe and gaining other tribes’ approvals, and so on.

Additionally, democracy is a word that is used in Yemen but has never been practiced. For example, before the unification between the north and south of Yemen (1990), the southern part was named, “The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen,” hence democracy was mentioned. Nevertheless, the political system in the Yemeni provinces in the southern part of the country was a dictatorship. During the nineties, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Yemen was united, and a democratic multi-party system was implemented to conquer the dictatorial system that prevailed before the unification. Yemen has been using a multi-party system in the sense of a modern democracy for the past 24 years.

But during all this time, those two political systems have been weakened by the dominance of the tribal system—and specifically the exclusive male system of the tribes. More importantly, the strong presence of the tribes is extremely apparent not because they rebel against the state, but because there is a wide corruption and weakness of state institutions.

Sadly, there were no grand political achievements following the uprising, over those past three years. Our ousted president, Saleh, is today regarded as someone who still rules the country indirectly as he is still the head of the ruling political party (the General People's Congress), while he enjoys complete impunity from the atrocities committed during the 2011 protests throughout the country. The current transitional president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, came to power via a “one-man presidential election” in 2012. He embodies a big part of the former president’s rule, as Hadi himself was Saleh's vice for 16 years.

Moreover, there is a grand coalition between political, tribal, and frantic religious powers in suppressing any secular and leftist political powers. They also continue to overlook the South's demand for secession. The only change we witnessed is that Yemen was made into federalism—it’s still vague what that will lead to.

While we’re still trying to figure out our way to a concrete democracy and to peace, dark times are ahead of us. As I write to you now, there are riots across the country. People are blocking streets and burning tires to protest today’s raised fuel prices, which the government doubled in an attempt to reform government subsidies and to narrow the deficit. I predict the consequences to be severe; over half of the 25 million people are living under an acute level of poverty. The average person in Yemen lives on less than two dollars per day.

I’m not sure what my expectations are for my country. Things are going from bad to worse. What gives me hope is that I’m also seeing some fantastic social transformations by the young generation, who refuse to get frustrated by the status quo. For instance, women’s political participation has been remarkably significant; the youth broke the family’s monopoly over all the decision-making, as they took divergent stances toward the revolution; there is an increased sense of coexistence and cultural pluralism; the language of weapons is no longer pervasive; and finally, online social networks have created platforms for the public to get engaged, express themselves, and be heard.

I resist being pessimistic. I am realistic with a focus on the bright side, and I send you loads of positivity to continue being an inspiring person, as you always have been.

Peace and love,

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