TEDxCarthage notebook: After the Tunisian revolution, imagining the way forward

Posted by:

Fares Mabrouk speaks at TEDxCarthage

I’m just back from Tunisia where I attended (and spoke at) TEDxCarthage, held in Tunis. It has been a short visit, only two days (and this post is just a quick note without pretense). But it was a very intense visit, and I come back with a lot of hope and optimism for the future of this country, and — despite the current events in Libya — for the entire region. I could visit the city, discuss with many people, and TEDxCarthage was a great event. I have found a calm city, at no moment I had any feeling of insecurity. Sure, soldiers protect ministries and embassies, and tanks are on display on crucial locations, but just next to them people sit at cafe tables and discuss politics, and the discussions are not shallow. Nobody whispers anymore when it comes to naming the (former) president. There is a lack of direction right now, with most of the old political class out of business (the tall building of the former president’s party is now empty, and so is part of the infamous Interior ministry, even the plaque with the name of it above the door has disappeared, and there are few policemen in the streets), and the new political class still not fully formed, and is engaged — in these very days — in discussions over the rules of the July 24 constitutional election, in which Tunisians are going to elect the parliament tasked with writing a new constitution. But despite this lack of direction, the collective intentions seem canalized towards a proper political modernization. Yes, the people I have met, and the TEDx attendees, are a specific subset of the population, but talking with national guardsmen in the streets, overhearing discussions at the next table, reading the local press, discussing with journalists and rappers and dancers who were once censored, made me optimistic about this country. But of course the country needs help and support: academic exchanges, technical help in designing democratic institutions, etc. Also, I saw very few tourists.

Here a photo of the former Interior ministry building guarded by the military:

Now, on to TEDxCarthage. First it’s worth noting that many of the young people involved with organizing it were among those who were in the streets back in January and were key in making the revolution happen. Despite this obvious, and natural, political background, the event was not a political happening. It was perfectly in the spirit of TEDx: a forum for discussion, targeted at its audience and attuned to this specific moment in the history of the country. The audience was mostly young people, under 35. Mixed: secular women next to women in veil, young bearded Muslims next to non-religious types. And there is no way to underestimate the impact of mobile phones and social networks: these (Tunisia as well as Egypt and elsewhere) were and are not “facebook revolutions”, but facebook/twitter/cellphones and digital photos/videos are the infrastructure of them. They would have happened anyway, but over a much longer period of time. The twitter stream out of TEDxCarthage was insanely intense. These young people are connected beyond belief — only 35% of Tunisians have access to the Internet, but cell phone penetration is over 110 %. At the end of the event I took this photo from the stage while the organizer Houssem Aoudi was thanking the speakers: most of the attendees were photographing with their cell phones.

In Egypt, Moubarak’s government had understood that cell phones and the Internet are among the weapons that will bring down dictators — and closed them down for two days. The problem is that you can’t shut down the Internet and cell phone networks without hurting the whole economy — banks, airlines, tourism, corporations, universities.

The speakers now. They spoke French, or Arabic, or English, of mixes of them — in particular of Arabic and French, which in Tunisia seem to be a single language, with people switching from one to the other mid-sentence seamlessly, without even a glimpse of hesitation. Theme of the event: Imagine History (Read: the history they are writing now). The intent was to explore democracy of course, and what a democratic country and a democratic society should look like, in the Arab context. Note that the event took place on March 20, anniversary of Tunisia’s independence from France (1956), but this was barely mentioned, the focus being on the “new” freedom.

The opening speaker was Nagla Rizk, associate dean for graduate studies at the American University in Cairo. She spoke about education, freedom and nation-building, discussed Tahrir Square events, the new bottom-up reality in many Arab countries, and the need to capitalize quickly on the well of new ideas that are pouring out of these movements. Sami Ben Romdhane was next. He’s the head of IT infrastructure at eBay in California, and a Tunisian, and a hero to young, tech-savvy Tunisians. His talk was about tech innovation opportunities in a free country: how to create a culture of innovation in Tunisia, what could the government do, what could private organizations do, what could individuals do.

Nicolas Kayser-Bril, one of the founders of data-journalism and aggregation website Owni in Paris, spoke about press freedom, crowdsourcing, online journalism. Fares Mabrouk (shown in the photo at the top of this page) was next. Tunisian, Yale Fellow, he is starting the Arab Policy Institute, a liberal think-tank for the Arab world. But he didn’t even mention it in his speech, which was about “the moments like this one when everything is possible.”

Dancer Nawel Skandrani then gave a talk interspersed with dance where she spoke about the role of different cultural expressions in a free society — with a strong angle on dance of course: back many years ago she founded the Tunisian National Ballet, then resigned when a culture minister decided that ballet was not aligned with Islamic values, and has been fighting ever since to allow the diversity of cultural expressions to exist in the country. And an example came right afterwards, with a powerful rap duo, Lak3y, performing (rap was also censored and pushed into the underground under the old regime). At other moments during the event, Salaa Farzit, a 50-something singer of traditional music, sang for the first time in public an old song of his that was censored until last January, while metal-rock band Yram gave an energizing three-song performance.

Majed Khalfallah then spoke forcefully about open government — about making access to information a constitutional right, and mandating transparency online for public contracts and bids, for instance. Aboubakr Jamai closed the event. He’s the former editor of a recently defunct (or rather closed down by the regime) magazine in Morocco, Le Journal. His was a powerful speech about “The necessary madness of believing in ourselves.”

Among the small stories that are part of the bigger story, this one: there were demonstrations in Morocco too in the past few weeks, repressed by the regime. So a group of young people decided to demonstrate differently. One day they declared it was “blood donors day” and went out en masse to donate blood to hospitals. The next day they called for people to offer a flower to the first police officer they saw, and so they did. Revolutions have their own poetics.

As said, it was a perfect TEDx: perfect in spirit, in corresponding to the audience, and to the historic moment. The more I attend TEDx events like this one, the more I’m in awe at the TEDx organizers and the TED community, and glad of being able to offer such a neutral platform for key conversations.

— Bruno Giussani, TED’s European Director and host of TEDGlobal