Tunisia: ‘This is the start of a global wave of protests’

Issue 
Lina Ben Mhenni.

Lina Ben Mhenni, 27, is a Tunisian blogger and activist for freedom of speech, women’s rights and student rights. Her blog, A Tunisian Girl, was censored under Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

During the early days of the uprising against Ben Ali that started on December 17 last year, she travelled to the rural Tunisian cities of Sidi Bouzid, Regueb and Kasserine to document police repression and catalysing protests throughout the country.

Ben Ali was overthrown on January 14, inspiring the wave of pro-democracy struggles that have broken out across the Arab world.

Ben Mhenni has been awarded the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize. She was also nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She spoke to Green Left Weekly‘s Ted Walker in Tunis.

What do you think your Nobel nomination means for Tunisia and the Arab spring?

It’s a recognition of the importance of what happened here and what is happening across the Arab world — it started here in Tunisia, but it spread to other parts of the Arab world, and then to Europe and now to the United States. This is the beginning of a global wave of protest.

How do you see the role of media in a democratic system?

Media is very important for a democratic system. When it’s independent, it can help in changing things. But when it’s manipulated and controlled, it’s a weapon against freedom and democracy.

The role of the media should be to show you the true reality, not to work for governments or dictatorships. It should reflect the perspective of citizens, not the state.

The internet has certainly opened up more space for this. Before January 14, what we had in Tunisia was not media, it was working for the system. The bloggers played the role of media in covering the revolution.

The media is still manipulated by government and political parties — and bloggers and cyber activists continue to play that role of citizen journalists.

Do you think the elections will improve the situation here in Tunisia or change any of the issues that led to the uprising against Ben Ali?

I can’t anticipate things, but the fact that in the election there are parties established by people who worked for the system and who should be tried for what they did make me pessimistic. The truth is, I don’t know if things will change or not, no-one knows at this point.

On your blog you have called the Islamist party Ennadha a “serious threat to democracy”. What do you mean by that?

Of course, I respect all opinions, but I said this because I personally think they have a double discourse. For example, when their leaders are speaking for the media they have one discourse — but on social media, in videos of their member’s behaviour, for example, where they say that women should stay at home as a solution for employment.

I’m a woman, I’m working, my mother is working, I can’t accept this. Here in Tunisia women have played an important role in building the society and the revolution. No one has a right to take away these rights.

My fear comes from this double discourse; otherwise I respect their right to take part in the elections.

Do you think the Tunisian revolution is over? Where is the struggle for democracy here now heading?

No, the revolution did not finish on January 14 — it started on January 14! Ben Ali left the country, but he is just the head of the system.

Every day I am more and more convinced that the whole system is still there. The police are back to committing violence, there are more and more limitations on freedom of speech. We can see that the justice system is not independent yet.

The fact that there are people who worked for Ben Ali presenting themselves for the elections shows that this revolution is not complete. We have to be very careful with what’s going on. Now we have these elections, we have to observe what is going to happen. After that, we will see.

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