Nov 23 2005

WSIS in Tunis

Published by at 4:54 am under Blogs

Thursday November 17

It only occurred to me while waiting for the fog to clear up in the plane on the Queen Alia Airport . Seated next to me in the Air France flight to Paris was Washington Post bureau chief in the French capital John Anderson. When he asked me why I was going through Paris to get to Tunis , I realized that this was yet another example of the plague that has been infecting the Arab world. Jordan has a daily flight to Paris and other European capitals but once a week flight to neighboring Arab state Tunis . And this was not a problem with Jordan, my travel agent failed to find anything in nearby Arab countries for a connecting flight to Tunisia . If Arabs are one day expected to raise the level of inter Arab business from the current single digit levels, the very least will require daily flight from and to the major capitals of the countries that make the Arab world.

The fog in Amman delayed us over an hour an a half from the scheduled departure time, just long enough for me to miss my connecting flight. But Paris being a much better trade partner than any Arab countries had yet another flight on the same day to Tunis . Having left home in Amman at 6am I finally arrived in Tunis at 7pm.

Once in the Tunisian capital it became clear that this pleasant touristic attraction is nothing less than a classical police state. After passport control you and your luggage have to go through metal detectors. I asked the police in charge if they don’t trust the French airport security and he insisted that this procedure when you arrive is done in major airports. As a regular traveler I told him otherwise but he was not willing to hear another opinion. As soon as you arrive, as guest to the World Summit for Information Society refereed to as WSIS, you are escorted to a huge tent city by way of a street with a big sign -Al Zaim (the leader) Yaser Arafat Street- where your name is checked in computers and once you are approved you go to another desk equipped with cameras and your photo is taken a badge is printed out and you are instructed to keep the bade on your chest the entire time you are at the conference. When I asked I was told that 23,000 people have come to the summit exceeding expectations.

To get to Al Omara hotel, a small 3 star accommodation we had to go through a few checkpoints. Our badges and the fact that we were shuttled in by the host country helped but it was impossible to deny the security nature of the Ben Ali regime. At the entrance of the hotel our badge was again checked and a plain clothed security man asked me to step into a small room where he opened all my luggage and checked it. Having come from metal detector free now security conscious Amman , I thought to my self that once this major summit is over the Tunisians will have plenty of spare metal detectors that they can lend to the Jordanians.

The problems of Tunis are much bigger than metal detectors. On the plane to Tunis , the major western newspapers were full of articles talking about the absence of freedoms in this Mediterranean country. After arriving I am told of stories about events banned by the government (an alternative summit was planned by locals and forbidden by the government). A number of foreign officials including the Swiss and German ambassadors were manhandled by the police, a few foreign journalists were roughed up and a hunger strike was on to protests the absence of freedoms requesting the release of political prisoners (numbered anywhere from 400-600).

Friday November 18, 2005

End of a hunger strike, but nothing in the local press

I called my Tunisian friend Seham Ben Sedri and she tells me that she is not allowed to visit me at the hotel, we decide on the nearby Paris restaurant at 10:30 and she promised to take me to the law office where the six hunger strikers are scheduled at 11 to hold a press conference declaring the end of their hunger strike.

Seham was angry at the Ben Ali government for not giving anything to the opposition movement. None of the Tunisian NGOs were allowed to attend the WSIS because they were refused accreditation (some in fact got it through international NGOs), the cancellation of the alternative summit upset her and the security actions in general made her unhappy. She compared to me the situation in Tunis to nearby Algiers . The Algerians with 35 million have a 90,000 security force while Tunis with 10 million have 135,000 (this doesn’t include intelligence operatives and informers). Seham had in the past been imprisoned for her efforts for freedom. Her internet website along with all protest web sites are blocked for fellow Tunisians. Ironically the WSIS location was the only place in the Republic of Tunis that internet connections was not blocked.

She recalled the days of Tunis ’s founding president Habib Bourgeiba who she said never claimed to be democratic but as a young woman she was working with a women’s organization which regularly complained about human rights violations. “ At least then they responded to our complaints point by point, now they don’t even recognize us let alone our detailed complaints.” Apparently the problem has spread from human rights organizations to the courts, a club for judges was closed down and a group of pro regime judges was appointed in their place. The Tunisian press of course has not mentioned anything critical including completely ignoring the hunger strike.

On issues connected to WSIS Seham who has been busy with issues related to the summit confirmed to me what I had been told. All major issues were previously agreed upon in pre conference meetings held in Geneva . The issue of governance of the Internet was resolved in a compromise, for the time being the US non profit organization ICANN which issues domain names will continue to do that- it actually received high marks from all in its none interference policies. Some type of bridging international organization will be discussed in the next meeting due to be held in Athens next year. Attempts by various countries to demand access to internet on claims of security were rebuffed in the name of privacy, cyber crime was dealt with but not resolved and the issue of host countries was discussed in detail in Tunis . According to Seham the most important issue agreed upon was the fact that the European Union has decided to invoke the second clause in their partnership agreement with Tunis that demands that the latter respect human rights.

The visit to the hunger strikers was very interesting. Cramped in a second floor office room was literally hundreds of people, as you enter various leaflets and booklets are pushed on you (for a small contribution). A large sign called for the right to freedom of expression. Once we made it to the second floor people were asking some of the locals to leave in order to allow journalists in. When we got close one of the hunger strikers was passionately speaking in French, afterwards he and his colleagues took up a date and ate it symbolically ending the strike. A statement read in Arabic indicated that the strike had accomplished its goals of raising awareness to the problem of freedoms even though their demands for the release of political prisoners have not happened. The presence of a mike bearing the Al Jazzera logo ensured that Arabic was given equal footing to French. I left to go to the WSIS conference where I had to give a presentation but I was told by a colleague that after the press conference a small demonstration ensued and was besieged by riot police and finally one of the former hunger strikers called on the demonstrators from the window to withdraw back to the building and avoid a clash with the police.

To get to the WSIS conference you can take a shuttle bus or a taxi to the conference compound called Karma. Some three kilometers away the taxis and busses stop and you have to get out and take one of the conference shuttle buses (of course after checking your badge).

At the entrance of the summit tent compound the badge is scanned into a machine that produces a much larger photo of the carrier and all his or her details. Once inside the compound visitors are converted into a high tech world entitled ICT4all. Hundreds of booths for countries, IT companies, UN agencies and major IT related organizations as well as banks, restaurants. In every booth computers, lap tops, flat screens, wide screens all on line often talking about an issue or a project that is of interest to the group or country. Handouts of all sorts shapes and colors, booklets, Cds, and other paraphernalia are available for the thousands of people rooming the exhibition hallways. Jordan had a rather modest booth apparently organized by the Talal Abu Ghazaleh group. Israel had a fancy booth entitled Israeli efuture which had a good number of curious visitors. Not far from that booth was the Iranian booth which was much bigger than the Israeli one and was crowded with visitors. Samsung had a fancy exhibit of their products with pretty women dressed in short skirts and tall boots attracting many of the men folk.

My destination was the Amarc booth. I was the guest of the world association of community radios and I was asked to speak about the AmmanNet experiment in the session they were responsible for and entitled Community radio and ICT. The small Amarc booth was crowded with people working on lap tops editing audio material which they were streaming around the world.

My friend Nedal Mansour showed up and we went for coffee near the fabulously prepared Tunisian quarter. A replica of the old city of Tunis with the wall and city gate was recreated in a beautiful décor with two huge screens literally coming out of the walls showing the latest speaker at the summit.

My presentation went very well and attracted interest with one south American attendee saying that our style of pushing the envelope and using technology to advance a social agenda is something that others especially in Latin America and Africa should learn from.

In the evening we all went out for dinner. Riding in a local taxi with some of our foreign friends, I find out that the driver speaks no foreign languages. As we drive by a huge portrait of the president of Tunis I asked him in Arabic what he thought of Ben Ali. Oh he is a great president he replied. What about the hunger strikers I asked? What hunger strike, there is no such thing in Tunis he replied reflecting what is clearly not being covered in the local Tunisian press. They are on strike demanding that the political prisoners be released. What prisoners he again replied we have no political prisoners in Tunis . Again I say to him that there are in fact 400 prisoners but the local press doesn’t cover that. A little agitated he comes again, this can’t be, my son is an officer in the jail authority and he never mentioned this to me. Politely I asked the older man if he has ever asked his son whether any Tunisians are in prison for political reasons. No he replied and quickly changed the subject.Saturday November 19th

Police state even on vacation spots

Now that the conference ended, I was asked to attend a special board meeting of Amarc which was to discuss the upcoming global conference of the world community radios to be held in Amman in November. Most of the participants were happy to put away their badges and we rod a mini bus to the resort seashore town of Hamamat . When we arrived at the entrance of the hotel a problem ensued. The hotel security guard refused to allow the bus to process into the parking lot unless everyone showed their badge. But the conference is over we replied almost in unison. The plain clothes security would have none of that he insisted that he couldn’t do it. As we frantically searched for our badges it became clear that some had their badges in their suitcases, many of which were buried under a mountain of suitcases. Different attempts to convince the security guard failed and we decided on a new approach. Some (who had badges) would go to speak to the hotel managers while, I, as an Arab speaker, will work on the security man.

I came down spoke in Arabic and tried to reason with him. He was adamant. Jokingly I asked him where his orders came from and can you call them. He replied I have my orders. Did it come from the president of the republic. Yes he replied. Well call him and tell him that people are coming on a vacation after the conference was over. Unconvinced and refusing to move he insisted no one will enter without a badge. Can we come in and unload the suitcases, I reason, sure but no one without a badge can come in.

In the meantime talks with hotel management produced an interesting result. We are at the wrong hotel. We went back to the bus drove to the correct hotel. There was no security guard, no one asked us for our badge, we entered, were well treated and were even served a nice cold welcome citrus fruit drink.



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