Don't look away and write about it!
That is how you topple a dictatorship, says Tunesian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni. If this is also the way you set up a democracy is yet to be seen.
So this is a what a rebel looks like these days: 158 centimeters tall, weighing about 50 kilos, 28 years old. Lina Ben Mhenni looks fragile in her yellow blouse and the slim blue jeans. But the piercing in her right eyebrow and the defiant red streaks in her black hair hint at the strength that this young, modern woman from Tunesia harbours.
"I don't speak for anyone but myself"
Lina Ben Mhenni does not like to be called the voice of the Tunesian revolution. "For the hundredth time: I don't speak for anyone but myself" she writes on her facebook-site. But even if she is not THE voice, her words still have an enormous weight. Her blog "A tunesian girl" was widely acknowledged. It first informed the blogger scene about what was going on in Tunesia and then the non-virtual world learnt about it, as well.
Lina Ben Mhenni was one of the first ones to write about the 17th December 2010, when the young unemployed academic Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid because he thought there was no future he would miss. In doing so, he triggered a revolution that toppled two Arab regimes (Tunesia and Egypt), caused three others to falter (Jemen, Bahrain and Syria) and ignited one civil war (Libya). And there is no end of this in sight.
"When I heard about what happend in Sidi Bouzid, I did't have to think twice: I simply rushed there", says Lina. What she saw in the little central Tunesian city is fascinating her ever since. "The crucial thing was not, that someone took his life because he lacked any perspective whatsoever", she explains. There were incidents like this one before, and no revolution was triggered by them.
This time, however, the people around reacted differently to it. The neighbours took to the streets, expressing their anger about the tragic death. For the first time they claimed something had to change. And they wouldn't shut up so that their outrage attracted ever more people who joined them.
"I knew: Something is starting to move"
"When I saw that the people break out of their resignation, unwilling to endure the arbitrariness any longer, I knew: Something is starting to move", says Lina and her eyes still show that certain spark months after everything happend.
The young blogger wants more people to learn about the events. She posts quick, short-breathed messages about what she sees and hears on the streets ("The police use tear gas against the protesters"). And she records videotapes for her blog which attracts more and more people.
The fact that she knows how to do this has a lot to do with the way she was brought up. Lina used a computer for the first time when she was 15. By Tunesian standards, her family is well-off. Her father works for the administration of the transport department. "I was educated in a fairly open way, my father calls himself a feminist. He even helps with chores – that is pretty unusual for men in Tunesia."
During her time at school, Lina explores the internet and is fascinated by this unknown world. When she learns about a blog through a magazine, she knows she wants one herself.
"I turned into a cyberactivist"
With the years going by, human rights and the freedom of speech become prominent topics on Lina's blog. "I turned into a cyberactivist", she says today. In 2008 she manages to receive a Fulbright scholarship for Tufts University where she teaches Arabic. "The time in the US left me appreciating the benefits of a civil society", says Lina.
Upon returning to Tunesia, her blog becomes more political and her demands for a more open society ever louder. "When Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire, I simply did what I was doing before: not looking away and writing about what I saw."
The fact that the revolution broke lose on that very 17th of December was surprising even to Lina. "There were demonstrations in the years before, but they were suffocated before they reached a critical mass. Tunesians were simply not connected enough at that time." The individuals were angry by themselves, not knowing there were many more who felt the same way.
Then, facebook came and changed the setting radically. Between October 2009 and January 2011, the number of facebook users rose by 200 percent. Currently, more than 2.5 million Tunesians hold an account, representing a quarter of the Tunesian population.
It wasn't the isolation alone
But it wasn't the isolation alone that prevented the revolution from happening. In Lina's opinion, the government contributed a whole deal more than it probably was aware of. In 2009, the regime celebrated the international year of the youth with big advertisements.
"At the same time, these praised young people had no jobs and no opportunities. An official campaign like that of course meant a massive provocation", Lina says. Together with her friends, she intensified blogging and organised demonstrations. That of course could not go unnoticed by the Tunesian government.
"I was followed constantly by some shady men whom I started to recognize after a while." Lina knows the kidnapping stories, has heard about torture and endless interrogations by the secret police. And is afraid the same could happen to her, too. Her then boyfriend, an activist like her, was taken to a prison and only released after an immense campaign, Lina launched over the internet.
She supposes the regime gave in because they detested the attention the campaign drew. Although her shadows did not stop following her, Lina continued fighting the status quo. Even when the regime censored her blog, broke into her parents house and stole her computers, she resisted being silent.
Lina Ben Mhenni about fear
Doesn't the woman know what fear is? "Of course I do", she says, "anything else would be inhuman." But fear can be handled if you have a true goal, she explains. The people in Tunesia had been silent for too long in her opinion. Now, the dictator is gone after 23 years of repressing his people – and one could presume that Lina is at the end of her fight. "Nowhere near there", she rejects this suggestions resolutely.
"Ben Ali had installed a system that relied upon 2 million party members. He might be gone, but they are still around and control the corridors of power." The same with corruption, manipulated media and police – everything still there, she claims. That is why their fight has become more difficult, instead of easier: when before they fought against a well-known enemy, now the front runs along hidden lines.
"Obviously, there is a lot to do still", Lina concludes. And at the same time she knows that things don't go fast enough for many young people in Tunesia. "There is a great potential for frustration in this." She warns against expecting results from the revolution too soon. Creating job opportunities, changing the design of government bodies will take time, she foresees.
Time that the young revolutionaries might not have. While they grow ever more impatient, Lina had to learn to be exactly that at a very young age. She suffered from a kidney disease that forced her to have dialysis regularly – until she had a major breakdown and was more dead than alive.
Linas mother finally decided to donate one of her kidneys so that her daughter could have her life back. "What I learnt from this experience is certainly patience: You cannot always have what you want and when you want it."
"I don't think that this a good idea"
The next thing Lina will need her strength for are the elections. Originally, they were scheduled for sommer but then postponed until the 23rd of October – apparently, because the opposition groups should be given more time to organise party structures. "I don't think that this a good idea", Lina says.
"What happens between now and then is Ramaddan – a time when secular groups have no platform to talk to people and the Islamists start their campaign." Already now the Islamists are the only visible campaigners on Tunesian streets. According to Lina, they provide food for the hungry and send doctors to the sick.
The young blogger is very much afraid that her compatriots might be deceived by this manoeuvre. "The worst case would be if the Islamists would win the vote in October and get in power by democratic means. We would then commit the same mistake the Palestinians made when they voted for Hamas", Lina said.
The times have changed in Tunesia
The times have changed in Tunesia – and the Islamists have noticed that as well. For their campaign, they resort to means only the revolutionaries had used so far. "They buy facebook groups with thousands of members to spread their messages", Lina says. Also, they have learnt how to create a storm through the internet.
"They call upon everyone to boycot me because of my blog and the interviews I give." She seems fairly appalled that the Islamists try to beat her with her means. She finds those virtual assaults "annoying and abusive", but refuses to let them intimidate her.
"They are needed back at home"
Lina wishes that others would also endure more: She condemns that many young men flee from Tunesia to Europa by boat these days. "They are needed back at home to build a new country – and instead, they are cowards and leave."
Nevertheless, she believes not only those young men can be blamed for the crowded refugee camps in southern Europe. "In France and Italy, they don't stop complaining about the steady influx of refugees – while we in Tunesia accept thousands of refugees from Libya everyday. And for sure, our economic situation is far more difficult than theirs!"
Still, she refuses international aid for Tunesia. "What good would that do for us? It only creates dependencies and it keeps the people from taking the responsibility over their own lives." If the West wants to help, she suggest, it should send tourists.
Their influence can be great
While the bloggers in Tunesia don't perceive themselves as a political force, their influence can be great – as long as they unite behind the same goal. What happens if that common goal disappears, because the common enemy does, Lina had to learn recently. "In the first weeks until we made Ben Ali leave, I fought alongside with my boyfriend", she tells.
"After a while, I apparently become too outspoken and independent for him and he told me to be more modest." When she refused and spoke her mind instead, he even became violent. "I was really disappointed of him then, especially after I had fought so hard to get him out of prison only weeks before."
Now, the two of them go separate ways as Lina had to realize: Claiming civil and women rights euphorically during a revolution and granting them afterwards sometimes are two different things.