Hédi Jaouad on Events in Tunisia

Here is an interview Tunisian writer Hédi Jaouad gave to the Times Union newspaper a few days back. Indeed, what is happening in Tunisia is one of the most positive developments in the Arab world in a long, long time. As Hédi says: “Something good could come out of this” — even if this morning, the majority of the few opposition politicians who were drafted into the interim government yesterday (a government that has 6 weeks to set up elections) resigned. It is an hour-by-hour story, and no way to know what will happen next. But tis could be a turning point not only for Tunisia, but for the whole of the Maghreb and even the Mashreq.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Hédi Jaouad watched with elation, pride and a twinge of regret this week as the people in his native Tunisia threw off the grip of a dictator.

Jaouad, 62, (Joo-AHD) has spent much of his adult life in the United States and has worked since 1989 as a French professor at Skidmore College. But he was born and raised in the North African country. His siblings still live there and he visits nearly every year. Friday, the president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia in the face of protests calling for his ouster. Dozens of Tunisians have died in clashes with police.

At home on State Street, Jaouad eagerly watched YouTube videos of protesters ripping Ben Ali’s photographs apart and vowed to open a Facebook account after reading about the important role social networking played in a country where freedom of the press is not allowed. His only regret is that he was not in Tunisia to witness the historical event in person.

“If they can maintain security, they will pull off something unprecedented in the Arab world and they will have earned it themselves without the support of the west. It will be of, by and for themselves,” Jaouad said.

He credits WikiLeaks, which leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy as being the catalyst for the revolution. The cables confirmed rumors about the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by Ben Ali’s family while many Tunisians were out of work. “The Jasmine Revolution,” named for a symbol of the good life for Tunisians, also had a martyr. In December a college-educated street vendor set himself on fire in desperation after he was hassled by corrupt police.

“It brought home the tragedy of young people who were faced with no future,” Jaouad said.

When Jaouad was a child, Tunisia was still a French colony and native Tunisians were marginalized. Jaouad’s father supported his family of seven children by working as a courier for the local government. After independence, the country’s first leader invested in its education system and promoted women’s rights.

Tunisia was stable, an exception along the North African coast. But it came at a price, Jaouad said. The government eavesdropped on its citizens, there was no free press, and corruption bloomed. Neither of Tunisia’s two leaders brought democracy.

Jaouad graduated from the University of Tunis and then studied abroad. At first he returned home to teach English, but he was intrigued by America. He met his wife, Anne Francey, an artist born in Switzerland, while working as a translator at the United Nations. The couple have two children, Suleika, a recent Princeton University graduate, and Adam, a Skidmore junior.

Increasingly during the family’s visits to Tunisia, Jaouad noticed increased frustration. He is disappointed the U.S. looked the other way while a dictator tightened his grip.

“The U.S. has to distance itself from these regimes and be proactive. After WikiLeaks, (the U.S.) should have said, ‘clean house or get out,'” Jaouad said. He also believes Ben Ali should be tried at the International Criminal Court in Hague.

Now, Jaouad is optimistic.

“Something good could come out of this,” he said.

Read more here.
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  1. January 19, 2011

    […] Hédi Jaouad on Events in Tunisia. […]

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