AAM/Radio Orient Town Hall in Lebanon

Town hall participants in Tripoli, Lebanon

America Abroad Media (AAM) recently partnered with one of Lebanon’s leading radio stations — Radio Orient — to host a town hall on the escalating violence in the northern city of Tripoli. The program broadcast on Tuesday, April 1 at 11am Lebanon time, reaching a broad audience across the country.

The town hall brought together a diverse group from Tripoli’s civil society, including activists, citizens and political figures from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Panelists included:

  • Mustafa Allouch: Former senior member of the “Future Movement”, a Lebanese political movement (Sunni)
  • Areen Alhassan: Attorney and senior political activist in Tripoli (Alawite)

The panelists and audience discussed the deteriorating security situation in Lebanon due to the spill-over from the conflict in Syria and the impact of the refugee crisis on Tripoli’s economy. Audiences also shared their personal stories of how the ongoing clashes have affected their lives.

Listen to audio clips from the town hall below (in Arabic):

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Areen Alhassan: Attorney and senior political activist in Tripoli (Alawite)
“Unfortunately, Tripoli is now controlled by a group of armed militants who don’t represent in any way the different social segments of the city. All of the religious groups have their fears. We’re not saying that we don’t understand their fears, but those fears that are driving these people to fight should be appeased in dialogue. The fears are everywhere due to the sectarian nature of the Lebanese system; the Sunnites are concerned over Hezbollah and the Iranian expansion in Lebanon; the Alawites are concerned over the Syrian crisis and who will be their protector. Our duty as educated elites is to reinforce the culture of dialogue in that fighter who’s expressing his fears in combat. And instead of strengthening this militant by giving him arms, we should organize conferences to educate him that his fears won’t be resolved in combat.”

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Mustafa Allouch, Former Deputy, senior member of the “Future Movement” (Sunnite)

“The economic solution in Tripoli can be summed up in one word: Stability. Stability requires two things: Justice and the law, and security. These three things deliver stability. And stability opens the door for development; because in the past 50 years or so, the modern world has rejected the idea of a state-sponsored economy. These state-sponsored economies are those totalitarian regimes that have proved their catastrophic failure in the communist world as well as in the neighboring Arab regimes. Stability and security open the door for capital and for individual initiatives to move; at the same time the state should provide the necessary infrastructure for the capital to settle down.”

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Amal Masry: School teacher in Tripoli
“The sons and daughters of Bab Ettebaneh are suffering. Most of our students don’t tell us anything, but we know. We know from the looks in their eyes the kind of suffering they’re going through. I don’t stay on my pedestal as a teacher, I go down to them to try to help them, because they are our future, not me, I’m an old lady. Security is key. Security.”

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Sana Baroudy: Civil society activist
“Put aside the human side of the Syrian refugees’ predicament, we of course sympathize with their plight; but the Lebanese employers are now replacing the Lebanese workers with Syrian ones because Syrian labor is cheaper. Everywhere we go now we see only Syrian workers, everywhere!”

Click here to see pictures from the discussion.

Watch audience reactions to the debate in the video below.

Interview: Women’s Rights after the Arab Spring


Professor Mervat Hatem is a professor of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Hatem has written extensively about gender and politics in the Middle East and in North America. Her work examines the phenomenon of Egyptian state feminism, the impact of economic and political liberalization on Arab and Egyptian women, and the convergence of Islamist and secular views on gender.

This interview was produced as part of America Abroad’s program on Women’s Rights After the Arab Spring.

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Transcript:

Rob Sachs (RS): What is your general assessment of how the plight of women has changed since the uprisings in the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring?

Mervat Hatem (MH): Women have, from the very unfolding of the Arab Spring, played a very visible and active role. It simply confirms the historical role that they played at an important political juncture in the history of their societies. Women in the Middle East played an important role in the anti-colonial struggle and were the beneficiaries of new rights, as well as suffrage in post-colonial societies, which were as a result of all of these accomplishments. It is not really a surprise for them to appear as visible actors in the unfolding of the Arab Spring.

Obviously, with the changes associated with the protest movements that unfolded as part of the Arab Spring, some of these roles have also changed. The challenge of authority, as well as the changing relations between different groups as a result of the revolution, has also revealed some of the issues that women continue to want addressed in these societies. Part of that is relations between genders. In other words, you can argue that the issues that have surfaced as a result of the challenge or the re-definition of these power relations in societies have revealed the need to work on a re-definition of the relations that exist between men and women in the public arena, as well as in some of the issues that have not been addressed up until that point.

RS: Have there been instances where the role of women has been diminished or the rights of women have been diminished because of the Arab Spring? Whereas, there was hope that there would be more equality?

MH: Women expected to be able to benefit from the changing relations of power in society. That of course is a process that takes a long time to address. Some of the results of the Arab Spring have pushed forward some issues that these societies had not addressed until that point in time. For instance, sexual harassment has surfaced as one of the key issues that the Arab Spring underlined. In the process of trying to re-define the relations of power in these societies, these kinds of tensions and the relations between men and women, especially as it relates to the issue of sexual harassment in the streets, became issues that were clearly in need of being addressed. This was an issue that particularly became visible and prominent in the Egyptian case. Sexual harassment was one issue. Another issue was the re-definition of power relations among the different groups. Of course, the issue of the way, for instance, Islamist groups defined the appropriate roles of women, that also became an important issue that needed to be addressed. In other words, it became clear that different groups in society defined the appropriate roles of women in different ways.

As the liberals wanted very much to push forward for a more visible and a more active role for women, some of the Islamist groups were not as excited about the idea of moving in that direction. Clearly, there were different expectations about the roles that women were going to play in the changed societies that basically developed as a result of the Arab Spring.

RS: You mentioned Egypt there. What about places like Tunisia, or Turkey, or even in the Gulf States like Kuwait? How has the experience differed there for women when you have different forms of government and some directly involved in the protest like in Tunisia, or some on the side of it like in Kuwait?

MH: As a result of the rationalist movement in Tunisia in 1956, women were given rights that were ahead of their counterparts in other parts of the region. The same can be said about Turkey, as well. In Turkey, for instance, Sharia did not play an important role in the definition of the rights of women in the family. A secular, civil law governed the rules between men and women in the family.

Sharia wasn’t allowed to play an important role in the determination of the rights that men and women had in the family.

In Tunisia, there was the outright outlawing of polygamy and the equalization of the rights that men and women had in divorce. These were unusual. The cases of Turkey, as well as Tunisia, were not typical in the Middle East. These particular laws were not really challenged by the rise of Islamist groups to power.
They respected very much these laws and did not try and reverse them. In contrast, there was a backlash against women in this arena. In other words, as far as personal status laws that governed marriage, divorce, as well as the custody of children in places like Libya and Egypt.

In the Gulf, I don’t think the Arab Spring has had the kind of effect that could be seen in North Africa as well as in, let’s say, Yemen. In other words, there was no challenge of the relations of power that governed the relations between different classes, between the rulers and ruled. This is largely because the oil-producing states of the Gulf opted for buying off any opposition that might exist in those societies against the forms of government that was in place.

The exception, of course, is the case of Bahrain, where basically Saudi Arabia intervened in an alliance with the monarchy to put down the protest movement that wanted to equalize the relations between a majority that is Shiites and a monarchy that was Sunni and ruled over that majority.

Perhaps the Bahraini case is the only case where the Arab Spring- the effects of the Arab Spring – were felt in that part of the Middle East. It was atypical, meaning that no other protest movements emerged to challenge relations of power in other parts of that region, the Gulf region, that is.

Because specifically these governments opted for buying off the opposition by offering packages of economic reforms largely designed to address some of the issues that could have been used by the opposition groups to mobilize against the monarchies.

RS: When you look at the Arab Spring and what’s been most effective as a catalyst, has it been social media? Has it been protesting? Has it been getting into the parliament and changing the constitution? What is the best means for women? What has proven to be the best means for women to be a catalyst for change, a driver for change? What has proven not to be as effective?

MH: Many commentators on gender relations and the way they were affected by the Arab Spring tend to emphasize the negative effects that the Arab Spring has had. I disagree with that particular view largely because the Arab Spring actually undermined the accomplishments that women have achieved in the last 60 years, especially in areas like in education and in public work. Also, in the way that women have used their political rights, meaning that even though women’s expectations about acquiring new rights, perhaps better representation in the political arena than the ones that existed before the Arab Spring.

For instance, I mentioned the issue of sexual harassment and the need to address that issue, which had not been addressed up until that point. Also, the issue of dignity, the issue of respecting the rights of young people in particular and who had their own sets of grievances as a result of unemployment and as a result of basically not being given the kinds of opportunities, or the kind of say in shaping their own societies.

The point to remember is that if one looks at the role that women have played not just in the Arab Spring, but even in the Islamist groups, that rose to power in many parts of the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring, one is struck by the fact that women were everywhere. They belonged to the liberal opposition. They belonged to Islamist groups. They were very visible in the different arenas. They expected to get more rights. Maybe they were not able to realize that goal, but that would be a gross misrepresentation to then generalize across that very large part of the world in a homogenous way by saying that somehow women lost out as a result of the Arab Spring, or that women were able to achieve new goals.

The fact of the matter is the picture was very uneven. There are some places in which they made advances. There were in other areas in which they did not. As far as I’m concerned, it is more important to try and figure out the causes of their success, and also the causes of their inability to achieve more in certain parts of the region as well as in certain arenas in those societies.

RS: Given that then, what areas or what countries are you most optimistic about that women will continue to make advances? Where do you think that? Is there a particular country where you think that women are actually falling back and receding in their advances? What two countries do you think offer the greatest contrast?

MH: I’m resisting any attempt at generalizing because it’s a large region and difficult. Even within countries there are contrasts between the ability of certain groups. For instance, in some areas, let’s say middle class women have been able to demonstrate the fact that they take important roles in the protest movements.

For instance, working class women were also demonstrated to play an important role, also in labor unions. Perhaps the arena where women were not as well represented tended to be the political arena. That was not really the case, for instance in Tunisia.

I’m suggesting that the Islamists and the Secularists have agreed on the need to represent women in a way that’s highlighted the importance of the role that they were to play in the new political system.

The representation of women actually continued to improve in Tunisia. You have the paradox in which both the Islamists and the Secularists agreed on the importance of giving women an important role to play in the drafting of the constitution and in being represented within that constituent assembly. Tunisian women wanted to push for even more rights still. That perhaps was not realized. You have this situation in which they’re well-represented, but the women’s expectations exceeded what was being delivered. I mentioned that in the case of Egypt, there was a backlash. In other words, in Egypt, the Muslim brotherhood was not as excited about improving the representation of women, even though the women who secured seats in parliament were nominated largely or belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and not to the liberal groups.

The liberal political parties did not really nominate women in positions that were high enough in the electoral lists for them to become Members of Parliament. You have also basically a demonstration of how the so-called secular or liberal groups may not necessarily support better representation for women. In other words, it turns out that it’s not only the Islamist groups that could be more conservative in their position on women’s better political representation, but this particular attitude could also be shared by liberal groups as well.

I think it is fair to say that women have realized, as a result of the last three years since the Arab Spring, that they really face a number of different issues that they need to continue to fight for. It’s not just about making sure that their rights are not infringed upon by conservative groups in societies, but that liberal groups also demonstrate more commitment to also improve the rights of women to better representation.

Radio town hall on Tunisia’s political deadlock

Participants join the debate from the Shems FM studio in Tunis

Last Friday America Abroad Media (AAM) partnered with Shems FM to host a town hall discussion on the country’s ongoing political deadlock and its impact on Tunisians’ daily lives.

The event brought together studio audiences in Tunis, Medenine (in southern Tunisia), and the northern city of Beja. Listeners also phoned into the talk program from around the country.

Listen to the program in Arabic using the audio player below.

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Panelists included:

  • Ziad Aazari, Member of the Ennahda Movement
  • Ali Zeddini, Vice-President of the Tunisian Human Rights League

The panelists and audience – which included citizens and activists – debated the deteriorating security situation; growing unemployment in Tunisia; and the deadlock over the constitution and political process. Audiences also shared their personal accounts of how the political crisis has negatively impacted their businesses.

Click here to see pictures from the discussion.

Watch audience reactions to the debate in the video below.

Life as a H-1B worker – a first-hand account

img-us-immigrationAmong other topics, this month’s America Abroad: Immigration and the Global Talent Search, explored what life is like for immigrant workers who come to the U.S. on a temporary H-1B visa. The H-1B visa program allows employers to hire up to 65,000 foreign workers each year to fill American jobs in specialty occupations, such as science and engineering.

Mohamed Tom is an H-1B worker from Khartoum, Sudan, and is currently a medical resident at the University of Minnesota.

Listen to his story by clicking on the audio player below or continue reading below.

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Having lived with his family in Southern California for two and a half years when we was nine before going back to Sudan, Mohamed says he always wanted to return to the U.S. to work someday.

“In the back of my mind, I felt an attachment to America that never really completely went away. I felt that I was going to come back,” he says.

Mohamed returned to the U.S. in July, 2010 on a H-1B visa to begin his medical training at the University of Minnesota. He hopes to become a U.S. citizen.

“Until you get your green card, it’s unbelievable how much it drags on. You have to give up so much, to go through all this and knowing how much you have ahead… It just wears you down,” says Mohamed.

He says one of the difficulties of the H-1B visa is that it is a single-entry visa: “I can’t travel freely; so I can’t go visit my family. I’ve already been here almost three years now, and knowing that it could easily be five or six years before I go back, is something that weighs on my mind.”

Reporting by Samara Freemark for America Abroad. Photo via Flickr by SEIU International.

What is needed to develop entrepreneurship in Tunisia?

By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

Participants join a town hall discussion on entrepreneurship from Zeghouan, Tunisia.

America Abroad Media’s Tunisian office — Association Tunisie Media (ATM) partnered with Radio Mosaique FM to host a town hall discussion exploring ways to foster entrepreneurship among young Tunisians.

The event connected audiences in the coastal city of Sfax — a growing hub for entrepreneurship — and the industrial city of Zeghouan, to discuss the challenges and opportunities for young entrepreneurs in Tunisia today.

Young men and women entrepreneurs who participated in the town hall talked about the challenges they have faced starting a business in Tunisia, from raising capital to dealing with bureaucracy to the lack of professional skills and adequate training.

Faycel Zahar, who works with small businesses as a director at the National Agency for Employment and Independent Work – a department of Tunisia’s Ministry of Employment – talks about the qualities needed to be a successful as entrepreneur in the audio clip below.

(Arabic with English translation).

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Raja Tibini, the owner of a kindergaten in Zeghouan, shares her experience of starting her own business in Tunisia.

Listen in the audio clip below.

(Arabic with English translation).

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Khlifa Sboui, director of small loans at the Tunisian Bank of Solidarity, argued that the Tunisian government is constantly working to create and develop new programs to help aspiring entrepreneurs start their own businesses.

Town hall from Tunisia on the political crisis

By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

Participants join the discussion from Kasserine, Tunisia.

America Abroad Media’s Tunisian office — Association Tunisie Media (ATM) — recently partnered with Radio Shems FM to host a town hall discussion on the country’s current political crisis. The event connected audiences from the interior towns of Gafsa and Kasserine with political leaders in Tunis to discuss the intense conflict between the governing Ennahda party and the opposition, and its impact on citizens’ desire to engage in the political process.

Two years after the Tunisian revolution and the election of a constituent assembly, the basic text of the constitution has not been adopted, and the date of the next election has not been confirmed. The country is immersed in a political deadlock, the National Constituent Assembly is failing to reach a compromise on the future constitution, and Tunisians are more divided than ever.

In this partisan political environment, polls show a substantial dissatisfaction among voters with their elected officials. According to some polls, Ennahda has already lost 31% of those who trusted it on October 23, 2011, the CPR lost 39% of its constituents, and Ettakatol lost 30%.

In this town hall, we asked Tunisians from the towns of Kasserine and Gafsa, known to be particularly disenfranchised, to express their views on the direction the political process is taking in their country, and if that has affected their initial excitement with their newly-found freedom.

Kasserine resident Mohamed Zarrouk expressed his disenchantment with all political parties indiscriminately. He said none of the expectations that the Kasserine residents had when they voted in the 2011 elections were met, and the interior governorate is more disadvantaged than ever.

 

Listen to what he says below.

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(Arabic with English translation)

Zeina Khmayli, an active member of the CPR party in Gafsa, was more optimistic about the political process. He believes that the current relatively chaotic situation is only normal in any democracy going through a transitional phase.

Listen to her discuss this below.

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(Arabic with English translation)

The panelists defended their work and positions of his own party, and attempted to explain the role of the political parties in a democracy.

Mongi Rahoui, ranking member of the “Popular Front” liberal party, said that people have a role in pressuring the parties to deliver on their political promises.

Listen to his response below.

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(Arabic with English translation)

Corruption in Tunisia — a first-hand experience

By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

Two years after the “Jasmine revolution,” Tunisia seems to be the most stable compared to other Arab countries that experienced popular uprisings that led to the toppling of their dictators. But in recent months, with the political turmoil and hostile environment that reached its peak with the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, the situation on the ground never felt more fluid, unstable, and especially chaotic.

Daily protests, strikes, and clashes in the capital Tunis, as well as in the disenfranchised regions; rising anger among Tunisians fueled by what most see as an “underperforming government”; and security concerns in the country, have led to an out-of-control state of corruption.

Corruption itself was one of the driving forces that ignited the popular uprising in Tunisia. Large scale corruption may have decreased, but daily briberies have, on the contrary, increased substantially.

I, myself, experience this lawlessness regularly from Tunisia’s police. A recent incident where a Tunisian girl and her boyfriend who were stopped by a police patrol, who raped the girl and extorted the man, is an extreme example of what happens regularly to unsuspecting citizens.

I am stopped by the police on almost a daily basis, regardless of the area I’m driving through, or whether I’ve been pulled over for allegedly breaking the law or for a routine security check. The fact that I drive a rental car is usually a reason in itself to be “checked”. The first time it happened to me, I was at fault. I was talking on the phone while driving. But, what I didn’t expect was to be given a “choice” by the two cops who stopped me.

After questioning me for ten long minutes, and inspecting my driver’s license and car papers, they proceeded to tell me that they were going to take my driver’s license and my car and send me to court, in addition to paying a fine of sixty Tunisian dinars. They succeeded in scaring and intimidating me. As I was contemplating how to get out of this trouble, both cops grinned and laid out an “alternative suggestion”: “It’s either that, or we split the fine”.

I didn’t get it at first. Both cops gave me ear-to-ear smiles and repeating their suggestion, then one of them whispered to me: “discreetly, we keep it between us”.

Since that day, these kinds of incidents have happened multiple times. The most scary ones are when I am stopped while driving home alone at night.

During the Ben Ali regime, an order was given by the ousted president that “no woman driving a car alone at night was to be stopped by the police, under any circumstances”. No law was needed to execute the presidential desire. A dictator’s order was enough.

When I tell these stories to my Tunisian friends, I get various reactions. Some tell me I should pay them off. Others tell me I shouldn’t give them anything and encourage bribery.

The best advice I’ve received is to pretend not to speak any French or Arabic, and play “dumb foreigner” when I am stopped by a police officer.

So far, it’s working.

Assassination of Tunisian opposition leader sparks protests

48-year-old Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid was shot dead in front of his home on Wednesday — the first time a politician has been assassinated in Tunisia in 50 years. The incident has left Tunisians shocked and angry with thousands of people turning out to demonstrate in Tunis, and in other regions including Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid. Violence has broken out as security forces fired tear gas at demonstrators, and protesters hurled stones and petrol bombs at the police. The funeral of the slain opposition leader was held today as demonstrations continued. Pictures by Walid Feki.


A canister of tear gas is fired as protests in Tunisia turned violent following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

Protesters run from teargas thrown by security forces in Tunis.

The ambulance transporting slain opposition politician Chokri Belaid is surrounded by supporters and protesters in front of the Ennasr Hospital in Tunisia.

A scene from the funeral of Chokri Belaid following the arrival of the convoy carrying his body.

A protester holds up a photo of Chokri Belaid. Demonstrators are calling for the government to step down following Belaid’s assassination.

Tunisians protest on Habib Bourguiba Avenue after the assassination of opposition politician Chokri Belaid.

Town hall on Tunisian identity 2 years after the revolution

By Greta Ghacibeh, Directrice, Association Tunisie Media

Town hall participants in the rural city of Beja, Tunisia.

America Abroad Media’s Tunisian office — Association Tunisie Media (ATM) — recently partnered with Radio Mosaique FM to host a town hall discussion exploring Tunisian identity in a post-revolution society. The event took place one day after the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The event connected audiences in the coastal city of Bizerte and the rural city of Beja to discuss the possible tension between a modern, secular Tunisian identity and the traditional Arab-Muslim identity that has made a strong resurgence since the revolution. Despite different responses to this question expressed during the town hall, participants and panelists seemed to generally agree that modernity and the Arab-Muslim identity did not conflict with one another. However, people disagreed on what aspects of modernity should be adopted, while still preserving elements of the traditional Tunisian identity.

Town hall participants join the discussion from Bizerte, Tunisia.

Some participants said that a total departure from old traditions is preferable in order for society to advance and catch up with the developed world.

Listen to what participant Hsan El Ghazi, a high school teacher from Beja had to say:

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Participant Farouk – a student from Bizerte – said that while the Muslim world was once a hub for modernization, the mentality within Muslim societies has changed.

 

Listen to his response below:

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More conservative Islamist participants said that modernity should not be adopted in its entirety, but adapted to suit the nature of the local culture.

Listen to what town hall participant, Mohamed El Qaydi, an Ennahda activist, had to say:

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Both panelists explained that modernity and the Arab-Muslim identity are each comprised of many components. The Arab-Muslim identity is only one of many identities in Tunisia, and modernity has many faces.

Amel Qrami, a professor of Islamic studies, pointed out that the “modernization” that Tunisia went through did not create “modernity” in its full sense.

AAM begins filming 12-part documentary series

Reema Khan and crew with Congressman Dan Burton in Indianapolis, Indiana

AAM is excited to share news of its latest production — a 12-part documentary series hosted by Reema Khan, one of Pakistan’s biggest actresses and directors, and a new resident of the United States.

The TV series follows Reema as she sets out to discover her new country through the eyes of the average Pakistani, testing stereotypes about life in the U.S. and exploring what it means to be an American.

She’s joined on the trip by AAM producer Katherine Gypson, cameramen Farhan Alam and Aziz Ahmed, and director Hasan Zaidi.

Check in regularly for more news about their travels across the United States.