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Arab Spring bloggers have mixed feelings about Tunisian election

October 16, 2011 |  5:00 am

REPORTING FROM TUNIS, TUNISIA -- For 35-year-old Abdel Karim ben Abdallah, a Tunisian computer specialist and longtime blogger, the upcoming election to choose members of an assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution will mark the first time he will cast a ballot in his home country.

During the days of deposed President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, Ben Abdallah didn’t bother going to the polling station. He knew the drill: “You’d go to a voting office, and they’d give you one paper to put in the box,” he told World Now.

That paper or voting card, he said, was red and stood for Ben Ali's political party. Choosing a voting card in a different color could land you in trouble. "I chose to stay home," Abdallah said.

On Oct. 23, Abdallah will certainly not stay home. With just a week to go before the first election to emerge from the uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa, the campaign is in full swing.

The walls of Tunis are filled with posters in neatly drawn black rectangular boxes. Here and there in the streets, members of a wide array of political parties are handing out fliers to passersby. Banners and signs adorn buildings where new political groups have set up shop.

In total, more than 81 parties -- including Communists, Islamists and liberals -- are running in the election in this North African country of 10 million people. Excitement is growing. But for the young bloggers who helped kick off the revolution last December, there are many challenges.

Nawel Abdallah, a 24-year-old Tunisian student and blogger who is not related to Ben Abdallah, has been examining some of the party programs and said she is still undecided. Sometimes, she explained, she even feels like there is no one to vote for.

Abdallah, who wears the Islamic headscarf and describes herself as an observant Muslim, said she will vote for a party that has a strong national program. Communism, she argued, was tried during the Soviet era and didn’t succeed in the end. She is also skeptical about Islamist parties.

Abdallah is not the only one struggling to find the right candidate. Ahmed Medien, a Tunisian student and journalist in his 20s, said many of the party programs look similar. But he has high hopes that Tunisia will become a real democracy.

“I feel like democracy can actually happen here because we have people who really want things to work and want a better Tunisia, which could be a model for the other Arab countries," he said.

Abdallah, however, feels that some of the parties talk too much about fixing roads and infrastructure instead of focusing on the drafting of a new constitution.

Ben Abdallah agreed. “It's really happening and it’s really bad," he said. "People themselves are not aware what the elections are for. TV, radio and newspapers are not doing enough.”

He hopes that bloggers can help spread information and awareness during the election period.

"When the press in Tunisia is dead or is not talking about the main subject, bloggers can step up and explain things more simply and openly to the people," he said. “You can talk to a waiter or a taxi driver, and they'll tell you that bloggers are also people who have to be trusted. The 500 blogs that existed before the revolution were very valuable sources of information and personal thoughts that you couldn't find elsewhere."

Earlier this year, Ben Abdallah, along with dozens of other bloggers, participated in an online campaign aimed at encouraging Tunisian citizens to add their names to the electoral lists. As the election approaches, he said, he will keep up his blogging and try to organize live blogging events, where Web activists join together and cover election-related events.

And who might be the big winner in the election in Ben Abdallah's opinion?

“The Tunisian people,” he answered. “It’s not going to be a victory for a party. Those parties will be working for the benefit of Tunisians. I just want them to do their job. That’s all I hope."


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-- Alexandra Sandels

Photo: A man examines election posters in a Tunis suburb. Credit: Alexandra Sandels