"The fight should continue"

Protestors at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt wave Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan flags Keystone

Despite the chaotic “work-in-progress” democracies emerging in Tunisia and Egypt after revolutions in both countries, activists remain upbeat.

This content was published on March 16, 2011
Simon Bradley in Geneva, talked to influential bloggers and activists Mahmoud Salem, also known as “Sandmonkey” to his 30,000 plus Twitter followers, and Lina Ben Mhenni, or “A Tunisian girl”, at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy on Tuesday.

Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011 having been in power for 23 years.

After 18 days of civilian protests in Cairo’s Tahrir square, President Hosni Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011. Two months on, has the thrill of empowerment after toppling a hated dictator now passed?

Lina Ben Mhenni: No, we are still very happy and proud and trying to build our democracy. We lived under a dictatorship for 23 years and our parents lived under another [president Habib Bourguiba]. Tunisians seem to have lived under dictators forever and it’s the first time one has been overthrown by the people.

Tunisians are now beginning to think differently. We have a joke in Tunisia that before January 14 everyone talked about football, now 11 million people are talking politics.


Mahmoud Salem: I’ll be happy when Mubarak is behind bars. He needs to face justice for all the people he killed, tortured and oppressed and all the money he stole. How fragile is the ongoing political transition?

M.S.: [In Egypt] the gains will only be snatched away if the revolutionaries don’t start playing politics. They are still in revolution mode and using protest to solve everything. The danger is that they will lose the common man who wants to see objectives, a road map, compromise and leaders negotiating, not just protesting. Protestors are still concerned with small battles instead of seeing the bigger picture.

But my glass is definitely half full. We took out a dictator in 18 days; we are finally getting entirely rid of [Mubarak’s] NDP government, we have a referendum and talks on a new constitution and everyone is talking politics. But there is a huge amount of political ignorance and it’s very easy to get a lot of emotional people together around a lie.

And you have to remember that there were ten to 20 million people on the streets protesting for a country of 80 million, which means 60 million were never part of the revolution. So the work is on those people.

L.B.M.: I’m worried. The dictator went but the dictatorship is still here. The fight should continue; what we did was just a small step.

We hear that the [Tunisian] secret police and the former president’s party have been dismantled but this is not really true as they are there but in other forms and acting as usual.

The situation is not clear. When the minister of interior talked about the dissolution of the political police, he talked about 200 officers but we know that there are thousands and thousands. Symbols of the former president party are still here and have established new political parties. What’s your view on the role played by social media?

L.B.M.: I’m against the term “Facebook Revolution”. We shouldn’t forget the martyrs and people who were injured, the mothers who lost their children and took to the streets again and again until Ben Ali fled. If the revolution had only been on the internet it would never have had the same result. It was a combination of the fight on the ground and the fight on the internet.


M.S.: It was totally overstated, and it’s a disservice to the people who died to say it was caused by social media, as many of them didn’t have access to computers. They just went there as they were fighting for a better life. How influential were Tunisian women during the revolution?

L.B.M.: Women were at the forefront of the demonstrations; they were the mothers who lost their children and the nurses who helped injured people. They were present at each step of the revolution. Their role was very important.

They should now take the initiative to be in the government and hold decision-making positions also in companies. There are not many women in the present transitional government but it’s time for women to take the initiative. How do you see events spreading in North Africa and the Middle East?

L.B.M.: I think what happened in Tunisia gave faith to all people living under dictatorships, not just in the Arab world but everywhere. People now know how harsh Ben Ali’s dictatorship was and we got rid of him. So we gave hope and inspired people.

M.S.: You can’t pick and choose or name one country. You never know. We thought Algeria would be next but Libya took the spotlight. We thought Libya wouldn’t take more than two weeks but now it’s looking like a drawn out situation, Yemen the same. And things are starting up in the Gulf and we don’t know what’s happening there.

We are not surprised at all. All these countries are looking at what happened in Egypt and Tunisia and simply asking themselves, ‘If they can do it, then why not us?’


Mahmoud Salem is a blogger, activist, writer and investment banker. He is one of the most prominent Egyptian bloggers writing in English, whose blog "Rantings of a Sandmonkey" won the best Middle East and Africa blog awards in 2006 and 2007 and has over 5.5 million unique views; his Twitter account has over 30,000 followers.

Since 2004 he has actively defended freedom of speech, human rights, religious rights, and women's rights issues in Egypt. In 2011 he was one of the leading voices of the Jan 25 revolution that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He is currently creating a political party.

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A Tunisian girl

Lina Ben Mhenni is a 27-year-old Tunisian woman who lives in the capital Tunis, where she works as a linguistics university assistant. She is also a blogger and cyber activist focusing on human rights and censorship issues.

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Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy

The Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, which is in its third consecutive year, is organised by an international coalition of 25 human rights organisations and brings together several hundred dissidents and human rights victims, activists, diplomats and student leaders.

The conference ran in parallel to the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva from March 15-16 and included sessions on post-referendum Sudan, women's rights, internet freedom, democracy and the  Nobel Effect: Can Liu Xiaobo's Award change China?

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