Sunday, October 23, 2011

Elections in Tunisia, Envy in Egypt

Last summer, I was studying Arabic in Tunisia with a group of Americans, funded by the U.S. government, with Tunisian teachers. For many of my colleagues, who had only studied classical Arabic, Tunisian would be their first dialect. I had the hardest time, having studied smatterings of Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian. As I tried to learn Tunisian, my speech was peppered with these other dialects: words foreign, if recognizable, to Tunisians.

Usually my aberrant words were Levantine, and my teachers would smile and correct me with the Tunisian word. But every time an Egyptian word snuck in, I received a glare.

Many Tunisians, I found out, were bitter that Egypt got all of the attention: the tourists, the archaeologists, the Hollywood mystique of Ancient secrets. Tunisians reminded me that they, after all, had the Carthaginians, impressive Roman ruins, crystal beaches, cosmopolitan sophistication, better food, more alcohol. It was the syndrome of the second-best, the indignation of feeling like they deserved more than just a handful of pasty German sunbathers. The mother in my host-family told me Tunisia had the “first beach in the world.” That’s impossible! I scoffed, What do you mean? She clarified; a French magazine had rated Tunisia’s beaches #1 in a top-ten list.

Then Tunisia had its moment in the international spotlight. A revolution, set in motion by the horrific, yet inspiring death of Mohamed Bouazizi, ousted a dictator and captured the world’s attention. Tunisia would not only be free politically, but perhaps more relevant culturally, the origin and center of the Arab Spring.

But Egypt grabbed that spotlight too. A few weeks after the protests in Tunisia, Egypt took to the streets, with millions more people and thousands more camera-phones and hours more coverage in international media. “Few in international media cared about what they saw as an insignificant country,” wrote Tunisian blogger Yasmine El Rafie of her own revolution. “The Egyptian uprising was journalistically monitored in detail.”

And in the months since, everyone continued to focus their lenses Egypt’s sputtering transition to democratic elections. In Tunisia, elections were being organized, and today, at least for a moment, the envy flipped. The famous Egyptian blogger, who goes by the name the Big Pharaoh, vented that Tunisia had successfully allowed expats representation in parliament, while the Egyptian army has struck down the ability of Egyptian expats to even vote. He tweeted Saturday: “Tunisia has constituted a number of seats in their new parliament for citizens abroad. Yet here, a single decision banned millions of votes.”

Moments later, he was frustrated with the current success of pluralism in Tunisia. “Has anyone read the agenda of the Tunisian "Islamist" party El Nahda,” he asked. “Very moderate and conciliatory. Tunis is scoring big time against us.”

The sports metaphor was not new. The revolutionary experiences of Tunisia and Egypt have often been likened to a football match. All through Sunday, one saw tweets like these:

Ahmed Safwat: can't but envy #Tunisia , really disappointed with #Scaf and #ikhwan ... but let's hope for a better tomorrow ...

Karim Hussein: Good luck for Tunisian voting today, I envy you can vote all over the world. It puzzles me we can't do the same ... :(

MarwaApril: TUNISIA I'm jealous !!! U are my ideal, God bless u. Respect !

Shereef Abbas (al ahram center): I'm jealous of both Tunisia & Libya. One's having proper elections (incl. Tun. abroad) & the other will have Gaddafi under ground in days.

Nermeen Edrees: I have to admit that as much as am happy for #Tunisia, I am a tad jealous.

Alia El Sandouby (in California): #TNELEC so jealous of #Tunisia 9 months after #Jan25 egy expats still denied #right2vote we'll keep fighting till we get our full roghts

Others implored their fellow Egyptians to ditch the competition metaphors:

Sarah Carr: Could everyone please stop comparing the Arab revolutions and saying Tunisia's beating Egypt etc it's not bloody X Factor.

@MahmoudAboBakr (translated in a post by Tarek Amr): Those who are saying the situation in Tunisia is better than us, and that their revolution proceeded ours, do you have a handbook or a catalogue that defines a revolution and its stages?

Tarek Amr also found the tweet that ended up my favorite:

@EmanM: I can't believe it Tunisians! Please write more in Arabic and stop using French for us to be able to understand you. We are both Arabs.

Unlike many of my fellow expats, I don’t assume Americans are all experts on civics, or that democracy is going to save anybody. I lived in a state that elected George W. Bush and then Rick Perry. 

Add to that the fact that Twitter, in both Tunisia and Egypt, represents an extremely small portion of the population.

But no matter what, it is really beautiful to see the solidarity and warmth floating digitally across the Mediterranean. 

Photo courtesy of Sherif9282, via Wikimedia Commons

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