iWatch is a Major Piece of Democracy Protection in Tunisia

Catania    I had heard about iWatch before arriving in Tunis from one of our leaders in Grenoble, who has roots in Tunisia, and said we had to meet with them.  Their website seemed to identify them as an anti-corruption nonprofit.  Once in Tunis it seemed to the Organizers’ Forum delegation that everywhere we went, we heard about their work, whether it was at the Jasmine Foundation or in the Nadha party offices.  When it came to talking about institutions that were protecting the democracy, iWatch would be mentioned.  Quickly, it became clear that they were absolutely monitoring corruption, but they were also smackdab in the middle of the election process itself.  In fact, one of the candidates leading the polls was running from jail and it seemed he was in jail largely because of the work of iWatch.  Finally, it was becoming clear why the president Achraf Aouadi was having trouble fixing the time:  they were in the bunkers with incoming fire from all sides.

We met with Achraf on our final day at the Café du Theatre, which had become our clubhouse of sorts where we had conducted one meeting after another on the main boulevard of Tunis.  Achraf jumped right into our briefing with no holds barred.  They had sued four of the candidates for corruption, violations that the court was now considering.  The suits had gone viral.  Polls indicated that almost a quarter of the population knew iWatch and those who knew it were wildly supportive.  They had learned something else from their analysis of the data.  Where they thought their primary support was young men, it turned out to be younger women.  Where they had thought they were mobilizing primarily their friendship networks, it turned out they had a national support base.

The organization was founded as a nonprofit after the revolution in 2011.  When we asked Achraf about the scope of their organization, he flatly stated that in terms of the civil society sector they were probably only second to UGTT, the big trade union federation, in resources.  Their budget had blown up during the elections to $1.5 million USD, all of it coming from outside donors, largely the European Union and Scandinavian countries.  They had seven offices in regions around the country.  Their staff was around 140 people now and normally almost fifty.

As president of iWatch, Achraf was not an employee, so like ACORN there was a separation of elected leadership from paid staff.  He made his living as a consultant for various enterprises both public and private.  They were young, hip and different.  They did festivals for a month instead of conferences.  They wouldn’t go to luxury hotels.  They abhorred USAID funding. The organizational structure was complicated.  They had recently decentralized with directors of the various teams from research to communications.  Wisely, they had applied for a radio license in Tunis.  They wanted to equalize their headquarters resources with their regions.

We were able to get insight into the complicated results of the election.  Nothing was quite as it appeared.  The rumor of 1.5 million new registrants was “fake news,” he told us.  A number of candidates could still be disqualified, even if appearing to lead in the polls.  It was as possible that some charged would flee the country, rather than take their seats even if they won.

Our heads were spinning as we tried to absorb all we were hearing.  Our fingers were flying as we tried to make notes of all of the information.  We were clear as well that iWatch was absolutely central to the forces protecting democracy.  They were under attack, but they were hunkering down to be able to survive and build for the next steps.

You watch, we watch, we all watch iWatch to see what happens next in Tunisia.

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Please enjoy Walls by The Long Ryders.

Thanks to KABF.

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Call Center Workers, Political Drama, and Student Unions – All in a Day in Tunis

Tunis       We are so lucky to be able to come together and visit organizers, activists, leaders, and others who are trying to build organizations and navigate the challenges of empowering people in different countries.  The Organizers’ Forum is close to completing our eighteenth journey, this time in Tunisia.  In the middle of it, the merry-go-round seems endless and exhausting, so I’m going to share a slice of it with you, but I never forget just how amazing it is to share in the experience, regardless of the hurdles.

We have steadily faced the communications challenges of a population wildly fluent in Arabic and frequently French, but less so English.  Confusion often reins.  It started early.  One message said meet at 9 and another at 10.  One said, meet at an unknown address and then go to their office.  At 8:30 AM, Eloise Maulet, ACORN’s person in Africa based in Doula, Cameroon and Grenoble, France, sat with me in the lobby and called our contact in French.  10 was the time, and we were to meet in front of a hotel and be led there.

This meeting was with the newly formed federation of 8000 call-center and telecom workers in UGTT, part of the larger federation.  We met in their new offices.  They were as excited about the meeting as we were, filling up the room with fourteen to our dozen from the Forum.  We ended up finding common cause in our issues with BellCanada, ours having to do with ACORN Canada’s Internet for All campaign and the company’s resistance, and theirs having to do with problems with their subcontractor.  We’ll figure something out together, which is a win!

We then rushed for the only meeting time available a cab ride away in the headquarters of Nadha, a sometimes-ruling party and a force even before the revolution, whose candidate for president had come in third only days before.  We met the campaign manager who was also their research director.  No translation needed here, he spoke flawless English after 18 years as a professor in the USA and UK.  Nadha was proud to have placed first among what it called the “classic” parties, since neither of the top two winners had any party affiliation or normal campaigns at all.  Their support for democracy and its institutions was a constant message point, but the underlying theme was unmistakable:  they had been in government and knew how to govern, and that was essential now in dealing with the economic crisis.  It was impossible not to be impressed, even though the message was a mixture of supports for the poor, taxes on informal workers, and neoliberalism for corporate interests.

We then hurried back for our meeting with two different student unions, who were rumored not to get along too well as competitors.  We were supposed to meet someone in front of a café at 130 PM who would walk us to the meeting at 2 PM.  Our second meeting was scheduled for the same café at 430pm.  2PM came and went.  No one there.  Finally, we found the student leader, but not our guide, on the steps between our main group and our scouts outside.  We sat down, and contrary to all of our preparations, he did not speak French that our colleague, David Tozzo from ACORN Italy, was prepared to translate, but only Arabic.  Further delays until past 230PM, when the original guide showed up, who could translate, but instead mainly spoke himself in French.  Well enough.  He was almost as smooth a politician as the Nahda rep had been.  They had won the vast majority of student votes with their 5000 members.  The other groups had polled less than 2% and were nothing.  They were not solely Islamist and a Nahda youth group but worked with everyone, though they liked some more than others.  They weren’t political, but they were political in encouraging the vote.  Quite an impressive performance in its own way.  Our delegates could choose, was he sincere or had we been spun like a top?

The second group was a no-show, and we abandoned the wait after forty minutes.  It turned out our guide who had dissed them was also supposedly the contact connecting them to us.  Maybe we had been both spun and submarined?  Life in the city!

We survived well over spaghetti Bolognese for some and steak for others in a loud restaurant near our lodging, populated mainly by large men, where the food was excellent, and we could marvel at the fact that smoking was still allowed here in Tunis.

All in one long day in Tunis!

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Please enjoy Everyone Hides by Wilco.

Thanks to KABF.

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