Global Politics

Three years on, an anonymous Tunisian satirist is still waiting for a political revolution in his country

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Tunisian politicians are trying to break the three-year stalemate that has gripped the country since the 2011 revolution.

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They have appointed a caretaker prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, to lead the government until a new constitution is agreed to and fresh elections are held next year.

And one observer and chronicler of Tunisian politics has already responded to the choice (see cartoon below).

His name is _Z_ and he's a Tunisian who's been blogging and cartooning from Paris for the past six years.  

_Z_'s political baptism occurred over an architectural blueprint.

The year was 2007 and _Z_, a practicing architect, began to see maps and drawings of several massive building projects planned for Tunis. One was a $14 billion project that included skyscrapers, hotels, luxury residences, marinas, golf courses, upscale retail centers and a massive athletic complex.  

"It was like an alien ship that was going to land on Tunis," says _Z_, who won't be identified by his real name. "It had nothing to do with our city."

It was a joint venture between the Tunisian government and the United Arab Emirates. Tunisia's state-run media promoted the costly projects and promised thousands of jobs. 

_Z_ was troubled. He noted that the projects were going to take up acres and acres of Tunis' coveted green space and suck up much of the water in several of Tunis' lakes, which could threaten local species like the colorful pink flamingo.

More worrisome to _Z_ was that the proposed projects were designed for the country's elite and wealthy foreigners, not for the general public. So _Z_, a student of urbanism, started a blog called Debat Tunisie, as a forum to talk about the impact of the projects on the city and its inhabitants. 

The response was immediate and as _Z_ received more and more comments on his blog, his charts and maps started morphing into cartoons. He showed cartoonish flamingos in the lakes to illustrate the wildlife that could be threatened by the proposed mega-projects. The flamingo became _Z_'s symbol for Tunisians with no voice.

In early 2008, _Z_'s flamingos started complaining and by early 2009, _Z_ made a decision. He came to believe that in order to start a public discussion about the future of his country, Tunisia's autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had to go. So _Z_ shifted his blog from a focus on urbanism to a focus on getting rid of Ben Ali, who was visibly represented in his cartoons. One from that period showed Muslims in Tunisia praying toward a picture of President Ben Ali instead of toward Mecca. 

The Tunisian authorities tried to shut down access to _Z_'s blog, but they underestimated the digital savvy of their population. "Tunisians are used to government censorship and they knew how to get around the government attempts to block my blog," he says.

At one point, Tunisian police arrested a female blogger named Fatma who had posted several of _Z_'s cartoons. They thought Fatma was _Z_ , so the real _Z_ responded with a cartoon showing the flamingo saying "I am not Fatma." Fatma was released five days later.

On December 18, 2010, public protests in Tunisia began in earnest after the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruitseller. The Arab Spring had begun.

Within a month, President Ben Ali had stepped down. Like many Tunisians, _Z_ was ecstatic. "I was too optimistic," says _Z_.

He dreamed of a new political order and started posting cartoons showing Islamists and secularists, Marxists and capitalists all sitting down together to discuss the future of their country. Another cartoon showed a fully covered woman and nude bather enjoying the same beach. In still another, _Z_ showed how Tunisia's Minstry of Security had turned into a Ministry of Love.

But in October 2011, when Tunisians went to the polls in the first free election since 1956, the citizens voted overwhelmingly for Islamist candidates. Six months later, two young Tunisians who had posted cartoons of the prophet on their website were sentenced to seven years in jail. _Z_ decided to stay underground and not reveal his identity.  

"The country is in a political stalemate," says _Z_. "Many Tunisians, especially older Tunisians, believe that Tunisia can only be governed by a dictatorship or a theocracy. It's a distortion of reality." 

Many of _Z_'s cartoons poke fun at Islam, but _Z_ says it's not because he is against religion. "I poke fun at it because it's the dominant political issue and we as a society have to accept satire and the satirical form of criticism. It's part of becoming a democracy."  

_Z_ admits he's disappointed with how things have gone in Tunisia, but he hasn't given up.

"We have entered into a very long process," says _Z_. "We have to be patient, but I'm optimistic. I think we will succeed."

_Z_ is still in Paris and still a practicing architect and he says, regrettably, that his firm designs the very mega-projects he abhors. "That's the schizophrenia of my situation."

_Z_ visits Tunisia often to see his family. His dream is to return to Tunisia and start a satirical magazine. But not until Tunisia's constitution changes. "The law in Tunisia considers the religion of state to be Islam. So if I make cartoons against Islam, the law is against me." _Z_ believes that if he got into trouble, there would be no freedom of speech protection for him.  

And about those mega-projects planned for Tunis that ignited _Z_'s political activism? They were never built. The 2011 revolution and a bad economy stopped them in their tracks. 

Translation: (panels from left to right)

P1: "How does he come across?"

P2: "He's young."

P3: "His education?"

P4: "He's an engineer."

P5: "Ideologically, where does he stand?"

P6: "He's neutral."

P7: "And politically?"

P9: Man in cap: "He's a virgin."  

Man in glasses (Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki): "I confirm it."  

Man with beard (representing Islamists): "I'll take him!"

 

 

 

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