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Tunisia's Om Zied stays sharp as power shifts

By Hajer Naili   |   Feb. 29, 2012 at 10:20 AM
TUNIS, Tunisia (WOMENSENEWS)--After decades of producing sharply worded critiques of the former regime, Om Zied isn't quieting down in the new Tunisia, or even dulling her verbal blade.

"Cavemen" is the word she used on the radio a couple of months ago to describe the ultra-conservative Salafists at the University of Manouba, in a suburb of Tunis. Salafists were pressuring administrators to permit women to wear the niqab, a full face veil, to classes.

During the same radio interview the self-avowed secularist argued that few Islamists had ever tried to defend the rights of veiled women under the regime of the ousted president, Ben Ali.

Om Zied means the "mother of Zied" which is the name of her older son.

It's a pen name that, in three decades of writing about injustice and oppression perpetrated by the regime, became famous among the people in Tunisia and surrounding region.

She used a pen name for protection, but her identity was never really shielded from the government, which targeted her with continual intimidation and harassment.

Om Zied is how she continues to be known here, although the need to fear official reprisal is gone and she can use her real name now: Neziha Rajba.

Today she stands out as visionary who always somehow believed that Jan. 13, 2011, would someday come.

That night, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali said on TV that he understood the demands of the people and would not run again when his term ended in 2014. In what turned out to be his last speech--he left office the next day. He also promised greater press freedom.

Fear Changed Sides
"When I saw Ben Ali panicking, I understood that the fear changed sides and that it was the end of this dictator," Om Zied said in a recent interview in Tunisia.

In October Om Zied became a member of the Congress for the Republic Party, which she co-founded in July 2001 with Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia's current president and 30 other prominent Tunisians.

From that perch the avowed secularist is turning her watchful eye on Ennahda, the new ruling Islamist party that won the elections in October with over 40 percent of the vote and 89 of the 217 assembly seats.

Ennahda agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Om Zied's party and the center-left Ettakatol party. Under this structure Ennahda appoints the prime minister, Om Zied's partyfills the post of president and appoints the assembly speaker.

Most of the ministries, however, are controlled by Ennahda, including the Ministries of Justice, Interior and Foreign Affairs.

"I thought that Ennahda would be more generous and wouldn't keep all the powers," the trailblazing journalist-turned-politician told Women's eNews. "I expected a fairer sharing of powers within the troika."

Om Zied said she expressed her thoughts directly to Ennahda colleagues. "I didn't come into politics to fight Ennahda, but I am here to warn them against the excesses" of power," she said.

Immediate Questions
In the case of Ben Ali, Om Zied also worried about the excesses of power right from the start.

Just a few weeks after Ben Ali took power by a coup on Nov. 7, 1987, Om Zied was the first female journalist to openly question the country's new leader despite the generally glowing press response to the ouster of President Habib Bourguiba, a father figure who wrested independence from France in 1957 but lost popular favor by his violent repression of Islamic fundamentalism and harsh tactics toward opposition.

"Don't applaud Ben Ali so quickly," Om Zied wrote in a defiant and prescient article published in one of the few independent publications, Erraï. "Don't forget either his military past or his past in the police. And what if he is taking us on a road worse than Bourguiba? Don't give him a blank check!"

The same day, the magazine was seized and banned and Om Zied placed under an official scrutiny that would last for two decades as she continued to write critically of the recurrent abuses of the regime.

In 2000, Om Zied co-founded an online news journal, Kalima, with another journalist and human rights activist, Sihem Ben Sedrine. It became an international platform for taking the regime to task and in 2009 the Committee to Protect Journalists gave her an International Press Freedom award for running the site, which was blocked in her own country.

In October 2003, after denouncing the national educational system for creating hypnotized "tailor-made citizens" with no critical faculties, she left her university post where, for 33 years, she served as a professor of Arabic.

That same year, she was condemned to eight-month suspended sentence for a case of currency transfer she says was fabricated by the regime.

Today, she and other politicians face the pressing national question of whether to extradite the former president and his allies for a political trial in Tunisia.

While she said such a trial would have "tremendous" symbolic and psychological value, especially for the families of victims of the regime, she said the more pressing priority is repatriating money that Ben Ali took out of the country when he sought exile in Saudi Arabia.

On the question of women's rights and their fate under the new government, Om Zied objects to the "interference of foreign countries" and expresses confidence the country's women will stand up for themselves. "I don't think that Ennahda will undermine the achievements of women made over a half of century," she adds.

Om Zied is proud of the role played by women in the revolution.

Two days, after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 27- year old fruit vendor, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, Om Zied went to Sidi Bouzid, the square in what center that served as the epicenter of the revolution. "I saw several mothers encouraging their kids to take to the streets, providing them with stones to fight policemen who were firing on the crowd."

Read more at Women's eNews.

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