Post Gaddafi Artistic Re-Articulation of Power

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

In late September with Gaddafi removed from power and on the run, with major NTC achievements toward situating a transitional government, the insurgence of democratic participation in Libya was augmented by an outpouring of artistic expression toward re-articulating the previous total domination of social space under Gaddafi’s 42 year regime. Ellen Knickmeyer, former AP bureau chief for West Africa and Washington Post bureau chief for Baghdad and Cairo, writes about the transformation in a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting article. Discussing the totalizing control of social space through domination of symbolic autonomy under Gaddafi she writes:

For 42 years, Muammar Qaddafi did it all for the aspiring young artists of Libya. Did they want to study literature? Qaddafi’s Green Book had it all. Were they hoping to explore their creative side? Maybe take an art class at school? Great, and for their final exam, they could draw a composition of their choosing, on any one of the glories of Qaddafi’s revolution.

“If we wanted to sing, we had to sing about him,” said Karim Namssi, an unemployed 25 year old in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who is trying to change all that. “We got used to him being a one-man show.”

Examining this facet of control is relevant to building a more exhaustive picture of domination. Outside of state-centric notions of security, repressive regimes maintain their domination through a combination of coercive physical force, state violence, and a monopoly over myriad forms of capital. It is through this monopoly that they frame and maintain control over the social space. Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher, writes:

The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects. Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.

Bourdieu outlines two forms of capital that are most relevant to Knickmeyer’s article. Domination is a matter of monopolizing cultural and symbolic capital, says Bourdieu (1977, 1991). Cultural capital is understood as the partial or total monopoly of a society’s symbolic resources in religion, education, science, and art, by monopolizing the mechanisms for appropriating these resources (1977: 187). Symbolic capital is the accumulated prestige or honor of a given individual or group (1991: 14), and the recognition they receive from another individual or group (1991: 72).

Exerting a monopoly over cultural capital and the colonization of Libyan life space through Gaddafi’s omnipresent image –as was the case with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, indeed all such totalitarian regimes exhibit this feature– and manipulation of public discourse toward deification of Gaddafi, as illustrated above, reified the regime’s, namely Gaddafi’s, monopoly over symbolic capital. This domination is the exertion of symbolic power, that very power that seeks to dominate symbolic: discursive, inscriptive, performative, interactions in social space and thereby assert domination over social space. A monopoly of symbolic power provides the repressive agent with not only its dominant force that presses on the subjugated from above, in the form of coercive physical violence, but also forms the subject (Butler 1997). It is a colonization of the psychic realm of agency and a push toward manipulating the agents relationship to power, Gaddafi, and the social space in which the agent finds him or herself.

With the removal of this suppression on symbolic interactions the individual is freed to renegotiate her relationship to the social space in which she was previously dominated. The outpouring of artistic expression is part of this process of re-articulating power away from the forced reality under Gaddafi toward a more untrammelled notion of agency and autonomy. Knickmeyer continues, quoting Anouar Swed, a Libyan who returned from London to launch a line of fashionable clothing modeled on traditional Libyan dress, “When he [Gaddafi] left, the art came out.’’

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

Since the political revolution there has been an artistic revolution:

The neighborhood children break-dancing, the car radios burbling ballads and blasting rap recorded at people’s homes in just days, the elaborate graffiti splattering almost every patch of whitewashed bare wall in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had banned even spray paint… After a life of forced silence under Qaddafi, Libyans and Libyan artists have a lot to say.

Reaffirming this, in a recent CNN article Catriona Davies explains that before the Libyan revolution there were fewer than ten newspapers in the whole country. Now there are 120 independent newspapers in Benghazi alone.

The eruption of free expression by previously subjugated individuals is not only an indicator of individuals taking advantage of the lifting of total domination under the previous regime, it is also part of the democratization process. Artistic engagement as a referent object should not be overlooked as a constituent process of non-state, non-military, regime change and creation. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere where popular mobilizations have lead to the removal of dictatorial regime structures the transitional political organizations, and the international community, should ensure that engagement in social space creation and participation is freely open and access to cultural and symbolic capital remains public.

These observations are transferable to all regime spaces and should serve as empirical data that elite manipulation and the appropriation of monopolized capital serves to entrench domination and exploitation.

Source: Written on the Wall

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Bulter, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Image 1, 2 source: Knickmeyer, Ellen (6 October 2011) “Showing It Off: Libya’s Artists Display Work After Qaddafi”

Image 3 source: Gastman, Roger (November 2011) “Written on the Wall”


La fin d’Zenga Zenga

As news of Gaddafi’s death spreads around the world via the mainstream media, twitter, facebook, word of mouth, by photo and by text, jubilation extends into the streets in Tunis.

On the Highway out to Les Berges du Lac II to attend the New Arab Debates organized by the British Counsel, my cab was swarmed by passing cars blinking their head and taillights in unison. The cab driver confirmed the cause of the pulsating beats of headlights and high beams. They were celebrating the confirmation of Gaddafi’s death and the hopeful denouement of the Libyan conflict.

Since arriving in Tunisia, on the streets of the Medina, along rue Habib Bourguiba, on T-shirts, car stickers, and pasted to walls, the NTC, The Libyan Interim National Council, flag has been a ubiquitous site. In fact this symbolic gesture and show of solidarity for Tunisia’s neighbor to the East has far outnumbered visual depictions of Tunisia’s own recent revolution. While “Degage” graffiti, French for “get out” and the chant of Tunisian protesters that echoed like an exorcism toward Ben Ali, can still be seen and elaborate street art is still being put up, the omnipresence of the red, black and green flag of the NTC government throughout the physical space of Tunis has been fascinating. But I don’t want to discount the images of the upcoming election; the political posters and campaign flags have captured the majority of visual space. But second to them has been the red, black, and green.

Furthermore, Gaddafi’s wild threat to hunt the rebels down like rats, alley by alley, or Zenga by Zenga, has been particularly memetic. Throughout souks DVDs and CDs, on T-shirts, and scrawled in cheap graffiti on the walls ‘Zenga Zenga’ has taken on a powerful signification. It  has become a metaphor for tyrannical lunacy, a trope for re-articulating power through humor, that is, what Gaddafi had intended as a threat has been transformed by the targets of that threat, and spread through the channels of resistance, into a liberating symbol.

The overwhelming show of support for the NTC, for the people of Libya, makes sense in light of Tunisia and Libya’s history of emotional, political, economic, and social exchange. Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba and Muammar Gaddafi had even gone so far as to sign an agreement to merge the nations in 1974 but the plan stagnated when Bourguiba postponed the referendum over uncertainty of Gaddafi’s competency as a leader. Had the plan gone through Bourguiba would have served as president of the new country with Gaddafi as the Minister of Defense. After 1974 diplomatic relations between the two countries faced a number of erratic turns. After fighting broke out in Libya tens of thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.

Despite the high presence of international humanitarian organizations in Libya, many relocated to Tunisia during the height of the conflict only to return to Libya a few weeks ago, and those already based in Tunisia, including many refugee camps set up by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, most Libyans seemed to find safety and support simply among their Tunisian neighbors. A Libyan, former oil worker, who fled the fighting, moved into the floor above me just one month before I arrived in Tunis. It has been a commen sentiment among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken, that the revolution that ousted Ben Ali and spread throughout the region has been just that, a regional call for democracy. Many Tunisians have expressed sincere hope that the people of Libya will know the elation of liberation from dictatorship. The ubiquity of the NTC flag has therefore foreshadowed today’s elation at the news of Gaddafi’s death and the likely conclusion of months of violence and years of repression.

On my way back from the debate, mentioned above, my bus passed the Libyan Embassy. It was around nine pm and a chunk of the crowd had already gone home but the street in front of the embassy was still a mass of flag waving, chanting celebrators. As I approached from down the street, the bus had let me out at the British Council, I could already hear the chant of ‘Allah hu Akbar’ or God is Great, and Gaddafi is dead.

I arrived in the mass of people. The chanting of Allah’s name in praise for Gaddafi’s end would be punctuated by cacophonous cheering and imperceptible shouts. The crowds were diverse: men and women, old and young, women in hijab, niqab, and unveiled, old men with beards and taqiyah, the skull cap worn by observant Muslim men, boys in shiny fashionable jackets, some covered their faces with black bandanas and some older men were finely dressed in suits. A number of younger men stood on top of a car, the driver sitting and grinning behind the wheel as his small automobile was rocked back and forth by the undulations of the revelers above. The NTC flag was waved alongside the Tunisian flag, a few excited flag bearers also gripped Al Nadha‘s flag. The revelry overflowed into the smiles and handshakes that greeted us.

“Today is a great day for Libya,” said Alaeddin. The relative of a former opposition parliamentarian, Alaeddin explained that during the days of violence he had fled Tripoli to help protect his family in their hometown in the mountains. His speech was punctuated with exuberant laughter. He was excited when we explained that we were American. He told us that he had celebrated the Forth of July last year at the American Embassy in Tripoli, and that he was fond of Thanksgiving. “Today is a great day for Libya,” he repeated. “You know, Libya has oil but the people are poor. Libya is not a developed country. I came to Tunisia to get a change of perspective. I see this [gesturing at the broad, palm lined streets] and am ashamed. Have you seen Sidi Bou Said [The iconic blue and white coastal city a few miles outside of Tunis]? It is beautiful. We don’t have this kind of place in Libya. But now we can begin to build our country.” He explained that Americans are well liked in Libya but that Gaddafi made it all but impossible for Libyans to interact, or get scholarships abroad. He mentioned several cases of Gaddafi barring Libyan students from accepting the Fulbright scholarship after it had already been awarded by the US. Alaeddin said he will return to Libya in a few days and welcomed us to visit him. He faded back to observe the chanting crowd.

It was a powerful scene and eruption of relief. Here are a few images.

A Francophone Odyssey

It is a few minutes before 2pm on Tuesday, 11 October. While the plaque on the door to the office is in Arabic, a small water damaged, pixellated print out down the hall tells us this is the département français. We are again in the French Department of Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes. The French Department is a modest room on the third floor of the Bourguiba School, as it is nominally truncated by the locals, appointed with two desks, drowned in papers, a few glass cased bookshelves, and a small table with a single ashtray. The smell of myriad Tunisian tax certified or Algerian black market cigarettes lingers in the air and stains the wood and stacks of loose-leaf. The room is the most crowded it has been in our several trips back and forth over the last few days in our attempt to enroll. We have just come from the United States Embassy with papers to bypass the Carte de Sejour. Today is the last day to register.

Our present trip has been predicated by dead ends, bad information, missing documents, national holidays, cab rides, coffee and pessimism. Each time we have set foot in the Bourguiba school we have been greeted by different information and requirements. Each explanation has produced a new string of destinations, each one producing a new set of explanations that contradict their predecessors. Our first trip, on 28 September, was a foreshadowing of the nature of a task that seemed like it should have been a simple ordeal. After all, we just wanted to register for French lessons.

On Wednesday, 28 September, Brandon and I had set off from our flat with what hindsight would describe as unhealthy optimism. We wrote down the Institute’s address from their website and scratched a quick few notes from google maps into my notebook and headed off toward Rue Habib Bourguiba. We strolled along, stopping occasionally to ask for directions. We kept getting pointed further from the address we had taken the time to record. It has been my experience from China to Turkey that people are always eager to give directions to strangers; such is their hospitality that they refuse to let something as trivial as the fact that they don’t actually know the place you want to go get in the way of pointing you in that direction. Such is the welcoming zeal that I have often ended up acquainting myself with circles that I have traced in the concrete of foreign cities. This Wednesday it was no different. Still, after more than an hour, and blocks past google maps’ x-marked spot, we found the Bourguiba School, next to a large synagogue- wrapped in barbed wire and guarded on both sides- along Avenue de la Liberte. The school was effectively closed. We were given a sheet of paper that explained very little and told to come back another day.

Finding distractions in abundance we postponed our next visit for several days. We attended the 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting. In that time some unknown cuisine had pulled me into a vertiginous stupor for several days and extended that lethargy that makes excuses more palatable. However, we eventually made our way back and met Mademoiselle Trabelsi, no relation to the former dictator’s wife. This was our first visit to the little office on the third floor.

A large jovial woman with minimal English, Mlle Trabelsi was happy to explain the protocol of registration. For this simple desire we would need: 2 passport photos, photocopies of our passport, a printed and signed version of the school’s code of conduct, the inscription (registration form), and a carte de sejour. She explained that the forms we needed were online. The carte de sejour (residence permit) could be procured from the local police station. We thanked her and headed home. Convinced that we could manage these requirements in a few days time, and easily make the first class a week later, as long as we got the rental contract we had already been waiting two weeks to receive.

A few days later, 10 October, after finally receiving our encoded-in-Arabic contract, we headed to the police station to inquire about the carte de sejour. We had been waiting for a short time in the lobby below, the same lobby we had visited the day before to no avail, when we were finally greeted and led upstairs. Past a young officer in uniform reclining with an automatic rifle on his lap, on the way, the plain-clothed officer assisting us noted that if we spoke better French it would be much easier to explain what was required for the carte de sejour. We noted that we needed the carte de sejour to study French. The obnoxious humor of the situation hadn’t translated well by the time we got to the musty office of étranger services. Here a moustached bureaucrat in a brown pin stripe suit informed us of the requirements for the carte de sejour: 2 copies of our passport, 2 copies of our contract, 4 passport photos, a special stamp that could be purchased for 10 dinar at the post office, a copy of our bank statement, our registration documents from the Bourguiba school and the proof of payment. If the irony has evaded you, we were told that to get the document that was required of us to register for the school we would need proof of registration at the school.

Following the episode at the police station we went back to the Mlle Trabelsi to explain the contradiction.

“The police told us that we need the Inscription before they can give us the cart de sejour.”

“No. That is incorrect.” She replied, “That is just the police being lazy. They don’t want to work. You need to tell them they are wrong. You need the carte de sejour before you can register.”

“Okay. Will you please just write that down so we can show them. It would be easier.”

“No. That is not my job. It is not my job to tell them how to do their work. That is their manager’s job.”

As the conversation continued in this fashion for another minute the women sitting at Trabelsi’s side noted something in Arabic. After some back and forth in Arabic we were brought back into the conversation with new information.

“Okay. If you get a letter from your embassy you don’t need the cart de sejour. Go to your embassy. Go downstairs and speak with Mr. Abdelhamed he will tell you.”

We went down to Mr. Abdelhamed’s spacious office on the first floor. He sat behind a mahogany colored desk, across from two attractive women in hijab, helping him sort through the scattered papers on the glass topped table across the room from his desk. He welcomed us to sit down across from him. We explained the situation quickly and he produced several letters as evidence of what we should bring. The letter just needed to explain what and why we were in Tunisia and that the embassy knew the what and why. He made a special point to note the official embassy heading on each of the examples, one from Libya, another from Yemen. “See, see.” He repeated several times. We told him that we understood and rushed outside to hail a cab.

The United States Embassy in Tunis is located past the airport, in Les Berges du Lac. A five dinar cab ride from Avenue de la Liberte later we were walking up to the embassy window. The guards had a quizzical expression on their faces. We spoke, stooping, through the slot in the bullet proof glass to explain our purpose. They responded, “It’s a national holiday today. The Embassy is closed.” “What holiday is it?” We exchanged the nonplussed words of expats in these situations before deciding, Columbus Day. With nothing else to do we headed home, stopping on the way for lablabi in an ornately blue and white tiled restaurant.

The morning of 11 October, we got up early and took a cab again to du Lac, to the embassy. During the cab ride I noticed a generalizable trend of Tunisian cabs. The headrest on the passenger seats are removed. As we sped along the highway toward the embassy I made a point to look into the passing cabs. They all shared this feature. Had the drivers removed these pieces for resale, a bit of added income out of unregulated auto safety perhaps?

We got out at the same traffic round-about in front of the embassy gate and made our way through the universal security precautions, x-ray and metal detector, reinforced doors, and separated complexes of US embassies. The feel was a scaled down version of the embassy in Beijing, the only other I have been inside. Not really knowing what we needed, more than a letter, but from whom, we were escorted into the main building. Standing in the hollow of the foyer, my vague explanation echoed and bounced back to reinforce my uncertainty and mild concern. We were led to the library and told to wait. I flipped the pages in an old issue of Foreign Affairs not really processing any of the words. Moments later we were repositioned to the consular section, in another building-past palm trees and ashtrays.

Passing the waiting room and bored expressions of Tunisians with number tickets and assigned places, around the corner, we stood at the window marked ‘US Citizens,’ pressed the buzzer and waited. We explained our purpose to the woman who emerged. She disappeared to speak with the consular. When she returned she explained that this is not a service that the embassy provides. I reiterated the situation. She offered we speak directly to the consular. We stated our appreciation. He emerged. He explained that the embassy does not issue student visas. We reiterated that we didn’t need a visa, just a letter. It seems no one had been in this position before. After some exchange, repetition and reiteration the consular finally noted that the best we could do is write the letter ourselves and he would notarize it, for 50 dollars.

Back to the library, to a computer without a word processor-only notepad, we drafted a short piece in our best bureaucratic vernacular, transferred it to google docs for formatting, printed it, signed it, and ran back outside, around the building, past the same palm trees and ashtrays, and to the ‘US Citizens’ window. After a quick inspection the consular agreed to notarize what we had drafted. But the cashier was at lunch and we would have to return an hour later to pay. It was already noon. We weren’t sure what time the classes began, either 2 or 4pm, but we knew we had to make the first class to be admitted. We left the embassy. We ate. We discussed. We returned. We paid. We collected our document. We hailed a cab. We returned to the Bourguiba school. We returned to Mlle Trabelsi feeling almost confident. “We have the letter from our embassy,” we blurted out in a tone of skeptical triumph. “Okay, and the other documents?” We had forgotten. What did we need?

“Write this down. It tires me every time I have to say this. You need the Inscription,the Reglement, 2 passport photos, 2 envelopes and 2 stamps, photocopies of three pages in your passports, a copy of the letter from your embassy, and the receipt that you have paid the 120 dinar course fee. My daughter…” gesturing to the woman processing the other applications, “…leaves at 2:30. You need to turn everything in at 2:30. Vite, vite, quick, quick.”

It is a few minutes before 2pm on Tuesday, 11 October. After revising our list we run downstairs, outside, around the corner and down a side street off Avenue de la Liberte. Here we find an internet cafe, a public phone, two photocopy and stationary stores and a restaurant that sells sandwiches and rotisserie chicken. I glance inside as I rush past, watching the relaxed patrons and taking in a waft of the fragrance. I am hungry. We have split up to speed the process.

Brandon, to the cyber cafe, Graham and I deal with the other items. The small storefront advertises in multicolored text its services. Briefly explaining what we need the young man with stilted English begins to make copies of our passports. There is a large clock at the back of the shop. On the right is an engraved image of the Kaaba in Mecca; on the left golden hands click forward in rhythm. It is 2:05 when he hands me the first copy of Brandon’s passport. He moves on to Graham’s and then mine.

With passport copies in hand I ask for the envelopes and stamps.

“What kind of envelope do you need?” Shit. Luckily the woman working at his side thinks to ask whether the envelopes are for the Bourguiba school. Yes. Ah, she hands us the precise size. Meanwhile the soft spoken youth begins to make copies of our embassy letter. Graham goes next door to see how Brandon is doing. When he returns, “Brandon is still at the counter. I don’t think he has done anything. He is just talking to the woman.” It is 2:10. I have what I can get from the copy shop. I ask about passport photos again and the young man leads me around the corner and points at a large red Tabac sign across the street. Underneath, he explains, is a photo shop.

I return to the computers. Brandon has made headway. He is filling out the first form with the assistance of the woman working at the cyber cafe. She is wearing a lime green hijab. I run out, across the street, into the photo shop, boldly assert my needs, am lead into a back room, sit down on a stool, take off my glasses, force a worried smile, brave the flash, put my glasses back on, wait for a minute while the photo prints, pay the 4 dinar, and run back across the street. I look at my phone as I dart through the halting traffic. It is 2:18.

Graham has started to fill out the forms. Brandon holds his. I send him across the way to make his photos. The cyber cafe is hot and stuffy. The woman in the lime green hijab keeps having to stop what she is doing with us to change the window to log someone out of their computer and accept their money. She hands them their change and returns to us. The time continues its linear progression and my sweat increases. Graham finishes and receives his form. He heads out of the publinet and goes in search of the photo shop. I step up to the computer, wait for a older man with a brown sweatshirt to pay. I hurry through my document. It is 2:25.

With my forms printed and in hand, with Brandon and Grahams’ forms in hand, we head back inside the school. Money. We split up again. I hurry upstairs and they are off to an ATM. I burst back into the third floor office. It is after 2:30.

She is still there. She looks irritated. I hand her the forms and photos. ‘Where are their photos,’ she asks. ‘They are on their way. They will be here now.’ ‘They need to be here now. I am leaving now.’ The words and sentences flow together and I lose track of what I am saying or who is speaking, the mother, the daughter, the student. There are three stacks of documents, envelopes, addresses, no photos. ‘I am leaving.’ Before she finishes, they walk in the door. The pictures are stapled to forms. The daughter hands the forms to the mother. The mother returns them to the students.

Mlle Trabelsi sends us downstairs to our congenial administrator friend Mr. Abdelhamed. He smiles when he greets us. Invites us to sit. We remain standing. He flips through our small packet of forms and halts, concerned, at the copied letter from the consular. “What is this? This will not do,” he explains. Quick, I pull out the original. The colored stamps, the signature, the punched Great Seal of the United States: Eagle, arrows and olive branch, “see, see. This is the original.” I plead. He scrutinizes the text, what we have written. He doesn’t speak English. Does he read English I wonder. “Okay.” He presses his stamp into a small green ink-tray and certifies the stack of documents. Twice more. We hurry back upstairs to Mlle Trabelsi who is waiting for us. She sends us to the caissier, to pay, and bring the final form.

At the end of the hall, in a tiny room, cooled by an oscillating fan, sits an odd little man with no hair. He invites us in, takes our forms, and removes a large carbon receipt book from within his desk. I sit next to the fan, cooling myself, and observing the odd collection of photos mounted under the glass of his desk. They are all images of Habib Bourguiba, the independence fighter and first president of Tunisia. Several pictures are Bourguiba with Kennedy. Several others are Bourguiba with Saddam Hussein. One is Bourguiba with Nixon. It is a strange assortment, a symbolic gesture to a past time, an interesting bit of history captured on film. We pay one by one in this office with Bourguiba, Kennedy, and Saddam. Moments later we return with everything to Mlle Trabelsi. It is 3pm.

“Thank you. See you at 4pm for the first lesson. Don’t be late.”

We drag ourselves and our surreal sense of accomplishment across the street for a coffee. To the sound of Arab MTV we sit down in a small cafe to decompress and caffeinate. The coffee is over-priced and not as good as in Bab Souika but it doesn’t matter. We have managed a herculean task.

Two Significations of ‘Sebsi’

This article was inspired by graffiti.

On 7 October Barack Obama welcomed Beji Caid el Sebsi, interim Tunisian Prime Minister, in the Oval Office. During the meeting Obama commented, “The United States has enormous stake in seeing success in Tunisia and the creation of greater opportunity and more business investment in Tunisia.” This focused language on US economic regional involvement echoes recent comments by John McCain who on a visit to Libya at the end of September noted that American investors are eager to invest and do business in Libya. This kind of discourse inevitably produces a cringe from anyone familiar with American neoliberal economic foreign policies. But the meeting between Obama and Sebsi was about more than just economic cooperation. Obama also took the opportunity to hail Tunisia’s progress toward democracy and praise the country as the “inspiration” of the Arab Spring.

Afterwards the Office of the Press Secretary of the White House released The President’s Framework for Investing in Tunisia. The document outlines a myriad of non-security assistance including investments in private sector development; education, culture, and media capacity building; transitional justice; and democracy and civil society. In line with the final two themes Obama commented during the meeting that “Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual, man and woman, has certain inalienable rights.” Obama’s vocabulary elicits the language of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Furthermore, the White House praised Tunisia for increasing transparency in governance.

The high level meeting has symbolic force in a number of analyzable trajectories. Namely, by meeting with Sebsi the White House is certifying Sebsi as the referent object of state-based transactions with not only the interim government but the social and political transformations taking place in Tunisia. Certification, explains sociologists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, is an external authority’s signal of its readiness to recognize and support the existence and claims of a political actor (Tilly and Tarrow, 2007: 215). Certification is important for both domestic and international actors and can have distinct and lasting signification for the evolution of discourse on a given phenomenon, in this case the meaning of Sebsi as a signifier of two distinct signified concepts.

The signification Obama addresses is the legitimate representative of Tunisia to the White House, the Prime Minister of Tunisia. It is that of a bounded political person. The second signification of Sebsi is the social and political significance he has for the people of Tunisia themselves, of course further dissected with the myriad identities and interests of the Tunisian population.

As with other names and symbols, Beji Caid el Sebsi is an abstract assortment of letters that are only given meaning when placed in relationship to other symbols within a given social space. I believe it is important to examine this because it allows us to analyze the language and symbols at work in the evolving reality and political meaning of the current social space under discussion.

When Obama says that Tunisia has been an inspiration to those who believe in inalienable rights, while meeting with the interim political representative of Tunisia, the certification broadcast from the White House is that Sebsi is, in terms of the symbolism of international parlance, the Tunisia being praised. For example we often speak of the Obama White House, the Ben Ali years, the Tony Blair UK, etc. A given country is generally referred to based on the political entity at its helm. Again, the White House is certifying Sebsi as the deserving recipient of praise. We should examine Sebsi in this light.

In a recent New York Times article David Kirkpatrick asks the interim Prime Minister to explain his go-slow approach to addressing popular demands for jobs and political freedoms. The response: “When someone is hungry asking for food, you only give him what he needs. You don’t give him more, or else he might die, so we offer a step-by-step approach.” He continued: “Sometimes the proponents of freedom have demands that go beyond logic and it is more difficult to protect freedom from the proponents of freedom themselves than from the enemies.” Still, his approach has, according to Kirkpatrick, lead to broad support generally but also a number of comparisons with Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. As a former member of Ben Ali’s party, and a long time political figure Sebsi’s position has enraged those who demand a complete rift with the past.

The 84 year old Beji Caid el Sebsi studied law in Paris before returning to pass the bar in Tunis in 1952. He was an early member of Habib Bourguiba’s administration following Tunisia’s independence in 1956. For the next two decades he served in numerous positions including as Defense Minister and ambassador to France from 1970 until 1972. In 1971 and 1972 he is reported to have advocated for greater democracy in Tunisia. In an article he submitted to Le Monde before leaving Paris in January 1972, he attributed his resignation to frustrations over continued democratic deficiencies. He resumed politics in 1981, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs until 1986. Until 1994, when he apparently retired from politics, he served a number of other key roles within the Constitutional Democratic Party, Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s party. On 27 February Sebsi took over the mantle of interim Prime Minister from Mohamed Ghannouchi who was forced from this position by popular protests to route out all former members of the Ben Ali regime.

It is fascinating to observe that the Beji Caid el Sebsi Facebook page description of his political career ends in 1986, one year before Ben Ali’s Jasmine Revolution swept Habib Bourguiba from power. Of course public figure pages, fan pages and the like are not necessarily affiliated with the individuals themselves but that the designers of the facebook page decided to conclude Sebsi’s political career before the former dictator’s coup is indicative of a trend to distance Sebsi from the ancien regime despite a clear history of eight years of involvement. This distancing is a logical political strategy, considering it was anger over Ghannouchi’s affiliation with the former regime that forced him from office a month after Ben Ali. That Sebsi has remained could be analyzed from a number of perspectives, of which there is not enough room to develop all of here.

Whether Sebsi should be interpreted in relationship to the former RCD party and Ben Ali himself or as a reform minded, advocate of democratic rights, or any other interpretation should be left to the people of Tunisia. But I will present two partial treatments of Beji Caid el Sebsi as a symbol for further discussion. First I will examine Sebsi, as the source of the analogous treatment of spoon feeding the hungry (see quote above) in relation to achieving democracy and human rights.

Human rights are universal. The preamble of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) states that they are derived from the inherent dignity of the human person. They do not originate from the capriciousness of sovereign largess. Article 3 of the ICESCR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both state that the States Parties to the covenants undertake to ensure the equal rights of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights, and all civil and political rights  set forth in the Covenants. Furthermore, article 50 of the ICCPR and article 28 of the ICESCR reads, “The provisions of the present Covenant shall extend to all parts of federal States without any limitations or exceptions.” Tunisia has both signed and ratified these international human rights treaties and is held legally responsible for them. They are clear in their wording, and there is no mention of sparing the human being by not extending too many human rights at one time when they are not accustomed to being afforded them due to years of oppression.

It is unarguable that within certain state structures these treaties receive varying degrees of compliance. It is furthermore clear that the transition from an oppressive, human rights abusing, dictatorship to a free democratic state that respects the human rights of all its citizens is an arduous task. But the sort of language that Sebsi is employing creates an institutionalized vocabulary for accepting protracted human rights violations masked with the intention of protecting those very people who are being oppressed. Furthermore, when this rhetoric is certified by powerful foreign governments, such as when Obama praises Sebsi for the developments of democracy and freedom, it creates the potential for the entrenchment of this sort of vocabulary, which translates into material social reality. It provides a symbolic force and precedent for a possible “Sebsiism,” or some other such political strategy.

In a situation where many are apathetic or distrustful of politics, the potential of established elites seizing control of the discourse is high. This is among the worst results as it runs the greatest risk of leading to protracted social unrest and anger over the failure to follow through on the hopes of establishing an open and democratic country.

In the hopes of engaging with a diversity of narratives I will conclude with a treatment of an alternative interpretation of Sebsi than the one that has received White House certification. An interpretation that is being positioned within the battleground of public space.

These pieces of graffiti construct a parallel between Beji Caid el Sebsi and Leila (Ben Ali) Trabelsi, the wife of the ousted dictator who in many circles is more despised than Ben Ali himself. She has been compared to Imelda Marcos, the extravagant wife of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Trabelsi is a symbol of corruption, nepotism, abuse, and oppression that received certification through the Western dominated double standards of shallow political and economic security, known in other contexts as imperialism (as the graffiti above notes). The parallel signification is potent artistic activism.

Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe encourages us to understand the political character of certain varieties of artistic activism as part of counter-hegemonic interventions with the objective to occupy the public space and disrupt the dominant (Mouffe, 2007). For Mouffe’s Radical Democratic Theory, the political is the public space, the public sphere of discourse.

When individuals feel that political lines are blurred or that their participation is meaningless, alienation and disenchantment occur. When individuals are disaffected with political parties, or feel alienated from traditional forms of political participation they often turn to more exclusionist forms of collective identity such as forms of nationalism, religious fundamentalism or other comprehensive exclusionary identities that only foster antagonistic conceptions of friend/enemy, ‘us’ ‘them’ and perpetuate violent conflict.

Radical democratic theory holds that the more empowered and involved individuals are in the institutions and programs that directly affect their lives the more they become civic spirited and connected to the polity: belief in the viability of discourse severely limits violence as a bargaining tool.

Mouffe’s theory can be partially summarized as, when consensus is sought through public deliberation, by embracing the inherent conflicts of social life individuals become more public spirited, tolerant and knowledgeable of the values of others and often more analytical of their own values and motives. In this sense we can interpret acts of artistic activism as part of a process of opening up a radical space for democratic participation where previously there was none. It affords the agent with a degree of power to engage in counter-discourse formation through inscriptions in the public space. But it must be given an equal chance to contribute to the evolving vocabulary by which social and political transformations are scripted. This artistic activism is part of the process of interpreting a meaning for Beji Caid el Sebsi within not only the domestic social space of Tunisia but also the evolving international narrative on Tunisia.

Mouffe, Chantal (2007). “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 1. No. 2. (

Tilly, Charles and Tarrow, Sidney (2007). Contentious Politics. Boulder and London: Paradigm Publishers

Tunisia’s Jackson Pollack

Following a scrawled address in my notebook, a reference from a couchsurfer for a small art space with an exhibition–that we just missed–of photographs from the revolution, we begin the labyrinthine task of searching El Medina. Our little crew of three American men and a Palestinian woman elicit a few odd glances and sotto voce remarks from lingering packs of teenage boys and a few old men as we navigate our way echoing our shared language, English. As we trace the lines of directions extending from the outstretched pointed fingers of several reclining Tunisian men and passing pedestrians we slowly narrow in on the Centre Cultural Bir Lahjar.

We wander through unfamiliar streets, Rue Jemaa Zaytuna, El Blagdjia souk, El Attarine souk, El Djeloud souk, and Rue des Tamis. From one side ventricle at the heart of El Medina, a sign points toward the Auberge de Jeunesse, Tunis Youth Hostel. The weathered sign, stained an impressive range of colors from exposure and neglect, points down Saida Ajoula street. We take a turn, following a hunch. We pass the impressive edifice of this former sultan’s palace turned youth hostel and continue through the black and white painted archways that connect the chalky walls of plaster that house Tunisia’s characteristic azure, cyan doors and window frames.

We stop a moment to examine a large wall painting:

In March and April the Paris based Algerian artist ZOO Project visited Tunis to leave his now iconic life size images of martyrs and revolutionaries across the city in a series of murals (For a great spread see The Guardian; A New Hype; and Share Design). The images represent courage of ordinary people who risk their lives for freedom. Many are modeled directly on some of the 236 people who were killed during the revolution.

Here we see Mohammed Hanchi, a 19 year old shot to death on 25 February during clashes between ongoing protests and the police. Although Ben Ali had been ousted a month earlier many Tunisians remained enraged that so many faces familiar with the corruption and abuse of the former regime still remained. Interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and former Minister of Interior, now Home Office Secretary, Farhat Rajhi were targeted with criticism over the continued use of force by security forces and their apparent lack of concern over such deaths, according to twitter posts at the time.

After a short conversation with a few men sitting nearby we continue around the corner. Not long afterward we stumbled upon another piece, a totem pole of youths, hoisting a Tunisian flag above their heads. The base of the painting is somewhat obscured at the ground by a small, red flatbed, strewn with some waste and a large cardboard with Chinese characters for the food distribution company that had sent it written all over. 

Upon closer inspection the rest of the symbol reveals itself. The tower of children, eager for freedom, democracy, and human rights are in the middle of a hop-scotch course. The end spells out “Democratie.” However, that the path to Democracy is obscured by garbage and the flotsam of Chinese global trade is highly symbolic if we treat this scene in its totality. It goes beyond the somewhat cliché “The road to Democracy is littered with…” but draws the viewer into an examination of global trade, political and economic interest and the inter-connectivity of international structures of power.

China’s principle foreign policy mantra of nonintervention in the domestic matters of other countries is the kind of rhetoric that allows state-sponsored violence to continue. Most recently China and Russia vetoed UN sanctions designed to pressure Syria to end ongoing violence by the Assad regime which has lead to over 2,700 deaths. But the double standards of political and economic actions, based primarily on the logic of what is expedient to the powerful, is an international issue that runs among the global elite. It draws attention to the role of the entire international community in both domination and democracy. The trash is a simple metaphor. It needs no discussion. We linger for a while and move off in search of 40, Rue du Pasha.

Centre Cultural Bir Lahjar is a metaphor of translated space. Once a Madrasa, the space was converted in the 18th century to a dormitory for Zaytuna University, part of the 8th century Zaytuna Mosque. As a dormitory of Zaytuna university the space housed the children of Tunis’ poorest families. The wards, otherwise unprovided for, were watched over by the communitarianism inherent in the teachings of Islam. At the entrance to the courtyard remains 25 ground level cubbyholes whose purpose was to house the secret gifts of food and other items left there by anonymous donation from the neighborhood.

In the 14th century Zaytuna university was attended by Ibn Khaldun, the renowned Muslim historian, philosopher, and-some argue-father of sociology. His statue, between the French Embassy and Tunis’ cathedral, on Rue Habib Bourguiba is currently surrounded by razor wire and armored personal carriers. During Tunisia’s struggle for independence with France in the 1950s, Zaytuna university, as a center of flourishing nationalist thought and activism, was the target of French assaults. In in its most recent manifestation the space has become an arts and culture center.

Here we are greeted by Jemal Abdennacer, who smiles when we note the shared name with anti-imperialist Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein. Our Abdennacer likes to style himself as the Jackson Pollack of Tunisia.

Educated at l’École du Louvre and l’École des Beaux-Arts, Abdennacer went on to study calligraphy and serve as an art therapist in Canada before returning to his native Tunisia. His art is a full experience. He places a canvas on a small easel, covers the floor with large multicolored, geometrically rich Berber rugs, and launches himself into a shamans trance of liberated color and movement. Wildly flinging his paint on the canvas, the floor, the spectator, as, his art is as much a spectator sport as a personal exploration and expression. I am curious how the power of such unfettered free expression must have felt during the Ben Ali years. After his explosive construction of colors concludes, and the canvas dries, he fillets the material into strips to give away. He always keeps one piece of canvas for himself. One could interpret this as a symbolic thesis that freedom of expression must be shared, to be considered a true freedom.

I am reminded of Paul Klee’s sentiment of his time in Tunisia. In 1914 Klee wrote,“Colour has taken possession of me; no longer do I have to chase after it, I know that it has hold of me for ever.”

As Abdenaccer enthusiastically explains his art and shows us around the space, the melody of a violin lesson resounds, refracting on the arches and columns of this centuries old structure to provide a most alluring soundtrack to our stay.

After some time, Abdenaccer leaves us with parting words of philosophy. In regard to the sensitive transition and difficult task of rebuilding a state ravaged by corruption and political abuse, he simply offers, “Do not politicize the educated. Educate the politicians.” We wander back into the alleyway outside the art space with these thoughts, and of course a small fabric of colorful canvas.

Coffee Observations and LabLabi Contemplations on The Constituent Assembly Elections

We were sitting at the Espérance Sportive de Tunis Cafe Bab Souika, verbally composing a list of groceries to buy at the souk, sipping our café filtre. I had tried to order our three cups of coffee in my fledgling Tunisian Arabic, “ah-tee-nee lay-tha case kava.” The waiter smiled and repeated the order with the French ‘trois.’ I have been having bad luck with my Arabic ‘3.’ But I have tried to never let linguistic shortcomings come between me and caffeine. Moments later the waiter returned with three short, thick glasses of coffee, flared at the top as is the style, and two large glasses of water.

As anyone who has tasted the aromatic cups of sweet, steaming, sludgy traditional Arabic or Turkish coffee in the back rooms of shisha cafes, padded with cushions, curtains, and lamps, in the heat or at night, in crowded cafes flooded by foreign words, minimalist restaurants with Eastern twists, or just a neighborhood kebab shop knows, sugar is added as the coffee cooks. But with our filter coffee we are given full choice to the degree of sweetness. We have taken to adding one sugar cube to the fragrant Tunisian coffee. This dearth of sweet has resulted in measured disbelief on several occasions as Tunisians are accustomed to usually adding—we are told—three cubes of sugar to every cup. We are handed our single cube with tongs of incredulity.

As we were discussing some mundane topic such as how many kilos of chickpeas or rice to buy we were alerted to the parade of banners and flags approaching from down the street. A chain of about 30 people were meandering through the stopped traffic, hopping onto the sidewalks, and ducking into shops. Some handed out pamphlets amid an entourage of waving Tunisian flags. A small group at the vanguard marched slowly with a long white banner, emblazoned with a stylized Olive tree that faded from a bright chartreuse to an olive drab and downward to a carmine red, beneath which was written PDP in the same shade of red.

They approached the cafe. Their faces were glowing with the jubilance of hard-won political freedom. Several older men with pot bellies and ties, women with curly hair and suites exchanged quick words with the men around us, a few stood back and took pictures, others distributed pamphlets. The explanations and photo-ops faded into the background of Place Bab Souika as the parade passed on into the souk, leaving talk of elections, and PDP pamphlets in their trail. This was my first display of campaign performances and I thought I would take some time to unpack some initial thoughts on the evolving democratic process by examining this first party to really come across my attention physically.

PDP is the acronym of The Progressive Democratic Party (In Arabic لحزب الديمقراطي التقدمي‎, al-Ḥizb ad-Dīmuqrāṭī at-Taqaddumī; or Parti démocrate progressiste, in French). The PDP was founded by Ahmed Najib Chebbi, who still leads the party. Originally the Progressive Socialist Rally in 1983, it later gained legal status as an opposition party in 1988. In 2001 it changed its name to the current Progressive Democratic Party. In 2006 Jribi Maya became the secretary-general, breaking the gender barrier for woman in such office. In 2009 Chebbi attempted to run for president but was barred from running. Chebbi is currently serving as the Minister of Local Development in the interim government.

While the PDP was a legal opposition party under Ben Ali, Chebbi endured years of intimidation by security forces and harassment by pro-government groups for his opposition stance. In October 2005, ahead of the UN’s “world summit on the information society” held in Tunis, Chebbi in addition to eight other prominent figures went on hunger strike. Calling themselves the October 18th Movement, they demonstrated for freedom of the press and of association, and the release of Tunisia’s, at the time, 600-odd political prisoners. It is this history of political opposition that has led to Chebbi, and the PDP’s, relatively high degree of support in preliminary polling ahead of the 23 October National Constituent Assembly.

On 15 January Al Jazeera quoted Chebbi,”This is a crucial moment. There is a change of regime under way. Now it’s the succession…” “It must lead to profound reforms, to reform the law and let the people choose.”

However, it has been noted that due to Ben Ali’s tight control of the media Chebbi is not well-known outside of more elite circles and established opposition activists. This could explain the results of a recent survey by the Institute of Survey and Data Processing Statistics (ISTIS) and the Tunisia African Press Agency. While the PDP is the number two ranked party in the constituent assembly elections, according to the Middle East News Source, they are only pulling about 8.7% support of those surveyed. The moderate Islamic Al Nahda party polled at 22.8%. However these figures are not sufficient indicators to assume landslide results later this October. Official campaigning for the 23 October election only began on 1 October. And there are lingering considerations about the level of political knowledge and engagement among the country.

In political environments that are unaccustomed to democratic participation it is naive to assume a sudden landslide of political participation after significant changes in social and political conditions, regardless of the fact that these changes were brought about by popular mobilization. After all, it is often easier to break down than to build up. As Tunisian political sociology professor Hafedh Abd Rahim points out, “Tunisians’ remissness of the electoral campaign, especially among the youth, is due to their lack of interest in politics as a result of political marginalization during the last decades.”For this reason the democratization process should be understood as far more than the simple road to elections. As political opportunities open, those who take advantage of these openings should be more than just the elite who hope to compete in elections but should include those who have been previously marginalized, which in Tunisia essentially comprises the entire population. The electoral campaign must begin with a robust engagement with all members of the Tunisian society toward education and encouraging interest and participation, which may take many forms.

Framed in an alternative analysis, Meher Trimich, another Tunisian academic, believes political apathy is far from a Tunisian phenomenon. It is global, he says. “Apparently, the submitting of one’s voice –which is a conviction, makes the voter vulnerable as individual. This process requires forging bonds of trust between the government and the people.” This is a daunting task in a society freshly out generations of governmental abuse.

As much as a burn victim carries his or her scar, the victim of a culture of fear does not escape the ingrained behavior adapted for personal, familial, and community security simply when the physical conditions that comprised that culture of fear are lifted. It is often a psychic domination that lingers with as much conviction as when it was a material reality.

Two weeks ago, a few days after I had first arrived in Tunis, while I was walking around Rue Habib Bourguiba a 27 year old Tunisian man came up to me selling faded postcards with 1980s snapshots of famous places in Tunisia. I told him I wasn’t interested in buying postcards but offered to have a chat over a coffee. He started to introduce himself, his interests, and Tunisia. After speaking about his hobbies and family for a while I tried to change to topic to politics. He resisted. We parried this topic for several rounds but he made it clear that he was uncomfortable speaking about anything political. He merely alluded to some incident in the past involving his family and the government. He didn’t elaborate. At the time I shrugged this off as an example of what Rahim mentions above. But after some consideration I grew more convinced that this political apathy and reticence was likely a result of fear. Fear of an old system. Fear of reprisal. Later, in conversation with a Tunisian friend of mine, this thought was somewhat confirmed. After all, the Ben Ali years were known for walls with ears, secret police, arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances.

Rahim and Trimich’s analyses are probably both correct. The primary task ahead of the 23 October elections is political education and concentrated efforts to ensure people’s feelings of security. People must feel safe to participate, to speak and act freely. But education and awareness of at least what the vote is for should come before any discussion of partisan promises.

This analysis is confirmed by a May survey conducted by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) which found that only 43% of those surveyed correctly identified the election as a Constituent Assembly election, 26% gave an incorrect answer, and 31% said they did not know. These numbers did not seem to have changed according to a 22 September article in Magharebia which noted an alternate survey that 45% of those surveyed did not know anything about the role of the Constituent Assembly and that they did not trust political parties because of ambiguity.

The elections in October are not the final step. They will merely elect an assembly which will be entrusted with the task of reworking a constitution for the country. Again, the democratization process is arduous. If political apathy or disengagement remains, regardless of where it falls within Rahim and Trimich’s analyses, the continued momentum that succeeded in creating this opportunity will likely fall to the elite of the country. If the population does not remain informed, impassioned, engaged, and consulted, the structure of political power may well conform to its most comfortable mold. That is, the largess of a political elite extending slowing into the homes of temporary voters.

Addressing this Amir Yahyaoui, an independent candidate at the head of the Sawt Mostakel, had a powerful remark at this week’s 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting when asked to define what ‘fighting Ben Ali’ means today. She explained that when you look at the main political players campaigning right now what they focus on is building bridges, hospitals, etc. But what is more important now is the constitution, what goes into the constitution. Yahyaoui’s point is that it is the complexion of the constitution that will set the character of post Ben Ali Tunisia. This is a crucial sentiment and one that does not look good compared to the statistics above. Only 43% of the surveyed population was fully aware that they were voting for representatives that would be tasked with rewriting the constitution.

According to primary statistics, there are currently 10,937 candidates to the constituent assembly, 24% between the age of 23 and 30 (2,597), 55% between the age of 30 and 50 (6,057), and 21% between the age of 50 and 70 (2,283). What is most important at this stage of rebuilding Tunisia is a critical and open discussion of what kind of constitution the country wants, and needs. The worst thing for any of these countless candidates and parties at this stage is to attempt to capitalize on the situation to launch personal political careers. With this many candidates it is a vastly complicated task but also a vital task to discourage political apathy, they must all abstain from ambiguity or political maneuvering and build toward a national consensus keeping in mind Yahyaoui’s reminder.

This article is part of an ongoing thought process. It is not an extensive discussion or analysis but merely a snapshot of the political environment on 7 October as observed by the author. This article is not in any way an endorsement for or against a particular candidate or party.

Israel Nominates Mubarak for Peace Award

Israel nominated Mubarak for the Israeli personality of the year award. According to Al Arabiya, Israel’s Channel Two said that Mubarak was nominated for “his commitment to peace.” The article then points out that Mubarak had ruled Egypt since 1981.

This notion of peace is built on shallow political stability. It disregards actual quality of life in an alarming way. It is a concerning sentiment that does not seem to be absent in other centers of global power, namely the US congress. The Al Arabiya article goes on to quote Odi Segel, an Israeli journalist, who said that “because Mubarak was such a friend to peace in the region he should be honored.”

This is an attempt to recast the narrative of Mubarak’s ousting in a vocabulary that glorifies his repressive reign and demonizes the protestors that demanded freedom. It elicits the same discourse employed by Michele Bachmann, noted earlier, that freedom and democracy, that regional peace are merely hollow vocabularies for political expediency.

This is not an Israeli issue, although Israel is brazenly disregarding Mubarak’s rampant human rights violations and the will of the Egyptian people. This is part of the reason why Bahrain has received no substantive attention from US policy makers or media outlets. It is a reminder that the Arab Spring is not a regional issue but must be situated within a global context of policy decisions and interests.

Bearing this in mind as Tunisia goes to elections, as Egypt goes to elections, as Libya calms, as the world settles into relations with the newly formed complexions of regional power is important to guard against a return to the old system of hollow political stability in place of substantive human rights.