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Interviews : Sarah Ben Behia

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Sarah Ben Behia is a Tunisian freedom activist.

Her passion for public service and volunteerism has landed her a position as a respected activist within the ranks of the civil society world. She has become an active member within the JID association (Youth Independent Democrats) and has been elected a member of the executive committee. During her involvement with the organization, Sarah has participated in several projects aimed at raising awareness among Tunisian citizens and helping the community to maintain the gains of the Tunisian Revolution.

Sarah believes that by promoting internationally recognized human rights, Tunisia can continue to make advances toward becoming a democratic society. Sarah’s projects were designed to establish fair and honest elections, encouraging the involvement of Tunisian youth in the decision-making process, as well as empowering women and their status in society.

Sarah has a Bachelor’s degree in Legal, Political and Social Sciences and recently obtained her Master’s degree in Common Law. She is also a member of the George W. Bush Institute’s 2014 Women’s Initiative Fellowship, a leadership program designed to empower and equip women to catalyze change.

Sarah continues to devote her time and energy to make a significant contribution to the development and the empowerment of her country and community. 

[Freedom] comes from nature. I mean, any human being, coming to life, he enjoys freedom. We came from our – we came, I mean, it is – I don’t know how to explain that, but we have this code saying that we were born free. So no one can oppress you. So I think that if someone is born free, it means that it is inherent, it is the law of nature for any human being to be free. It doesn’t have any material or personalized source.

No one gives you the right to freedom. No one allows you to enjoy freedom – it is inherent in you. I mean, if you are a human being, or any – not only human beings – it is the law of nature, if I may say so. 

Tunisia is situated on the Mediterranean coastline. It has a population of fewer than 11 million people and is the smallest nation in North Africa in land area. In 2010 and 2011, it became the first of the Arab countries to revolt against decades of dictatorial rule, launching the Arab Spring and a wave of change across the region. Tunisia has a developing economy, focused largely on agriculture, tourism, and light industry.

Tunisia has been settled since ancient times. In the 10th century B.C., it was part of the Phoenician Empire. The city of Carthage, near the modern capital of Tunis, was established in the 9th century B.C. In 149 B.C., the Roman Empire conquered the Phoenicians. Islam was introduced to what is now Tunisia in the 7th century A.D., and the area formed part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1881, Tunisia became a protectorate of France. A strong French cultural element continues to this day.

In 1956, Habib Bourguiba led Tunisia to independence from France. His political party, later known as the Constitutional Democratic Rally, went on to dominate Tunisian politics for more than 50 years. Bourguiba’s Tunisia was a largely secular state and was viewed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world on women’s issues. In 1987, Bourguiba was replaced in a “bloodless coup” by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ben Ali continued many of Bourguiba’s policies, but ruled with an increasingly heavy hand. The Ben Ali regime was repressive and corrupt, with a dismal human rights record. The regime showed little tolerance for dissent, and lashed out at opposition voices in politics, civil society, and the media.

The Tunisian Revolution began in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, set himself on fire in protest over harassment by a local official. Bouazizi’s act led to mass demonstrations across the country, protesting the lack of human rights, poor economic conditions, and corruption and nepotism in the Ben Ali regime. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country. On October 23, 2011, Tunisia held its first free elections, forming a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution and lead the country to general elections. The role of religion in society is among the most important issues facing the assembly and country.

Under the interim Constituent Assembly, Tunisia has experienced considerable political upheaval, but has begun to consolidate its democracy. There is a major fault line between Islamist and secular political forces. In 2013, several political assassinations resulted in widespread protests and demonstrators calling for the nation’s Islamist-led government to be removed. In January of 2014, after two years of debate, the Constituent Assembly ratified the nation’s new constitution. The constitution is considered progressive for the nation and has many human rights guarantees. With the ratification of the constitution, elections are scheduled for autumn 2014.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized Tunisia as “partly free”. The nation received the following ratings on a scale with one being the most free and seven being the least: 3.5 as an overall freedom rating, a four in civil liberties and a three in political rights. Tunisia’s Internet and press were also categorized as “partly free” in subsequent Freedom House reports. 

More from Sarah Ben Behia

Sarah Ben Behia: What is the Source of Freedom? “No one allows you to enjoy freedom – it is inherent in you.” Sarah Ben Behia: Ikhtiar “Ikhtiar in Arabic means choice.” Sarah Ben Behia: Democracy in Tunisia “We will be facing many obstacles, but it’s going be good.” More + Sarah Ben Behia: Revolution in Tunisia “We can make our future.” Sarah Ben Behia: What is Freedom? “Life without freedom is not really living.” Sarah Ben Behia: Denial of Rights “You are denying my dignity.” Sarah Ben Behia: Message to Dissidents “Dare to dream.” Sarah Ben Behia: Background Sarah Ben Behia introduces herself.