Abdel Aziz Belkhodja is a Tunisian writer, publisher, and democracy advocate. In 2003, he penned a satirical novel called The Return of the Elephant in which he criticized the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Belkhodja’s narrative is set 100 years in the future where Tunisia has become an influential, democratic nation pitted against a tyrannical United States. This fanciful portrayal of the United States worked to spotlight the repressive policies being practiced by Ben Ali’s government.
Beyond his literary criticism of the Tunisian government, Belkhodja challenged the regime more directly via the Internet. In the midst of the country’s 2010-2011 revolution, he appealed to army, police, and government officials to abandon Ben Ali.
After the fall of Ben Ali, Belkhodja helped found the Tunisian Republican Party and served as its leader. The Republican Party joined the Democratic Modernist Pole, a coalition of four political parties and several civic initiatives, which ran in Tunisia’s constituent assembly elections in October 2011. He has since left politics to focus on his writing.
Belkhodja is the author of several novels and histories of Carthage including The Ashes of Carthage, The Stars of Anger, Love Mosaic, The Sign of Tanit, and Hannibal, the True Story.
My name is Abdel Aziz BelKhodja. I'm Tunisian born in Carthage. The big Carthage of history. [Carthage was an ancient civilization located in what is now Tunisia from 650 BC to 146 BC, when it was conquered by the Roman Empire. Carthage controlled much of the Mediterranean.] And I'm a publisher and a writer. It's more easy to publish himself. And since the revolution, I'm the-- how do you say?
I am the leader of Republican Party. And we are in coalition in the Pole with some parties and some independent people and some organizations. [The Democratic Modernist Pole was a coalition of four political parties and several civic initiatives that formed for Tunisia’s constituent assembly elections in October 2011.] The Pole is a political organization, and in the Pole, we find four parties, and a lot of associations, and independent personalities, Tunisian independent, big personalities.
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.