In 2004, Dr. Zied Mhirsi became a pioneer in Tunisia’s pre-revolutionary blogosphere, and used his blog, Zizou From Djerba, as a platform to express ideas, opinions, and experiences. He soon engaged others in the blogosphere on policy debates about topics like education, agriculture, and the environment. Initially, the Internet was one of the few venues for Tunisians to express themselves without being harassed by government authorities. As the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali became more aware of the blogosphere’s ability to influence society, bloggers like Mhrisi became targets of censorship and persecution.
As a student studying in the United States, Mhirsi became involved in Tunisian radio and through his broadcasts, informed Tunisians about world events. When he returned to his homeland, Mhirsi remained active in radio and used it to promote the use of social media. This concept transformed into a weekly political show that featured voices from the Tunisian blogosphere prior to the 2010 uprising. Since the revolution, Mhirsi has worked extensively with international media analyzing the post-revolution political situation, working with outlets such as CNN, Al Jazeera English, 60 Minutes, CBS News, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, to produce news stories, documentaries, and other shows. In March 2011, Mhirsi co-founded Tunisia Live, the first Tunisian English-language news website. Tunisia Live is viewed by more than 100,000 visitors every month and serves as the main Tunisian news platform for English speakers.
In addition to his media activities, Mhirsi is a global health professional whose public health career focuses primarily on strengthening health systems to combat HIV/AIDS and other serious diseases.
My name is Zied Mhirsi. I'm a 34-year-old physician. I live in Tunisia. I work in global health. But since the revolution I'm also a media entrepreneur, and I started the Tunisian News Website. The first one of its kind. I got a Fulbright scholarship to go study in the U.S. at the University of Washington. I ended up being on its faculty for two years. Then I moved back to Tunisia with my American wife, who is a singer/songwriter.
I started blogging in 2004. My blog's name is Zizou From Djerba. Zizou because my name is Zied. And also because people always say that I look like Zinedine Zidane, who used to be a famous soccer player. I'm bald, just like him. So Zizou from Djerba, that's the island where I come from. It's an island that's famous in the Mediterranean. It has 3,000 years of history. But then slowly I started contributing to the debate of the Tunisian blogosphere.
Debating issues related to different policies of the Tunisian government, either in education or agriculture, or environment. It was quite difficult to talk about these subjects at that time. Because we were fearing the censorship of blogs. So we were trying somehow to have that debate without really mentioning the names so we don't get caught by the key words we use. So that allowed the blogosphere to thrive. And my blog, like other blogs, became a platform where a lot of people discuss ideas.
And I think that's the first opportunity we've got as Tunisians to talk about issues without really being spotted by the political police of [Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine] Ben Ali. I was the first experience of debates. And I think that was a great learning experience. Because what we've seen recently after the revolution, in terms of discussions, it's discussions we already had in the blogosphere. So I can tell that we were ahead of everyone.
I think we started as a small community of bloggers who then meet in real life as well. And discuss issues in real life. And that was the added value. But also in the same time, made it kind of impenetrable to those who were not part of also the real-life meetings. So I think the blogosphere was somehow a mini secret society to a certain extent, which allowed it to be underground during the Ben Ali era.
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.