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A Personal Donation to Duke Libraries from the Tunisian Uprising

Visiting media fellow Olfa Riahi presents signed copy of the new constitution

Olfa Riahi

Caption: Tunisian journalist/activist Olfa Riahi donated books related to the Tunisian uprising to Duke University Libraries. Photo: Geoffrey Mock

Tunisian Journalist Olfa Riahi last week gave Duke University more than two dozen reasons to remain engaged with the region and maintain hope that the uprisings that swept the Arab world three years ago will fulfill their promise.

At a ceremony in Perkins Library, Riahi donated to the library nearly 30 Arabic- and French-language books about the Tunisian uprising, along with a copy of the new Tunisian constitution personally signed by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa; Mustapha Ben Jafaar, speaker of the national assembly; and more than a dozen other assembly members.

With Syria's humanitarian crisis worsening and Egypt struggling with a violent series of coups and unrest, much of the bloom on the Arab Spring has worn off, and Western leaders and populations seem resigned to its failure.

The Western pessimism galls the Tunisians, said Riahi, and by donating the books and the signed copy of the constitution, she said she hoped to remind Americans that the Tunisian people -- the country that started the Arab Spring -- are moving forward on a long road toward freedom.

"Everyone in America knows about Egypt and the problems that country has had," Riahi said at a library ceremony Friday. She spoke in Arabic and French and was translated from the French by Romance Studies Professor Helen Solterer.  "But our experience in Tunisia is hopeful."

Riahi has been at Duke taking part in a month-long Media Fellows Program in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy at the Sanford School of Public Policy. She is a political activist, blogger, investigative reporter and co-author of the book, "Le Syndrome de Siliana," on the death penalty in Tunisia. 

As she spoke at the ceremony Friday, Riahi walked the room clutching the signed copy of the new Tunisian constitution she planned to donate. It is special to her, she said, but the freedoms enshrined in it didn't come easily. 

The constitution, which recognized gender equality and protects freedom of religion (while maintaining Islam as the state religion), was formally adopted in January 2014, but only after Tunisia suffered a period of unrest marked by two assassinations of important and popular political figures.

During this time, Riahi said, it appeared that Tunisia could follow the path of Egypt and split between Islamist leaders and the military. But unlike in Egypt, the Islamist party leaders reached out to a coalition of secular political figures and included them in writing the constitution.

"These groups mobilized to support the ongoing constitutional debate," Riahi said.  "We didn't want to follow the same path as in Egypt." 

The Tunisian uprising was built upon a hope for democratic change and a demand for human dignity. The uprising started in 2010 when a fruit vendor, tired of constant harassment from security officials, set himself on fire, an act that resonated among the people who have felt powerless under decades of dictatorial rule.

Riahi, who has the date of the uprising and tattooed on her arm, recalled the power "of voting for the first time when I was 28 years old" following the uprising that removed Tunisian dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.  "It was so moving to see lines of people voting for the first time." She said that spirit of hope was fundamental to Tunisians building a peaceful consensus on the constitution.

And Riahi played a role herself, as did the growing strength of the independent media in Tunisia. Her reporting broke "Sheratongate," a corruption scandal involving a cabinet official who was using government funds to finance lavish stays at a hotel.  She was threatened with arrest and a travel ban, but her reporting was one factor in the fall of the cabinet official.

The scandal was a symbol of the role that both the traditional press and social media could play in developing democracy in Tunisia. She added the uprising had unleashed a new generation of youthful bloggers wise to the power of social media. "The force of social media and the young activists was a trigger mechanism of the revolution," she said.

Riahi came to Duke with the help of Duke's Center for French and Francophone Studies, which supported her involvement in the Media Fellows Program.  Soon after her appointment, Riahi thought about making a gift of the new constitution to the Duke Libraries.

Riahi contacted Karima Souid, a deputy in the constitutional assembly, about her idea. Souid put the matter before the assembly, who agreed and had the copy signed by deputies who wrote the constitution.

Duke's donated copy will be housed in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it will be available to researchers.

Some of the donated books were previously unavailable at Duke or even in the United States. They include titles written in Arabic and French on politics, history, revolution as well as graffiti and street art. One of them, "Revolution!," is a book of satirical political cartoons done by the anonymous artist 'Z'. Riahi's publisher, Ceres Edition, sponsored the donation of the books.

Library officials said the book donations will contribute to Duke scholars' access to first-hand information about the events of the Tunisian uprising and its aftermath.

"The value of these books are only enhanced by knowing that they come from someone who was so personally involved in the events," said Christof Galli, Duke's Middle East and Islamic Studies librarian. "With so much of the Arab Spring appearing to move to chaos or dead ends, it's important to remember that Tunisia, with a certain optimism, may be a great example of a successful transition to democracy."