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Tunisia's Om Zied Stays Sharp as Power Shifts

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Om Zied made her fame as a fierce, visionary critic of the now-deposed Ben Ali. Now she has shifted focus and is keeping tabs on the ruling Islamist party. Second of three profiles of women playing active roles in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

TUNIS, Tunisia (WOMENSENEWS)--After decades of producing sharply worded critiques of the former regime, Om Zied isn't quieting down in the new Tunisia, or even dulling her verbal blade.

"Cavemen" is the word she used on the radio a couple of months ago to describe the ultra-conservative Salafists at the University of Manouba, in a suburb of Tunis. Salafists were pressuring administrators to permit women to wear the niqab, a full face veil, to classes.

During the same radio interview the self-avowed secularist argued that few Islamists had ever tried to defend the rights of veiled women under the regime of the ousted president, Ben Ali.

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Om Zied means the "mother of Zied" which is the name of her older son.

It's a pen name that, in three decades of writing about injustice and oppression perpetrated by the regime, became famous among the people in Tunisia and surrounding region.

She used a pen name for protection, but her identity was never really shielded from the government, which targeted her with continual intimidation and harassment.

Om Zied is how she continues to be known here, although the need to fear official reprisal is gone and she can use her real name now: Neziha Rajba.

Today she stands out as visionary who always somehow believed that Jan. 13, 2011, would someday come.

That night, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali said on TV that he understood the demands of the people and would not run again when his term ended in 2014. In what turned out to be his last speech--he left office the next day. He also promised greater press freedom.

Fear Changed Sides

"When I saw Ben Ali panicking, I understood that the fear changed sides and that it was the end of this dictator," Om Zied said in a recent interview in Tunisia.

In October Om Zied became a member of the Congress for the Republic Party, which she co-founded in July 2001 with Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia's current president and 30 other prominent Tunisians.

From that perch the avowed secularist is turning her watchful eye on Ennahda, the new ruling Islamist party that won the elections in October with over 40 percent of the vote and 89 of the 217 assembly seats.

Ennahda agreed to a power-sharing arrangement with Om Zied's party and the center-left Ettakatol party. Under this structure Ennahda appoints the prime minister, Om Zied's partyfills the post of president and appoints the assembly speaker.

Most of the ministries, however, are controlled by Ennahda, including the Ministries of Justice, Interior and Foreign Affairs.

"I thought that Ennahda would be more generous and wouldn't keep all the powers," the trailblazing journalist-turned-politician told Women's eNews. "I expected a fairer sharing of powers within the troika."

Om Zied said she expressed her thoughts directly to Ennahda colleagues. "I didn't come into politics to fight Ennahda, but I am here to warn them against the excesses" of power," she said.

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