The World

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.

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Immediate Questions

In the case of Ben Ali, Om Zied also worried about the excesses of power right from the start.

Just a few weeks after Ben Ali took power by a coup on Nov. 7, 1987, Om Zied was the first female journalist to openly question the country's new leader despite the generally glowing press response to the ouster of President Habib Bourguiba, a father figure who wrested independence from France in 1957 but lost popular favor by his violent repression of Islamic fundamentalism and harsh tactics toward opposition.

"Don't applaud Ben Ali so quickly," Om Zied wrote in a defiant and prescient article published in one of the few independent publications, Erraï. "Don't forget either his military past or his past in the police. And what if he is taking us on a road worse than Bourguiba? Don't give him a blank check!"

The same day, the magazine was seized and banned and Om Zied placed under an official scrutiny that would last for two decades as she continued to write critically of the recurrent abuses of the regime.

In 2000, Om Zied co-founded an online news journal, Kalima, with another journalist and human rights activist, Sihem Ben Sedrine. It became an international platform for taking the regime to task and in 2009 the Committee to Protect Journalists gave her an International Press Freedom award for running the site, which was blocked in her own country.

In October 2003, after denouncing the national educational system for creating hypnotized "tailor-made citizens" with no critical faculties, she left her university post where, for 33 years, she served as a professor of Arabic.

That same year, she was condemned to eight-month suspended sentence for a case of currency transfer she says was fabricated by the regime.

Today, she and other politicians face the pressing national question of whether to extradite the former president and his allies for a political trial in Tunisia.

While she said such a trial would have "tremendous" symbolic and psychological value, especially for the families of victims of the regime, she said the more pressing priority is repatriating money that Ben Ali took out of the country when he sought exile in Saudi Arabia.

On the question of women's rights and their fate under the new government, Om Zied objects to the "interference of foreign countries" and expresses confidence the country's women will stand up for themselves. "I don't think that Ennahda will undermine the achievements of women made over a half of century," she adds.

Om Zied is proud of the role played by women in the revolution.

Two days, after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 27- year old fruit vendor, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, Om Zied went to Sidi Bouzid, the square in what center that served as the epicenter of the revolution. "I saw several mothers encouraging their kids to take to the streets, providing them with stones to fight policemen who were firing on the crowd."


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Hajer Naili is an editorial intern for Women's eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa.

For more information:

Naziha Rejiba, Tunisia, Kalima:

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