Amira Yahyaoui takes Tunisia’s new democracy very seriously.
For that, there are family reasons. Her father was an outspoken judge opposing attempts to harness the judicial system by the former ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Her cousin, Zouhair Yahyaoui, was Tunisia’s first cyber-dissident, criticizing Ben Ali’s corruption and repression until he was arrested and, after months of hunger strikes and torture, died of a heart attack in 2005.
“I was educated not to shut up,” Amira Yahyaoui said, wearing a classic black cocktail dress and career-woman glasses on the sidelines of a development conference.
But there are other reasons. At 28, she has become a symbol of Tunisians’ suddenly flourishing desire to get a grip on their government after the paternal but unbending reign of Habib Bourguiba and the following quarter-century of Ben Ali’s autocracy — 57 years of independence during which the people had little to say about how they were ruled.
Since Ben Ali was overthrown in a coup in 2011, that must now change, Yahyaoui said.
To give people an opportunity to watch their new government at work, Yahyaoui founded Al Bawsala, or the Compass, a Web site that monitors in often uncomfortable detail the workings of the National Constituent Assembly as it draws up a new post-revolutionary constitution.
The site, for instance, uncovered and published statistics showing that only about half of the 217 members show up on any given day. Moreover, it reported that they nevertheless draw salaries 10 times the minimum wage at a time of severe economic hardship and unemployment estimated as high as 30 percent.
“Those people were going to write a new constitution, and they weren’t even there,” Yahyaoui said with indignation.
Outraged, some assembly members, led by Taher Hmila, tried to get her banned from the assembly’s premises, saying she was offending parliamentary sovereignty. But she appeared at a televised hearing on her case and asked: “Has he forgotten that this assembly is sovereign only thanks to the people it is supposed to represent?”
The banning idea was dropped.
Next, Yahyaoui sought to get transcripts of all the committee meetings, which, she learned, is where the real work gets done and the decisions get made. Al Bawsala went to court, arguing that the documents should be made available to everyone. In the meantime, she published them herself, verbatim, on Al Bawsala.
“So far, they are only available on our site,” she said, smiling. “It’s crazy.”
Yahyaoui’s site, managed by young staffers funded by non-governmental organizations, also criticized assembly members who accept executive posts in the government, saying that writing the new constitution should take all their time.
“Al Bawsala wants to remind people that absenteeism of assembly members who also have an executive position is awful,” the site complained. “For Al Bawsala, we must struggle against the emergence of a political aristocracy that is unhealthy for a democracy.”
Because of her family’s activism, Yahyaoui was forced to leave the country in the final Ben Ali years. Her Tunisian passport canceled, she spent six years in Paris studying mathematics and returned only after Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Even before her return, she had the idea of a Web site to make the workings of government available to anyone interested. But she assumed others would already be on the case by the time she showed up.
“I waited a month, two months, three months, and nobody did it,” she recalled. “So I did it.”
At first, Yahyaoui said, she was afraid that a Web site would be out of reach for most of Tunisia’s nearly 11 million inhabitants, because many of the poor do not have access to the Internet. But she calculated that younger people would get online at Internet cafes and that they would then spread the word to their parents and friends.
The bet, apparently, has worked, particularly since the televised hearing. Now, Yahyaoui said, waiters in the cafes that line Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis send up complimentary coffees to the Al Bawsala offices and hail the site’s staff members when they walk the streets.
Sleek and Western-educated, Yahyaoui exhibited a clear opinion on the debate about the role of Islam in Tunisian society: She wants the country to remain Muslim but open, Arab but tolerant, North African but tied to Europe.
She also wants men to be able to pray as often as they’d like and women to wear a full-face Muslim veil if they’d prefer.
“I think it is important that we disagree,” she explained. “It’s good that Tunisians see we don’t all think the same thing.”