Tunisia’s ‘incorruptibles’ are watching

Tunisia’s ‘incorruptibles’ are watching
Under former autocrat Ben Ali, the security services used to keep civil society under surveillance. Four years into the revolution, civil society now watches over the politicians.
4 min read
15 January, 2015
The 'incorruptibles' at work (Lutyens)

She haunts the halls of the Tunisian parliament in her socks because standing hurts her feet. She knows everything, she knows everyone, she even follows parliamentarians around. At first, they were not used to it. One of them compared her and her colleague to the police under former autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Her name is Emna Chebâane. She works for the NGO al-Bawsala (“The compass”). With her colleagues Ghada and Tamem, she counts votes, registers absentees and loads up all the info onto the NGO’s website.

     We rejected funds from the World Bank because there could have been a conflict of interest.

- Ons Ben Abdelkarim

They also livestream entire sessions via Twitter, quoting MPs and commenting on the events. Al-Bawsala tweeted 32,785 times in less than 3 years. The account now has over 70,000 followers.

Set up in 2012, only months after Tunisia’s first parliamentary elections, al-Bawsala aimed for complete transparency. Deputies had been elected to work on a new constitution: at al-Bawsala, they wanted to know – and publish – every detail of the process, staying neutral all the while. In 2013, the French newspaper Le Monde called them “the Incorruptibles”.

Like a high school teacher

Until last month, nearly all al-Bawsala employees were women. “People blamed us for it,” says founder and president Amira Yahyaoui. She says women applicants were simply better than men and complains of sexism.

“Whatever I say, newspaper articles never fail to mention my high heels, my clothes or my make-up,” Amira says.

It hasn’t stopped her from being recognised. In 2014, she received the French Chirac Foundation prize for conflict prevention.

In the parliament surveillance team, they were two women and one man, Tamem. “But he is somewhat shy,” says Emna, “he wouldn’t talk much with media or deputies”.

At first, some MPs would question their information. One disagreed with the numerous days of absence al-Bawsala counted for her: “What will my husband say? Everyday I tell him I’m going to the Assembly!”

To avoid such situation, Emna, Tamem and the project manager Ghada started taking pictures of the benches as proof.

Some MPs would then send Ghada a text message to justify their absence: “I am ill”. “Family emergency”. At times, Ghada, then 27, felt like a high school teacher.

In three years, Emna has seen all kinds of “weird stuff”. “Once, an MP even came to work in his wife’s flip flops”, she recalls laughing.

When they get bored, Emna and Tamem exchange gossip about legislators. They even established their Top 5 Charming MPs.

They spent so much time at parliament, however, legislators soon got used to their presence, and the team has come a long way. In 2012, some parliamentarians complained about the “al-Bawsala girls” in their parliamentary speeches. In 2015, they were so well-established that the Commission on Internal Rules consulted them and took in some of their suggestions.

“They’ve been with us for three years”, says the MP Neji Jemal. “The Assembly will need their remarkable work”.

Strong civil society for a strong country

When the Constitution was finally adopted on January 27, 2014, after the country went through several political crises, Emna and Ghada were in tears. That night, Ghada was supposed to pick up her fiancé from the airport. She was two hours late.

Often ahead of politics, al-Bawsala recently launched several new initiatives. A team has been set up to monitor municipal elections planned for 2015. Another has also been established to ensure there is transparency around the national budget.

The latest of these initiatives, the public policy unit, heralds a new era of lobbying work. Only men will operate in that unit. “Well, this year male applicants were simply better,” the president Amira Yahyaoui explains.

Al-Bawsala is also expanding thanks to solid funding, notably from George Soros’ powerful Open Society Foundation. “We’ve proved ourselves,” explains Secretary General Ons Ben Abdelkarim. The organisation doesn’t accept any outside interference though, she added.

“We rejected funds from the World Bank because there could have been a conflict of interest”, she says.

Under Ben Ali, the political police kept Tunisian civil society under surveillance. Now, Al Bawsala has become one of the most prominent actors in a civil society that keeps a close eye on its politicians.

After elections in December returned to power personalities who had held positions in the autocratic regimes thata came before Tunisia’s revolution – notably Baji Caid Essebsi, the new president and his Nidaa Tounes party - some in Tunisia now fear a return to old practices.

But with organisations like al-Bawsala thriving, Tunisia’s civil society has grown. Political analyst Selim Kharrat, al-Bawsala’s former number 2, says the country’s “strong civil society” will keep the country on the democratic track. Tunisia’s ‘incorruptibles’ are watching.