Oxford University lecturer Mohamed-Salah Omri talks to Nathalie Grima and Adrian Grima about the way the revolution in Tunisia has given him a sense of entitlement to his country of origin and empowerment to act.

Without hesitation, Mohamed-Salah Omri says 2011 was the most difficult year for him, in terms of feeling out of place or away from home, since he left Tunisia in 1988.

I foresee the emergence of longer, and perhaps more troubled, processes of democratisation in several countries over the next few years, rather than democracies

“I have been living in two places and times simultaneously. The reason for this is that I needed to keep abreast of events and debates in both Tunisia and even in my home town.”

This was first motivated by anxiety about family and friends and then a need to be part of what is going on. He travelled back four times and has been on Skype and on the phone with family and friends more often.

In addition, he has been reading the daily press, following Facebook sites and listening to local news several times daily. He also has been feeling more part of the country than before. Other fellow Tunisians have been telling him the same thing.

As a Tunisian emigré, Omri talks about the need he feels to be part of the historical events taking place in his country as well as the need to try and affect it in some way.

He has been writing, giving lectures and interviews and thinking about issues that preoccupy Tunisians. He also feels there is room for him to do things on the ground, like civil society and charity work, and participating in debates and discussions. And it has been possible for him to do so.

“I feel I have something important to give by taking part in the shaping of my country, which is underway. The revolution has given me a sense of entitlement to the country and empowerment to act. Because the country is in the process of writing a constitution, I feel one needs to be more informed and to take specific positions on issues.”

Channels are open for a variety of contributions by Tunisians abroad, but Omri feels limited in what he can do from England. “And sometimes I feel I am not doing enough.”

The priorities for the establishment in Tunisia of a truly democratic process include writing a constitution as quickly as possible, building a strong civil society and doing everything possible to prevent violence from erupting.

“This,” he insists, “needs consensual politics and concessions on all parts. It also requires high vigilance on the part of democratic forces and the building of the widest coalition possible around the key issues. There will be time to compete later on. But we need the foundations first.”

It is not only the Tunisians who are following closely what is happening.

“The region needs a successful example, the way it needed a successful revolution. Tunisia can provide that. But internally and externally, there are more and more dangers and threats. Tunisia also needs other democracies to succeed, the way it needed other revolutions to help it survive.

“But I foresee the emergence of longer, and perhaps more troubled, processes of democratisation in several countries over the next few years, rather than democracies. I was more optimistic a few months ago.”

Omri believes the debates over the past several months in Tunisia and elsewhere in the region show people are becoming more realistic about the expectations raised by these revolutions.

The economic model does not seem to be affected in any major way, except in attempts to make it fairer in terms of regional balance in development and taking care of the lesswell-off members of society. Other key changes are the insistance on more transparency in government, a visible independent media and assertive public opinion onall sides.

“In Tunisia, the most remarkable phenomenon has been what I would call ‘the battle for Tunisia’s soul’.

“By this I mean heated, frequent and sometimes violent debates about the religion of the Tunisians. In addition to visible signs of an aggressive Islamist movement, such as dress, counter-demonstrations, open preaching of the Khilafa model and strict sharia laws, many foreign preachers, along with much funding have been pouring into Tunisia to ‘re-Islamise’ people, particularly the youth. Muslim missionaries, from the Egyptian radical and populist Wajdi Ghunaim to the televion star Imam Amru Khalid, to the media and academic star Tariq Ramadan, have all been to the country and all over the local media and social networks.”

Reaction to them seems to have been both popular reception and strong rejection. The issues of women rights, personal freedom and freedom of expression are the main targets.

“This makes Tunisia matter even more, I think. For at a time when Egypt seems to be veering towards a complex Islamist-dominated system, Tunisia still has the makings of a civil and balanced outcome. For this reason, I think, Arab-wide Islamist forces as well as financial and political power from the Gulf region, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular, have been focussing on it.”

Omri argues that what he calls the “official” West, particularly the EU and the US, are out in force, diplomatically and perhaps even in security and military terms, with a view to keep a handle on things.

“But the progressive civil society seems to me still largely on the fence, or in a wait-and-see mode. It is remarkable, and worth pondering how this revolution, which was very local, even provincial in its start and intial outcome, has turned into a global issue and the locus of global interest and contestation.”

Mohamed-Salah Omri has been invited by the Department of Maltese in the Faculty of Arts to give three public lectures, all followed by panel discussions, at the University of Malta: On Tuesday at 6.15 p.m. (ELT), he will deal with “The Tunisian Revolution: a revolution of dignity and poetry”. The panel will be chaired by Arnold Cassola. On Wednesday at 10 a.m. (LC216) he will speak about “North African Literature and the Mediterranean Sea.” The panel will be chaired by Adrian Grima. On Thursday at 6.15 p.m. (NALR), Omri will speak about “Malta and the Maltese Language in the Arab 19th century nahda” and the panel will be chaired by Olvin Vella. The full programme is available on http://www.um.edu.mt/arts/malti .

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