24 January 2011

Tunisian Americans Upbeat Over Events in Homeland

Tunisian Americans celebrating the fall of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali say they are doing what they can -- and planning to do more -- to bolster the emerging democracy in their homeland.

But first, said Ali Khemili, came the flood of emotion.

"It was true euphoria: [the] joy of learning that a 23-year-old brutal autocracy in my native Tunisia has ended and pride that it was my compatriots who brought it about, without being directed by any particular group or individual," Khemili said.

Khemili, the organizing director of the Tunisian Community Center (community center website), an online organization with chapters in many U.S. metropolitan areas, is among an estimated 14,000 Tunisian Americans. They are watching events unfold in their native country with memories of a painful past tempered by a hopeful vision of its future.

Chedlia Dridi, owner of the Tunisian restaurant Chez Manelle in a Virginia suburb of Washington, immigrated to the United States more than 25 years ago to flee what she called the "dehumanization of the human being" at the hands of the Tunisian government.

Dridi said the Tunisian intelligentsia -- academics, lawyers, legislators -- should steer the country's future. She thinks this sentiment is shared by Tunisians everywhere.

Sami Guedoir, advisory board chairman of the Tunisian Community Center and president of Carthage Trading in California, said the Tunisian revolt is a natural thrust toward democracy.

"Democracy is owned by humanity," Guedoir said. "I always feel good whenever I see democracy born anywhere, but when it is in Tunisia it has an even special feeling for me."

Khemili, Dridi and Guedoir are already planning for how they, as Tunisian Americans, can help the emerging Tunisian government. For starters, Khemili and Guedoir are asking their elected representatives to freeze the American assets of former Tunisian government officials.

"This would be a good gesture toward the Tunisian people to help the positive transition toward democracy," Guedoir said, adding that he has written to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California and to the White House to ask for action on freezing assets.

Tunisian Americans said that once a new government is formed, it may pave the way for stronger trade relations between the countries. An emergent democracy in Tunisia, Guedoir said, will attract more foreign investment.

"People are always afraid to deal with dictatorships because you have to be vigilant and uncomfortable knowing that at any time ... they can take over or nationalize assets," he said. "Hopefully, after new reforms, there will be a lot more opportunities, and transparency will help most of the Tunisian business community here in the United States to do a lot."

Dridi, who also operates the aircraft spare parts company Mannoul International, avoided expanding business operations to Tunisia because of corruption in government customs.

"Now, that might change," Dridi said, adding that her aircraft parts company does business with Saudi Arabia. "I might open a branch of my business here, there, and start operating."

Guedoir said Tunisian government repression of freedom of expression is at an end. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists placed Tunisia on its 2009 list of 10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger, despite a well-developed telecommunications network and high Internet penetration. Social networking sites apparently played a role in the fall of the Ben Ali government.

"A lot of people call it the Facebook Revolution," Guedoir said. He wants to invite Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to future Tunisian Community Center events "because he says he wants to change the world in a positive way ... and I want to tell him that this is exactly the positive change that Facebook has helped in Tunisia."

As change continues in Tunisia, Khemili said, the people may go through a time of painful transition, but it will be for the best.

"In the long run, the hope is that all the cornerstones of democracy will be in place, establishing Tunisia as the most socially progressive and economically successful country of the southern Mediterranean," Khemili said.

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