South Charlotte

January 31, 2011

Charlotte to Tunisia: A witness to history

South Charlottean Meriem Masmoudi, 21, has spent three and a half years at UNC Chapel Hill studying politics, religion and the relationship between the two.

South Charlottean Meriem Masmoudi, 21, has spent three and a half years at UNC Chapel Hill studying politics, religion and the relationship between the two.

And for years, Masmoudi's parents - both from Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa - have told her stories of suppression, protests and student movements they once were involved with in their home country.

So now, as Tunisia struggles to reshape itself in the midst of a political shakeup, the Myers Park High graduate plans to play a part in the nation's history.

Until January 2011, Tunisia's authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, had ruled for 23 years.

When he came to power in a coup d'etat in 1987, Ben Ali created a repressive government and allowed widespread corruption among the elite and ruling family.

Public discontent reached an all-time high recently when the economic troubles in southern Europe spread to Tunisia, causing unemployment to skyrocket, even among those with college degrees.

Protesters, many of whom were doctors, lawyers and other professionals, took to the streets in December. In what is being called the "Jasmine Revolution" (named for the national flower), 78 protesters died, 94 were injured as security forces fired into the crowd of demonstrators. Thousands were taken prisoner, according to New York Times reports.

But on Jan. 14, Ben Ali, whose promises of elections failed to satisfy discontent, fled the country.

During the protests, Masmoudi kept in touch with her extended family in Tunisia via Facebook. When she heard Ben Ali had fled, she called her parents, who live in south Charlotte's Providence Crossing neighborhood. "I could hear the emotion in their voice - tears of joy, excitement," said Masmoudi. "I spent the entire day between emotional teary-eyed and smiles I couldn't wipe off my face."

Masmoudi's father, Radwan Masmoudi, Ph.D., is founder and president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, which has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Radwan Masmoudi, 47, spends a couple of days a week in D.C. and about a week or so every month traveling.

Established in 1999, the nonprofit works to promote reforms in the Muslim world. Members travel to countries such as Iran, Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Sudan and even Saudi Arabia to lead workshops and train citizens to see how democratic values can be reconciled with the Islamic faith. To date, the organization has worked with about 7,000 people worldwide.

Masmoudi said she and her family believe that now - as an interim government is established - is the time for change; now there's room for democracy.

"I personally don't believe in revolutions. I see them as a last resort," said Radwan Masmoudi. "I believe in working with the government to reform the government. But the Tunisians have been very, very patient for decades. ... Revolutions happen as a last resort, when the government doesn't listen to the voice of the people."

As she was digesting what was going on in Tunisia, Masmoudi decided she wanted to go to Tunisia with her father's organization to help college students start a youth movement for democracy. Her extended family lives there, so she would have a support system.

Fluent in Arabic and French, Masmoudi has spent nearly every summer in Tunisia. She could stay with her grandparents and work with her cousins and friends to reach out to people her age, holding campus events to get them excited about what they want their democracy to look like.

Masmoudi has worked on a number of political campaigns at the national and local levels. But because Ben Ali had been in power for 23 years, Masmoudi's peers in Tunisia have never known that democratic freedom.

"These are the kind of things, for us, that aren't a huge, huge deal. That's how our society works," said Masmoudi. "But those are the kind of things that have been illegal in Tunisia."

She discussed her idea with her father via Skype, a video chat tool.

"I know when his face says 'Absolutely no,'" said Masmoudi. "But (this time) he was saying, 'Oh no, we need to think about this,' but his face was in a half-smile."

Masmoudi began her withdrawal paperwork for UNC in January.

Pulling up roots

Masmoudi's life became a whirlwind of moving out of her Chapel Hill apartment, shopping for necessities and packing for her six-month trip. She and her father planned to fly to Tunisia Jan. 28.

This "fleeting idea in my head became my new reality in a matter of a few days," said Masmoudi.

But her departure was also bittersweet.

When she returns in August - to graduate in December - many of her friends will already be settled in full-time jobs.

"One of my friends asked me, 'Hey, so what are you going to miss?' I almost started crying," said Masmoudi. "I'm going to miss my friends. I'm going to miss graduating with them. ... I'll have to be some stranger, seeing their pictures on Facebook.

"But regardless of all these things I'm going to miss - and it's a long list ... I just think it's the right time," she said.

Masmoudi's father will be in Tunisia only for about a month, as he tries to establish a permanent office for the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. In that time, he's going to set up meetings with politicians, resistance leaders and grassroots organizers, many of whom he grew up with. Masmoudi will be meeting with them, too.

Masmoudi says her family - including her brothers Youssef, 18; Zakarya, 14; and sister Iman, 16 - are experiencing a mixture of nervousness and excitement. "I'm excited for her ... but I'm also worried because things are not so stable over there," said Masmoudi's mother, Leila Najar, 47, who kept her maiden name per Islamic tradition.

But Najar and Radwan Masmoudi were both involved in youth movements, fighting against injustices, when they were in Tunisia in the early 1980s. Najar was once jailed for a night, and Radwan Masmoudi was jailed for a week.

In previous protests, Najar's grandfather was jailed for 10 years, and some of her family became political refugees, leaving Tunisia, never to return. Two of Najar's uncles were killed.

The current situation is "what we've worked hard for our whole lives, and we need to work hard to make it right," said Najar.

"The road to democracy in (the U.S.) took decades," said Masmoudi. "It's definitely a long road ahead (for Tunisia) and it's definitely not something that's going to happen in a few months."

But the coming weeks and months - these are the critical moments, she said.

"This is the time when the people need to take their country by the hand and believe the future is in their hand," said Masmoudi. "People talk about witnessing history, but I'm actually living it."

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