EYES ON PLUTO… “WE DID IT!”

Headlines from earth yesterday heralded the Iranian Nuclear Deal, but some of us were looking skyward. On a small green campus tucked into suburban Maryland at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab scientists, engineers, media,  friends, family, faculty and board of Johns Hopkins University awaited the report back from Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft, built by Hopkins APL engineers and scientists, had arrived at the outer planet three billion miles away after a nine and a half year journey. That evening the spacecraft was reporting in after 22 hours of silence while it gathered extensive data as it passed within 7750 miles of Pluto.

The spacecraft, which had been built in a record four years at APL, had traveled at a rate of a million miles/day (between 31,000-46,000mph depending on its orbit). The evening before it had started downloading data and taking pictures in a rapid collection of scientific information. It couldn’t do that job and call home at the same time so its progenitors waited anxiously at Mission Control, aware that any number of unpredictable events like a pebble size bit of detritus colliding could disrupt and destroy the mission.

“Stand by for telemetry….” Mission Operations Manager (MOM) Alice Bowman alerted. At 8:52:37pm—right on time—New Horizons called home. “We’re in lock with telemetry with the spacecraft,” she affirmed as one by one the systems managers reported: “MOM, propulsion is nominal…MOM, thermal is nominal…MOM, power is nominal…” Nominal meant normal. MOM meant Alice. The conclusion: “We have a healthy spacecraft and we’re outbound for Pluto!” The room at Mission Control and in the auditorium nearby burst into cheers and tears and gave a standing ovation. It was a remarkable moment and extraordinary achievement.

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The mission had proceeded like clockwork. It had been a team effort over a decade and a half, occupying 2500 people. The very best scientists and engineers built the space craft, designed its scientific mission (including the first student-designed project on a NASA mission), programmed its course. The trajectory included an important scientific data-gathering pass  of Jupiter, where the spacecraft received a needed gravity assist which sent it hurling on its way into deep space.

New Horizons arrived at the closest approach to the planet just 72 seconds early. That precision over nine years and three billion miles was almost impossible to comprehend except to the scientists and engineers who understood that precision was essential to accomplish the task. Even a small margin of error projected over that amount of time and space could be disastrous.

The mission exemplified a remarkable achievement of teamwork and partnerships among NASA, universities, and the U.S. Department of Energy which supplied the plutonium power source. The nuclear power it provided will allow the spacecraft to operate until 2030. The total power draw for the Pluto encounter was only 202 watts (about three and a half light bulbs). Each transmission draws only 28 watts (enough to power two small night lights.) Reception of these transmissions relies on super giant receivers—the Deep Space Network. There are only three in the world large enough—one in Madrid, Spain, one in Pasadena, CA in the US and one  outside Canberra, Australia. The placement of them means that data can be received at any time as the earth spins on its axis. Last night’s transmissions were broadcast from Pluto four and a half hours before they were received, traveling at the speed of light and sent via the giant antenna dish in Madrid.

Alan Stern, the head of the New Horizons Mission and NASA’s chief investigator, told the gathering: “We did it! One small step for New Horizons, one giant leap for mankind.”

The audience included students who had been born almost ten years before on the day of the New Horizons launch. An elementary school boy asked, “Does this make Pluto a planet?” Fran Bagenal, NASA team leader for plasma investigations on the Mission, answered, “Yes! Of course Pluto is a planet!”

The Pluto mission began as a barroom bet by Alan Stern to prove Pluto was not just a dwarf planet but a full planet. The exploration was affirmed as a top priority by the National Academy of Science. In the audience last night were the grown children of Claude Tombaugh, the astronomer who originally discovered Pluto. Eighty-five years earlier their father told his senior astronomer, “I think I have found your planet X.”

Fifty years before to the day—July 14—humans first explored Mars with NASA’s Mariner 4. John Casani, special assistant to the director at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and one of the early engineers in the space program noted, “People developing spacecraft today know what they are doing. We didn’t know what we were doing. Back then the shoulders we were standing on were too narrow and our shoes were too big. We had only the technology for guided missiles.”

The scientists and engineers had to figure out, among other concepts, 3-axis stabilization. “Innovation was the key to making things work,” Dr. Casani said. “There was no book on 3-axis stabilization. We were all only a couple of years out of graduate school. We weren’t experienced enough to know that what they were asking us to do couldn’t be done.”

“You couldn’t go to the library and ask for a book,” added Norm Haynes, who was the trajectory engineer for the Mariner 4 Mission and also spent his career at NASA’s JPL. “There were no textbooks on how to build a spacecraft.”

There were no computers on board the first spacecrafts either. In 1962 the computer had only a 65,000-word vocabulary as opposed to the multiple gigabytes of memory today. The first computer was aboard Mariner 4 which delivered 22 pictures of Mars, each taking ten hours to send back. It took 60 hours to go to the Moon, 6,000 hours to go to Mars and now the New Horizons spacecraft can endure a nine and a half year journey to Pluto and still arrive in tact. The per mile cost of New Horizon was 25 cents/mile; the per mile cost of Columbus was $3000/mile and the per mile cost of Magellan was $5000/mile. On Mariner 4 in 1965 the spacecraft transmitted information at 8 1/3 bits / second; New Horizon transmits at 1000 bits/second and it is 60 times further away.

The scientists and engineers said the key to success was the willingness to imagine, to innovate and to be willing to fail. Considerable failures preceded this achievement.

Why is the exploration of Pluto important? It opens up our view of what is possible, of the universe and perhaps even of ourselves, suggesting larger horizons physical and metaphysical. It demonstrates the possibilities of human potential—of imagination and ingenuity empowered by cooperation, teamwork and a large goal. From a scientific point of view, from the point of view of NASA which has to secure the funding, it provides knowledge about the universe where we live and the universe beyond.

The data that will be gathered on the New Horizons’ close approach to Pluto is about 100 times more than can transmit before the spacecraft flies away. It will take 16 months to send all the scientific information home.

“We explore because we are human, but we want to know,” said noted physicist Stephen Hawking in a call-in message to the gathering.

If the next stage is funded, the New Horizons spacecraft will go off to explore the outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt, letting us know what lies beyond Pluto in the further reaches of space.

The spacecraft was built to last. Its power will endure until 2030, then it will not be sufficient to keep the instruments warm enough to operate, and the craft will drift into deep space. By 2030, the equipment on the spacecraft will be 40 years old and the innovations that will have developed by then we can now barely imagine.

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What Are You Not Reading This Summer?

I was recently sent a questionnaire as part of a profile asking me what I was reading:

I find myself reading several books at the same time. I just finished Phil Klay’s Redeployment today, am reading Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen, am re-reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians, re-reading Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this and can’t leave this question without noting Elliot Ackerman’s Green On Blue.  Because I read both e-books and paper books, I move around among narratives easily.

The answer was a snapshot in reading time, indicative of the pleasure of dancing among narratives. I find myself enjoying on several platforms the movement between hard-edged, nuanced stories of war and its aftereffects in Klay’s Redeployment and Ackerman’s Green on Blue, the harsh and surprising world of Clement’s indigenous Mexican women in Prayers for the Stolen and the gentle, but no less desperate stories of Southern women trying to find their lives in Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this, a collection recently re-published by a new small press—Bacon Press—in paperback. Graham Greene is a master who I am always re-reading, appreciating how he integrates the international world of politics and deceit with compelling narratives set around the world.

Recently I returned from PEN International’s biennial Writers in Prison conference and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) meeting, a gathering this year in Amsterdam focused on Creative Resistance, a gathering of over 250 individuals from 60 countries around the world who work on behalf of writers threatened, imprisoned and killed for their writing. I remain conscious of these voices too. They occupy a kind of negative space—those we are NOT reading, not able to read because they are not able to write.

The list unfortunately is long, and many individuals stand out for me, but I will highlight two here. Though I couldn’t read either because of language differences, I read with attention their cases and link here to actions that can be taken on their behalf:

Raif Badawi, a blogger and editor in Saudi Arabia, had his sentence confirmed this past week by the Supreme Court that he must serve 10 years in prison and receive 1,000 lashes for “founding a liberal website,” “adopting liberal thought” and for “insulting Islam.” Raif had planned a conference to mark “a day of liberalism,” and he launched an online forum, Liberal Saudi Network to encourage political and social debate. His lawyer has now also been arrested.

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His wife, who fled  with their three children, says she received threats from the Saudi embassy when she was in Lebanon that they would kidnap her children and forcibly return them to Saudi Arabia; the court verdict would force her to separate from her husband.

Though now living in Canada, she says, “I believe that there is a will for freedom in the country that will not be deterred.” Of the solidarity movements that support her husband, she adds in an interview with PEN International, “I used to believe it was a fantasy for a person to stand in support of another person regardless of geographical, racial, religious, linguistic and other differences, but what you have done for Raif’s case has taught me that I knew nothing about humanity.”

Link for more information and action.

—Gao Yu–Chinese journalist, former chief editor of Economics Weekly and contributor to the German newspaper Deutsch Wele and a poet–was arrested on charges of illegally obtaining state secrets and sharing them with foreign media and sentenced this spring to seven years in prison. When she was first disappeared, she was writing a column entitled ‘Party Nature vs. Human Nature,’ which is said to have considered the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and its internal conflicts. Gao Yu, who is 71, has been an intrepid journalist her whole career and an honorary director of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. She has often been at PEN conferences in Hong Kong and contributed to an essay in PEN’s 2013 report “Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China.”

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She has served time in prison before, the first time for reporting on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and five years for reporting on political and economic issues in Hong-Kong based publications. She’s known for her critical political analysis of the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party. Her arrest and sentencing has signaled to many the retreat from hope of wider press freedoms under the new leadership.

For those of us lucky to have met Gao over the years, we’ve seen she has a sharp mind, a smiling face and an unmistakable light in her eyes as though she is slightly amused and looking at a much longer narrative for China. At the recent PEN conference, each meeting had an empty chair on the stage, and a picture of Gao Yu as the honored writer not there.

Link to more information and action.

 

 

Overheard in Washington: Politics and Cherry Blossoms

I write in restaurants. I find my corner, find the plug, choose the restaurant and the table where I am not taking up needed space, where I can hunker down and concentrate with just enough ambient noise to take me back to my roots of writing in the middle of a newsroom. I have my favorite spots around town. I know the nicest waiters and waitresses, the best cups of coffee, the places I can write through breakfast and lunch without taking up space for other customers and can get fed at the same time.

The routine also gives me access from time to time to interesting conversations. I am not a natural eavesdropper, but it is unavoidable when people sit nearby and talk as if I am invisible. People’s lives come together and fall apart in restaurants and sometimes in my presence. In Washington I have also overheard conversations I’m sure were meant to be confidential. It surprises me how one assumes a lone person ten feet away can’t hear just because she appears engaged in her work.

This morning I am in one of my favorite spots, big floor to ceiling windows, few people here but me this early, truly fresh squeezed orange juice (one of the reasons I come here). I plug in my computer; the waiters and waitresses know me well and bring decaf coffee and yogurt parfait, and I settle in for several hours work. But twenty feet away a meeting is going on around a big table, everyone perched on high stools leaning in. I am good at ignoring such talk, but I hear the word ISIS and then talk about their finances and other interesting international issues. As I’m setting up my work for the morning, I listen casually, wondering if this is a group of government employees strategizing in the open at this restaurant with good coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. Or is it a team from an NGO or a think tank, and then I hear the word “campaign.” And I know with a sinking feeling that the long campaign season has begun. Whose campaign? The name is never mentioned, but by the pronoun, it is not hard to guess.

Cherry blossom weekend has just ended in Washington when the trees all around town and around the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and on the Mall by the Lincoln Memorial have been in full pink and white bloom. It is officially the beginning of spring. Washington shines at this time. After the endless snows of winter this year, we are all ready for spring. But are we ready in spring, 2015 for the campaigns to launch for the next 18 months? I am not. But there is nothing to do but settle in. And I can assure you from the heart of the U.S. political universe, it is underway. The volunteers and staffers and strategists are on their high stools, developing policy and campaign positions which will soon be on the air waves. The U.S. Presidential political season has arrived. Alas.

PEN Pregunta: Corruption, Violence, Impunity: What Can Writers Do?

PEN International and its Latin American and North American PEN Centers gathered this past week in Central America and in Mexico City for  the  third PEN Americas Summit to address the challenges to freedom of expression and the crimes against writers. The region, in particular Mexico, is one of the most dangerous in the world for writers and journalists who are killed, disappeared, attacked and threatened with virtual impunity.

In Mexico over 100 journalists have been murdered since 2000; 25 have been forcibly disappeared and hundreds are attacked and threatened each year while their attackers remain free.

During the Summit PEN identified the structural issues impeding freedom of expression, including the weakness within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, the use of criminal defamation laws, the barriers to entry and lack of diversification within the Mexican news media, the close relationship between much of the media and the Mexican government and the manipulation of advertising payments from the government to media as a reward for positive coverage.

Developing recommendations, PEN officials followed up by meeting with government ministers. Most important the writers in the region will follow up with each other advancing the narrative in their countries which included Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Canada, and the U.S

The Summit ended in Mexico City with a public Pregunta,—a brief statement and question from each of the participants to generate discussion.

 

Question: What can a gathesummit-300x201ring  of writers do in the face of killings, disappearances and attacks on journalists in Mexico?

Writers’ tools are words and narrative. The narrative in Mexico has deteriorated  with journalists and writers attacked at a rate of almost one a day and many killed while their attackers live with  impunity. What can a room of writers do? We can begin by helping change the narrative.

PEN was founded by writers in Europe after World War I who wanted to charge the narrative of nationalism that had led to that war.

In my years working in PEN, I have witnessed societies change and freedoms expand, in part because writers and journalists advanced the narrative of the individual’s right to free expression, the right to imagine different societies and to live without fear.

When I began in PEN, South Korea had prisons filled with writers. That is no longer the case. Czechoslovakia had major writers in prison as did most of Eastern Europe. Societies can change. Writers can help lead the way inspiring and re-imagining the narrative until it becomes reality.

Today much discussion is about the brutality of ISIS. The brutality—the beheadings, murders, disappearances—that are happening in Mexico are not a global focus. Today we can witness and bring focus and help re-imagine the outcome.

 

Question: What can writers do in the face of killings, disappearances and attacks on journalists?  Please share your ideas below.

Times and Tides

Anniversaries abounded this past week:

—November 11: The hundredth anniversary of World War I was perhaps the most significant.  Since I wasn’t alive then, I have no personal memories, but I have an appreciation of its significance in all the years that followed and influenced my life. I also appreciate the misreading and historic mistakes that led so much of the world to war.

—November 9: The twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—I was around for that. A few months afterwards our family moved to Europe, and I took my children to East Berlin where we walked across Checkpoint Charlie and knocked down the wall ourselves. We still have a bag of the concrete from the wall in a cabinet in our home; the most artistic slabs with colored graffiti we mounted under plexiglas and shared with friends.

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—November 8: The tenth anniversary of the second Battle of Fallujah is very personal. We had a son at the front of that battle who survived and is still processing the impact on him and his friends and the country. He has developed into a beautiful writer who tells and has published his own essays and stories. His first novel Green on Blue will be published by Scribner’s this February. Not noted as widely at the time ten years ago were the battles of the civil war in the Ivory Coast. During the Battle of Fallujah I was with African PEN centers in Dakar, Senegal planning a PEN Congress. The headlines on the front pages there were from the Ivory Coast, not Iraq. My heart at the time was stretched across continents. In quiet moments I can still feel…or is it hear?…this beating of the heart.

—And finally this fall celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of my own high school graduation—an unexpected gathering of friends, most of whom I hadn’t seen in a quarter and some in half a century. We found the friendship and goodwill were what had lasted, had roots and still flourished among us.

This flowering and expanding of life and the heart is what I take away. The walls that fall between us are still challenged by the battles fought among us. History repeats or teaches. There are no simple lessons, but to the extent we find ways to break down the walls and end the battles, we hope. Hope after all is still a threshold of history.

 

PEN on the Plains of Central Asia

PEN International’s 80th Congress opened with galloping horses across the majestic plains of Central Asia’s Kyrgyzstan  this past week when the  200 plus delegates from 73 PEN centers around the world encountered “Kurmanjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains” the epic new film featuring Kyrgyzstan’s national heroine. The cinematically stunning drama spanned the late18th to 19th century when the modern nation formed, led by a woman—wife, widow and mother—in a time when women had no rights, when enemies threatened on all sides. The drama ended with Russia’s annexation of the region.

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A hundred years later PEN delegates gathered in Bishkek for PEN’s annual Congress whose theme My language, my story, my freedom included discussion, debate and advocacy on issues of free expression. PEN called for release of Uzbek writer Azinjon Askarov from a Kyrgyz prison, Vladimir Kozlov from Kazak prison and Ilham Tohti, who was recently given a life sentence in China for alleged “separatism.” These three individuals were featured with empty chairs at the Congress and represented the more than 900 writers, journalists, publishers, editors and bloggers listed in PEN’s case list and for whom PEN advocates.

Kyrgyzstan is considered the freest of the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, the only republic that could have hosted a PEN Congress, but it is still challenged with ethnic conflicts and with repression of certain minorities, including those from the LGBT communities. The influence of the Russian Federation, including its Law of False Accusation and criminal defamation and laws against  “gay propaganda,” the influence of radical Islam and  ethnic conflicts affect free expression in the country, according to Marian Botsford Fraser, the Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Before the Congress, PEN International’s President John Ralston Saul and a delegation visited neighboring Kazakhstan and met with the President’s office there to present PEN’s concerns, especially for imprisoned writers Vladimir Kozlov and Aron Atabek.  In Bishkek a delegation met with the President of Kyrgyzstan on PEN’s issues and with the federal Prosecutor on the case of Azinjon Askarov.

PEN held panels and discussions on LGBTQI rights, on surveillance, on criminal defamation, and on linguistitic rights. Resolutions on free expression and the cases of imprisoned and threatened writers were passed relating to Azerbaijan, China, Tibet, Cuba, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Ukraine, and Vietnam.

PEN voted in four new centers—Liberia, Honduras, Wales, and an Eritrean center in exile, whose member reported on the many writers who are in prison and who have died there, bringing the total number of centers to 147 around the world.

In the capitol of Bishkek galloping horses are now replaced by ever present taxis—used cars from Europe and Japan with steering wheels on both the left and the right hand sides. Monuments and buildings from the Soviet era are strained with wear though guards still goose step around their peripheries.  Members of Central Asian PEN welcomed the delegates with hospitality, with literature, with traditional songs and dance, with modern cinema about the past and with a hope of embracing broader freedoms in the future.

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Boston on a Sunday Afternoon

The sun is shining. The swan boats are cruising on the pond in the Boston Commons. Joggers are jogging along the park. Children are running after ducks; parents are running after children. University students have returned en mass from summer so the hum of young people hums in Boston and its neighboring city of Cambridge, ever the student’s town. People from all backgrounds, speaking Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, French, Russian and languages I don’t recognize pass by as I sit on a park bench.

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For a moment I don’t want to think about ISIS or terrorists’ attacks or the beheadings of writers, who are friends of people I know, writers and their families whom I can’t help but think about and want to honor, or to think about those who must decide what our country does next or those who will take the risk to do it.

All this is on my mind and on the minds of people in Washington where I live. But for a moment I look out and take a breath and watch Boston on a Sunday afternoon before the world accelerates, a few days before we mark again the events of 9/11. I want to savor and remember this moment just for a moment. It is the point after all.

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Poets, Pardons and Ramadan

(This piece appears on GlobalPost.)

Eid—the end of Ramadan—has come and gone. Traditional pardons have been handed out. In Qatar, poet Mohammed al Ajami (Al-Dheeb), was not among them. He continues to live in a prison in the desert, serving a 15-year sentence for two poems, one praising the Arab Spring and the other critical of the Emir.  He (and his poems) “encouraged an attempt to overthrow the regime,” according to the charges.

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The over 70 pardons granted in Qatar are reported to have gone to Asian workers charged with theft, rape, drug abuse, bribery, prostitution, etc. These workers will now likely be deported. If Mohammed al Ajami were released, he would also likely leave the country to reunite with his family and then perhaps accept a brief fellowship offered as a poet at a major university.

Throughout the Muslim world Ramadan is a time when dispensations are handed out— as many as 1000 prisoners reportedly released in Saudi Arabia, 800 plus in Dubai, over 350 in Egypt— to individuals charged with violent and nonviolent crimes. But the amnesties were not given to writers, not to poet al Ajami, not to Egyptian journalists or Iranian bloggers. The offense of words and ideas are perhaps judged more dangerous.

Writers in prison in the Middle East who did not get pardons include: Bahrain (3writers), Egypt (5 writers), Iran (35 writers), Qatar (1 writer), Saudi Arabia (2 writers), Syria (11 writers), Tunisia (1 writer), United Arab Emirates (2 writers). *

 

*Source PEN International

In Qatar, calls for release of prisoners come with the start of Ramadan

(This piece appears on GlobalPost.)

Commentary: The release of one imprisoned poet during Ramadan may seem a small act, but would be a significant humanitarian act toward a more enlightened state.

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Muslim men perform the Eid Al-Fitr morning prayers outside the Ali Bin Ali mosque in Doha on September 30, 2008. Eid al-Fitr festivities marking the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan are celebrated starting today in most of the Middle East countries. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

I am not a Muslim, but I am focused on the arrival of Ramadan this year. The month-long observance began this weekend for 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. A time of fasting, increased prayer and charity, Ramadan is also a time when governments of Islamic countries grant amnesties to citizens and to those in prison.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, observes the time when Muhammad, a caravan trader wandering the desert near Mecca contemplating his faith, is said to have been called to receive the word of Allah. The revelation was eventually transcribed as the verses of the Qur’an.

The reconciliation of this holy time with political dispensations varies according to countries and their leaders. My focus is on the country of Qatar and the particular case of a poet in prison. Qatar has been in the news lately as the recipient of the five Guantanamo detainees. This transaction has taken the headlines.

But also in prison in Qatar is poet Mohammed Al Ajami, who has spent more than two years in solitary confinement for two poems. A father of four, Al Ajami is serving a 15-year sentence (reduced from life imprisonment) for poems criticizing the Emir and supporting the Arab Spring. One of the poems was read in a private reading in his apartment in Cairo, but was secretly taped by a fellow poet and uploaded on YouTube. Al Ajami was eventually charged a year and a half later with “encouraging an attempt to overthrow the existing regime.”

Al Ajami grew up as a friend in the household of the Emir’s grandfather, but he has refused to apologize for his poetry, and thus he continues to live behind bars. There is no legal recourse left to him. The only recourse is an amnesty or pardon by the current Emir. Should Al Ajami be released there are appointments he might have as a poet abroad.

The tradition of amnesties during Ramadan include last year’s release of 14 Nepalese in Qatar, three Britons jailed in Dubai, 65 prisoners in Gaza, , 82 Egyptians released in 2012 from Saudi Arabian jails. In a time when Qatar is facing criticism for its migrant domestic workers’ conditions, a time when Qatar is bidding for international conferences and facing controversy over its 2022 hosting of the World Cup, the release of one poet during Ramadan seems a small, but significant and humanitarian, act, an act which would evidence a more enlightened state to many who are looking for enlightenment in that region of the world.

 

Mohammed al-Ajami is an honorary member of PEN American Center. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, a former reporter for a the Christian Science Monitor, is a Vice President of PEN International and PEN American Center.

 

Tunisia could be the first Arab Spring success. But it’s not there yet.

Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. But the country’s future will not be assured without international support. It must fortify a weak economy, combat crime and terrorism, and continue government reforms.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Op-ed published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2014

Tunis, Tunisia

In Roman times wild animals paced beneath Tunisia’s El Jem colosseum, ready to spring into mortal combat with gladiators – usually slaves fighting for their lives and sometimes freedom – as an audience looked on. Recently I paced the floor of this same amphitheater, trying to imagine its history – and future.

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Today, Tunisia is engaged in its own struggle for the life of its new democracy. Though a small country – 64,000 square miles with 11 million people – Tunisia is vital to regional stability. Now this ancient North African country where the Arab Spring began is poised to become the first success in the region – but only if it can shore up a weak economy, curb the dual threats of terrorism and crime, and continue needed government reforms.

Three years after a young street vendor set himself on fire to protest the authorities’ harassment and corruption, three years after the citizens rose up and ejected their longtime autocratic leader, Tunisia has laid the groundwork for its future. In January, the citizenry adopted a new Constitution that was widely debated and passed with the votes of more than 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly. All sectors endorse and are proud of the forward-leaning Constitution, which balances the secular and religious and is looked at as a model for the region.

As a further mark of progress, the Assembly recently passed a law establishing a judicial body to determine the constitutionality of new laws. It will be replaced by a new constitutional court after the next election. This opens the way now for the Assembly to pass a law to set up elections, which are anticipated this year.

Many donors and investors, particularly in the West and in the Gulf, are awaiting these elections before they commit further aid. Citizens are hoping the partisanship that divided the country after the revolution won’t reemerge. As one trade union leader told me, this frustration helped pave the way for the new government: “Technocrats were accepted as an interim government because people were fed up with political parties.”

A Marshall Plan for Tunisia

Still, large challenges lie ahead for Tunisia. The greatest is the economy, which remains state-controlled and relies on large subsidies it can’t afford. Some say the country is on the brink of bankruptcy. Interim Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa visited the United States and the Gulf in April looking for financial assistance, including loan guarantees.

Mr. Jomaa has agreed with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund that the subsidy programs must be cut back or ended, but there are political and societal costs when prices on energy and food suddenly rise and government employment decreases. Unemployment is already more than 15 percent and as much as 40 percent among youth. In a show of good faith, President Moncef Marzouki recently announced he is taking a two-thirds pay cut.

But Tunisia’s future will not be assured without international support. As Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the Constituent Assembly, said to me and a small gathering of international observers: “We need a Marshall Plan for Tunisia and the Maghreb.”

The threat of terrorism

Another threat to Tunisia’s progress is terrorism, along with weapons flows and black market smuggling across the borders of neighboring Algeria and Libya.

“Gangsters control weapons and drug traffic,” Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent journalist and human rights activist, told me. She explained the context that gives rise to violence and illicit activity. “We don’t want to give religious cover to jihadists who are really criminals. The violence is created by poverty. There is a generation of young people marginalized. The state doesn’t have money. The money is in the gray economy, which some say is 60 percent of the economy.”

In order to curb the threat of violent extremism and its links to crime, Tunisia must continue to address the poverty and disillusionment that fuel it. Economic reforms and foreign aid to support economic growth are thus doubly important to Tunisia’s future.

Out with the old

Tunisia must also dismantle and reform the structures of the old dictatorship, including the police and the Ministry of the Interior. Close observers say that the success of the country’s democratic transition depends on the government’s ability to decentralize as well.

The concentration of government at the national level has bred corruption. As Ms. Bensedrine put it: “As long as [the] administration is centralized, it gets many privileges.” Decentralization (establishing more empowered regional governments) has been enshrined in the new Constitution to allow a more equitable distribution of revenue and governance.

“The country has long been divided by its coastal wealth and poorer interior,” former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali explained to me and our small group of international visitors. Some legislators are thus looking to redraw regions so each includes both coastal and interior areas.

Reasons to hope

In spite of the challenges it faces, Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. For one, it has an educated population (both women and men) and has a 90 percent literacy rate. Women also hold key positions in the public and private workforce.

In addition, Tunisia’s proximity to Europe (geographically, culturally, and historically) facilitates exports and manufacturing. Tunisia also offers a historical bridge between Islam and secularism, one that has played a key role in its democratic transition – and will help it maintain international support going forward.

As I stood in Tunisia’s famous amphitheater (the setting for the movie “Gladiator”), two things were clear to me: The beasts of poverty, terrorism, and criminality wait just beneath the surface to destroy Tunisia’s democratic dream. But Tunisia is also poised to show that more-benevolent and more-moderate forces, including the citizens’ own determination to have democracy, can prevail.

We – the international community – are the spectators in this great match. But we cannot just sit in the audience and watch. For the sake of Tunisia – and the region – the world must engage and support Tunisia’s economic and political progress. As one local governor told me, “We are determined to succeed with a democratic state. We will not go back!”

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman visited political, business, and civil society leaders in Tunisia as part of a recent trip with the International Crisis Group, of which she is a board member. Ms. Leedom-Ackerman is also a former reporter for the Monitor.

 

This piece was originally published by The Christian Science Monitor and was republished by Gulf News.