(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 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.

The sun glints off the waves of the Bosporus as the wind skims across the surface of the water, and power boats, tourist ships and ferries cruise between the shores of Europe and Asia on Istanbul’s great waterway. I’ve arrived to an Indian summer in this city at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East after a PEN International Congress an hour and a half away in Belgrade where the theme was Literature—Language of the World.

I’m here with purpose and meetings, but for the afternoon I have a few hours to sit on the banks of the waterway and write and contemplate the bridges linking the two continents and consider what it takes to construct and maintain a bridge.

While I’m in Istanbul, the newspapers have been filled with headlines about Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan’s trip to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia and his message to those involved in the Arab Spring. He urges the citizens to adopt “laicism” and become “laic states” like Turkey. (‘Laicism’ is the secular control of political and social institutions in society.) The message from this Muslim leader has stirred controversy, especially from neighboring Iran which has warned against the Western secular state.

The bridge at question here is a mighty and lengthy suspension bridge between religion and politics, between the state and its citizens. It swings over centuries of history. The concept of “citizen” wasn’t applicable for a large swath of history and geography and is still problematic in many countries which perceive their residents as serving the state and those in power, which often include the clergy, rather than the state and its leaders serving their citizens.

All one needs to do is wander through the grounds of the splendid and opulent Topkapi Palace, which Sultan Mehmed built after he conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the fifteenth century. He declared the city as one of the three capitols of the Ottoman Empire and proceeded to spend the state’s treasury on the palace. Later others spent it on a lavish harem filled with women who only the Sultan had the right to visit. The Ottoman Empire, which stretched over two million square miles at its height and spanned over 600 years, bore the motto: “The Eternal State.”

A decade after the Sultan finished his new palace at Sarayburnu, Spanish trading ships sailed across the Atlantic and ran into a land they named America. Here ideas of citizenship would evolve and the residents of this new territory would challenge, along with those from other nations, the monarchies and empires of Europe.

The role and boundaries of citizenship continue to evolve. I remain hopeful that the full rights of all citizens might emerge in the uprisings in the Middle East.  On the Bosporus I’m sitting now on the European side, and I see that the ferry I’ve been watching has arrived on the Asian shore.