Rights defender savours joys of free elections

19th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

Tunisian human rights defender Kamel Jendoubi paid with many years in exile in France for his staunch opposition to Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's regime.

Now heading the commission responsible for organising the country's first free elections, he can finally savour "the joys of liberty".

"We have been through difficult things, but I have experienced moments of great happiness. What can be more joyous than this liberty that we are living?" Jendoubi told AFP in an interview in Tunis days before a historic vote for an assembly that will write a new, post-revolution constitution.

A bright smile lingers among a days old salt-and-pepper beard, despite the fatigue of working non-stop.

Conscious of the "crucial" and "colossal task" resting on the collective shoulders of his 16-member commission, Jendoubi believes the gravest possible snags have been avoided.

"The most dangerous thing for an election is suspicion. I believe that we have managed to retain the trust of voters," he said.

Installed in May, the ISIE electoral commission has managed in less than six months to draw up a new voters' list, train 50,000 election agents, assigned more than 7,000 polling stations, and launched an awareness campaign.

"Happiness is to see that four million Tunisians (out of a potential electorate of about seven million) voluntarily registering their names on the voters' roll," said Jendoubi, adding this spoke of political maturity.

The sole architecht of a process that excludes the interior ministry, which had for years stuffed the ballot boxes for Ben Ali, the ISIE stubbornly resisted pressure from the interim government and some political parties opposed to it postponing the vote, initially scheduled for July 24.

The ISIE insisted it needed more time to prepare properly.

The son of a docker, Jendoubi studied at the Tunis' Zitouna University, claimed as the oldest in the Arab World, and was bitten by the activist bug during his further education in Paris.

While abroad, he fought for the rights of Tunisian migrants, creating two rights groups that later became the strongest voices for the political opposition in exile.

"Kamel never renounces. This is not an ideologue, it is a vigorous defender of liberty," his former struggle partner Mouhieddine Cherbib told AFP.

"He was the first among us to defend the rights of Islamists, a group with which he has nothing in common."

Deprived of a Tunisian passport for 10 years, Jendoubi returned to home soil on January 17, three days after Ben Ali's ouster in a popular revolt.

Aged 59, he plunged head-first into this latest adventure, despite a draining 15-year-long battle with cancer.

"What attracted me most, is the link with the people. I thought of nothing but the voter who has been denied all these years the right to choose freely," he said, having turned down an ambassadorial post and a ministry offered by the interim government.

Questioned about his post-election political ambitions, Jendoubi bursts out laughing.

"My only ambition is that Tunisia remains democratic," he said, adding he planned to take time to "deepen (my) knowledge of the human geography" of Tunisia.

"The aim of the former regime was to advance the elite for its own benefit, and to marginalise the rest. The country must recover its dignity," said Jendoubi.

"We are lucky to have a state that functions, to have an administration, no matter what some people say of it. Things are advancing."

© 2011 AFP

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