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The People's "Marsad" for the Tunisian Parliament

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, April 18 2014

Parliament in session (credit: Al Bawsala)

In Arabic, "marsad" means observatory, but in Tunisia citizens also know it as the name of the interactive website, created by activist Amira Yahyaoui, that tracks and provides updates on all the activities of the Tunisian Parliament, the National Constituent Assembly. Marsad's project manager Ghada Louhichi tells techPresident that one day, while taking a taxi on her way to the Assembly, she fell into conversation with the cab driver who learned she was part of Marsad and surprised her by having already heard of the website. He let her ride for free.

The nonpartisan team behind Marsad sits in all of the Assembly's sessions and posts meeting minutes and discussions of bills, as well as a record of who votes how on each bill. With no other resource like it being provided by the government, and an inventory now of 519 documents, Marsad.tn has become an essential tool in Tunisia for journalists, activists and even Members of Parliament.

After Tunisia's national elections in 2011, Yahyaoui realized that there was no transparency or accountability group to monitor the Assembly, Marsad's project manager Ghada Louhichi explains to techPresident (founder Yahyaoui was unavailable for comment). Yahyaoui began the project in the summer of 2012 and shortly after, recruited Louhichi to work as Marsad's project manager. "We wanted to get inside the Assembly to know what was going on, what were they doing, to create transparency and accountability," says Louhichi.

Gaining access to the Assembly was the first step. Though civil society has a right to sit in parliamentary sessions, says Louhichi, there was no precedent for what they were doing. They contacted the Vice President of the Constituent Assembly, Meherzi Labidi, who granted access to Yahyaoui. They now go through Badreddine Abdelkafi, the Assembly's assessor in charge of civil society.

"It was difficult in the beginning," says Louhichi. "This move, of civil society intervening and participating in these kinds of things, was not familiar to the politicians and even to the citizens. Step by step, we established ourselves...they eventually got used to us." Achref Aouadi, who created vot-it.org, the constitutional debate and voting platform we covered here on techPresident recently, says of Marsad, "In the beginning they faced challenges but after that they became part of the landscape. If they don’t show up people will ask for them."

"It's our life there. Days and nights," says Louhichi. During the January 26 vote for on country's Constitution, she said her days ended at two in the morning and began again at nine. At that time, their website received a high volume of traffic with over 87,000 unique visitors, 160,000 overall visits, and close to 725,000 page views in the month of January alone.

To ensure that all the information that they put online is accurate, Louhichi says she and her team work painstakingly to take photos and videos of every single vote (which are usually done by a show of hands in the Assembly) so that they can replicate it on a digital rendition of the Assembly's hemicircle. They also allow officials to challenge the voting record on their site if there is any error.

For example, on the January 26 constitutional vote, the website indicates via four colors, 200 who voted for the Constitution (green), 12 who voted against (red), and four who abstained (yellow). There were no absentees (grey).

(credit: Marsad.tn)

The image above expands into a detailed version of the vote record with clickable profile pictures that lead to individual profiles of the officials.

(credit: Marsad.tn)

Each profile provides a biography, the commissions to which the elected official belongs, a record of how the official has voted, citizen questions he or she has answered, any amendments the official has submitted and finally, an optional section where he or she can declare financial assets.

The website explains:

A transparent institution must require its officials to declare their assets at the beginning and at the end of each year.

Although the current law does not require it, we are pleased to see the introduction of this requirement in the future constitution (Article 11) and invite elected officials who support it to set an example by publishing their declaration of assets. [translated from French via Google]

Several officials have stepped forward and published sworn statements of their assets, as well as a sample of their payroll.

The platform also allows citizens to pose questions to officials. Marsad receives the questions and poses the question directly to the official and posts the response on the website.

After the launch of Marsad, Yahyaoui created the nonprofit Al Bawsala, which receives funding from a variety of international organizations including the Open Society Foundations. While Marsad is still Al Bawsala's flagship project, the organization is also planning to organize debates between Tunisian citizens and the Assembly. It explains on its website, "These discussions will take place in different regions of the country and will focus on the Constitution. They will take the form of discussion groups where people are invited to ask questions, express their concerns and present their proposals to the elected representatives."

The next step for the team behind Marsad is to create regional and municipal marsads, as well as for the various government departments at the executive level beginning with the Ministry of Finance.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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