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Can the Internet Help Build Democracy in Tunisia?

BY Rebecca Chao | Tuesday, March 4 2014

The website of the NGO I WATCH (screenshot)

As January 26, 2014 approached, the day Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly would vote on passing a Constitution that had been snarled in debate for two years, rather than feel relief, activist Achref Aouadi tells techPresident he had grown dismayed after his failed attempts to create an online platform that would allow Tunisian citizens to debate, discuss and vote on the provisions of the draft Constitution. A day before the vote, he had not yet found a viable platform nor the funds for a developer. A crucial opportunity would be lost for stirring civic participation, which he sees as a vital step in the building of Tunisia’s democracy.

Then, an online search turned the tide in Aouadi’s favor. In what he says was a hopeless last try, Aouadi went to Github and searched with a few general terms: constitution, voting platform. This time his search turned up exactly what he was looking for: an open source software called DemocracyOS that had been recently developed in Buenos Aires, Argentina by members of the pioneering Net Party, a new political group pushing for direct democracy.

Aouadi is the founder of the watchdog group I WATCH, which he created in 2011 as a response to the Arab Spring. He saw corruption as one of the main seeds that had flowered into a regime-toppling revolution in January 2011, and he felt that just as Tunisia’s youth unveiled their power to overthrow a dictator, so they could help build a democracy in Tunisia. His NGO works mainly in engaging youths and other citizens to develop an interest in transparency, corruption, and election monitoring.

I WATCH operates with two principles, explained on the group’s Facebook page: “no exclusion” based on religion, politics, ethnic or other backgrounds and “no trusteeship” or expert oversight as I WATCH firmly believes that the “young men and women who made the revolution are trustworthy and should be involved in the decision-making process.” And a “lack of expertise” is no excuse for exclusion or “trusteeship.”

Much of Aouadi’s work has been offline, with a focus on engaging directly with youth, but in 2013, he began to shift his attention to ICT for development. As of 2012, nearly 40 percent of Tunisians are online and 31 percent are on Facebook, which since 2011 is no longer blocked along with other social media sites like Twitter and Youtube. Yet the economy has not followed the same speedy growth with unemployment stuck at 17 percent nationwide and at 35 percent among youths. Riots broke out towards the beginning of this year at the lack of economic progress.

Aouadi’s first attempt at ICT for development was creating an anti-corruption platform,, which means “caught red-handed.” It is a crowdsourced mapping platform that enabled students to report instances of corruption during university board elections in the winter of 2013, an annual event when students across the country elect their school’s board representatives. It is an election fraught with politics and in recent years, violence, as the various student unions – leftists, Islamists, moderates, and others – fight for control over their university’s academic programs, research and even its religious policy; two years ago armed fights over whether to ban the burka on campus shut down the College of Arts in Manouba for two months.

Aouadi’s experience with the dangers of politicization also informs his approach towards ICT. With DemocracyOS, he was wary of its political roots. “Coming from an NGO, I try to keep a distance from political parties. Since [DemocracyOS] is a tool used by political parties, I thought, how can I use it for NGO work? But I found that the aim is the same: to express opinions before the vote.”

Aouadi then sought the help of Radhouane Fazai who has developed platforms for the international election monitoring group Democracy International and who Aouadi says is “the best developer in Tunisia.” Fazai initially passed the project back to Aouadi: “You can do it,” Fazai had responded, as he was swamped with a project in Egypt, but Aouadi explains, “He knows I can get stubborn.”

In the end, Fazai spent the entire night before the vote developing the platform, which was to become, using the DemocracyOS code. Aouadi busied himself with a number of technical tasks, which included uploading content for the site. While the site is far from perfect –- it is missing a few articles of the Constitution and there was no publicity campaign apart from a press release -- within three days, the site had received 3,000 visits, says Aouadi, and “the quality of the comments were good.”

The success of boomeranged back to Argentina. Pia Mancini is one of the founders of the Net Party, a young group of activists and developers who sought to create a political party that would be bound to vote in Congress according to the results of an online voting and debating platform. She explains to techPresident that she had no inkling that DemocracyOS had traveled as far away as Tunisia. “It was a surprise,” she says. “That’s the beauty of open source. Instead of someone asking permission, we get a big thank you.” Mancini notes that while differed in content from the Net Party’s platform, it shared an overarching similarity: it facilitates the participation of people who would not otherwise be included in a legislative or constitutional debate. “As a regular citizen, you would normally be left out of these processes,” she notes.

Aouadi's platform is the first of its kind in Tunisia though not the first attempt to put the Constitution online. Back in March 2011, techPresident wrote about the former Minister of Youth and Sports Slim Amamou, also an activist blogger and member of the Pirate Party, who had tweeted out a link to a modifiable Constitution on PiratePad, a site for open collaboration. It had last been accessed on February 17, 2013 and ends with the comment, "The first article will never be changed get over it people."

Aouadi says that his platform was far from perfect. It had quite a few flaws that he was unable to address due to time and resource constraints. “The online voting occurred nearly simultaneously with the voting in the assembly,” says Aouadi. “That was unfortunate because our main objective was to get the votes beforehand.” Aouadi says he sent links of the online results to members of parliament but doing so after-the-fact meant little to no impact. Still, even though “people knew their votes wouldn’t change anything,” Aouadi says, “the comments were positive. People took it seriously and expressed their ideas.” The number of users may have been higher if they hadn't had to register for the site, says Aouadi. “If we had the luxury of time, we would have linked it to social media so people can use the platform automatically."

Another problem, Aouadi says, is that users could only vote online. This would exclude large swaths of the population and he wants the platform to be as inclusive as possible. “We want to give people multiple options to vote…online, mobile phones…and not create a dependence on the Internet,” he says. This is why he wants to use a tool called crowdring. It tracks missed calls and allows mobile-phone users to vote by dialing a number and hanging up so that they are not charged for an SMS vote or phone call. Aouadi explains, let’s say there is a bill being debated in Congress. After being informed about the bill through a grassroots campaign, voters can "miss call" on one number to show support and on another to show opposition.

Aouadi points to the successful use of crowdring in India. Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption campaign called for petitioners to digitally sign using crowdring. Aouadi says the original online petition only garnered 80,000 signatures, which “is nothing compared to the population of India,” but crowdring brought in 35 million missed calls (though some reports say 20 million). “It took 15 days,” says Aouadi. “It went to parliament. It got on the desk [of lawmakers].”

So why doesn’t Aouadi implement such a project in Tunisia? He says, like with, it is a matter of funding. He does not specify how much he would need but a project proposal for the Knights News Challenge estimated that their crowdring project in India, Brazil and South Africa would cost $500,000.

“The easier you make it for users the more complicated it is for developers,” Aouadi explains. And when it gets complicated, it requires the hire of talented developers. Aouadi had teased the idea of a crowdfunding campaign but his main funders would be Tunisians who rarely if ever use a credit card. “They are not familiar with the concept,” he says. International funders and investors, he says, have been scared off by his “aggressive” approach, since he has been looking at technologies that so far, are in beta-version and have not necessarily demonstrated substantive results.

Perhaps investors might also be scared off by the scale of his ambitions.

After, Aouadi turned his attention to creating a tool to monitor Tunisian leaders. Drawing inspiration from the Obama-meter and the Morsi-meter in Egypt, Aouadi created the Jomaa meter to track whether their new prime minister Medhi Jomaa was following through on the promises he makes before the Constituent Assembly. Aouadi’s goal is to create a monitor for every leader in Tunisia. And he wants to pull together all these separate projects into one comprehensive watchdog site with the goal of getting citizens involved.

“We want to do like what they do in Argentina,” says Aouadi. “We envision a final platform that is something you can use on a national scale but also on a local level,” and that also incorporates crowdring for supporting petitions and voting on bills. While Aouadi has received technical support from the ICT for development community abroad, what he needs is one closer to home, whether that means finding other developers in Tunisia or finding a way to bring in experts from other countries. When Aouadi looks around him, he can only count two or three other groups that are doing similar work, people who "are not Zuckerbergs” looking just to make money on a cool app. As of now, he says, he is still looking for that community of developers interested in "doing the right thing."

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