The FINANCIAL — correspondent's Outtakes — On the first day I met him in Georgia, Bassem Bouguerra, told me how frustrated he was because of the situation in Tunisia.
“It is business as usual, we have an 85-year-old prime minister, nothing seems to have changed,” he said as we walked toward the majestic Bohema Bath district in Tbilisi.
The night and lights added to the charm of an already very unique site: Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church erected on a hill overlooking the Turkish mosque, not too far from a Jewish Synagogue.
“I feel a little bit guilty to be here,” Bassem told me, and I understood. He had every reason to feel down. The San Francisco based Tunisian-American software architect at Yahoo and Research Engineer at the Art Intelligence Lab at Stanford, was arrested and beaten by the police on May 6, almost five months after the revolution that he thought would change his country.
His crime was filming the police while they were beating a cameraman.
The active blogger who returned to his country after taking an unpaid leave from his jobs, sounded less bleak the next day when speaking at a panel debating social networks and the Arab Spring in Europe House Georgia.
The photo exhibition displaying pictures from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions gave even better context to what he and the two other Arab bloggers participating in the panel were saying.
As I moderated the discussion, I was thinking how far Mohamad Al-Abdallah has come since the last time I saw him in Beirut a little over three years ago. After two rounds of arrests in Damascus, Mohamad, then a researcher for Human Rights Watch, had run away to Lebanon where he waited for his political asylum documents. “Going and I shall never return,” was the name of the blog that he started when he moved to America.
Behind him he had left his father, the renowned opposition member Ali al Abdallah, and his brother, Omar, in Saydania prison near Damascus. Now a program officer at the International Center of Journalists in Washington, Mohamad has established himself as one of the most authoritative sources Arab and international media outlets rely on to verify information coming from Syria.
With a big smile and matching playful green eyes, Nora Younis, the editor of one of Egypt’s most popular English Websites Al-Masri al Yawm, looked very convincing when she said the revolution is not over. She seemed very prepared to what she said she realizes is a very long battle and not just against the military but against almost every facet of the political life in Egypt.
There was a lot of realism in what the Arab cyber-activists participating in the European Week of Tbilisi were saying, but also a lot of optimism. Partly, this was because of the experiences and stories they brought with them and wanted to share, but even maybe more so, it was because of the inspiring context that Georgia offered.
Police reform is probably one of the most exciting success stories from the post Rose Revolution era.
It’s hard not to be impressed when listening to the very charming, very pregnant, all smiles Eka Tkeshelashvili, the International Security Adviser to Georgia’s National Security Council speak about what’s been accomplished.
Eka, now 32, comes from a legal academic background and was only 27 when she fired in one day 14,000 policeman, a move that dramatically reduced crime rate taking Georgian Police to third position in efficiency after Norway and Iceland.
“Have you ever met a president before?” Bassem said as we walked inside the Presidential Residence. He recalled how former Tunisian President Zain El Abedine Bin Ali never met people or even gave an interview during his 32 years in power.
“He was just this untouchable man that wouldn’t age and whose mere name we were reluctant to utter,” he said.
During dinner, it was refreshing to listen to another kind of president. The 44-year-old Mikheil Saakashvili—Misha, as his friends and even guests call him—criticized dictators who still believe in the power of huge propaganda posters, as he passionately spoke about change in his country.
While admitting that mistakes have and are being made, he said this was the only way to get things done, even in a little country practically at war with a giant neighbor.
At dinner, the president casually spoke about Russian S-300 missiles based in breakaway Abkhazia targeting the plane in which he flies to different parts of the country.
“The base told me, and I told them we’re flying anyway,” he said adding Russian blackmail wasn’t going to stop him.
“I am losing my cynicism, am liking a president and the head of the police, this can’t be good,” I told Felix Marquardt, head of Marquardt and Marquardt, the high end consultancy firm that collaborated with the Georgian government on the organization of the European Week.
Upon arriving in Tbilisi, Felix, a French-American, had told me he thinks Georgia has the most innovative government in the world, and I gave him the yeah-sure-am-a-journalist-and-you’re-in-PR kind of look.
Not only was I reconsidering but I was also growing increasingly convinced with the idea that Georgia would be a great example to look at by revolutionaries around the Arab world, which on this particular day were being traumatized by the footage of the 13-year-old Hamza Al Khatib, tortured and killed by the Syrian intelligence police.
This is not say that things are perfect here, because they are not. Reforming the judiciary continues to be a huge challenge, unemployment and poverty are still at critical rates, and freedom of speech remains to be questionable in the absence of opposition media.
But Georgia has no doubt come a long way since its Rose revolution, and the “laboratory” that its highly educated elite talk so passionately about certainly has a lot more advice to share with young inexperienced states that the Arab world is aspiring to establish in the aftermath of the revolutions than would any well established democracy in Europe or the US.
I thought of Syria. What a contrast to Georgia. I found the prospect of covering a demonstration there against a young president whose cabinet is made up of fresh, well educated technocrats with huge plans including building more glass see-through police stations and the provision of a free laptop for every child over the age of seven within two years, a very optimistic idea. More so when the president’s advisers assert he will not be running for a third term.
I was certainly not the only one thinking along those lines.
Under the glass dome of the presidential residence, I listened to Bassem talk with pride about Tunisia, the first Muslim country to abolish slavery, to outlaw polygamy, to allow women to vote and to oust its dictator.
“I hope that a few years from now, I will be able to say that Tunisia was the first among the Arab countries to reform the police and that the idea was brought from Georgia,” he said.
As we were leaving, I asked him if he was going back to the United States.
“I’ll stay as long as I feel I can do something for my country,” he said.
AlArabiya.net is the online presence of Al Arabiya News Channel, the leading news channel in the Arab world.
By AL ARABIYA