was recently honoured to moderate a debate between young Arab debaters involved in the Young Arab Voices program and the president of the European parliament. The debate was very enriching and intense. With contributions from youth and political leaders in the audience from Europe and Arab countries, the debate unfolded through intriguing questions: Do we know enough about each other? And about ourselves? Are news reports enough to introduce us to the new contexts in Europe and Arab countries that we are facing? What has changed after the Arab Spring so far and what gives us the illusion of change?

•The polarized and polarizing discourse:
The political debate, enriched by the diversity of perspectives including those that were suppressed during the era of Moubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi reveals two main “opposing” discourses: a discourse carrying an Arab-Islamic identity and calling for more conservative and religious legislations, and an opposing discourse advocating a secular identity defining Tunisians as open Mediterranean people who aim to live in a civil state and recognize their diverse identities. The political scene in Arab Spring countries is very polarized. The countries’ secular and Islamist camps are in a constant confrontation. In Tunisia, this polarization has translated into the discussions at the National Constituent Assembly and spilled out onto the streets in different demonstrations.

However, a lot of Tunisians consider this discourse as misleading. Some media, civil society and even politicians, nowadays, are trying to avoid the polarizing discourse that feeds itself and instead focus on the real issues and challenges, those that were voiced out in the streets (i.e. employment, freedom, dignity and social justice). But the discourse goes beyond Arab Spring countries. It is also the way that others see us. For the last decade, people from both shores of the Mediterranean have seen themselves, others and the environment around them in a bi-dimensional way (either as conservative/Islamist, or as liberal/modern). This discourse seems to be prevailing in Europe as well as in Arab countries. This polarization is not a creation of the Arab Spring’s new contexts (elections, freedom of expression etc…), it is far rooted in history, culture and in Euro-Arab societies. The recent revolutions only brought it to the surface.
We are all prisoners of our own representation and we failed to invent new representations and find a third way. We see Europe and Arab countries as either modern or regressive and we keep using static definitions changed by prepared evaluations. But is there anything in between?

It is interesting to see how the revolution’s demands were all translated in democracy. The first slogans that were chanted in the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Banghazi and even in Rabat concerned the need to create jobs, to equally distribute wealth and to make fair development plans. It was all later translated into the need for democracy, and elections appeared to be the first step towards it.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, the elections were supposedly fair while lacking transparency. New democratic structures were established such as the Constitutional Assembly and other distractive issues emerged (scandals, extremist preacher’s speeches etc…). Lately, we all realized that this democracy is not what we needed, it did not achieve our demands and it is not offering solutions to the real challenges: the challenge to find new jobs, to protect individual freedoms and to establish social justice as a foundation for economic progress and social cohesion.
Not only is this democracy not responding to the people’s needs, it is also exclusive. During the Anna Lindh Foundation Annual Forum in France a couple of months ago where civil society representatives from Europe and Mediterranean countries gathered, participants showed concerns that values of democracy are being contested on both shores of the Mediterranean by regressive forces which are threatening the possibility of living together and respecting each other. They defined regressive forces as those who eliminate others. It intrigued me to think if democratic forces are open to these regressive forces and whether they are included in the debate around inclusion, rights for all and democracy. This, again, brings us back to our limited definitions of ourselves, representing the others as completely opposing and failing to include them. Inclusion is what we need the most. This could be the third way we fail to see.

•Women rights or the fake issue
I always thought that women rights should be at the forefront of public demands and societal change. I was therefore surprised to hear from conducted focus groups and interviews with active and engaged youth in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt that they do not see women rights in our countries as a priority.
The rhetoric around women rights has been utilized by political parties throughout the elections as one of the cards in their agenda, along with youth. For a lot of Arabs, including youth, the discourse on women’s rights is fake and unnecessary. It is an invention that distracts us from empowering women. The concern with women’s rights being in danger is considered, by the silent masses, as a false problem. Some would even argue that the fears some might have regarding women’s rights are due to the ambiguity of certain terms and their fear of the unknown.

•Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression appears as a positive change in Arab Spring countries. Breaking the walls of fear, when facing dictators in the streets, has created new spaces for expression and imagination. A new destiny became possible.
However, freedom of expression in media and art productions seems to be a post-revolution myth. It is a not an achievement that people have owned, yet. It is the right that is the most practiced after the revolution (considering the insecure space for expression under previous dictatorships) but it is also the most threatened. With more journalists and artists being detained for their opinions in Egypt and Tunisia and with public pressure to release them, freedom of expression is the most discussed, redefined and negotiated right.
I recall a funny situation when I was doing focus groups with young active people to explore their perceptions and evaluation of the socio-political changes in Tunisia. For the purpose of the research, I asked for their consent to participate and to record the focus group discussion. The participants discussed their views honestly, loudly, deeply with no fear. They all pointed out that freedom of expression is the achievement they are proud of the most. However, participants kept refereeing to the recorder (with nervous jokes) whenever they felt they were saying something daring.
At the end of each focus group, they joked about the fact that the researcher recorded their ‘free expressions’ which can get them into trouble.

•The unfinished Arab Spring:
The evaluation of the revolution as a moment and as a process unfolds an interesting representation of it as an unfinished process, and sometimes as a lost moment. There is a general consensus that emerged from the challenges people in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have been facing in the last two years and a half: The revolution is not over yet. There is a fundamental change that is still needed for the revolution to be fulfilled: the revolution or change of mentalities. The change that would ‘complete’ the revolution is a societal change in mentalities that revolutionize traditional rapports between generations, genders and socio-economic strata.

Samar Samir Mezghanni