Playing a Part in History
Bashar Lazaar ’13 didn’t expect to be caught up in a wave of history. But as revolution came to Tunisia several years ago, ultimately resulting in the overthrow of long-time autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Lazaar was moved to become involved, immersing himself in the country’s political process. His life hasn’t been the same since.
Lazaar grew up in Geneva, but he’s always had strong ties to Tunisia. That’s where his parents were born, and he typically spends vacations in Tunisia visiting family. In 2010, as the fall semester ended, he traveled to Tunisia for the break. He arrived on Dec. 15. Two days later, a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, despondent over police har-assment, set himself afire. The horrifying act of protest set off demonstrations in Tunisia that ultimately spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
Student activist Bashar Lazaar ’13
Photo: Ben Staples ’13
This time of unprecedented upheaval and promise would become known as the Arab Spring, and Lazaar found himself witnessing it firsthand. As protests gained strength in Tunisia, people around him grew excited and discussed the political situation more and more openly, something unheard of in the repressive country. “Everybody was talking about it,” Lazaar says. “Prior to the revolution, we only talked politics in small circles. There were restrictions on your freedom of speech.”
Lazaar was in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis, in the days leading up to Ben Ali stepping down in January 2011. The dictator had been in power for 23 years. Most had assumed he would remain in control for years to come, but suddenly, Ben Ali was losing his grip on the country. Shouting “Get out,” people filled the streets of the capital. “The country was feeling united as one,” Lazaar says. “We were hand in hand.”
Disorder descended after Ben Ali’s ouster, and Lazaar’s parents encouraged him to return to Babson for the spring semester. Respecting their wishes, he came back, but he kept thinking of Tunisia. Elections would be coming, and the country’s citizens, unaccustomed to free and open elections, would need information about the political parties. He attended just one class before deciding, with the support of Babson, to take the semester off and return to Tunisia. “I felt that I had the chance to have an impact on the country,” he says.
He became president and co-founder of Sawty, which means “my voice” in Arabic. A nonprofit organization unaffiliated with any political organization, Sawty engaged parties in debates and interviews and set up an online platform full of information. Its mission was to remain neutral and just offer Tunisian citizens the facts. For the 2011 election, its site contained information on 97 political parties.
Sawty also organized workshops in high schools and colleges to explain the political process, and it set up buses full of activists that drove to places out of reach of the media and Internet to explain the importance of voting. “People didn’t think their voices would be heard,” Lazaar says. “We wanted to change that mentality.”
All of these efforts took a lot of work, but Sawty had hundreds of volunteers at the ready. “The energy in the country was beautiful,” Lazaar says. “You asked, and people wanted to help. They felt the country’s future was at stake.”
Today, the group has more than 40,000 “likes” on Facebook, and it has begun promoting artistic events, such as a film festival, as a way for people to share ideas and celebrate their freedom of expression. Lazaar also has become social media manager at another organization, Ibraaz, which is dedicated to the sharing of ideas and publishes online writings about visual art and culture in North Africa and the Middle East.
Change may have come to Tunisia, but Sawty remains active in the political process, too, keeping tabs on the drafting of a long-delayed Tunisian constitution. “We’re trying to make sure they move forward,” Lazaar says. “We kicked out a dictator, but we’re still not there yet. We must stay hands-on.”—JC