Exclusive interview with dissident cartoonist, "Z"

By Ahed Al Hendi

October 19, 2010

Tunisian bloggers are under threat by their dictatorial regime. CyberDissidents.org caught up with one of Tunisia’s best known bloggers and cartoonists who shared his thoughts.


What pseudonym do you use in Tunisia?

"Z" is what I am called.  

Please give Western readers a quick brief about yourself.

I am a cartoonist and a blogger. I do not make money by doing this, rather it is something I do in my free time. I draw cartoons for two reasons. The first reason is art. I create drawings and texts that interact with the readers, by making them laugh and by stimulating their imaginations. The second reason is citizenry. I focus on topics like public affairs and especially the struggle against propaganda and censorship. I try to show readers these important issues by using satire. 

Many people around the world believe you are a gifted political cartoonist. Why do you publish your work anonymously?

I feel that the civic mission of my work must take precedence over my rights as an artist. I think the situation of personal freedoms in Tunisia has reached a critical point. It is my duty as an  artist to use my art in this struggle, even if I do not get paid. I insist, however, that the signature "Z" is always in my drawings. Because of this, I can not say I am really anonymous.  "Z" has become my artistic name and is linked to my cartoons. 

Don’t you think that publishing your work in French comes off as elitist? Why don’t you publish it in Arabic, so you would reach more readers in Tunisia? Or do you mean to appeal only to the West in your work?

I use French because I am better at writing in it than in Arabic. I would like to translate my cartoons, or to have them translated, but this requires a lot of time and people. I think that the Tunisian public, in general, knows French well and I don’t think I am disconnected from them. Maybe using a “Western” language would encourage some Arabists to criticize my work, but I ask all of these opponents to look at content of blog, rather than just looking at the language it is written in.  

Was reaction has there been to your cartoons? Is it true that some bloggers were arrested because they were accused of being you? How many visitors do you have on your blog?

When a blog is censored it becomes hard for the people to access, and this makes it difficult for me to follow its real effects. Apart from the blog visits (on average 500 visitors per day), there are also my Facebook friends, and the circle of my close friends who raise awareness of the issues I blog about. So, again, it is difficult to measure the real impact of my work. The government fears me and tries to identify me.  The authorities did arrest a fellow blogger suspected of being "Z". The fear is that I do not expose my real identity, meaning I could be anybody. Despite the dangers that it might pose for opposition journalists and bloggers, though, I do not discourage them from using my cartoons.

Living abroad, why do you publish your work under a pseudonym, while some dissidents who live in Tunisia publicly oppose the regime ?

I actually live in Germany most of the year. When the blogger Fatma (who was accused of being “Z”) was arrested for a few days, it made me realize that I am risking three years in jail for defamation of the government. My work requires me to travel between Tunisia and Germany. I would therefore be in danger of getting arrested on my trips to Tunisia. I also want to protect my family who still lives in Tunisia. I think my cartoons fit perfectly within my rights to universal freedom of speech. I am determined to keep it anonymous as it protects me and my family and allows my voice to support all others who are fighting against the dictatorship from outside and from within.

Most of your drawings are only against Ben Ali. Do you oppose him personally or are you against the entire ruling regime?

I believe that the face of Ben Ali symbolizes all the ills in Tunisian society. I try to counterbalance the propaganda that is spewed by the regime, which attributes every success and achievement to Ben Ali. However, I understand that the problems of Tunisia are not limited to the policies of the president.

You drew a cartoon of Barack Obama together with Ben Ali in one of your posts. Can you explain it?

This cartoon shows that the only technology in which the Tunisians would actually be able to overtake the U.S. is censorship. Hence the comic scene of a Tunisian commercial displaying its “merchandise” as high tech to the American president.

It seems like you are trying to give the impression that the Tunisian regime is similar to Saddam Hussein’s. Don’t you think that you are exaggerating, especially since opposition in Tunisia is active inside the country and has its publications like Al Tariq Al Jadeed newspaper?

I do not believe that dictatorships can be classified on any scale. Having said that, I do not think my cartoons depict a bloody regime, like Saddam’s was. But they do show it to be a hypocritical government which often lies. 

Some Tunisian newspapers published a scandalous story about dissidents funded by foreign countries.  What is your opinion of this matter?

The newspapers that published those allegations are still under the control of the regime.  They are indirect spokesmen of the government.  They use all the same conventional methods (learned from the Soviets) of accusing their opponents of being a part of an international conspiracy, against the supreme interests of the “homeland.”  They accuse people of working with the Mossad (when addressing conservatives) and accuse them of working with fundamentalists (when the propogranda is aimed at progressives).  

The government claims that some dissidents’ activities are threatening the economic security in the country. To prove its point, the regime instituted the Economic Security Act, which punishes anyone spreading news that could threaten trade between Tunisia and the West. Do you agree with it’s decision?

The act just proves the government conspiracy and intentions. 

Many think that Harakat Al Ittijah Al Islami, or the Al Nahda movement are the real alternatives to the current regime while Ben Ali is trying to create a secular country. Don’t you think that a secular regime like Ben Ali’s is better than an Islamic regime, which would have poor relations with the West? Do you think that Ben Ali will remain in power for another presidential term after the 2014 elections?

Many, if not most, Tunisians are conservative. This is a fact. The regime, along with many leftist intellectuals, holds the belief that Islamic fundamentalism is the only political desire of a conservative society. This train of thought leads those with power to prefer the soft dictatorship of Ben Ali to a possible takeover of religious fanatics. Those who believe this often cite the Algerian government as an example. However, I think that Ben Ali’s regime encourages fundamentalism, and the fundamentalists’ actions strengthen his authority. I do not want to get between these two sides, and I do not believe that the world is so Manichean. I merely encourage democratic debate, so we can discuss politics and other topics without regard to our differences and establish a system that is not monolithic, but open to criticism and alteration. Currently, public discussion is as taboo as sex. I think Ben Ali will be elected again because no one will go on TV or write in newspapers that his regime needs to be stopped.

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