Arab Spring

A Woman Blogger’s Scoop Helped Save Tunisia From Islamists

Blogger Olfa Riahi’s revelations about hypocrisy and scandal helped bring down the Islamist government in Tunis and turned her into a star.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

The most famous investigative reporter in Tunisia is a 32-year-old blogger named Olfa Riahi. She broke the country’s biggest post-revolutionary news story—known as Sheratongate –and helped to save the country’s liberal revolution from the Islamists. When Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa met with President Barack Obama on Friday he was promised $500 million in loan guarantees and heard America’s enduring commitment to Tunisia’s democratic transition. But without Riahi, that transition might have come to a dead end.

Her story, named after the hotel where the financial and sexual scandal took place, appeared on December 26, 2012. Almost two years earlier, the first uprising of the Arab Spring had swept Tunisia’s long-time dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, out of power. But the new government, dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party, was trying to impose Islamic law on Tunisia. Sheratongate exposed the hypocrisy of the new rulers, bringing down Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafik Abdessalem, the son-in-law of the Ennahda party chief Rachid Ghannouchi. The Sheratongate affair, along with massive public reaction to two assassinations of liberal leaders and growing revulsion against Ennahda’s heavy-handed grab for power, eventually brought down the entire government, which has been replaced by the technocratic administration of Prime Minister Jomaa and a new Tunisian constitution, hailed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and others as a “model” for “the world.”

In exchange for her service to the country, Olfa Riahi was targeted for assassination by Tunisia’s Salafist extremists. She was blocked from leaving Tunisia for eight months and dragged into court on charges that could put her in prison for 100 years. A self-employed blogger who breaks her stories on her own French-language website, to be good again, Riahi has become a media star in Tunisia, attracting congratulations and journalistic tips wherever she goes.

“I always wear a smile in public,” she says. “I don’t want to let the politicians think they can intimidate me. I’m a democrat. I believe in transparency and good governance. This is the face I want Tunisia to put forward to the world.”

Many of Riahi’s professional colleagues dismiss her as a “blogueuse,” not a journalist, whose Sheraton story was nothing more than a leak from one political party targeting another. Riahi’s training is in mathematics and finance, and she refuses to carry a press card, because this credential used to be handed out to the former dictator’s family members to help with their foreign shopping trips. But some of the best young journalists in Tunisia are, like Riahi, entering the profession from other careers. They are a bumptious lot, learning on the job, as Tunisia rushes to create the free press it never had during 50 years of dictatorship.

The day I met Riahi in February she took me to a park on the grounds of Ben Ali’s former palace, where the beautiful landscaped gardens overlooking the Bay of Carthage are now open to the public. Driving a dusty VW, with the seats covered in plastic, Riahi was wearing blue jeans and sneakers and a white winter coat. Her smile beamed out from under a head of short-cropped, curly black hair. She smoked and talked in a rush of French.

As we drove up to the palace, the guard at the gate put down his machine gun, waved, and smiled back at her. Riahi did a U-turn in the driveway and parked on the roadside. Today she was letting her two puppies, Dex and Didi, run in the park. Her “children,” as she calls them, a mix of French bulldog and Jack Russell terrier, make some children in the park run screaming to their parents, , since domesticated dogs, even as cute as these, are both rare and feared in Tunisia. With a breathtaking view over the bay and the ruins of Carthage, we could see all the way back to Tunis and the Kasbah. The country’s rulers have always known how to live well.

Riahi is the elder child of a colonel in the military and a mother who worked as a professional translator of German. Riahi lived in France for four years, beginning at the age of two, while her father was trained in Brest as a hydrologist. “I was always number one in my class,” she says. In fact, she was the number one student in Tunisia when she finished her baccalaureate degree in math and science and was awarded a full scholarship to any university she wanted. She began studying math but switched to economics at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Commercial de Carthage. One of her teachers at IHEC, Naoufel Ben Rayana, knowing that someone exceptional had landed in his class, demanded that he be allowed to invest 5 percent of the capital in any company that Riahi founded.

“This gave me the idea to start my boîte,” she says, using the French term for a start-up company. She and a friend incorporated themselves as RHO Services Multilingues, a company specialized in translating, interpretation, and subtitling. RHO now has a roster of international clients and fifty employees.

Ben Rayana played another important role in Riahi’s life. While starting his own company, Express FM, which is the Bloomberg radio of Tunisia, Ben Rayana wanted to avoid hiring the old-guard journalists who had worked under Ben Ali; so he hired people with business backgrounds and trained them on the job. He put Riahi on prime time, from noon to 2:00 p.m., as she began covering news and running the station’s web site. The old-guard journalists who dismiss her as a blogueuse have no idea how diligently Riahi trained herself as a journalist. (Among her other jobs, she currently works as an adjunct professor of journalism at the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme de Paris --France’s and, in fact, the world’s oldest school of journalism, which has recently opened a branch in Tunis.)

As Riahi began to blog and tweet her way to notoriety, she was recruited to work as the journalist on a four-person team of sociologists, psychologists, and lawyers studying the death sentence in Tunisia. She spent three weeks in the country’s prisons, interviewing death-row inmates. Here she found that the death penalty was meted out arbitrarily to poor people, at least one of whom was still in prison even though he had been proved innocent of having committed any crimes. The team produced an excellent book, Le Syndrome de Siliana, which is a model for how to research and militate against the death penalty.

Riahi finished her prison interviews on December 24, 2012. Knowing that her access to inmates would end as soon as she broke the Sheratongate story, she waited until December 26 to publish the incriminating documents on her blog. The hotel receipts revealed how Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdessalem had used a combination of state funds, along with a personal slush fund of a million dollars provided by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, to rent hotel suites at the Sheraton and lavishly entertain a group of people that included a woman who was not his wife. The Sheraton Hotel lies directly across the street from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which already has a suite of rooms dedicated to the Minister’s use, although apparently these were not discreet enough for the occasion.

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“He showed how the new government was just as corrupt as the old one,” says Riahi. “This isn’t why we had a revolution. This isn’t why we fought so hard and some of us died, just to see new crooks taking over from the old ones. Dégage,” she says, using the cry that echoed throughout Tunisia’s revolutionary protests. “Get out of here, and go to jail, where you belong.”

Riahi makes no apologies for the fact that the Sheraton documents were leaked to her by insiders and that she is a former supporter of the CPR, the Congrès pour la République, run by Moncef Marzouki. The CPR was supposed to be the progressive counterweight among the troika of parties that governed Tunisia before Sheratongate. “I gave Marzouki’s party all my contacts. I worked hard, lining up support for him, but now I regret it,” she says. “Marzouki made too many compromises just to stay in power, and now his political base has disappeared. None of us would ever vote for him again.”

Riahi considers it irrelevant where a journalist gets her documents. What matters is verifying them and protecting sources and innocent bystanders. Using her business skills, she spent two and a half months tracing the minister’s accounts back to China, and he has never denied the veracity of her financial reporting. Then she blacked out the name of the woman who had spent the night at the Sheraton Hotel. She had no interest in ruining someone’s reputation. She cared only about the misuse of public money and the hypocrisy of Ennahda officials, who at the time were pushing Tunisia into adopting shari’ah or Islamic law. Dégage!

Riahi never revealed the woman’s name. Nor did she verify her identity. Eventually a cousin of the foreign minister stepped forward to say that she was the person who had visited him at the Sheraton to discuss a family matter. When that news broke, the smiling Riahi broke down in public and cried, she says, because she knew what pressure had been brought on the woman to come forward and tell this story that everyone presumed was a cover-up.

After Riahi’s blog reports went live, a phalanx of government officials and lawyers stepped forward to defend the foreign minister. Riahi was hauled into court on eight charges, including falsification of documents and “usurpation of function,” which meant that she was working as a journalist without holding a press card. Only recently has Abdessalem himself had to appear in court, on charges of misusing public funds. He protests his innocence but is delaying the case as long as possible. In the meantime, now that her travel ban has been lifted, Riahi is visiting the United States as a Media Fellow at Duke University’s School of Public Policy.

In the meantime, Riahi has been keeping a close eye on the implementation of Tunisia’s new constitution, which is a long document with many articles open to interpretation. But she admits to being “obsessed” by Sheratongate. “I can’t really rest until the case is finished. I want to see Abdessalem in prison, where he belongs.”

After her dogs had finished romping in the long grass growing in Ben Ali’s hilltop garden, Riahi invited me to join her for lunch. On the way, we found ourselves wedged in traffic between a couple of Mercedes Benzes and a shiny new Jaguar. “Who is rich enough to drive these cars?” I asked. “Actually, Tunisia now has more rich people than before the revolution,” she said. “This is another story that has gone unreported.

Tourists from Europe have been scared away by reports of Salafist terrorism, but the Tunisian economy, ironically, also has benefitted from terrorism. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime in neighboring Libya has driven thousands of people—many of them very wealthy people—across the border into Tunisia. (During a recent visit to a big tourist hotel on the island of Djerba, I was surrounded by Libyans drinking and dancing into the evening before we repaired to the hotel theater to watch an African dance troupe dressed in banana leaves, a strong man lying on a bed of glass, and a chorus line of cancan dancers cavorting in head scarves.)

After locking the dogs in her friend’s yard, Riahi and I drove around the corner to a pizza parlor, where we sat outside on the porch to eat a late lunch. Riahi was greeted there like a rock star of journalism. People she’d never met dropped by our table to thank her for what she was doing. Riahi kept smiling and chain-smoking Cristal cigarettes, the cheapest Tunisian brand. She buys them, she says , as a kind of mark of solidarity with the country’s working poor. A woman came up to whisper about a case of public corruption. Riahi asked me for a piece of paper to write down her phone number. The woman said she had some documents she wanted to pass along. “I am always looking for good sources,” said Riahi. “The problem is that now I have too many of them.