The Al Munathara Initiative: Striving for a vibrant and inclusive Arab public space
On July 25, when President Kais Saied dismissed Tunisia’s prime minister and suspended its parliament concentrating powers under him in response to mass anti-government protests, the sudden turn of events sparked sharp polarisation on the exceptional measures taken by the president.
On one hand, those who view them as a breach of the democratic system, and on the other one those who consider them necessary given the country’s political, economic, and health crises.
In light of last month’s developments in what is known to be the cradle of the Arab Spring, an open debate enterprise like Al Munathara, which is based in Tunisia, will play a particularly critical role in the coming period in countering the current polarised debating trend and, instead, tackling questions on pressing issues constructively.
[Al Munathara's] mission is to encourage constructive public discourse across Arab countries through engaging under-represented subjects around critical issues facing their communities in debates, using online technology, on-the-ground workshops, and live, televised events
The Initiative started off in January 2011 as The Dubai Debates, the first independent public debating forum of the Arab world. It was suspended in the spring of 2012 amid the UAE’s crackdown on NGOs to be then founded in late June of the same year in Tunis, with the intent to create a space that is open to anyone where ideas can be exchanged and discussed, and to expand the free debate to the entire Arab region.
Since its establishment, the online video debate platform has targeted groups like young people, women and religious minorities seeking to encompass every voice, regardless of age, gender, social status, education, or location.
In the Middle East and North Africa where the voices of youth, women and minority groups too often are not heard in mainstream media, it has set itself apart from the outset as an innovative democratic platform for Arabic-speaking members of marginalised groups
Its mission is to encourage constructive public discourse across Arab countries through engaging under-represented subjects around critical issues facing their communities in debates, using online technology, on-the-ground workshops, and live televised events.
Belabbes Benkredda, founder and CEO of Munathara, was awarded the “Democracy Award” in 2013 by the US-based National Democratic Institute for his dedication to fostering citizen’s participation in the Arab public sphere.
He is thoroughly driven by the necessity of empowering youth, women and marginalised communities, who are largely absent from the important conversations that will determine the future of their countries.
“We hit a nerve with our mission. It’s a powerful idea to give these communities a stage not just to show them but to allow them to shape policy discussions,” Benkredda said to The New Arab.
Set up in the wake of the Arab Spring, the debate organisation has persevered throughout challenging times with the rise of authoritarianism in parts of the region making broadcasting increasingly difficult.
“The debate is seemingly innocuous, not immediately perceived as a threat, which is what has shielded us to some extent from the repression that human rights groups have faced,” the founder explained.
With the recent events in Tunisia, the enterprise is in wait-and-see mode hoping to input effective dialogues on issues of public concern when the situation calms down such as economy, public healthcare, and the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The public debate is very heated at the moment, it’s very easy to add fuel to the fire,” the Initiative’s head stated. “We really want to steer clear of polarised discussions.
“There will be very important national conversations when the dust settles,” he continued. “Our organisation will provide spaces for structuring these conversations about the future of Tunisia, and make sure the process is inclusive of those sidelined voices that we care about.”
The Munathara builds strong partnerships with a broad coalition of TV and radio stations to mainstream its content and reach a large audience base across the region.
It is currently operating in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen while also running a debate programme for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. It organises training and workshops, online competitions and live TV debates. Live television debates have been held in Tunis, Sanaa, Amman and Istanbul.
Until today, it has received over 12,000 video submissions, registered at least 185,000 members on its platform, attracted some 700,000 Facebook followers, scored more than 30 million video views online, and reached an audience of countless millions more through its roughly 50 online and television debates.
It has also conducted no less than 1,000 media training and debate skills workshops to more than 16,000 participants across the Middle East and North Africa, including the Arabic-speaking diaspora in Turkey, France, and Germany.
"The best thing about Al Munathara is there is continuity, always something to learn through the process"
Young Arabic speakers (aged 16-30) get involved in public debates through on-the-ground training, video competitions, and televised shows. Debates are structured in a format that allows them to state his or her opinion on a specific topic, present reasoned arguments, and engage in a constructive public discussion.
Some of the big questions that have been addressed in the past include: Are people better off after the Arab Spring? Should religion be taught as part of the public education curriculum? Is the left the alternative in the region? Should there be quotas for women in parliament? Should the death penalty be abolished?
Anyone can take part in the online debate competition, Musabaqat, by uploading an opinion video of up to 99 seconds that responds to a current topic question posted by the team at Munathara on their online platform.
Next, registered users view and vote on their favourite contributions and the six chosen participants who gather the most popular video are then invited to a three-day intense training held in Beirut, Istanbul, or Tunis.
There, two top-ranking debaters, new opinion leaders selected by the viewers, each of whom represents an opposing side, partake in the live panel debate alongside well-known public figures (i.e. policymakers or leading intellectuals).
Yet, there are some challenges such as concerns about possible ramifications of what participants say publicly, and societal, cultural biased perceptions against young people, especially girls, going on public debates.
“The magic of the tool is you don’t know what’s going to happen in the process. It’s incredible the talent that you can discover when you bring down the barriers. That’s really transformative,” Munathara’s founding director pointed out, suggesting that the audience often does not expect young debaters to be so articulate and argumentative, particularly when they partake in discussions with authoritative figures.
“We want to send a signal that these youths should be an integral part of the conversations happening in the region. We give them equal speaking time and value their contributions,” the CEO emphasised.
He alluded to success stories of Munathara’s alumni who joined the debate competitions displaying outstanding abilities.
Mohanned Aouadi is a 17-year-old past participant in the Tunisian national TV debate series organised by the Initiative from Jendouba, in Tunisia’s northwest. After his participation in debating against the motion “Tunisia is on the right track?”, he founded the local club “Helmna” (Our dream) and has so far worked with 15 young men and women from his governorate providing them with the opportunity to receive a theatre training. He was nominated to take part in the Youth Parliament where he oversaw the execution of eight projects related to youth, education, and citizenship.
Ahmed Magdi, 26, from Egypt, participated in Munathara’s 2017 end-of-year event #OthersHaveTheRightTo after entering a competition with a poem. Following his experience, he made his debut as a radio host then got a role in a historical TV series, and launched a YouTube channel (The Alchemist) where he creates content to promote historical heritage sites in Egypt.
For Ranya Belhaj Romdhane, a 26-year-old Tunisian, the experience at Al Munathara has been a long, inspiring journey starting from the core training followed by a televised debate about minority rights in the Arab world in 2016. A black activist, at that time head of anti-racism group Mnemty in Tunisia, she was accompanied by a university professor and a human rights advocate during the live discussion.
“It was my first time on a TV show, such a great opportunity for me especially as a black person who’s used to being mostly ignored in the public space,” the young woman told The New Arab.
Romdhane then spoke about her participation in the end-of-year event #OthersHaveTheRightTo in 2017, calling it a “life-changing experience” where she met a number of people from all over the region, each presenting his view by using different forms of artistic expression. She prepared and read a speech about the right to live in the context of the Tunisian revolution.
Later in 2019, the young debater presented the rules for the Tunisian presidential debates launched by the Initiative, the Arab world’s first presidential debates live on TV, which reported a viewership that exceeded three million viewers in Tunisia alone across the 11 official broadcasting TV stations.
“It was the biggest event in the country. I felt so honoured to be given that chance. Not only I represented myself on national TV but other Tunisian black youths too,” she rejoiced to add that, as an alumna, she has benefited from access to a range of opportunities at the pan-Arab debate forum.
“The best thing about Al Munathara is there is continuity, always something to learn through the process, and I feel like I’m part of a family,” said Romdhane, who’s currently working as senior outreach coordinator at the organisation. “It’s a very human place to be at, and it’s a real change-maker,” she uttered.
The platform offers valuable experiences for participation in society, politics, and governances by engaging young people in live debates.
But its scope is not limited to a tech-savvy elite, seeking to include other layers of Arab societies in places where people have little or no Internet access. Through an outreach programme, youth learn key skills to express their opinions and build coherent arguments while engaging in constructive exchanges with others.
Trainers, who are trained in different Arab countries, facilitate workshops in cooperation with local partner organisations targeting members of the communities by discussing themes relevant to those groups, and helping them to record and upload videos.
“Through an open and fair process, we generate the opportunity of bringing opposing parties to a discussion where debaters potentially come to solutions that everybody can live with, whether in a family, a community, or a nation,” Benkredda concluded.
Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.
Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec