CONNECTING TUNISIA | Arabic professor Rym Bettaieb shows 3abber, an app designed to gauge Tunisian political opinion, to her Third Year Arabic I class.
An orange dot with the Arabic letter ‘ayn in it lights up on Columbia Arabic professor Rym Bettaieb’s smartphone. She’s introducing 3abber to her 10-person Third Year Arabic I class.
“In English, it means, ‘Express yourself,’” she says. Bettaieb reads the half-French, half-Arabic introduction screen.
“Starting from today, you are the one who expresses yourself,” she translates. “You are the one who rules.”
3abber is an app designed by a group of Tunisian engineering students at University of Tunis El Manar that gauges popular political opinion in Tunisia. The app found its way to the Arabic classrooms at Columbia when Jelel Ezzine—a professor at Tunis El Manar and founding president of the Tunisian Association for the Advancement of Science, Technology, and Innovation and Knowledge for Freedom—reached out to Bettaieb asking if her students would be interested in learning about 3abber.
Since it launched earlier this month, the app has already been downloaded hundreds of times in Tunisia. After users log in, they are asked to rank the government, the National Constituent Assembly—the body tasked with creating Tunisia’s new constitution—and the “people” with a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Each user is allowed one vote every hour, and the average score of each group is shown on the 3abber website in real time.
“The frail political context, the wide availability of smartphones, and the determination of the Free Tunisian Youth to make a positive impact on their fellow countryman … prompted the 3abber team to collectively endeavor towards the launching of this m-Democracy app,” Ezzine said in an email.
For native Tunisian Bettaieb, the app was the ideal opportunity to teach her students about Islamic politics. After introducing her students to the app, she asked them to fill out a questionnaire that, along with general usage questions, asked if they thought a similar app would be useful in the United States. Ninety-four percent said yes.
In a recent in-class Skype session, the Tunisian engineering students who designed 3abber announced that they are now working on a U.S.-version of the app to be released in the near future.
In terms of the app’s overall performance, Bettaieb’s students praised the app for being useful and innovative.
“The 3abber app represents an interesting step in the perception of democracy,” GSAS student Abram Smith said in an email. “The goal of near-instant responses from citizens is a far more populist model than we [Americans] are used to.”
Ezzine calls this “citizen-in-the-loop democracy,” where citizens can influence their government through constant feedback. By employing CLD and implementing programs like 3abber, Ezzine believes that Tunisians can ultimately achieve their goal of “democracy through self-empowered citizenry.”
3abber was created at a critical time in Tunisian history, as citizens prepare for the country’s presidential and legislative elections in November—the first since the 2011 Tunisian Revolution.
The interim government and the National Constituent Assembly have been heavily criticized for infighting, corruption, and failing to reach a consensus within their respective parties.
On 3abber, they’re not doing well—as of Monday night, government scored 3.08 out of 10, while the assembly earned a mere 0.65 out of 10. The “people” category scored slightly better, at 4.58 out of 10.
Bettaieb said that Tunisian citizens, especially youth, hope that the November elections will usher in a new, fairly elected, and effective government.
Tunisians “are not looking for an ideological regime, but rather an efficient one. There are so many youths who have master’s, doctorates, etc. and don’t have any jobs,” Bettaieb said.
Ezzine said that he hopes 3abber can be part of that process, however inconsequential.
“The app bequeaths back power to its source, i.e., the people,” he said. “We can expect nothing but progressive, positive outcomes and impacts that should enhance trust, stability, and peaceful well-being.”