The Tunisian Youth Has Not Yet Given Up



Original text in French, translation by Ferial Massoud

A few months ago, I met with a Lebanese friend coming through Tunis. We talked for quite a few hours, a conversation which inevitably revolved around the current political situation in the Arab world. “You know, you young Tunisians really screwed over the other Arab countries. You set off a bomb and disappeared!” he exclaimed, laughing. I did not know how to respond, nor whether to chuckle or remonstrate. I let out a bitter laugh. While my friend’s statement was clearly an exaggeration, it is undeniably true that young Tunisians are increasingly dissociating from politics. The reasons are manifold, yet multiplying: disappointment, paternalism, conservatism of the political class, terrorism, the economic crisis, etc. Many, however, still believe in change. Amongst those, some remain stuck in their dreams while others have decided to act. The latter, each in their unique way, persist in their fight, whether through traditional structures or by creating their own forms of action and organization. The boundaries between these various forms of activism are often blurred: young Tunisians will often be found fighting battles on multiple fronts. Where and how is this youth engaging in activism?

Traditional Structures ///

In using the term traditional structures, I refer to political parties, as well as student and labor unions. Two political entities seem most attractive to the young activists: Le Front Populaire (the Popular Front) and Ettayar Al Démocrati (Democratic Current). The former is a coalition, founded in 2012 by Chokri Belaid, the leftist leader who was assassinated only a few months later. It brought together a dozen small leftist (Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist) and pan-Arab (Baathist and Nasserist) parties. Most of the member parties of this coalition have been active since the 1970s. The second entity is the new party founded in 2013 by Mohamed Abbou, a member of the opposition during Ben Ali’s reign and a former minister in Hamadi Djebali’s government (2012/2013). Although it is considered a liberal party, the Democratic Current does not place itself on the traditional political spectrum, instead uniting young activists from both the left and right. Thanks to these two opposition forces, many young people have decided to engage politically, countering the more prominent tendency towards absenteeism and indifference.

Student activists are divided between two unions: L’Union Générale des Étudiants de la Tunisie (UGET) (The General Union of Students of Tunisia), and L’Union Générale Tunisienne des Étudiants (UGTE) (The General Tunisian Union of Students). The former, a historically leftist group, was founded in 1952. Its members are often active within the Popular Front or small radical left-wing groups. The latter was founded by Islamist students in 1985. The two unions are active in specific universities according to their specialties: the UGET is most present within the humanities, social sciences, and law, whereas the UGTE is most present in the scientific and technical branches.

In labor unions, however, the participation of the youth remains low, for two reasons:

– The Tunisian youth are going through a rough unemployment crisis, affecting graduates most intensely. The lucky few who find jobs often work in the private sector, with minimal union presence.

– Union structures are such that they cannot cope with the presence of youth and women. It is still expected that leaders of the labor movement must be “mature” men, capable of rallying and leading other “mature” men, to negotiate with the “mature” men of the government and various patronage.

NGO’s: A Resurgence? ///

A renewal of Tunisian civil society was born out of the January 2011 revolution. As well as those organizations that had existed before the revolution, recent years have seen the establishment of thousands of new groups. On the one hand, many international NGOs (including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders), banned under Ben Ali, opened up offices and now work openly on the ground. New organizations also emerged, with agendas inconceivable either under the dictatorship, or within a traditionalist Arab-Muslim society: defense of the rights of the LGBT community (Shams) or of ethnic and religious minorities (L’Association Tunisienne de Soutien des Minorités, i.e. Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities), election observation (ATIDE and Mourakiboun networks), monitoring of parliamentary affairs and the attendance of lawmakers (Bawsala), and monitoring of public service provision and denunciation of corruption (IWatch, Inkyfada). These NGOs were all founded by young people, and as such, demonstrate the involvement of young people in civil society. These organizations are even, in some cases, competing with political parties to be the voice of the youth. Several reasons drive this development. Many activists no longer wish to endure the paternalism, bureaucracy and sclerosis of certain established political parties. Some disagree with the political positions of the leadership. Others disregard these parties entirely and instead choose to adhere to organizations, which offer relatively more flexible and horizontal institutional structures. It is also possible to be involved in both, working within a political party but also in organizations, either by the force of one’s conviction, or to consolidate party networks. A few opportunists choose to work for NGOs, which provide them with local or foreign funding, and offer up the opportunity to travel and participate in international events. The motives might differ, but the trend is undeniable: the hopes of the Tunisian youth lie in organizations, not in political parties.

New Forms of Organizing ///

Although there are many, I will focus here on two approaches in particular, which deserve close analysis: first, on movements with a horizontal structure, and second, on the obstruction of production.

As an example of the first form, I will spotlight the campaign Manich Msamah (“I do not forgive” in Tunisian dialect). In 2015, the President proposed an economic and financial reconciliation bill protecting senior officials and businessmen involved in corruption from the Ben Ali era. Young activists, both independent and partisan, took to the streets to oppose this counter-revolutionary measure. Quickly, this reaction developed into a campaign, growing and spreading beyond Tunis. It has succeeded in waking the opposition parties from their lethargy, and in shaking up the political landscape. The success of this campaign could be attributed to the chosen form of organization and the adopted communication strategies Decisions are arrived at by consensus, after long hours of discussion and deliberation. Each city chooses its own course of action, protest dates, and meetups, while maintaining coordination on a national level. Manich Msamah embraced social media and its clear communication, free of demagogy, rife with humor, offering solutions and realistic campaigns. The bill was ultimately passed, albeit after three years of attempts and with deep modifications. However, Manich Msamah perseveres in its battle to save what remains in the process of transitional justice.

A good example of the second approach (the obstruction of production) can be found in the events in Kerkennah in 2016 and El Kamour in 2017. In Kerkennah, an island located 270 kilometers from Tunis, unemployed youth blocked access to a well operated by the British oil corporation PETROFAC, in an attempt to pressure the government into generating job opportunities and developing the region. In retaliation, the government and many media outlets led a full-on war against the protesters. Police brutality ensued, including violent interventions, mass arrests, abuse and torture in detention centers. A few months later, however, young Tunisians in El-Kamour, in the Tataouine governorate 540 kilometers from Tunis, would take up a similar fight. This time, the stakes were higher: the blockade affected several foreign companies, established in one of the most productive regions of the country. Police brutality was less prevalent, yet was amply compensated for by an intensification of the negative media portrayal. In both cases however, the unity of the movement and their successful resistance forced both parties to sit at the negotiating table and consider their demands.

What Next? ///

Seven years of “democratic transition,” characterized by political instability, a deepening of the economic crisis and an escalation in terrorism have resulted in a traumatized Tunisian society. Beyond a general resistance to change, several obstacles slowed the evolution of the youth movements. First, ineffective coordination between the different actors, both on a national and regional level. After seeing some of these groups first hand, I am convinced that uniting smaller groups within one organization is doomed to fail. A minimum level of cohesion and coordination is essential to concentrate efforts, preserve energy, and limit the fragmentation of young forces. Second, the “identity crisis.” Most young activists are engaged on several fronts, yet without a concrete project. Finally, the third obstacle lies in the elitism of these youth movements: most young activists being students and diploma holders from big cities.

In May 2018, Tunisia will organize its first free municipal elections. The stakes are very important: the Tunisian parliament is preparing to vote a new code of local authorities based on decentralization. According to figures from the Independent Higher Authority for the Elections (ISIE), 51% of the candidates are young people. A first in the history of the country! Many of the youth I mentioned in this article are on independent and partisan electoral lists. Will they create a surprise and gain a significant presence in the new municipal councils?