The Tunisian Youth Has Not Yet Given Up

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Article published in The Funambulist 17 (May-June 2018) Weaponized Infrastructure. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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.