The Politics of a Fire Engine in Tunisia

How an emergency vehicle came to symbolize revolution and why the nation’s cradle of democracy is embracing the president’s power grab

The Politics of a Fire Engine in Tunisia
Army officers watching the Funeral procession of Sauhi Sauhi Wadji, 28, killed on January 12 by Police Forces while he was demonstrating in Thala / Antoine Gyori / AGP / Corbis via Getty Images

As the summer of 2011 drew to a close, the fire engine stationed in the Tunisian hilltop town of Thala was due to be taken back to the main city of the region — Kasserine — some 35 miles away. It happened every year: The government would allocate firefighting resources to Thala during the year’s hot months to deal with the wildfires that frequently broke out in the surrounding forests.

But that year, the residents of Thala weren’t going to accept the status quo. About 80 people gathered in front of the fire engine to protest, blocking the fire engine from driving out of town. “We decided this [fire engine] should stay in Thala. We have accidents all year around in Thala. There are fires,” said Hamza Saihi, a café owner who was 22 at the time and an active figure in the pro-fire engine movement.

As the year began, the 23-year rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been brought to an end by a nationwide uprising that sparked the Arab Spring.

In Thala on Jan. 12, two days before the president fled the country, protesters had managed to banish from the town the police force, which by that time had killed six young men. People stood outside their houses and cheered as the police retreated. On their way out, the police still managed to hit the bystanders with tear gas, but that didn’t matter.

“Everyone was very happy, as if for the first time they breathed oxygen. We felt that there was a big wall in front of us that had fallen,” said Haikel Hamdi, 34, an engineer from Thala who had left his job in Tunis to join his brethren in Thala, considered a flashpoint in the country’s revolt. “Even people had changed. You feel that they were happier, they loved their country more than before; that they were looking to give more,” he recalled to New Lines.

Indeed, this level of local self-organization swept the country in the months that followed the fall of the regime. Neighborhoods created committees to stand guard and maintain security during the power vacuum. The mood was festive. In many places, “guard duty” became a time to catch up with friends and neighbors and share meals. Saihi and Hamdi were around the same age and would go to the same cafés. They weren’t close friends at that time, but they grew to become collaborators as social movements and revolutionary demands multiplied.

The fire engine and everything it signified played a major role.

“After the revolution we said the state should be more present here. Thala deserves services. All we had was the post office, the municipality, the police,” said Saihi, who ended up taking on municipal tasks, such as distributing financial aid for students.

The late-summer dispute over the fire engine coincided with another local struggle.

On Sept. 4, the people of Thala had self-organized and elected their own municipal council and mayor, but these elected representatives had not received the stamp of approval from the Ministry of Interior, which was in charge of municipalities until 2016.

The election was organized by a small group of activists, including Saihi and Hamdi, who didn’t want to wait for the interim authorities to designate a special delegate for the town, as was the case elsewhere.

“The authorities would choose one of their own, someone from the system,” said Saihi, explaining why they took matters into their own hands.

It began with a visit the previous month to the mayor’s home, where he had been hiding since January but continuing his bureaucratic duties, like signing pay slips as well as marriage and birth certificates. Saihi and another of the core team, Kamel Klai, went to see the mayor and demanded he immediately cease and desist from performing such duties.

“We had to get him out because if he carried on signing the papers, it gave the impression that everything was fine here. Removing the mayor was necessary to get things moving,” explained Klai, who is now 34 and has a business selling marble, which is quarried locally.

The mayor acquiesced. In the seven days that followed, the core group wrote a very simple electoral law and persuaded the people to stand for election, campaigning for this by enlisting all the tribes to participate in the process.

The actual campaign lasted two days, and some 1,300 locals voted. A doctor, Mohsen Saidi, who died last year, became the freely elected mayor. He had treated the injured during the January uprising and helped block the police from entering the hospital, recalled Hesham Sghiri, 33, a marble dealer and activist who voted for him.

The unprecedented election coincided with Klai’s 24th birthday, though he had forgotten all about that, given everything else that was going on around him. It was indeed a historic date for the town. Thala might have boasted being one of the oldest municipalities in the country — founded in 1904, second to Le Bardo, where the Parliament building sits in Tunis today — but it was only as of this day, in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, that its citizens could freely decide who would serve and represent them.

“It was democracy’s birthday,” Sghiri recalled. And cake was served.

But it wasn’t until the day of the fire engine sit-in that the result became official. The recently elected municipal councilors joined the protesters to block the road and were subsequently invited to negotiate with the governor of Kasserine, who eventually agreed to their demands. The fire engine was to stay in Thala, and the governor sent a telegram to the Ministry of Interior insisting that it recognize Thala’s newly elected representatives.

A decade after the folks in Thala celebrated their first free and democratic election, all power in Tunisia has become centralized in the hands of President Kais Saied, who is now ruling by presidential decree, having frozen Parliament and partially suspended the constitution in ways that remain alarming and unprecedented. He did appoint a prime minister, Najla Bouden, in late September, but her prerogatives are limited. Last week, the Ministry of Local Affairs was put back under the Ministry of Interior as was the case under Ben Ali. The president’s decisions on July 25 and thereafter have effectively taken power back from the people.

Yet, paradoxically, Thala’s election organizers were not sad to see the Parliament go. It seems to be a testament to the widely perceived notion that what had manifested after the small successes of the Arab Spring was, in effect, a corrupt and ineffective Parliament, which hadn’t made a difference in people’s everyday lives — especially in the marginalized regions like Thala, which in many ways were the catalysts and drivers of the 2010-11 uprising.

“We need to crush what is there and make something new until the day that we are in a better situation than we are now,” said Hamdi, who participated in the July 25 protests in the industrial port town of Sfax, where he now lives. He added that he doesn’t support Saied 100%. “I don’t support anyone absolutely; Kais Saied is not my father,” he said.

Hamdi would prefer to work in his hometown to be nearer his family, but there aren’t any more jobs there than there were before he went back home to try and change things for the better during the revolution. The marginalization of interior regions like Thala was supposed to be addressed, in part, by the post-revolutionary policy of decentralization, to which a whole chapter of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution is devoted. The chapter was adopted unanimously. “People took that as a sign of agreement, but I think it was a sign of not giving [it] any importance,” said Chaima Bouhlel, a civil society actor specialized in decentralization, who was present during the discussions about this chapter. “It was sidelined by discussions about sharia [law].” When Tunisians brought down the regime in 2011, it was over concerns about dignity, justice, better living conditions and regional equality. Yet the national debate quickly became about religion and identity as parties and citizens were polarized over the Islamist-secular divide.

By the time it came to the municipal election in May 2018, fervor for elections was fading. Turnout in Thala was low at 26%, despite this election being a first for Tunisia’s democracy post-2011. In the run-up to the vote, a residence for schoolgirls caught fire in the night because of an electrical fault. Despite the fire engine gained in 2011, two girls died and many were injured. The tragedy shook Thala and prompted a boycott of the 2018 election by a number of political parties and part of civil society, including the organizers of the 2011 election. “It was down to a lack of maintenance. There were 50 girls sleeping in there and they spent no money to make it safe,” said Saihi, who registered to vote and then spoiled his ballot by crossing all the boxes in protest. The boycott, he said, was also part of a campaign to pressure the central government into making Thala — the town and surrounding villages — into a region, separate from Kasserine, in order to be allocated more resources.

Wajdi Moumni, a 31-year-old fruit seller — the same profession as that of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, who sowed the seeds of the Arab Spring when he lit himself on fire in the neighboring region of Sidi Bouzid — voted in Thala’s 2011 local election but didn’t bother to do it again in 2018. “In 2011, there was a bit of chaos because the president [Ben Ali] had left, but then Thala was calm. In 2018, the politicians weren’t doing well. Everything was expensive; it wasn’t calm,” he said. That January had been marked by fierce nationwide protests triggered by sharp rises in the prices of basic goods. And in the previous year, Tunisia’s legislators approved a law granting amnesty to officials accused of corruption, despite a youth-led nationwide campaign against it.

Turnout nationally was also low, at 35.6%. “We were nearing the end of the [then] Parliament and the president’s mandate and people were fed up,” said Asma Slaimi, a lawyer specializing in local governance. “It was as if we had started to lose faith in effecting change via elections.” Independent candidates performed well in 2018 because of discontent with the parties that had governed in coalition, the Islamist party Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes. The independents were a mix of political colors. As one independent municipal councilor put it: “Some independents come in shades of red, some in shades of blue, and then some in shades of purple,” referring to the left, Ennahdha and figures from the old regime, respectively.

Abdelmajid Hayouni, an independent candidate who was elected mayor of Thala in 2018, was tinted purple. He was the vice president of the pre-revolution municipal council and spent much of 2011 in his house, according to pro-revolution activists. “I took a step back to let the young people do what they want,” he said, explaining why he didn’t take part in Thala’s 2011 election. But as the years went on, he decided to go back into politics. He joined Nidaa Tounes but, reading the national mood, decided to run as an independent in the municipal elections. His assessment of his victory: “The citizens thought ‘these young people will not take us far, so let’s find a wise man.’”

But things are not running smoothly along the main street of Thala. Taher, 64, is one of only two sellers in the covered market built by the municipality. “The high street is full of chaos and vegetable sellers and the market is empty,” he said. “We complained to the mayor. To whom can we complain if not to the mayor?” Hayouni said most sellers refuse to move into the market because they don’t want to pay for the stalls. On why they didn’t want to sell in the market, sellers said the rent was too high for them to cover their costs.

Municipal elections were held throughout the nation in 2018, but the central state was reluctant to transfer powers to local representatives as well as the financial and human resources needed to effect change. The commune of Boughrara in the south of the country was given a tractor to collect rubbish. But the municipality couldn’t afford to hire a driver and so the elected council members took turns driving it. There was a “solidarity fund” that was supposed to channel more resources to the poorer municipalities, but it didn’t work. “We sold it [decentralization] as a solution for everyone, to resolve the social crises, but there was then a disengagement of the state,” said Wiem Pousse, executive director of the National Federation of Tunisian Communes. “We left the mayors by themselves.”

A few doors up from the empty market in Thala, the historic municipality building has been closed for maintenance for three years, and further down the road a multipurpose events hall was completed two years ago and then closed due to structural defects. “I don’t know if it’s bad management or corruption, but it’s not normal,” says Saihi, who has taken legal action against the mayor with the Ministry of Local Affairs, the governor and the anti-corruption authority.

In early 2011, Hamdi went to the El Hana International Hotel on Avenue Habib Bourguiba to meet with Saied, whom he had seen on TV giving his opinion as a constitutional law expert. “He contacted me through a friend and invited me for a coffee to ask me the same questions you are asking me: How did you do that? How did you get this idea? How did you do it without money?” said Hamdi over yogurt and fruit sundaes in Sfax one evening in September.

Months before Thala held its municipal election, Hamdi’s neighborhood, Ain Ahmed, held its own hyperlocal election. Seven people were elected as representatives, and they started to take actions such as planting trees, converting oil barrels into public bins and repaving the sidewalks with leftover material from the nearby marble factories. The immediate reason for holding this election, Hamdi said, was as much to manage local affairs as to show people — especially the older generation — that Ben Ali had actually left.

Each of Thala’s five neighborhoods voted for a representative, who together formed a local council for Thala in February 2011. The idea was that the local council would choose a delegate who would sit on a regional council that, in theory, would choose a delegate who would sit on a national council. The idea sounds like one put forward by Saied as a way to situate power in the grassroots of society. “I don’t know if we got it from him or he got it from us,” said Klai, who has never met Saied.

To promote participation, the Thala activists were coordinating with a team in Meknassy, Sidi Bouzid, but the idea fell flat because it required a lot of explanation. And as it was, many activists were focusing their energy on joining the movement in the capital — the Casbah sit-in — to call for the resignation of the central government, which included old regime figures.

When Saied first took the decision to freeze Parliament on July 25 this year, a large part of the population celebrated. The primary reason for this was that Parliament had become a source of shame and frustration as its members fought among themselves and failed to improve daily living conditions. Saied’s popularity now seems to draw on two contradictory currents in Tunisian society: the desire for a strongman who can bring order and the frustration about a democracy that hadn’t effectively transferred power to citizens. There is a link here to the post-revolutionary decentralization process, as an International Crisis Group report warned in 2019: “If it fails to deliver on its promise to reduce inequality, decentralization, as it is currently being implemented, thus risks heightening socio-political tensions and spreading nostalgia for the authoritarian regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.”

As for Thala’s election organizers, they are not looking for a strongman. Hamdi feels that things went wrong a while ago. The 2014 constitution was written to do things that “represent them,” i.e., those writing it. The writing of Tunisia’s constitution was primarily shaped by the political struggles among various parties, who were looking to find a way to coexist instead of addressing the demands of the 2011 uprising, according to Zaid Al-Ali, a constitutional lawyer who told New Lines earlier this month that “instead of redesigning the relationship between the individual and the state, all the parties did was renegotiate the relationship of state institutions with each other.”

“The political parties got together and decided how we are going to do things,” said Hamdi. The essential component of the electoral system that Hamdi imagined back in 2011 is that normal people from his neighborhood — and every neighborhood — are necessarily part of the power structure. “We need a system that comes from us, even if it could have some faults or failings. But I think and I’m sure that with time it could represent us better than the current system,” he said.

But Saied’s recent move hasn’t generated any of the grassroots euphoric local action as seen after Jan. 14, 2011. People in Thala are mainly waiting to see what will happen, hoping for an improvement to the economy, though Saied rarely talks about it in detail. While Hamdi quit his job in the capital to join the revolution in his hometown, he is now looking to leave the country: Salaries are low, prospects are depressing, and justice is only accessible to those with connections. For the past two months, Hamdi hasn’t received any pay because of a small work accident. “After the revolution I was like a newborn baby with a breath of life. I wanted to do something, and I started with my neighborhood.” he said. “Now I feel I have been turned into a robot.”

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