Where Has Tunisian Politics Gone?

While many are boycotting Saturday's elections for their perceived illegitimacy, political activism continues at the local level

Where Has Tunisian Politics Gone?
In January 2021, young Tunisians in marginalized neighborhoods spent months protesting police violence and social immobility. (Erin Clare Brown)

It has been months since the Cinevog theater — a grand, Liberty-style movie palace in the working-class Tunis suburb of Kram — has been able to screen a film. “We are waiting for a piece of the projector that got stuck in customs,” explains Sherifa Tijani, a young woman with a curly bob, wearing an oversized sweater and sneakers in an interview with New Lines. Despite the stalled spare parts, Cinevog is lively: A coffee shop has replaced the ticket office, there’s a library and dance hall, and rap music echoes across the courtyard. The old cinema has become home to Mobdiun (“Creatives”), a neighborhood association founded in 2016, where Sherifa runs social projects for young people in the neighborhood.

After dropping out of the Tunis Institute of Fine Arts due to the unaffordable fees, Sherifa tried to attend a business school, with the aim of securing a job, but she never finished. “I couldn’t find the meaning of what I was doing, so I came back here, to my neighborhood, where I’m working to change things from the bottom. It makes much more sense to me,” she says.

Like many of her neighbors, Sherifa’s family moved to Kram from the country’s interior in search of more opportunities. Once a sparsely populated area between the city’s vast port and its tony northern suburbs, Kram grew rapidly following a shift in agricultural policy in the 1970s that pushed more people toward the cities. Few who arrived found the success they were looking for. Low wages, social inequality and spiraling inflation have kept many of Kram’s residents on a precarious edge.

In the final days of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, Kram was among the neighborhoods where groups of disenfranchised youth took to the street calling for jobs, freedom and national dignity. A decade later, its streets filled once again with youth protesting police violence in January 2021.

The political life of the capital and state institutions feels too far removed from the everyday life of the young people of Kram. “We only know the police,” complain the young Cinevog regulars. They consider themselves to be “anti-politics,” though they are far from apolitical.

“I am originally from the working-class town of Gafsa. I remember the revolution clearly, but I don’t believe in the ballot box. I have never voted,” says Safwen Ghilen, the 27-year-old hip-hop dancer and manager of the Cinevog cafe.

“Elections are not my concern,” Sherifa echoes.

As Tunisia approaches a legislative election on Dec. 17 to replace the parliament summarily dissolved by President Kais Saied after his self-coup in July 2021, many share Sherifa’s sentiment. The majority of the country’s political parties are boycotting the election, which they consider to be illegitimate, while more and more voters turn away from the polls for lack of interest or, in many cases, lack of options.

Kram has three candidates running to represent it. By contrast, in Sherifa’s home district of La Goulette — the wealthiest municipality in the country, containing sea ports, airports and the capital’s main business district — there is only one: the former Member of Parliament Hichem Hosni.

The same is true in 10 other districts in the country, six of which are in the capital. The seat is already allocated because only one candidate is running. The phenomenon is partly a result of political apathy and partly by design. In September, Saied rewrote the country’s electoral law in what he said was a bid to level the playing field by moving away from a party list-of-candidates system and instead focusing on individual candidates. In order to stand in the election, a candidate had to collect 400 signatures notarized by the municipality — a method that should in theory have shortened the distance between voters and candidates, but in practice only increased it.

“The sponsorship signatures presumably would have discouraged nonserious candidates or those with no support from running,” said Aymen Bessalah, nonresident Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) and former Human Rights Program Coordinator at Al Bawsala, a Tunisian NGO that promotes democracy and human rights. “But they enable the candidates who have more personal connections, or more money or potential services to people, to have these endorsements.”

The new electoral law — enacted after Saied ran on a staunch anti-corruption platform, rewrote the country’s constitution and put it to a referendum in July — also eliminates public funding for campaigns. Candidates are left to use their own money to run, or to raise donations from individuals, because funding by parties is also barred.

The individual candidate system, as opposed to lists of candidates by party affiliation, “would theoretically guarantee greater representation and strong candidates’ accountability, because they would not have the possibility of hiding behind a party,” said Bessalah. Yet, in reality, the new setup serves to weaken the legislative branch in a system with Saied and the presidency at its center. “The electoral law cannot be read separately from the new constitution. Everything has been done to prevent parliament from playing a real political role and from acting as a balancing power.”

Without party backing, candidates are struggling to gain name recognition, and questions about voting have appeared on neighborhood Facebook groups. “With the legislative elections approaching, I don’t know anyone who represents my district. Do you have any idea about the names please?” read one post on a residents’ group in the Cité El-Khadra and Menzah electoral district, where only one candidate, Thabet El Abed, is running.

The new electoral law also requires a runoff poll in districts where no candidate clears 50%, adding to the fatigue and confusion. “Most likely, it will take months before we have a parliament,” said Bessalah. Those who have doubts end up not voting, even when they are aware of current political events in the country.

Each day on her commute from Hay Hlel, one of Tunis’ poorest neighborhoods, to the school in the city center where she teaches, 34-year-old Marwa Talhaoui passes the Bardo, the 19th-century palace that used to house Tunisia’s parliament, but has been razor-wired off and guarded by police since Saied’s power grab in July 2021. Even though the Bardo is only 10 minutes away by taxi, the difference between the narrow, numbered streets of Hay Hlel and these ornate white buildings on the horizon seems to have become unbridgeable.

Marwa supported Saied’s move to consolidate the government and disband a parliament largely seen as ineffective and corrupt. Since then, she has followed the political process in her country closely, often taking part in political events, lectures and even protests just to get a sense of the political temperature. “I took part in the revolution. I am a citizen, but this country does not treat me as such. I have decided not to vote,” she said. She knows the exact figures for how much inflation rises monthly, and the increases in the prices of taxis, bread and gasoline. Yet “for the first time,” she says, she doesn’t “even know the names of the candidates” running for parliament in her district.

Bessalah, the political analyst, says the nation’s civic consciousness hasn’t dissipated, as many people have bemoaned, “but until it’s translated into a political movement capable of entering the Tunisian political scene, it won’t lead to any substantial change.”

On a recent afternoon in the working-class neighborhood of Mellassine, not far from Hay Hlel, a candidate was out on the street distributing flyers and talking to passersby. (A new law forbids candidates from speaking with foreign journalists.) A woman looked out of her ground-floor window at the crowd around the candidate and called out, “Is there a wedding on Saturday?” She was unaware of the upcoming vote. Nearly everyone who stopped to talk to the candidate had one priority in mind: more and better transportation. Tram tracks run through the neighborhood, but end in piles of sand and construction debris. For the last 10 years, promises have been made to connect them to the main tramlines that run downtown, but no progress has been made.

“These rails represent a boundary; we are cut off from the public debate. There are people here who still believe [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali is president,” says 40-year-old Moez El-Haras. At the market in Mellassine, a portrait of the former dictator surveys the street from its perch inside one of the hawker’s stalls. “When he was here … ” is a refrain that often resounds along the market streets. “When he was here,” bread was better, gas was cheaper, streets were cleaner, things worked.

Looking at the neighborhood, Moez wonders aloud: “Where is the state?” Before casting his ballot for Saied in 2019, he had never voted. But he said the former adjunct law professor’s distrust of the political class mirrored his own — and got him to the polls. To Moez, if the government wants to remind voters that institutions exist, it’s necessary to do politics at the local level. “We don’t even have an association that works with young people in this neighborhood. We don’t know where to meet except in coffee shops.” Many turn to drugs, he says. “This too is making politics, where politics seem too far.”

The disinterest in the ballot box and rejection of politics in its institutional forms, then, do not necessarily correspond to a depoliticization of Tunisian society. Many of the activities carried out by young activists and civil society constitute an alternative way of doing political education at the local level. With increasingly stringent controls on NGO funding, however, many small associations find themselves in a tight corner and fear for their future, including Mobdiun, which benefits from a certain amount of European funding.

In Kram and La Goulette, Mobdiun hosts young people between the ages of 15 and 30 and, in addition to providing ateliers, projects and workshops, offers them a safe meeting place, which gets crowded every evening. “We meet students in local schools and make them feel part of something — fighting isolation, frustration and even drug addiction,” explains Sherifa. “Many would try to leave for Europe, but here we create an alternative.” Next to a group of young people playing cards, a pile of brochures explains what the rights and duties of a citizen are. “We made them during a workshop on citizenship, with the assistance of a legal expert,” says Sherifa, holding the booklet in her hand.

Her neighbor, 16-year-old Shaker Alsaydi, chose a photography workshop over the citizenship space, but is embracing politics in his art. For an exhibition of images of Kram seen through the eyes of its young inhabitants, Shaker turned his lens on the walls around the neighborhood where, instead of election posters, there are only red numbers. His project is titled Intikhaybet, a fusion of the words “intikhabet” (elections) and “khayb” (bad).

“I stopped on the way to school to look at this empty wall, without the candidates’ posters, and I thought it said so much.”

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