Tuesday Apr 07

Tunisien Youth: SPECIAL REPORT Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue – Tunisia

I was part of the Organizer’s Forum’s most recent convening in Tunisia and had the opportunity to meet with several organizations and individuals to learn more about the work being done on the ground since the 2011 revolution. Given my background in student organizing, I was most interested in learning more about the role of young people in reshaping Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. These dialogues happened as the first round of Presidential elections were taking place which added some real-time insight into the role of youth and youth driven organizations in Tunisian politics.

Two interactions with young people stand out in my mind during my time in Tunisia. The first was with a young man I met within hours of arriving in Tunis. He offered to show me around and gave me a brief history of Tunisia. He was from the southern part of the country and had come to Tunis to get an engineering degree. He told me his prospects were limited, even with a master’s degree, because everyone in Tunis is overeducated and underemployed. He was planning on voting in the upcoming elections but had little hope that the next President and Parliament would change the current situation.

The second interaction was a young woman we met on a train to Carthage on election day. She proudly held up her ink-dyed finger to show that she had voted. She was familiar with American elections and had just returned from visiting her aunt in New York City. Her aunt had volunteered on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign and gave her niece a button from the campaign. The young woman and her friends were equally hopeful about the elections and the future of democracy in the country.

The difference between the two was familiar, the young man came from poverty and the young woman came from means. Overall in Tunisia, less than 3% of 18-29-year old youth are active in NGOs and barely 4% are active in a political party. Conversations with young people returned again and again to a combination of pride in the revolution, frustration with ongoing corruption, and cynicism about the seemingly ineffective current leaders in government for not fulfilling the promise of the revolution.

Activism on campus mirrors that off campus. The two leading student unions represent the same tensions seen in off campus political parties. UGET (Union Generale des Etudiants de Tunisie) is seen as more secular and more leftist. UGTE (Union Generale Tunisienne des Etudiants) is seen as more Islamist and brands itself as the centrist, sensible choice. The student unions are dues supported groups and collect dues from both current members and from alumni. Students will often get involved in the student unions on campus as a way to increase the likelihood that they will eventually join one of the major political parties after graduation.

Lately the leftist student organizations are a reflection of the leftist political parties. Both seem to have splintered and no one faction has been able to build a coalition. In the last student elections, the UGTE, the centrist student union, won a clear majority of seats as the UGET split into several parties. National parliamentary elections were similarly split between various parties on the left. It remains to be seen how much power those parties will wield in the still to be formed governing coalition.

Due in part to the increased dissatisfaction with the government’s performance there has been recent growth in more non-partisan youth oriented civic organizations both on campuses and in the community. These organizations organize more through social media, as expected, and the most successful of these, iWatch for example, position themselves as watchdogs of the process and elected officials and expose corruption at all levels of government. Since most young people are not experiencing the broader attempts to reform government, decentralize decision-making, diversify the makeup of the elected governing bodies and increase accountability, these NGOs are perceived to be outside the system and therefore more accountable and accessible.

The latest presidential elections were defined by candidates running as outsiders and the eventual winner, Kais Saied, rode the overwhelming support of young people to victory. 90% of young people voted for Saied, who is not only a retired law professor but also quite socially conservative. More importantly, he has taken a strong stand against corruption and, somewhat surprisingly, mobilized young voters with a strong social media game.

It remains to be seen whether the rhetoric of the revolution will translate into reality, especially with the youth of Tunisia. What is clear is that youth are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs and while they support the revolution they are looking for real, tangible evidence of change.

Andy MacDonald is the National Organizing Director of the Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups).

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