Amid Tunisia’s struggle to democratize following its 2011 Arab Spring revolution, the country’s first-ever elected local governments may offer hope. Tunisia’s 350-plus localities are inaugurating elected councils this summer, half of whose 7,000-plus members are women and a third of whom are younger than 35. Still, the May election that put them in office included a reduced voter turnout—34 percent—that underscores public frustrations and the need for concrete solutions to Tunisia’s unemployment, poverty, and underdevelopment, especially in the country’s interior.
A model to help stabilize volatile communities could come from Kasserine, which has seen frequent protests and upheaval, and which is a locus of recruitment by extremist groups. Local officials have been building a market space for street vendors who for years clashed with authorities amid their struggle for economic survival. The market, still under construction, was the solution found through an unprecedented dialogue between city officials and the vendors.
Street Vendors Struggle to Survive
Nationwide, the informal commerce of street vending has been the survival tactic for millions of Tunisians who otherwise face unemployment and abject poverty. The 2011 revolution was triggered by the suicide of a street vendor who set himself on fire in protest at constant harassment and corruption by local officials in a city near Kasserine.
Kasserine’s vendors and officials “were always in conflict but had never talked,” said Tarek Lamouchi, a Tunisian civic leader who helped lead the dialogue. Lamouchi is one of more than 20 Tunisian mediators trained and supported by the U.S. Institute of Peace to help resolve local conflicts.
“In our first dialogue session, after just 10 minutes, one of the vendors,” angry at city officials, “threatened to set himself on fire,” Lamouchi said in an interview. “By the end of the session, that same person said he was ready to go collect donations to help the municipality buy trash cans to clean up the city.”
Civil society activists and former officials interviewed in Kasserine last fall said the previous, interim government was slowed in its effort to complete the half-built market because of uncertainties around the repeatedly delayed municipal elections.
As Tunisia’s elected local governments now take office, an alliance of Tunisian facilitators like Lamouchi is preparing to launch six local dialogues in communities nationwide that are facing local conflicts that risk violence. USIP has trained the facilitators and supports the dialogues, which this year will work to reduce or resolve local conflicts in other troubled communities such as the southern cities of Ben Guerdane and Tataouine. Tunisian facilitators recently led a dialogue at a major national university that reduced tensions between Islamist and secular student unions.
“Dialogues are vital at the grassroots level to strengthen connections between communities and their local governments,” said Dr. Elie Abouaoun, who directs USIP’s programs in the Middle East and North Africa. “They are especially important to adjust the expectations of the local communities which are, in some cases, beyond the ability of any government to fulfill. Keeping those expectations realistic is essential to preserving Tunisia’s stability.”