Despite being sworn in mere weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Tunisia, the new government’s initial response to the crisis was deemed prompt and efficient by most. But an incomplete decentralization process created tension between local authorities and citizens, as varying interpretations of the virus containment measures caused confusion and panic—with significant implications for communities, businesses, and the most vulnerable. This was particularly true in the country’s southern region, where systemic marginalization has created conditions for social unrest and potential destabilization.

Tunisians wait in line to enter a grocery store amid COVID-19 lockdown measures. March 27, 2020. (Brahim Guedich)
Tunisians wait in line to enter a grocery store amid COVID-19 lockdown measures. March 27, 2020. (Brahim Guedich/Wikimedia Commons)

In April and May, during the peak of the pandemic in Tunisia, USIP set out to reduce tensions between citizens and local governments by supporting initiatives that allowed Tunisians to jointly address the crisis and stop the spread of the virus.

USIP mobilized the Alliance of Tunisian Facilitators (ATF), a network of peacebuilding practitioners from across Tunisia who have a thorough understanding of local dynamics and drivers of conflicts. Created in 2014 by USIP, ATF’s goal is to develop and implement interventions to support peacebuilding in Tunisia.

“By empowering local actors to resolve conflicts, create community-based solutions, and work in close coordination with the government, USIP supports sustainable peace and stability in Tunisia,” said Leo Siebert, USIP’s Tunisia country manager.

Amid the lockdown measures, ATF was tasked with identifying areas where violent conflict or destabilization may occur as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak—and to lead initiatives that would reduce tensions and build trust between citizens and local authorities.

Reducing Crowding in Gafsa

Despite the government’s best efforts, the organization and disbursement of financial assistance to needy families in the mining town of Gafsa was ad hoc, disorganized, and often chaotic. Even when the centers were well organized, the elderly and the financially disadvantaged were required to stand in tight lines for hours to receive their money. With the added upheaval of COVID-19, the process experienced significant delays, leaving families vulnerable to infection as they crowded in front of the disbursement centers.

A volunteer with the Tunisian Red Crescent organization facilitates the disbursement of financial assistance in Gafsa, Tunisia. (Tunisian Red Crescent)
A volunteer with the Tunisian Red Crescent organization disperses of financial assistance in Gafsa, Tunisia. (Red Crescent)

To assist the local government’s efforts, ATF member Adel Kilani partnered with the Tunisian Red Crescent—a humanitarian association and one of the national affiliates of the International Movement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent—to reduce crowding at six post offices across the city. Leveraging his skills as a facilitator, Kilani brought together local officials and 20 volunteers to coordinate social distancing among the crowds and expedite cash withdrawals for seniors, the impaired, and illiterate citizens. When asked about what motivated him to coordinate these efforts, Kilani said “It was really important for me to work on reducing crowding because we saw how quickly things escalated in several other cities around Tunisia. We’re fortunate to have been able to intervene and avoid a lot of commotion and potential violence and ensure that social distancing measures were maintained.”

Due to Kilani’s quick action and effective coordination efforts, the disbursement process at these locations was able to move swiftly and safely, protecting some of Gafsa’s most vulnerable citizens from long waits and possible exposure to COVID-19. The story made national news, and one senior citizen said, “I tried to get my financial disbursement from another center in my neighborhood, but it was too crowded. I’m glad I came here.”

Preventing Violence, Raising Awareness at the Border in Ben Guerdane

The city of Ben Guerdane sits on Tunisia’s southern border with Libya and relies heavily on informal cross-border trade. Its citizens, and especially its small business owners, have been suffering from economic setbacks related to ongoing instability in Libya. After the COVID-19 lockdown closed the border entirely, the financial strain on Ben Guerdane only became more dire. Local government has also had to manage an influx of hundreds of Tunisians seeking re-entry to Tunisia via the border.

ATF members Zouhair Mbarek and Fathi Maayen helped mobilize a crisis management committee in Ben Guerdane that convened local civil society activists and members of the security forces, the municipality, and the delegation. The committee helped border authorities accommodate and transport Tunisians arriving from Libya. Mbarek and Maayen also conducted a field visit to offer much-needed support to the border authorities that were managing the flow of returnees, providing water and essential protective gear. Despite growing tensions, and due in great part to the committee’s work, no major conflict has sparked in this hotspot. “We are really happy with this unprecedented collaboration with security forces in Ben Guerdane and are truly proud to have been able to support [this initiative] in this time of crisis,” said Maayen.

To support the government’s ability to maintain peace and safety within the city, ATF also convened 20 local activists to accompany security forces during patrols. Acting as mediators, the activists helped convince citizens to comply with lockdown measures while also encouraging police to use alternative approaches for enforcement. “This might seem like a small gesture to some, but this is exactly what we need right now. Gestures like this one earn a lot of respect,” said one citizen.

To further encourage fellow citizens to stay home and comply with the lockdown measures, Maayen and Mbarek partnered with a local radio station to launch a show that enabled key local authority representatives such as the mayor and the representative of the National Guard to maintain dialogue with constituents and reassure the public. Frequent and clear communication with citizens during the crisis aided greatly in maintaining calm and improving perceptions of the government’s response, with over 3,000 listeners tuning in per episode.

Looking Toward the Future in Medenine

In the southeastern city of Medenine, ATF and USIP helped establish the Conflict Mitigation Unit (CMU) in 2019. The CMU has responded to the coronavirus pandemic by mobilizing volunteers among youth and the police forces to provide much needed support to the community.

Together, they’ve distributed masks and sanitizer to security forces patrolling the streets, as well as sanitized public spaces in marginalized neighborhoods. And when protests sprung up outside the regional hospital over a lack of basic necessities to manage the influx of patients, youth and police from the CMU collaborated to collect and coordinate the distribution of much needed equipment.

Moreover, these efforts prevented altercations and helped maintain calm in Medenine and neighboring cities, building confidence in the community’s ability to handle future crises. “We are very optimistic about getting through this period,” said Ksiksi, a member of the National Guard. “Seeing young people being creative in their response gives me hope.”

Going forward, USIP and ATF will continue to work on rebuilding trust between citizens and government. “As this unfolding pandemic places continued stress on Tunisia’s governance, there will undoubtedly be more sources of tension and discord between citizens and local governments,” said Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East and North Africa programs at USIP. “But USIP and ATF’s expertise can help create conditions for outcome-oriented dialogues to succeed, and for building the capacity of local civil society and government to collaboratively achieve the demands of the revolution.”

Rima Daoud is a project officer for USIP's Tunisia program. Sabrine Laribi is a project specialist for the Institute.

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