Freedom allows youth to play active role in Tunisian civil society

Friday 08/05/2015
Space launched by “I watch” to accommodate small-budget organisations

Tunis - The end of autocratic poli­tics after the 2011 revolu­tion in Tunisia gave young people an unprecedented chance to be active in civil society. Independent organisations mushroomed around the country with the new-found freedom of ex­pression and organisation and a re­mapping of civil society. Youth-run organisations assumed an impor­tant role in civil society monitoring political developments and actively contributing to the democratic tran­sition.
Youth-led organisations used communication technology to wid­en their outreach. They developed online platforms to promote the values of citizenship and transpar­ency.
Launched in 2011, the anti-cor­ruption organisation I Watch set out to monitor and evaluate the perfor­mance of political parties and possi­bly identify instances of corruption. In 2012, I Watch started a website, Belkamcha (“Caught red-handed”), to report cases of corruption.
“When we didn’t have funds and support, we thought of how to make an impact and the answer was always technology,” I Watch Presi­dent Achref Aouadi told The Arab Weekly.
Young Independent Democrats (JID), a non-profit organisation, created Ikthiyar Tounes (“Tunisia’s choice”), a website designed to help voters choose between political par­ties.
“It is a political compass to help voters decide. Questions on issues that are not clearly defined in the electoral programmes are submit­ted to political parties,” Emir Sfaxi, the head of JID told The Arab Week­ly.
In addition to Belkamcha, I Watch recently launched two websites, the Sebsi meter and Essid meter to eval­uate the performances of the new president and the new prime min­ister. The websites were a continu­ation of the Jomaa meter an online platform aimed at assessing the per­formance of former prime minister Mehdi Jomaa. The “meters” try to measure to what extent politicians fulfil their election promises.
“The aim is to establish a culture of accountability so that decision-makers do not make promises just to be elected,” said Aouadi. “More accountability might mean people will commit to their promises and voters will gain trust in politicians. People won’t boycott and will real­ise that their voices do really mat­ter.”
I Watch has also inaugurated space, named el Lokal, for organi­sations that cannot afford to rent a place or have an office.
“The idea is to give the same chances to everyone and to end the monopoly by certain [non-govern­mental organisations] NGOs over civil society in Tunisia. For us, if you have the commitment, we will help you run things without asking for anything,” Aouadi said.
“If you are an NGO with a small budget, how can we help reduce the cost? If they need a space for train­ing or anything, they don’t need to book a hotel. They can come and get this space for free,” he said.
Other NGOs, like Tun’Act, try to disseminate the values of citizen­ship by promoting a culture of ac­tivism among young people and raising awareness about their role in political decision-making pro­cesses.
“Our most important project is the Tunisian Youth Parliament, an event that brings, for five days, youth between 18 and 30 from all over Tunisia to express their opinion, learn to listen and under­stand parliamentary process,” Zied Touzani, president of Tun’Act, ex­plained.
Although civil society has expe­rienced a significant growth since the revolution, a number of obsta­cles hinder its full development es­pecially when dealing with young people.
Aouadi said the main issue facing young people in civil society is the generation gap that is steeped in the mentality of civil society lead­ers. Today, despite the importance given to youth, social stereotypes endure.
“Being young is already an ob­stacle. People want to categorise you in certain activities like fun and entertainment, not elections or cor­ruption,” he said.
Sfaxi said the culture of activism is frail among young people and that is one of the main issues that civil society in Tunisia faces.
“Civil society is still new to Tuni­sians even though we have older or­ganisations but these are the histor­ical dinosaurs of civil society. These organisations are led by older gen­erations, but motivation of youth members is an issue,” Sfaxi stated.
Despite their resourcefulness and creativity, young people in Tunisia still struggle with trust in politi­cians. Their low turnout during recent elections raised many ques­tions over their willingness to get involved in matters that could de­cide the future of their country.
“We can’t blame the youth for their abstention as no politician re­ally talked to them,” Touzani said.
Other activists said the low par­ticipation of young people in the elections does not reflect a stance against politics.
“Why does a young man wake up early, go to a polling station to observe and monitor the elections, but does not vote? It is important not to misportray reality and say they don’t care. Youth identify with youth so if there are no other young candidates they won’t go to vote,” Aouadi explained.
“In Tunisia, there was this disap­pointment about politicians. Their bad performance widened the gap.”