Freedom allows youth to play active role in Tunisian civil society
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.”