Shunned by the Old Guard, Tunisia’s Youth Go Digital

graphic of raised hands

“Young Tunisians, this is your opportunity to serve Tunisia in a way that our generation did not. Our hair has turned gray while we longed for this historic moment.”

Uttered by Ahmed Al Hafnaoui in 2011 at the onset of the Tunisian revolution, this emotional plea went viral online. Way before the uprising, Mr. Al Hafnaoui owned a coffee shop in the Tunisian town of Mohammedia. Inside the coffee shop was a small computer room where young Tunisians would gather to plan protests online. To protect them from police informants, he would bar the computer room with chairs. History happened in Mr. Al Hafnaoui’s coffee shop, but he never took credit for it. Instead, he made sure to praise youth for their creativity.

Five years later, cross-generational collaboration is almost nowhere to be seen in Tunisian politics.

Tunisian millennials triggered the Arab Spring. Armed with the mobilizing potential of social media, they successfully forced out the dictatorial regime of Zin El Abidin Ben Ali. Subsequently, Tunisia underwent significant economic, political, and security crises. But thanks to constructive compromise and a vigilant civil society, it valiantly overcame such hardships. In a region marred by oppression, terrorism, and sectarian strife, Tunisia is today the only Arab secular democracy.

The country is governed by a diverse political elite ranging from seculars to Islamists. They check many boxes. But, although millennials drove the revolution, “Young” is not one of those boxes. Young members of Tunisian political parties report being given logistical tasks like event planning and management. But they are kept away from party leadership. As a result, Tunisian youth are increasingly disillusioned by politics as a whole. In early 2016, the Tunisian National Youth Observatory reported that 62 percent of young Tunisians do not plan to vote in the country’s next regional elections.

But if you think Tunisia’s youth have given up on running their country, think again. The same technological tools harnessed during the revolution are now used as alternative governing platforms. Tunisian millennials may not be allowed in the seat of power, but they are increasingly keeping their older officeholders in check. That in itself is quite a power.

Nowadays, for instance, the attendance of Tunisia’s senior members of parliament is diligently monitored and posted online by six bloggers young enough to be those members’ children. Such is only one of the many missions of Al Bawsala, an NGO providing Tunisians with direct access to information on their elected representatives. Voting records, proposed legislation and meeting minutes are live-tweeted and just one click away. In addition, Al-Bawsala’s website acts as a forum between Tunisians and their representatives. Any citizen can ask a question online and expect it to be answered, since failure to respond would reflect poorly on the “digital” record of the officeholder.

Obtaining this level of access was not easy, though. The NGO’s founders bumped into a culture of paternalism and secrecy within the country’s post-revolutionary elite. Activist and President Amira Yahyaoui recalls“We had a lot of problems at the beginning, with members of parliament refusing that their statements and actions be scrutinized before they were made public . . . Some MPs for instance tried to prevent us from entering the parliament’s premises.” That did not stop Al Bawsala from pressing ahead with demands for transparency, invoking Decree Number 41 — a Tunisian variant of the Freedom of Information Act. Succumbing to legal and media pressure, the Tunisian parliament allowed Al Bawsala to report from within in March 2013. Given no choice but to comply, Tunisian MPs did an about-face. Amira jokes: “Today, many of these MPs ask us about how we ranked them or send us a doctor’s note to call in sick. Just like in school.” By many accounts, Al Bawsala has become the go-to reference for anyone curious about Tunisia’s lawmaking process.

Others rolled up their sleeves after the revolution, taking matters into their own hands. 

Following the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime, Tunisians became dissatisfied with the quality of public services. More concerning to the citizenry was the inability of their officials to duly collect trash on time. Fed up with the lack of response from authorities, young Tunisians took their plea online. In August 2015, schoolteacher Zied Mallouli founded Plan125, an online application designed to document the dysfunctions of Tunisian cities: uncollected garbage, pavements turned into coffee shop terraces, spillages in lakes. Users can log in and capture visual evidence of such transgressions for the world to see. This however is not your typical whistleblowing platform. The target audience of Plan125 — city managers — is also included in the app. Plan125 equips local officials with a login and password to check the problems reported. Not only that, they can report the problem as solved after handling it. 

One might think this is a power play between impatient tech-savvy millennials and an out-of-touch elite. Nevertheless, the frustration of young Tunisians with their government is rooted in genuine struggles. About 39 percent of Tunisians are younger than 25. The OECD estimates youth unemployment in the country at 40 percent. At the same time, Tunisia enjoys a relatively high 48-percent internet penetration rate. That the country’s youth would claim the fruits of their revolution through information technology should be no surprise.

It seems like somebody’s been listening. After the latest Tunisian cabinet lost the confidence of Parliament, 40-year-old Youssef Chahed was tasked with forming a government of national unity. His predecessor was 67.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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