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Notes from the Ground: Tunisia’s National Youth Dialogue

Since the 2010-2011 revolution, Tunisia’s government has struggled through multiple changes in leadership as it finds it footing and embarks on a new phase of history.  Over the course of the ongoing transition faith in the government has waned as public expectations, especially among youth, have not been met. 

Critics of the Tunisian government often lament the lack of will to change.  While thousands of youth activists advocate for a more responsive government, they feel as if their efforts fall on deaf ears. 

Throughout history, more often than not, change happens on the margins.  Monumental sudden changes are rare.  Generally, as activists and change agents slowly chip away, small wins accumulate, and over time things improve.  That is what we are witnessing in Tunisia.  But if you are not in trenches working with both sides of the puzzle, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

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In December 2015, Tunisia’s new government was in crisis.  It was broke.  Terrorism was suffocating an already weak economy.  The country’s biggest party was in shambles.  Promised reforms were stalled indefinitely.  The prime minister and the president were not getting along.  Public dissatisfaction with the direction of the country had reached historic levels and faith in democracy was deteriorating. In January 2016, a widely publicized suicide in protest of systematic marginalization and corruption sparked nationwide protests, strikes, and clashes with police strikingly reminiscent of the events leading to the revolution five years earlier.

Was Tunisia’s nascent constitutional government on the brink of collapse?  Had the democratic experiment failed?  Many observers and Tunisian activists feared a crackdown and rollback of hard-won democratic freedoms in response to the mounting instability.  A fragile government, weak economy, and angry population losing faith in democracy presented a ripe occasion for a dissolution of parliament, military intervention, or any number of strongman tactics practiced previously in Tunisia or around the neighborhood.  That did not happen.  Indeed many say Tunisia has passed the point of return to dictatorship.  Many believe multi-party politics, the separation of powers, and a loud civil society are here to stay. 

Until last January, I was not entirely sure.  However well-intentioned some in the new government may be, there was little indication Tunisia’s key power brokers were committed to democratic consolidation.  Institutions remained weak and dominated by status quo interests, critics were being jailed, and the violent incoherent response to terrorism was secretive and creating victims of the state that would find an outlet for “justice” in the proliferating violent extremist organizations, contributing to long term destabilization.  Beyond state violence against citizens, the lack of will to reform seemed to be a fundamental stumbling block.  Until 2016, I had not yet seen a commitment to change within the leadership of the deep state bureaucracy.   

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Despite these negative realities, the government prepared a parallel response to the youth crisis that has been democratic and has provided reasons for genuine optimism.  On Feb 2, 2016, President Beji Caid Essebsi enlisted IRI to work with the government as it embarked on a new strategy of participatory responsive governance and engagement with youth.  In that meeting with President Essebsi, we were given a mandate to help the government collaborate with youth and other state research institutions to respond to the needs of Tunisia’s young people.  It was in this time of mounting uncertainty on a cold morning in Carthage that the National Youth Congress initiative was born. 

While the announcement of the initiative was met with expected skepticism from some, the initiative signaled to Tunisia, especially to its youth, that the government was going to engage democratically with youth by traveling the country and meeting face to face with young people of all backgrounds to listen to their challenges and frustrations and participate in collaborative discussions on how the country can solve issues affecting young people.  Essentially, this initiative consisted of local dialogues between the Tunisian government and young people in more than 1,000 towns and villages across the country, and highly publicized regional level dialogues with youth civil society activists engaging in honest and open dialogue with Minister of Youth and Sports, Ms. Majdouline Cherni.  With assistance from IRI, youth from marginalized regions were able to sit down face to face with their leaders.  The interactions were genuine.  There was anger.  There were sharp disagreements between youth from various social cleavages.  The leadership of the ministry were attacked for the lack of action from the government.  The government listened.  Staff took notes.  They engaged in a type of dialogue that had once been unthinkable.  It was uncomfortable at times.  But it gained them some respect and signaled positive changes in how the government interacts with young people desperate for hope.

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Eleven months, 1,166 local dialogues, and 24 governorates later, IRI and the Tunisian government have reached the culmination of this process.  It has not been easy.  At times, IRI was camped out at the Ministry of Youth patiently prodding and pushing for action.  Planning and execution was at times haphazard.  And dialogue sometimes looked more like a heated discussion around the dinner table between quarrelling family members.  But the mission was accomplished.  And the ministry is proud of the work it has done, and rightly so. 

Yet the work is not quite finished.  Working with Tunisian partners, IRI is now supporting the government through the process of coding and collating all of the data from all of the dialogues into a final report with recommendations that are intended to lead to the development of a whole-of-government strategy.  Last weekend, I sat with 20 data analysts from the ministry of youth who had overseen and collected the data from the 1,166 local dialogues as they processed results of every single dialogue and prepared the data for inclusion in the final report. 

What I saw during the course of those three days blew me away.  The ministry staff arrived on time and got straight to work.  They worked until midnight.  At 8 am, I walked down to the conference room expecting to find it entirely empty.  Instead I found the room full with the group chugging espressos and typing away at their laptops.  They again worked until midnight.  The next morning, things were nearly finished.  By the end of the day, 20 very proud staff members turned in their work to their director who shared it with IRI.  The results of local dialogues were accurate, well written, and well organized. 

Change had occurred.  But it was not public, it was not flashy.  It was behind closed doors, in a ministry conference room.  Sometimes democracy is boring.  Sometimes progress looks like late nights behind a computer screen surrounding by colleagues and empty coffee cups.

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The commitment of those staff to the success of participatory governance will inspire me for years to come.  While the process was rocky at times, now there is no direction to go but forward.  I do believe the democratic spirit that has been unleashed through this initiative is here to stay.  That is because the very staff who were at first wary of the notion of face-to-face, youth-led dialogue and its inherent vulnerabilities, are now the one’s leading that very process and proud of what they have been through.  It is IRI’s hope to continue this type of work with the Ministry of Youth, the Ministry of Women, and other partners in the government as Tunisia continues to cement the bricks of democracy. 

What I have learned, and what I hope our partners have also learned, is that participatory democracy does not mean government leading citizens through a bland exercise to determine what is best for them.  Instead, it is a shift in the relationship between government and the Tunisian people. Participatory democracy lets young, vibrant, forward thinking leaders have the space to illustrate a path forward for the country, implement that path, and hope that the government can keep up!  Of the many recommendations that have come from this initiative, the most forward thinking are those that put entrepreneurial young people in the driver’s seat and government in a supporting, enabling role, instead of the other way around.  Anything less will not be accepted by this generation of youth who are fighting every day to build a brighter future from the ground up.