Youth under the age of 30 played a critical role in fueling the 2011 Tunisian revolution that toppled former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Demanding social justice and improved livelihoods, Tunisia’s youth took to the streets in 2011 in the hopes that their voices would be included in a new Tunisia.
In the void left behind by the Ben Ali regime, however, the position of Tunisia’s youth remains murky. Two years after the revolution, many Tunisian youths describe feelings of political and social marginalization, and they perceive a disconnect between generations. The great majority of individuals rebuilding their country are older and have chosen to pursue different agendas.
At the same time, post-revolutionary freedoms have opened up new forms of political and civic participation for Tunisian youth. While many eschew participation in traditional politics, they have found other ways to remain active in constructing their country’s future.
“This revolution was made by youth. It was the youth who came to the streets and faced the police and who lost their lives in some regions,” asserted Sélim Kharrat to Tunisia Live. Kharrat is the executive director of al-Bawsala, an organization founded by young Tunisians to monitor the National Constituent Assembly (NCA).
Many Tunisians echo Kharrat’s sentiment that the country’s youth essentially fueled the Tunisian revolution, describing the active role that youth played in civil society and politics in the early days after the revolution.
The period of high youth participation in politics, however, appears to have been short-lived. [display_posts type=”related” limit=”3″ position=”left”]
During the run-up to Tunisia’s parliamentary October 2011 elections, the first truly democratic elections that the country had experienced, 4.1 million Tunisians – nearly half the country’s population – registered to vote, Reuters reported. However, according to a report published by the British Council and the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, only 17% of Tunisia’s youth (aged 18 to 25 years-old) registered.
The 217 members of Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elected through the watershed elections reflect this lack of age diversity. Most are in their 50s or 60s, and the oldest member of the NCA is 74.
“A youth revolution has produced an assembly with very old people. There is a lack of representation of youth in the NCA and within political parties,” explained Kharrat.
Abdrahmen Chaaban, a member of the left-leaning UGET student union, agreed with Kharrat’s analysis.
“Within the structure of the current government and parties, the average age is something like 65,” he said. “Even those over 80 aspire to govern the Tunisian people. They are greedy for governance.”
For Emna, Finance Manager of I Watch Tunisia, a watchdog organization created after the 2011 revolution, a political scene dominated by older Tunisians explains youths’ withdrawal from the country’s political landscape.
“Why would youth choose to support a party that is led by a senior who is 80 years old? I don't understand it,” she told Tunisia Live.
“I have many friends who joined political parties after the revolution, but just after the elections they withdrew because they were disappointed in the strategies of these parties, as there was no collaboration between the youth and the elders in the party,” she added.
The Generational Gap
On top of what appears to be a dwindling youth presence in Tunisian politics, many Tunisians perceive a growing generational gap.
The British Council and the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement conducted research from May to December of 2012 on youth perceptions of the post-revolutionary changes occurring in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The report, published last week, alleged that “gaps rather than connections structure the relationship between young people and the rest of society.”
Young participants in the research study expressed their belief that Tunisia’s older generation is “dealing with the present with a strong sense of nostalgia towards the past,” alleging that the older generation is still living in the 1970s – a period of prosperity in Tunisia.
“There is a huge generation gap between a group of [older] people still living in a golden age and the youth, who are living in today's hard times,” claimed one research participant.
Kharrat traces the origins of this generational divide to a lack of confidence between Tunisia’s youth and the country’s elders.
“It is like the attitude of a father toward his son of five years. ‘You are too young to understand life, too young to be independent, too young to find your way by yourself, too young to understand complex concepts,'” he said, describing the attitude of older politicians toward the country’s youth.
The British Council survey supported such an argument, claiming that Tunisian youths’ greatest challenge lies in reforming a long-standing perception of youth as “frivolous,” an image that former president Ben Ali sought to strengthen during his rule, “by engaging the youth with football and low-quality music festivals.”
As a result, Tunisian youth are caught in an unending cycle. They are criticized for political inexperience, yet they are neither empowered, nor allowed to gain this necessary experience. Instead, they are relegated to the political periphery.
Tunisia’s politicians certainly have not forgotten the pivotal role that Tunisian youths played in the 2011 revolution. Officials currently jockeying for power in Tunisia often make references to the country’s youth in their political rhetoric and speak frequently of projects to empower them.
Many Tunisians, however, believe that the references are merely superficial, and that the country’s youths are being manipulated by older politicians to serve personal interests. According to one participant in the British Council survey, “It was the youth who made the revolution, but now they are just cards that politicians use for their own gain.”
Chaaban agreed. “They [older politicians] are using young people as if they are decorative objects in the vacuum that they have to fill,” he said.
For Kharrat, politicians’ references to Tunisian youths are hollow words.
“Even in the [draft] constitution, there is a sentence about youth, but it doesn't mean anything. They always say things but never act. The youth are waiting for actions, not for words,” he stated. [display_posts type=”same_author” limit=”3″ position=”left”]
Instead, Kharrat argued that Tunisia’s politicians are crafting the country’s future without consulting one of its largest demographic groups – youth.
“They make the decision by themselves, and they don't let youth participate in decision making,” he explained.
Alternative Forms of Participation
Many young Tunisians express that, regardless of whether or not they were encouraged to play a more substantive role in Tunisia’s political landscape, they prefer to avoid the political realm altogether. They have chosen to abstain from participating in politics because they feel that Tunisia’s political parties do not have their best interests in mind.
“People are disgusted with the political life, and they won't participate in parties because they don't represent them,” Chaaban alleged to Tunisia Live.
Given the magnitude of infighting taking place within the Tunisian political scene, the inability of politicians to collaborate and to develop a shared vision for the nation’s future has also driven many youth from politics.
“The problem with all the offers from political parties is that they lack a vision of the future,” Kharrat said. “This is the biggest challenge to making youth more involved.”
Youths also worry about the risks that may come with taking part in political parties, according to Emna.
“Maybe civil society work and NGOs are safer for now,” she explained.
“I prefer civic activity to political activism,” affirmed 24 year-old Mondher Youssfi. “It involves no partisan allegiance and no electoral maneuvers.” Youssfi is a student at l’Ecole Normale Superieure de Tunis and a former member of the UGTE, an Islamist student union.
As an alternative to institutionalized political participation, Tunisian youths have turned to more informal ways of building their nation’s future. In Tunisia’s case, such avenues include youth non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs). Post-revolution, these initiatives have blossomed in Tunisia.
“The emergence of youth NGOs [since 2011] has been very amazing,” Emna affirmed.
Emna’s organization, I Watch Tunisia, is a watchdog organization created after the 2011 revolution with the aim of “preserving the gains of the revolution.” One of the organization’s main principles is to empower Tunisian youth, while avoiding assuming elder “trusteeship” under the pretext of youths’ “lack of experience.” The organization was founded by a group of Tunisians between the ages of 22 and 25.
While many Tunisian youth have chosen to follow the NGO or CSO route, these less formal modes of participation are not without their challenges.
For one thing, the sheer number of organizations that have sprouted up post-revolution has led to what the British Council report terms a “diffusion” of resources. The rapid rate at which these organizations have emerged makes sustaining their momentum and “maximizing youth capital” difficult.
Emna expressed that finances pose another problem. “We are all volunteers in I Watch, so money is another challenge. We have to run a whole organization with zero dinars,” she told Tunisia Live.
Still, alternative forms of youth participation have made gains in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
I Watch Tunisia is one such success story. Shortly after Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly was elected, I Watch Tunisia held a “model NCA” in which 217 youths from throughout the country proposed legislation for their country’s future. Youth suggestions were then brought before real NCA members as recommendations. The results were impressive.
“We had listed 5 or 6 recommendations [for the NCA], and they chose 3 of them,” Emna recounted.
It appears that in spite of the disconnect between the isolated halls of Tunisian politics and the realities faced by young Tunisians, innovative youths are taking less traditional routes to rebuild their society. They have witnessed the challenges that Tunisia currently faces and are proposing innovative solutions.
As Kharrat expressed, “We always see youth from the side of ‘the problem.’ But, we have to change the mindset towards youth and to see youth as the opportunity – not as the problem.”