Tunisia's elections: A view from the town that made the revolution

Tunisia's elections: A view from the town that made the revolution
In Tunisia's heart of the revolution, much distrust toward the post-2011 political class and determination to see real change drove many to vote in Sunday’s presidential election.
6 min read
16 September, 2019
The normal everyday vibe in Kasserine seems to reflect a no-big-fuss general attitude [AFP]
Taking a walk around downtown Kasserine, in central western Tunisia, there was very little sign of an election coming up just days before the polls. In the busy streets, there were hardly any posters or flyers for any of the presidential campaigns.

Except for a couple of candidate's images along the main road and one outside a school to be used as a polling station, the atmosphere was very much plain.

"In the 2014 election, you would see posters everywhere in and outside the town. Only in our shop, we printed more than 2,000 flyers and designing posters for the different campaigns," recalled Mohamed who works at an IT service shop, "I haven't seen any of that these days."

The normal everyday vibe in Kasserine seems to reflect a no-big-fuss general attitude of its residents vis-a-vis this year's elections.

"What's happened in the past five years since the last election? Nothing, it's actually gone worse. Jobs are scarce, the Tunisian dinar has collapsed, we find it hard to make a decent life," 28-year-old Oussama Mbarky questioned. His only income comes through sale of produces grown on his own land.  

He anticipated a large turnout in the September 15 vote because, he believes, people are fed up after years of unfulfilled demands, and want to make an informed choice about who to vote for in the 2019 election. He didn't vote five years ago, but did this time.

"Many others feel the same about voting. That's enough!" the farmer uttered. "This is the time for change. It's now or never."

On Sunday, Tunisians voted in the country's second free presidential election since the 2011 revolution, with 26 candidates in the race.

Near the western border with Algeria, in the country's interior, the town of Kasserine was at the forefront of Tunisia's historic uprising that led to the overthrow of long-time dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

During the uprising, young Kasserine residents paid with their lives fighting for a better life. Yet, eight years on the revolution has not delivered on its economic promises, especially for the young.

The Kasserine governorate is the most emblematic of the problems of Tunisia's unfinished revolution, highlighting the deep inequalities between the more developed coastal regions and its impoverished interior.

With an unemployment rate topping 30 percent in 2014 (compared to roughly 15 percent nationwide), the region is also the country's poorest. Youth unemployment in the country hit 36 percent, according to the International Labour Organization, more than double the national average. In Kasserine, residents claim it is above 65 percent. The region's infrastructure is lacking, and healthcare and education services are poor. 

"In Kasserine, we have the highest poverty. Hassid Elfrid, a village at 40 km away from here, has recorded a zero percent development rate since 2011. We were all happy to learn that this increased to one percent in the last period," Mohamed noted with a dry wit.

In the central town, home to half a million people, the frustration of the younger generations is palpable as they express impatience with the slow pace of post-revolutionary change.

For decades, government investment and development projects have gone to the coastal regions, leaving internal governorates such as Kasserine consistently underprivileged.

Many among the town's youth did not go to the ballot box this Sunday. They see politicians as individuals looking after their own interest.

But many others casted their votes. Some locals say that more, young people in particular, will vote than in the previous polls. They are convinced that something must change.

Most of the Kasserine youth are said to support independent candidates. They want to break with the old regime, and refuse to give their vote to anyone who represents the political establishment that has ruled the country since 2011.

"I've talked to a lot of people in town who didn't vote in the last election but will give it a chance this year," said Hassen Guermity, 32, an employee at the regional directorate of the social affairs ministry in Kasserine.

He cited the number of new young voters registered in the governorate (an additional 100,000) hinting that larger participation should be expected.   

More than seven million Tunisians were registered to vote in the ballot, with an increase of around 1.5 million registered voters.

Guermity is upset and doesn't have big hopes following Sunday's vote. Rising up with hundreds of others in the late 2010-early 2011 revolts, back then he dreamed of a new country with a good state, laws and welfare for Tunisians.

"Years have gone by and we've seen nothing," the public employee complained painting a bleak picture of the ongoing situation. "I feel like we're still living under Ben Ali's regime. The rich are getting richer, the poor getting poorer.

"We hear the same promises at every election, then once the electoral time is over they forget about Kasserine, the hotbed of the Tunisian revolution," he added.

His only hope is independent candidate Lotfi Mraihi, originally from Haidra, near Kasserine, who is widely perceived by locals as "one of them", someone who knows well the reality of the marginalised region and is ready to tackle its problems.

However, he is afraid the winner will be a candidate with more means and influence such as PM Youssef Chahed, defence minister Abdelkrim Zbidi or Ennahdha's Abdelfattah Mourou.

Mbarky looks concerned about his country's future. In his view, the key for Tunisia's new president to succeed will be fighting corruption and redressing the regional gap between the coast and the interior. He stressed that the country needs to cut with the old system and be "reset afresh".

"Kasserine launched the revolution but didn't get anything back. This is a region that consumes without producing," he voiced. "It's time to give equality of development to all regions."

Mbarky is hopeful that Mraihi can offer a new chance for Tunisians in Kasserine and elsewhere, with plans to invest in the use of local resources, set up factories and economic activities in inland areas promoting export industry.

Kasserine feels like a place that is not part of Tunisia," a young man, Abdeljalil Aloui, lamented. "Roads are poorly paved, public services are poor. If you need to go to hospital, you have to travel 300 km to find one. If you want to further your education, you have to move to cities like Tunis, Sousse or Sfax."

The 27-year-old who lives abroad noticed that young Kasserinois are taking more interest in the 2019 polls than in the previous ones.

"I think the local youth want to participate in bigger numbers because they want to play a part in the election's outcome, and determine the coming future," he argued.  

Swinging between those who say "Nothing will happen" and those who think "Enough, now it's time to see change", the people of Kasserine will be watching this election carefully while hoping for a president who will do something about the interior's development.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec