Malek Lakhal, a journalist for Nawaat and a researcher in political science.
Tunisia just saw its first local elections since the toppling of Ben Ali. However, the public’s indifference is quite palpable, as only 35.6 percent of registered voters went to the polls. These elections were meant as a first step towards what could very possibly be the most important reform in Tunisian governance since the independence: decentralization. The idea is that if local communities are given the opportunity to decide for themselves, they stand better chances of developing themselves and creating wealth.
The least developed regions have long suffered from the fact that those who make the decisions are usually in and from the coast, and do not have nor seek first-hand knowledge of the regions’ needs. However, holding local elections won’t undo hundreds of years of unfair development if not met with a clear political will to change the way the Tunisian state built itself politically, economically, and culturally—a will clearly missing in the authorities’ response to recent social movements pushing for a fairer redistribution of wealth.
Kamour and Jemna are very clear examples of this unwillingness to change. From April to June 2017, people protested in the Tataouine governorate. Most notably, at the Kamour oil and gas facility in south of the city of Tataouine, protesters stopped production, demanding that a fifth of the profits be specifically devoted to Tataouine’s development, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Politicians and political commentators interpreted these demands as a threat to national unity, even though the Constitution mandates the government to pursue “positive discrimination” in the distribution of wealth to achieve fairer development. Their opinion is better understood if we keep in mind that for over sixty years, the official discourse was that resources belong to the “Tunisian people” equally, and that development only happens through “unity”—even though this narrative justified decades of policies favoring the coastal regions and silencing the marginalized ones.
Inhabitants of Jemna, a small village in southwestern Tunisia, decided to occupy the state-owned oasis in 2011 and cultivate it on their own, setting up the Association for the Protection of Jemna's Oases (APJO) to manage agricultural and developmental projects in the community. Their profits from date production significantly increased, allowing them to construct new facilities in the village, such as a sports field and a new classroom. Despite the positive impact, the APJO’s bank account was frozen in October 2016 by the Tunisian authorities, who argued that they did not have the right to cultivate the land. Sovereignty and President Beji Caid Essebsi’s main electoral promise to restore “state prestige” were given priority over decentralized and self-sustained development.
Tunisian authorities have a long-standing tradition of satisfying international lenders’ political demands through legislative reforms, while not changing much in its actions on the field. Looking back at how decentralized governance initiatives and demands were received, these elections and the councils they will put in place could well be another of set of “as-if” reforms that only exist on paper.