As Tunisia consolidates its nascent democracy, the past few years have brought a different kind of political challenge. What has been the biggest impact of the dissolution of the unity government, political infighting, and the lack of economic and security progress on Tunisia and Tunis specifically?
After a revolution, the ceiling of demands increases: people’s demands increase, even though the government is weaker. All of these factors created a political crisis in Tunisia. After eight years, there is hopelessness among youth, and our role today as politicians is to push for hope. The first thing we focused on in the municipal elections is the role of youth. Today, we are partnering with youth in decisionmaking and have young people as local leaders. We want to give them more responsibility and feelings of ownership of public policy. Even though these past few years have been full of political contention, we hope the transition is swift. We want to promote economic growth by addressing corruption and promoting sound and transparent economic policies, because when corruption chips away at the economy, it chips away at the economic prospects of youth and citizens.
What impact will the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections have on your priorities for local governance?
Our focus is to improve the city, including service provision. After the revolution, the municipal councils were disbanded and replaced with appointed representatives, many of whom were themselves replaced or even disbanded within a few years. As a result, the municipalities remained without effective officials and employees. Even as demand for services increased, the local councils stopped working with companies to provide them, making local governance less effective.
Today, we have designed a clear strategy to make the city of Tunis a major destination for domestic and international tourism. The New York Times recently ranked Tunis 27 on its list of must-visit cities in 2019. In addition to continuing successful national efforts to combat terrorism, our priorities include cleaning and lighting up roads, creating green spaces, and organizing large investment programs to revamp and improve infrastructure. We are also interested in creating space such as stadiums for children and youth to play and be active. We have a day without cars, on Sundays. The largest street in the city, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, has become a place for cultural events and celebration for the people. We are trying to do this with our limited financial resources, because these are the demands of the citizens.
Other priorities include enhancing infrastructure—something we are working on with the central government by boosting investment in municipalities. Our aim is to have a strong implementation program for strong local governance. We want Tunis to provide a blueprint for other municipalities. For example, although we do not have legislation that allows for a partnership between the private and the public sector, we can make such a partnership to rebuild Tunis, because we have many crumbling buildings but lack the tools for a heavy rebuilding project. With the help of the French government, we have a program where schoolchildren are engaged on the municipal level, and they become our ambassadors to their families to raise awareness for our work. We also have other partnerships with organizations in Tunis such as the National Traffic Safety Observatory. There are many programs and a lot of support, both internal and foreign, from partners eager to support a woman as mayor after 160 years of men in this role.
In terms of the upcoming elections, today our municipality leadership is socially cohesive despite our political affiliations, so I do not think there will be any effect. We instilled in this council that unity is the only option in order to benefit the citizen. Prior to the election, perhaps there might be tension, and that happens to all democracies and all societies; there is competition, but we share a similar goal. The difference between us and other experiments is that we compete using our language and expressions, not with weapons or assassinations. This is one of the unique characteristics of Tunisia. There is competition in how we want to promote economic and social growth. We want the competition to advance future, transparent electoral proposals that are not merely empty, unattainable promises.
How is the implementation of the decentralization law moving forward, how has it affected your work, and what sort of political and financial implications does it have for Tunis?
The law has articles that govern its implementation in accordance with the constitution. This includes granting municipal councils executive privileges to oversee the transition to decentralization gradually over the next eighteen years. I support the effort and continue to partner with various ministries to implement it. For example, we have a project to expand the capabilities of local doctors and hospitals to practice preventive medicine. The municipal doctor program will hopefully see the light of day soon; it will cost very little, especially for families living in poor neighborhoods, and the doctors will also be available at night. We are working with the Ministry of Education to involve the municipality in designing curricula. We are working hard to exceed our traditional roles, as we feel we were elected to realize bigger hopes for the future of the country.
Although you ran as an independent for mayor, you remain a member of Ennahda. How do you see the party’s local role evolving, in Tunis but also beyond?
Today, the Ennahda Party is the main political actor with the largest national presence. Ennahda today is a guarantor of Tunisia’s political independence, an important civil party open to all people, and a supporter of political consensus. After winning a transparent and legitimate election, it is the first Arab party to leave power without any blood being shed. It left government for the benefit of the country, choosing to benefit the country over the party. Ennahda today is open to all segments in Tunis and relies on democracy, because everything is done via elections and in a democratic way. It calls for freedoms because it has been oppressed in the past, so it cannot decrease freedoms today, even when it comes to women’s rights. Everyone knows that it is the party that presented a woman as head of the capital, Tunis. All progressive parties—indeed, all parties—proclaim to support gender equality, but in reality they overlooked and criticized women at a critical moment. But Ennahda presented and supported my candidacy for the municipality of Tunis.
The Ennahda governance experiment was about learning. You either succeed or you learn from your mistakes; there is no such thing as failure. After a long period of oppression, Ennahda’s first experience in government showed governing was not easy. It was a time for reconciliation with the state, reconciliation with the people, and reconciliation with the past and to plan for a political future. The period was hard, and it still is. Ennahda gave signals of openness that align with the current political reality and still works on that. Ennahda has chosen to evolve and become open to all citizens, including nominating a Jewish member for a municipal council post. Candidates do not need to have an Islamist background to be a part of Ennahda; it is the only party with a Jewish minister in cabinet.
You faced initial skepticism after your election for being a woman in a historically male office. Has that skepticism changed, and has it affected your goal of promoting women’s freedom and empowerment?
We heard many voices wonder, “How can a woman be at Ezzitouna Mosque on Laylat al-Qadr and the Prophet’s birthday?” But I was at the Ezzitouna Mosque on Laylat al-Qadr prior to my inauguration, I was there to meet the president, and I was there on the Prophet’s birthday after my swearing-in ceremony. For there is no legislation or law that prevents a woman from being the head of a municipality, organization, nonprofit, ministry, or any other possible position in Tunisia. Regardless of the higher rates of education in Tunis and regardless of the freedoms enjoyed by Tunisian women, we still heard criticism against having a woman be mayor. What was disappointing was that this criticism was not from religious parties but rather by progressive individuals who preach gender equality. This criticism can be seen as a form of political contention, or perhaps temporary psychological backlash after the election, but women have not only proved themselves today, they have been proving themselves throughout the years. We have many female role models in Tunisia’s history to follow. A number of feminist organizations pursued women’s rights and equality during the dictatorship. It is a long struggle that persists today because it is not easy to change mindsets. Today, by law the state needs to ensure local gender parity by having women head half of all candidate lists for parties with multiple electoral lists. As Tunisia has 350 municipalities, there should be 350 women among the mayors and vice mayors. Today, we have 20 women as mayors and two as vice mayors because of the law—showing that the law is imperative but there must also be a mindset change for a better future for the country.
In terms of empowering women, we have fifteen committees in the Tunis municipal council; eleven are headed by women. Perhaps having a female mayor has become a form of motivation for many women in Tunis. Overall, there is pride and joy among Tunis residents, who hope that the municipality will finally change under my leadership. I am very happy when I see outpouring of support from allies around the world—including delegations from Russia and Germany and my own recent visit to the U.S. Congress. I cannot name every country but I am grateful to all. We must be successful in our duty to prove that women are capable of leading.
This interview was translated from Arabic and edited for style. Intissar Fakir conducted the interview, which Anmar Jerjees transcribed and translated.
See also Souad Abderrahim’s discussion with Carnegie fellow Sarah Yerkes here.