Clean streets, functional transportation, a football field… young Tunisians aren’t asking for the moon from their soon-to-be elected officials, but many are sceptical about whether they will bring real change.
In this Sunday’s municipal elections, the first in Tunisia since 2011 revolution, a third of voters and a majority of the candidates will be under the age of 36. But if they were the primary driver of mass protests that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, which gave birth to the only democracy of the Arab Spring, many youths are now pessimistic.
With tailored tweed trousers and slicked-back hair, 22-year-old Yosri Aloulou steps over rubbish and dirty water in the Old City of Tunis as he heads home to his family’s apartment after finishing work at a hip cafe in the capital.
“You see, over there is Rue de Riche (Street of the Rich), but here it’s the street of the poor,” he said, chuckling with his friends.
They are frustrated by the stark contrast between the carefully renovated touristic medina next door and their neighbourhood of Bab Jdid, where dilapidated houses are collapsing.
“I would like the road to be repaved and the rubbish bins collected, and that water didn’t come up to your knees every time it rains for half an hour,” said the young man, who finished high school last summer and is now working to save money to pay for film studies. “Here, there’s not even a youth centre or a football field,” he said.
When young people from the neighbourhood presented a list of ideas to local authorities, Aloulou said, they were told to vote and take the issues up with their newly elected representatives.
“The civil society organisations are acting. They are just blah blah,” he said, pointing to a group of campaigning political activists who passed by Bab Jdid’s entrance without stopping.
Disenchanted with what they view as a lack of improvement since the revolution, and a distrust of a political class full of “old elephants,” many Tunisian youths say they aren’t planning to vote in the May 6 elections that many hope will help anchor democratic change at a local level.
But in the west of the capital, Wasila Najar, a medical intern at the Manouba Hospital, wants to “keep hope that change is possible.”
“In my district, there is a surgeon and other people I know who are stepping forward with real proposals,” said the 29-year-old student, citing pollution, rubbish collection and transportation issues.
Municipal leaders elected on Sunday will have more autonomy than those in office under Ben Ali, and more prerogatives than the special delegations tasked with the day-to-day management of cities since the revolution.
“For me, it’s the independent lists that can improve the situation, with local officials who know our problems and have ideas on how to solve them,” said Najar.
Only the Islamists of the Ennahda party and the liberals of Nidaa Tounes have managed to secure lists in all 350 municipalities, and many observers expect them to capture a good part of the cities.
But Wasila says she still plans to vote on Sunday to avoid leaving “the country to those who have lied and disappointed us” in recent years.
After parliamentary elections in 2014, Nidaa Tounes, elected on an anti-Islamist ticket, quickly made an alliance with Ennahda, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many Tunisian voters.
This is precisely why Ghazoua Maaouia, a gym teacher who voted in 2014, will not vote this time around. “This campaign is pure comedy,” she said.
Candidates clash on TV, she said, but the real deals are made “in backstage arrangements between the big parties that share the cake”.
Maaouia, who teaches at a public school downtown while completing her doctorate, believes young candidates will never have a true seat at the table.
For her, the young political hopefuls are only “symbolic.” “Young people have ideas, they do a lot of things in the field, but they have no political power to get things done.”