Crisis of Governance: Local Edition

In many ways, democratic Tunisia remains just as centralized as it was before the revolution. And that’s a big problem for the mayor of Kasserine.

Tunisians gather outside the governorate's offices during protests after the death of an unemployed man in the central city of Kasserine on January 20, 2016. 
Tunisian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of job-seeking demonstrators in the impoverished town of Kasserine, in a second day of protests. The demonstrators had gathered outside the governorate's offices demanding a solution to the region's dire unemployment before heading towards the town centre, as small groups set up roadblocks with burning tyres. / AFP / MOHAMED KHALIL        (Photo credit should read MOHAMED KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images)
Tunisians gather outside the governorate's offices during protests after the death of an unemployed man in the central city of Kasserine on January 20, 2016. Tunisian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of job-seeking demonstrators in the impoverished town of Kasserine, in a second day of protests. The demonstrators had gathered outside the governorate's offices demanding a solution to the region's dire unemployment before heading towards the town centre, as small groups set up roadblocks with burning tyres. / AFP / MOHAMED KHALIL (Photo credit should read MOHAMED KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images)


Ridha Abbassi, the mayor of the Tunisian city of Kasserine, presides over a roomy office amply endowed with comfortable leather chairs. An intricate map of the city adorns one wall. Light streams in through a large window that takes up most of another one.

The view through that window offers a vivid reminder of the limits of the mayor’s power. Sitting in the dusty square in front of the mayor’s building is an armored vehicle — a precaution against the unrest that periodically seizes his community. “How can anyone work with a tank outside their office?” he asks me.

Kasserine, a city of 109,000 people located in Tunisia’s ruggedly mountainous west, has long maintained a reputation as one of the most volatile places in the country. During the uprising against then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, many of the city’s residents took to the streets in protest. At least 22 people from Kasserine and its surrounding province were shot dead (and another 600 wounded) by security forces, more than anywhere else in the country.

Earlier this year, in January 2016, another round of unrest broke out. The trouble started almost the same way it had in 2011. Five years earlier it was Mohamed Bouazizi, a young, unlicensed street grocer in the poor interior town of Sidi Bouzid, who set himself on fire in a fatal protest against harassment by local officials. This year it was Ridha Yahyahoui, a young unemployed man in Kasserine, who climbed an electricity pole and electrocuted himself while protesting his own lack of economic opportunity. Both men’s stories resonated with large segments of the population — especially the many young people who feel that they’ve been let down, ignored, or silenced by their government.

Mass protests spread quickly across the country in the aftermath of both deaths. But the course of events in 2016 differed from the one five years prior in important ways. The police didn’t open fire on the protesters with live ammunition, the president didn’t flee, and after some weeks of curfew the unrest died down. Even so, however, the renewed turmoil has vividly demonstrated that, well into the sixth year of Tunisia’s revolution, a vast gap remains between government and citizens. And nowhere is that relationship more strained than in Kasserine.

On the surface of things, Mayor Abbassi represents the new face of Tunisian democracy. A teacher by profession, he discovered a new vocation as an activist during the revolution, and ended up creating his own civic organization devoted to local development. Now 50 years old (young for Tunisia’s political class), he’s trim and brimming with energy, a visible departure from the bland bureaucrats of the old regime. Map of central Tunisia

Crucially, however, he did not come to his position through election. After the revolution, when protesters ran local officials of the old regime out of town, a power vacuum ensued. The Interior Ministry, which still nominally controls all local government, came up with an interim fix: a special committee representing various local interests — activists, doctors, the unemployed. The committee picked one of their number, the teacher Abbassi, as vice mayor. He served in that capacity for four years until the mayor resigned; Abbassi was then picked to replace him.

Since 2011, Tunisians have lived through three national elections, voting for lawmakers, presidents, and prime ministers. But it turns out that it’s easier to replace the top level of politicians, and to design and implant a constitution, than it is to remake an entire national administration from top to bottom. For all their experience of elections, Tunisia’s citizens have yet to vote for the leaders of their local communities.

Pre-revolutionary Tunisia was rigidly centralized, concentrating virtually all power in the national capital. The central government appointed all regional and municipal officials: They were little more than placeholders. They had minimal control over their own finances, and depended on the national government to allocate funds to them whenever it saw fit to do so.

That hasn’t really changed — and Tunisia’s democracy won’t really be complete until it is. The 2014 constitution explicitly stipulates the devolution of power to provincial and local governments, but actually putting those reforms into place has proven a challenge. Planned elections of local leaders have been repeatedly postponed; there is currently no scheduled election date.

In most consolidated democracies, the elected mayor of a provincial capital would be able to tap into a local budget to address the community’s problems — and could be held accountable for his or her spending by the population, most likely through an elected city council.

Not so in Kasserine. “We’re a poor municipality that lives on aid,” says Abbassi, who can only really increase his budget, he notes, by attracting money from international development institutions and nongovernmental organizations. “Citizens don’t pay [taxes]. The citizens that talk about corruption and ‘my money’ — well, it’s not their money.” The city gets most of its budget from the Interior Ministry in Tunis, and financing is hardly generous. While income tax payments are automatically deducted from the pay of public employees in Tunisia, tax avoidance is rampant among the rest of the population — especially since around half of the economy, according to estimates, operates in the unofficial sector.

Yet that doesn’t prevent people from expecting officials to solve their problems — and the problems of Kasserine are daunting in the extreme. As the capital of the least developed of Tunisia’s 24 provinces, Kasserine attracts desperate citizens from nearby villages and towns looking for jobs or government support. But apart from low-level commerce and the odd jobs that come with being near a major smuggling border (Algeria is about an hour’s drive west), the city’s only industry is a paper factory dating back to the 1960s.

A report published by online journalists after the unrest earlier this year highlighted some shocking statistics. Life expectancy in the province is only 70, a full seven years less than in Tunis. Unemployment is 26.2 percent, almost 9 percent higher than the national average. The infant mortality rate is 23.6 percent, nearly 6 percent greater than the national rate. The local paper factory churns out mercury and chlorine byproducts that are polluting land and water resources, contributing to widespread health issues like cancer and neurological diseases.

“Young people here in Kasserine led the revolution to change the situation socio-economically, says activist Wajdi Khadraoui. “Now, years later, we’re in the same situation: A young man has died. Why? Poverty, marginalization, government corruption.” I met Khadraoui in front of the governor’s office in February, where hundreds of youthful protestors continued to camp out for several months following the January unrest. A handful of them even sewed their mouths shut with string or needles to dramatize the hunger strike they were carrying out.

Khadraoui and his fellow protesters want the government to solve the problem by giving out public jobs to all applicants with university degrees. The old regime used to hand out state jobs as a way of tamping down public dissatisfaction, and their post-revolutionary successors have continued the practice (if not expanding it). This has predictably resulted in bloated public-sector employment rolls and painfully inefficient public services. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that one rarely encounters Tunisians who expect their jobs to come from the private sector.

Yet the protesters continue to press their demands, even as Abbassi insists that he has limited capacity to take the action that they want. The resulting expectations gap is deeply corrosive. A World Bank study on local government in Tunisia published last year cited a “significant disconnect” between citizens and local governments — something that clearly remains true in Kasserine today. The report notes that the long legacy of centralization “disempowered local governments, and left regions outside the centers of political and economic power with poorer services and fewer opportunities.”

That’s a politer way of expressing the sentiments one hears among many Kasserine residents. “Fuck the municipality and fuck Ridha Abbassi,” says Walid Khadraoui (no relation to the aforementioned protest spokesman). He’s standing in the doorway of an old garage that he’s managed to convert into a cultural center for local young people, one of only two in the entire city. Used by dance groups, musicians, and theater companies, it’s one of the few places where young people in the city feel free to hang out, express themselves, and dream of a brighter future.

As twilight falls around the garage, Khadraoui looks out as half a dozen poor neighborhood children play in the sand and litter under a feeble streetlight. “Why leave this area yellow?” he asks. “At least plant some trees. There are no green spaces.” But when he went to ask the mayor’s office for help to turn the spot into a public park, he was told by that he’d have to pay rent of $500 per month. He claims that he was also rebuffed when he attempted to fix up one of Kasserine’s two cinemas, both defunct for over a decade. (Mayor Abbassi says that the local government signed a contract on the project, but claims that Khadraoui failed to pay the agreed rent.)

Amid the many competing accounts of blame and responsibility for the situation in Kasserine, one thing stands out: The current administration is doing little to advance the city’s development — and officials and citizens have entirely divergent ideas of the reasons for it.

Critics of the mayor fault him, accusing his administration of inaction, hostility, and corruption. The mayor insists that he’s at the mercy of the financial and political constraints placed upon him by the current system, and — despite proclaiming an open-door policy for anyone who wishes to consult his office — sometimes lashes out at his opponents in paranoid-sounding rants reminiscent of the old regime. (“Terrorists have tried to prolong the state of unrest in the region,” he told me darkly at one point, referring to a murky, low-level insurgency that began in the area in 2013. A local activist named Lawahedh Samali offered a tart response: “There is no terrorism in Kasserine. The terrorism is marginalization and poverty.”)

Tunisian democracy will truly take root only if it can find a way to close this gap in communities around the country. That reformers are pushing ahead with their efforts to establish a truly responsive and accountable system of local government is encouraging. But if Kasserine is any indication, the next major stage in that process — the elections scheduled for next spring — can’t come soon enough.

Photo credit: MOHAMED KHALIL/AFP/Getty Images

Read more from Tunisia: In Sun and Shadow:
Tunisia’s Glorious Confusion:The dawn of democracy is something to root for — but the forces that have pulled the other Arab Spring countries back into upheaval still threaten to undo its progress.
A Verdict on Change: This ambitious young judge wants to change Tunisia’s justice system. But he still has to type out his own verdicts.
The Storyteller: Shukrii Mabkhout is not just a novelist — he’s the biographer of modern Tunisia.
Missing the Old Days: Tunisia is a democracy. Here’s a man who still mourns for the old regime.
El Khadra Still Can’t Breathe: This devastated community has been calling for help for years. Even in the new Tunisia, no one’s listening.
Not Arab, and Proud of It: Tunisia’s long-suppressed Amazigh minority is finding its voice for the first time in years.
The Tourism Crash: Terrorist attacks have left the sector reeling — but its problems actually go much deeper..
Tunisia’s Dying Jazz: New freedoms have brought art and religion into conflict, threatening to crush a tradition trapped in the middle.
Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
Terms of Abuse: On paper, Tunisia’s revolution has boosted legal protections for women. Yet the reality is starkly different.
Five Years of the New Tunisia: From revolution to disillusionment and back again: Milestones on Tunisia’s rocky path to democracy.
The Mainstreaming of Tunisia’s Islamists: The Ennahda Party’s latest moves put its political astuteness on show once again.
Tunisia’s War on Islam: Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?

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