Monday, 21 November 2011

Tunisia: Riding the Citizen Bus

September 27.

"In the mornings, Tunisia is full of optimism," Sameh Krichah says to me as the sun rises over Tunisia's coastal mountains. It's a feeling I can certainly relate to as myself and a group of young Tunisian activists travel south to the city of Kariouan on the Bus Citoyen (Citizen Bus).

We arrive in Kariouan before 9AM, our spacious bus, complete with professional logos, pulling up on the side of a dusty road where doors and frames are displayed against the concrete rim of a stormwater channel, and at once the activists are hard at work. They fan out up and down the street and stop passers by – workers, shoppers at the weekly streetside markets, passers by – and start talking about politics. Just a year ago, such a project might have gotten organisers arrested; today, it is just one small part of the growing movement for democracy in Tunis.

According to their Facebook page, Bus Citoyen is a "project of awakening and introduction to citizenship and the functioning of democracy; the 'bus people' travel the country to disseminate educational content and awareness of the need to vote” ahead of the October 23 elections to the Constituent Assembly, which brings together independant activists & those from a variety of non-partisan groups.

After decades of rule by dictatorship, with falsified elections routinely delivering Ben Ali 99% of the vote, the march towards Constituent Assembly elections within a year and the turbulent changes of government in the face of ongoing mass demonstrations and strikes has moved with whirlwind pace.

The activists start by asking people if they know about the elections and understand how to vote; most stop, if only to say yes and read over Bus Citoyen's pamphlet. But everywhere we go, in doorways and by souk stalls, people going about their daily lives are willing to exchange at least a few words. Some men take a leaflet and listen mutely, perhaps only wishing to be noticed by the confident young women from Tunis. But many are willing to give their opinion on the elections, the transition to democracy and the state of the economy. Some walking past seek out the activists to take a leaflet out of their hand (a welcome change from the somewhat more isolated norm in Australia!); at times, impromptu crowds form to hear them speak.

This is the new Tunisia, post-January 14; a people proud and eager to debate their future. Sitting on dirty white and yellow plastic chairs on a dirty tiled pavement scattered with leaves from well-trimmed trees, we speak with a former police officer (pictured, in purple shirt) who was dismissed from his post during the revolution. The next table over, another group of young men, all 18, will all be voting; they can't wait to see change in their country.

But not everyone is so positive about Tunisia's future; in the old city, a storeman tells us that he doesn't think El Sebsi's interim government is going about the transition in the right way – a common concern amongst those we meet with – and that he won't be voting. He is not the only one to tell us this; several men tell us that these elections will be no different to those that happened under Ben Ali.

Sabrine Bel Haj, a student from Carthage and one of the 'bus people', tells me: “In the cities, some people are aware of the issues and some are not. But in the countryside, people ask us, who should I vote for? The internet exists, but when people can't afford running water they can't afford luxuries like computers.”

The government is taking some measures to educate voters on the plethora of parties and independants standing for election in each circonscription; all parties will be given equal space for newspaper and television coverage once the official election campaign begins on October 1, while black stencil squares on buildings and walls in public places mark off areas assigned for each list to put up posters. But for the 25% of the population which is illiterate (relatively low by regional standards) and will be voting based on the recognition of party symbols, face-to-face projects like Bus Citoyen are some of the only sources of non-partisan information.

After a post-lunch nap inside the shady bus, the 'bus people' set up a stall outside the entrance to the Medina, and instantly a crowd forms. A temperamental power outlet is found somewhere, and political videos are played on a laptop, a large speaker drawing attention across the square. Everywhere people talk: strangers join in on conversations with the activists; kids kick half-flat footballs worn to the fabric across the square; vendors and sellers shout straight into the milling crowd; tourists clump together, eyes on each other. The activists keep it up until the sun sets, before heading to the hotel for the night.

Over the next four days, the bus will travel out from Kariouan to neighbouring suburbs and villages; it is just one of several travelling to every corner of Tunisia. But after just one day alongside these passionate young men and women willing to give up their time for the sake of their fellow citizens, it's hard not to feel optimistic for Tunisia's future.

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