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The man changing local government in Tunisia

After the Tunisian revolution of 2011, Essid Mohamed Taher noticed the two biggest issues facing young people in Tunisia were unemployment and violent extremism.

Hoping to inspire young people in Tunisia to become politically active, he founded the ‘Youth Leaders Association of Monastir’ with his friends in 2012.

In a one-on-one interview with The Point Magazine, Taher tells us what it’s like encouraging a young generation to believe once again in a political process that has left many young Tunisians disappointed and disenfranchised.

Tell me about the ‘Youth Leader’s Association of Monastir’ and its aim?

Youth Leaders Association of Monastir is an organisation that was founded in 2012 one year after the revolution in Tunisia. We were a group of friends who wanted to make a change so we decided to create this organisation. We started with small activities but now we developed and started working on bigger projects with different partners across the country and internationally.

How are you encouraging young people in Tunisia to be active in the political process? What is your approach?

Our association’s goal is to spread awareness and positive thinking among young people through a variety of developing programs as well as entertaining activities. Focusing on young capacities is meant to establish a network of young leaders who will mentor and guide the society to face the socio-economic challenges such as unemployment and poverty.

Our aim is to become the most active association in developing young leaders capable of making a positive impact on society. We are encouraging young people in Tunisia to be active in the political process through different approaches: Firstly, by building capacity and by giving them the tools that will provide self confidence to engage politically. Secondly, we bring young people closer to local authorities in order to break the stereotypes that they have towards each other in an attempt to promote community engagement. There is an assumption amongst individuals in the younger generation that only older people can do politics and this is simply not true. The political process is for all people to participate in. Finally, we are encouraging young people to participate in political process by defending a law which guarantees good representatives of youth in the local election. Many young people want a voice that echoes their concerns and support polices they agree with so we’ve been lobbying to include young people in local government.

Do you encourage political participation beyond just voting in elections? If so, how do you achieve that?

Yes of course we encourage them to vote, but we don’t do it in a forceful or confronting way.  We encourage them by motivating them to participate in civic society and explaining the benefits of political participation. We also encourage this idea of changing young people’s position from a receiver to an actor, in other words, encourage them not be passive if they want to make a difference and bring about change. 

"Extremist groups are brilliant at creating this illusion of belonging and a ‘brotherhood’ which appeals to many young people because it fills that void they feel. "

– Essid Mohamed Taher

What kinds of issues are young people in Tunisia interested in and how can Tunisian leaders focus on these issues?

There are so many issues in Tunisia and problems that have to be solved but in terms of issues impacting youth, it is unemployment and extremism. As a solution for unemployment, many organisations are trying to encourage youth to create their own projects by giving offering training and by funding some brilliant ideas to enable capacity building and to make them feel in charge of their future by creating their own opportunities.

In terms of a solution for extremism, everyone is trying to fight it in the best possible way. There needs to be a multifaceted approach as the issue itself has different layers.  People get exposed to different ideas and it challenges their close-mindedness. Force and terror are not a solution. There were people who came to work with us and with whom we really noticed a difference in their behaviour. They changed their way of communication and started to accept new perspectives.

In your work you’ve focused on violent extremism and prevention. How does countering violent extremism relate to your work?

To answer this question we have to return to some of the reasons of extremism because from our point of view we think that one of the main reasons for youth extremism is neglecting them and not giving some young people a sense of importance. Youth want to feel appreciated, they want to find purpose, a reason for their life. If they don’t find it in their society and if they are always misunderstood they will search for these things that will make them feel like they belong. Extremist groups are brilliant at creating this illusion of belonging and a ‘brotherhood’ which appeals to many young people because it fills that void they feel. 

So just by inserting them in civic work and giving them the opportunity to participate in different projects and find their purpose, we find we are actually countering violent extremism by offering them alternatives and it works.   

What are some of the challenges in your line of work?

There are three key challenges when working with young people in Tunisia by encouraging political participation. Firstly, the financial issue. There are a lot of brilliant ideas and projects that will never be done because there are no funds for them. In fact to get grants from fund providers you would need to be a well established, older organization. However, in Tunisia most of the youth organisations that employ youth as volunteers or focus on youth work are young and don’t have that privilege of being established.

Secondly, cooperating with local authority is not that simple and not that easy in Tunisia, especially when you are young, they don't give us importance and they underestimate us but as you know hard work can create miracles because nowadays we are collaborating with local authority in different projects and levels. But when we started it was difficult because young people see authorities as the problem and authorities see young people as the problem, so this was difficult to overcome initially.

Finally, youth engagement is in itself a challenge.  In Tunisia we have many young people with a lot capacity, but they are not active and give nothing back to society because they don’t have the resources to contribute. They are not informed about what they can do and how they can get involved because after the revolution the level of expectation was so high. Everyone assumed that because we had gone through this revolution that everything would get better on its own and that wasn’t the case.  Young people were left extremely disappointed with the lack of outcomes post revolution.

Is there a generational difference in how older people are politically active compared to young people?

Yes, youth in general don't enter politics. Unfortunately, those who are doing politics in Tunisia are those who were doing it before the revolution either those of the old regime or those opposed to the old regime. They are trying to integrate young people but they are not doing well because we don't think like them; we are different, we have different world views with fresh ideas and they don’t get that. However, youth politicians are trying to find their way to position themselves as representative of young people and although there has been some progress to have appropriate representation for young people at a local government level, we are not there yet. 

The Point

After the Tunisian revolution of 2011, Essid Mohamed Taher noticed the two biggest issues facing young people in Tunisia were unemployment and violent extremism so he did something about it.

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