October 10th, 2018 Three Election Campaigns and a Tunisian Woman
I am an entrepreneur; entrepreneurship is gender blind and it is a simple formula; you just work as hard as you can, sacrifice all you can, and after a lot of time you get lucky, and if you can persist people, money and time pressure, you could even become your own ‘wasta’. In politics, the formula is gender sensitive. Luck and ‘wasta’ have nothing to do with achievements or hard work… at least in this part of the world!
In 2003, my father called me to let me know that I have been added to the electoral list that was running for the town of Beni-Khalled’s city council. Back in pre-revolution Tunisia, you risk your family’s life if you reject, and it mattered to no one whether you actually want to be on the list or not! In fact, I felt insulted for not being consulted and for getting the information through my father. It was ridiculous to run for something I knew nothing about. I had no competitor. I was listed with people I had never met. But I always wanted to change the world, and maybe that was the opportunity I had to invest in.
After the ‘surprising’ triumph of our electoral list, I was so motivated to serve the city of my ancestors; but after a few meetings, I realised that I fell into a trap. It was the 30% women rule and youth inclusion blah blah that got me the seat in my town’s council. In fact, I kind of felt expired once elections were over. Most of my initiatives received a tap on the back and a smile, and some were gently rejected. I realised soon enough that I will not be able to change the world with a tap on the back, and decided not to attend meetings anymore, and that was the end of part I.
In Jan 2011, Tunisia was in the middle of a revolution, the people overthrew the one-party, one-president, one-family ruling system to give power to the people. It was scary and exciting to witness so much hope and worry of the unknown democratic system. A whole nation was walking into the unknown, and everyone wanted to fight for the Tunisia of his/her dreams. I had a good job in the UAE at the time and I watched most of the revolution over Facebook. The restoration work of Dar Ben Gacem was going on and I was sending my monthly savings to make sure the works do not stop. This was my (very personal) way of making the revolution a success.
We lived through so much uncertainty; after overthrowing the president. People asked for the government to be overthrown, then the constitution to be re-written. There was a period with almost no security system… I couldn’t follow most of the time and I had to rely on the explosion of freedom of expression on social media, to try and understand; but public opinion was so diverse, and all I could do was remain positive and hopeful for a better, stronger and less corrupt Tunisia!
In the summer of 2011, I travelled to Tunisia for my summer holidays from the UAE; even I could see that it was a different country. The most visible difference was the number of women with hijab and bearded men, both treated as a crime before the revolution. On the one hand, I was so excited to see that Tunisians could then live the life they chose in their country. On the other, I couldn’t stop smiling at young ladies in hijab or men in beards, which probably made me look ridiculous. Somehow, I started to feel that maybe I was smiling a bit too much… are we going from a one-party rule to another… did we put our country into so much risk to go back where we were!!
The first ever real democratic elections were planned for Oct 2011, and now I have decided to run for a seat at the Constitutional Council… not because I wanted a seat, but because I wanted to defend diversity, and make my tiny mini bit in ensuring that we are a nation worthy of a democratic process. It was a very tough decision which required what might have been unreasonable financial and career sacrifices. But Power to the People must be a success, and I was on my way to change the world… I should not forget that!
So, I went shopping for the political party that would best represent the Tunisia of my dreams, and I found that there was a good number of friends in Afek Tounes: a political party that had just started, with little ideology, members-lead and road-maps for how to fix every government sector… I liked this, so that was my party!
I requested a leave of absence for a month from my job and sacrificed it to my first real election campaigning. One month of nonstop field work. I was head of the Afek Tounes list for the region of Nabeul 2. On the one hand, being part of a political party gives much positive energy! It meant to belong to a group of people from all over the country, holding a common Tunisian dream, sharing know-how and passion for hard-work to build a common future. On the other hand, personal ambitions varied: Some party members had sacrificed more than others, and some wanted top party seats or build a political carrier in various ways.
The field campaigning, listening and talking to people, driving through villages that were inexistent on the map was something that made the financial and career sacrifice totally worth it. Some villages, I was told, should not be included in my campaign because they ‘have no electoral mass’ (!). I could not resist going and making friends there. In fact, it was in those same villages that I realized the fragility of the new democratic system, the real causes of the revolution and how disconnected from reality the government and politicians were.
The number of votes was not enough to get me a seat in the Constitutional Council. However, considering the circumstances and challenges, my results were not bad. The experience left me more puzzled than assured of Tunisia’s future, though. Campaigning in 2011 was an intense human experience, it left my shoulders heavy with so many stories of struggling families in the remote corners of the country which do not represent an ‘electoral mass’. I am the one giving myself a tap on the back for the idea of ‘changing the world’ now!
I left the 2011 experience haunted with one big question: How can a democracy succeed without development? Does a farmer, who makes his daughter leave school to earn ten dinars a day so as to support the family, care about the new constitution? Do male villagers who spend their morning sharing a cup of coffee at their village’s only café, care which party gets a majority? How could an efficient democracy rely on a little Facebook outspoken minority influencing decisions that affect everyone… And this was the confusing end of part II.
In 2017, I was the farthest possible away from any political party, making tiny mini achievements in civil society engagement, surrounded with a network of positive youth fighting for their dreams. I felt civil society was my place. There was so much to do! I was called by a few parties to run for the upcoming municipal elections, and kept on rejecting offers.
In 2018, a group of hard-working young people in my home town of Beni-Khalled, decided to run for seats in the city council, because they realized that the only way to change their reality and improve conditions in our hometown is by conquering the municipality! One of them called me and asked to join as head of the list. At first, the invitation felt awkward: It was coming from young people who were relatively well off and not the type that would worry about what happens in the municipal elections! Maybe that was the opportunity to change the world!
So, this time, no political party, nobody tells me where the electoral mass is; it is just me and a beautiful positive motivated team, who want to change the world as much as I do! I have no idea how we managed to make a list of 27 people with all the paper work in less than 2 months, and enter the race. We called ourselves ‘Ghodwa Khir’ (Tomorrow is Better). Whenever we meet, we know that tomorrow is better because we will make it better together! We developed a city strategy, published two journals, planned four trainings and an entire election campaign with absolutely no political structure supporting us.
The campaign was full of handshakes, smiles, positive energy and weekly gatherings drafting tomorrow’s modern, connected, open Beni-khalled. It was also a big lesson in benchmarking: us, hardworking dreamers, and other competing lists on the ground. The campaigning techniques were so different, sometimes it was incomprehensible how a small city could have so much diversity. We felt confident, we thought our election campaign was the most honest. We believed that our team had all that was needed for a better tomorrow.
On election day, members of our list were inseparable, physically, digitally and mentally! As if we were worried the results would separate us. We were so hopeful to win a great many seats. We were also worried: If we don’t get enough seats, how are we going to make the city of our dreams come true? Results came out, we got 3 seats out of 24 in the city council. It was puzzling for all of us. Why didn’t people trust our ‘better-tomorrow’ vision? Didn’t they think we could do it? With 3 seats out of 24, we will not be able to change the world at the speed of our hopes, and a better tomorrow seemed further than we hoped.
Now that we have those three seats, we needed to negotiate with the other elected members of the council of who would be the council president, or mayor. Despite campaigning three times in my life, I have discovered that I have always been with the nicest people. The ‘Who Becomes Mayor Negotiations’ made me realize how people become politicians! Hello reality, hello politics, hello trading votes.
I am an engineer, I have worked in 4 countries, started 3 companies, worked on a diverse range of social issues, I got to a stage of my life, where I felt uncomfortable writing everything I did in my CV. And now, I am told I cannot be mayor because I am a woman. Why is being a woman a handicap? Because I cannot sit in cafes, I should not be speaking to a drunken man, in case he enters the municipality? And just because it is not a place for women… I herewith apologies to all gender activists; all my life I thought that this was not a cause to act for! With 3 seats I was not so motivated to run for mayor, but with the support of people who had so much trust in me, and because I got to know other candidates better, I decided to run for it…. I did not get enough votes, but I am glad I tried.
This is not end of part III, but the start of more sacrifices and more hard work to move a little step forward. The modest experience that I share here proved to me that populism kills development and egoistic leaders kill democracy. Villagers appreciate populism and admire inflated egos. Much work still needs to be done --against the tide-- for some development that will allow the villager to keep his daughter at school. I might not live long enough to see the world change, but if only one villager’s daughter stays at school, appreciates the value of some rural investment, and grows up to fight for a stronger democracy and votes for a female mayor or becomes one; it is all worth it!