Residents reinvent direct democracy in El Guettar
Paul Kahn / Rafika Bendermel - 03/02/2015
Taking the road that leads from Gafsa to Gabes, we find El Guettar, a town of 18 thousand inhabitants situated at the foot of a mountain range. The city, like all mining centers in the region, has been involved with numerous complaints after the revolution. We meet Imed Touta, an active blogger in the area, who wrote a lot about these events.
Twice, we ask about the police station. Twice, he replies that it was set on fire, that it is out of service. Out of service. And the same goes for many public services in the city. There's no national guard, no police station, there are no offices of Soned (the public enterprise that distributes water). You have to go to Gafsa to have access to administrative services that are lacking here.
Imed takes us to a cafe not far from where we meet his friend Firas, from Union desdiplôméschômeurs (UDC, the union of unemployed graduates). Also is very active in the city, he is fixed in this cafe, where he created a sort of office. The situation is a bit surreal. We recall the events of 2013, the violent demonstrations and clashes with the police.
"There's a police station in Ksar for the inhabitants of El Guettar. Here, it was burned three times after the revolution. When there is an event and things degenerate with the police, they identify us. And when we have to produce the documents at the police station, they arrest us. "
Self-management, or rather enterprising, is like a rule in many cities of the south: in the absence of administrative structures, you try as much as possible to meet the needs of the inhabitants. Some of these places look like a "no man's land", where we can actually ask how do people live their everyday lives.
"They do not want to rebuild the police station. It's like a punishment. "
Imed and Firas tell about one of the last protests that was rather violent. Some residents have targeted the GroupeChimiqueTunisien, one of the biggest public companies of the country, responsible for transforming and washing the phosphate extracted from the mines:
"The GroupeChimiqu uses all the water in the city. This is why we regularly organize protests: sometimes we find ourselves even without water. To react, we interrupt the connection between Gafsa and Gabes: it is our only way to exert pressure. "
Sitting on the terrace of the coffee, four men in their sixties play cards close to us. Listening our conversatio from afar, half in Arabic half in French, one of them approaches us after their game ends. He speaks excellent French. Amar is a retired railwayman. And he remembers the past on the tracks. The line where he worked for years is now out of use. "A hundred people were still working there in the early 2000s. Each had his qualification, they were working in eight-hour shifts."
As with other public services, today you have to go to Gafsa to take a train. "The new Gafsa-Gabes railway line was financed with a loan from the World Bank. The SNCFT (SociétéNationaledesChemins de FersTunisiens, Tunisian National Railway Company) had to repay that money to the state. Four or five years ago it has stopped paying the debt. The World Bank has recommended reducing the workforce. Since 1995, every employee who reached the age of 50 could take early retirement. There were no other assumptions after. The workers have been halved."
The El Guettar station was then closed for lack of manpower and today it is only used to transport phosphate.
And the municipality? Even that is "out of service"?
As we arrive at the scene, we find the work in progress, to enlarge the building. The warm welcome that we find clashes with the sadness of the place. Among the scaffolding and missing furniture, employees are at work. "We must continue to guarantee the public service to the people," says Fathi Hfaied, local journalist and IT technician at the municipality. He explains that their building was burned during the revolution. "We divide the office as we wait for the works to end, hopefully in March 2015".
The social situation is very difficult, you understand quickly that they do what they can to respond to the social emergency. Fathi Hfaied confides that he ended up supporting some associations from his own pocket.
As in many cities, the employees of the municipality were expelled or fled away after the revolution. A new team has taken their place. "The people have elected a new mayor. He is honest and a hard worker. Even if there were new elections, I would like him to stay", he explains.
We go into his office. In private, Mabrouk Amar is also the foreman in GroupeChimiquetunisien. In reality, he is non really the mayor but the chairman of the special delegation in El Guettar from 2011, which could be defined as a kind of political initiative born from the practice of local governance. In fact, in certain areas such as this, the inhabitants have created new methods of local management, a kind of response to the absence of state representation.
"The municipality has a direct relationship with the citizens. There are 160 employees working. Wages account for 300 percent of the budget. Revenues from administrative services paid by the inhabitants allow us to fund a portion of the salaries. With the current budget we can not do much", says Amar Mabrouk.
The municipality is the main place of social life in El Guettar. The associations play an important role. With the smile that lights up his face, the mayor says that he often leaves his office at the disposal of the employees and the citizens so that people can come together to develop their projects. And he shares the office with the head of service.
Sharing and solidarity are the rule: "We work with other delegations in the region to have greater say. The geographical distance from the capital makes it difficult for the cities of the south to be heard."
The mayors of El Ksar, Gafsa and Sned try to support each other. The inhabitants have to go up to Gafsa to pay the bills or to use the postal services. This additional cost creates a burden on their salaries, already very weak.
Curious to understand how a manager of GroupeChimique, "the company which extracts the water of the inhabitants" can also be a respected politician, we touch the thorny issue:
"Three years ago, people had no choice: they elected me because I was the most competent. After that things have changed. They need to elect a new mayor now."
About the tensions between the population and the company he works for, he says: "I am opposed to the idea of blocking the railroad that carries phosphate because you have to respect the law. Otherwise, we will not be credible in our demands. You have to use the existing legal means. For example, organizing meetings to listen to the problems and presenting them to the government. Before the revolution we could not do or say anything. Today, there are means of peaceful and legal expression to make our voices heard. We are learning to establish a dialogue between the government and the citizens. The social climate has changed. There are many transformations in the mentality of Tunisians: a civil consciousness is developing. "
With these wise words, the interview ends.
Paul Kahn / RafikaBendermel
Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar
Article published in
Tunisia Bondy Blog and