Since the Jasmine revolution of January 14, 2011 that sparked the Arab Spring, Tunisian social and political life has changed considerably. After 23 years of the brutal and corrupt regime of General Ben Ali, the people of Tunisia started to experience the basic preconditions of a democratic state for the first time. Among them are freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and political pluralism, including competitive elections. The intense fear that characterized the 1987-2011 period was suddenly replaced by a general enthusiasm to rebuild government at the state and local level and to promote democratic institutions and practices. Some of this enthusiasm was translated into action with the election of parliament and a head of state, the peaceful transition of power and the promulgation of a new constitution that devotes several articles to decentralization and participatory democracy. Decentralization is an important issue in Tunisia. As Bedis Bouziri points out in our conversation, municipalities have so little autonomy that they cannot even make decisions about sewage or speed bumps.
Things are slowly starting to change, one step at a time. In 2014, Tunisia implemented participatory budgeting projects in four municipalities: La Marsa, Menzel Bourguiba, Tozeur and Gabès. The residents of these four municipalities proposed 63 projects, and after a process of deliberation 29 of them were voted for implementation. To the best of our knowledge, with these four projects Tunisia has become the first North African country to undertake participatory budgeting. On the evening of Sunday, May 17, after the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, Decentralization and Participation celebrated at Carthage University, I had the opportunity to talk with Bedis Bouziri, who volunteered as facilitators of the participatory budgeting of La Marsa in its first cycle in 2014 and again in the second cycle that is taking place in 2015. La Marsa is a coastal municipality of 110,000 people located near the capital city of Tunis. Like most Tunisians, Bedis is fluently bilingual in Arabic and French, but he also speaks Spanish and English. Our conversation flowed from English to Spanish to French, but the final transcript of the text is entirely in English.
Bedis, how did you become involved with the participatory budget of La Marsa?
I have been actively involved in local civil society since the beginning of the 2011 revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Ben Ali. I am a member of a local association that is devoted to improving the quality of life in our neighborhood. This association is called Action Citoyenne Marsa-Corniche (ACMC), because Marsa-Corniche is the name of our neighborhood. Our association was selected and then invited, along with other associations of other districts, to be part of the first four Participatory Budgeting processes in Tunisia.
Who invited your neighborhood association?
It was a local NGO [non-governmental organization) called Action Associative. This NGO is new. It started in 2012, after the revolution. Its main mission is to promote local development, increase capacity building efforts, and contribute to improve the relationships between citizens and the state, all within a general framework of a defense human rights values. This NGO was in charge of introducing the PB process in La Marsa and in three other cities. I was part of the team of facilitators that worked in La Marsa.
How many facilitators worked in La Marsa?
There were seven of us.
Did you and the other PB facilitators receive any training?
Yes, we were trained by Action Associative to be able to accompany the process with the citizens of La Marsa.
How long was this training?
There were three sessions that usually lasted half a day, sometimes the entire day, and then we were put into action, to continue developing our skills in the PB process itself, learning by doing.
What was the training about?
We started with general information about participatory budgeting, starting with historical background: how it was born in Brazil in the late 1980s, how it spread to Latin America, Asia, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. We also watched a video on the PB experience of Cotacachi in Ecuador. This film was very inspiring. It showed common citizens -most of them members of indigenous communities- talking about their experience in the PB process. They explained how they were marginalized in the past and how with PB they felt respected by the municipality and included in the national community. This was very relevant to our situation in Tunisia. Another topic of the training was how to cope with uncivil behavior that could prevent good deliberation, such as people speaking loudly on their phones during the meetings. A related topic was how to deal with conflict situations, tense moments that you could experience when citizens are angry against the municipality.
Were there other elements in your training?
We made several role-playing exercises in which we were put in real situations like we are members of the municipality and then some citizens accuse some of us of having been part of the ancient regime, the old nomenklatura…
Do you mean part of the Ben Ali government?
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