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Painting the town: How Kais Saied inspires change on Tunisian streets

A wave of citizen-led civic campaigns is transforming the Tunisian landscape as youths inspired by the recent election of Kais Saied to be president take on some of the country’s urban woes.

In the Hafsia neighborhood in the Medina quarter of Tunis, rubbish piles up and spreads in front of the blue door of a crumbling building, the result of a lack of trash bins and timely garbage collection. Instead of continuing to contribute to the growth of the makeshift dump, residents took matters into their own hands on Oct. 20. Rahma Ameri, a graphic designer wearing disposable gloves donated by a local hairdresser, led a group of volunteer litter-pickers and street-sweepers to clear away the heap.

“It is up to us,” Ameri told Al-Monitor. “The municipality takes care to clean up the tourist areas, but we don't have historic places here. It’s just a working-class neighborhood, so we don’t get the same attention.” 

Since the run-off presidential election held Oct. 13 elevated the outsider Kais Saied to Tunisia's presidency, cleaning campaigns and painting initiatives have been popping up around the country, organized via Facebook. A national call to action took place on Oct. 20. Photos of the results of the various campaigns showcase spick-and-span streets, painted pavement and new murals and fill Tunisian news feeds with a myriad of hashtags, among them “we want to clean our country,” “the people want clean roads,” “a state of consciousness” and simply “tun.”

The movement has left some bystanders baffled. “What is going on?” asked Mander Dimassi, a Hafsia resident and musician. “It’s been dirty for years! This isn’t normal.”

For many of the young people who have joined in to scrub the streets, the country's newly elected president has served as the catalyst for action. Saied won 73% of the overall vote, which included 90% of the youth vote, according to the Sigma Institute. His surprising rise in popularity among the young signaled their discontent with the corruption and lack of economic advancement under the coalitions that have governed Tunisia since the 2011 revolution that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who held office for more than two decades. 

Hend Ben Othman, a Tunisian urban sociologist, believes the election of Saied has liberated a potential that until now had been hidden, in particular among young people who have been seeking ways to emigrate in search of opportunities.

“[Young people] didn’t appropriate their [own] space, [so] they looked to leave it,” she told Al-Monitor. “[But now], they have brought in someone who is unknown and who addresses [them]. Kais Saied talks about local power and the will of the people, the idea that we can change things by changing local conditions.” 

The recent spontaneous organizing recalls the neighborhood protection committees that formed in response to the security vacuum after the 2011 revolution. At that time, there was also an effort to reappropriate public space through street art, Ben Othman said, but not on the current scale. 

During the election campaign, Saied would assert that he didn't have a program full of promises that he wouldn’t keep and that it was up to young people to put forward ideas for changing where they live. A group of students cleaning a square in Hafsia said that that is what inspired them to take part.

“It is to start Tunisia in a good new direction,” said Mohamed Aziz Turki, a student and administrator for one of the Facebook cleaning campaign groups in Hafsia. “[Saied] said that he has no program, so we are creating the program. Most people here are proud of our new president, and so we want to support him.” 

Ines Ben Rahouma, who lives in the suburb of Carthage, came to help her friends in Hafsia although she did not vote for the president. “He inspired this action, and I thought why not, but I’m not doing this for Kais,” said the student, who cast a blank ballot in the election. 

“[Young people] are expressing their citizenship directly, outside the system that manages our urban spaces,” said Mounir Hassane, director of the Monastir branch of the Tunisian Forum of Social and Economic Rights, noting the relationship to the election result. “This is an act of protest against the bad system and an act in support of the president. We’ll wait to see if this change continues or not.” 

Some initiatives, while well meaning, have caused friction and indignation. When a group painted some black stones in Medina's cobbled streets with glossy rainbow colors, it provoked the ire of heritage protection activists. The National Heritage Institute intervened to scrape the paint off. Others have complained about the garish color choices, sloppy technique of some of the self-appointed urban decorators or about a lack of respect for regional traditions and differences.

“It is fear that the power returns to the people,” said Ben Othman. “It is the middle and upper classes that are scared of chaos. This was the debate between Karoui and Saied. Many of those who voted Karoui are not for corruption. They just had a fear of the unknown.”

Tunisians are not just initiating cleaning and painting campaigns. The residents of one village have decided that they want to change the location of the local market, and another locality is crowdfunding money to build a hospital. The wide-ranging flurry of citizen-initiated activity highlights the past failures of the state, but also works to get around them.

“These actions are broadly positive and inspiring, and most of the individuals have community in mind, but the impact is a very individualistic one in which the state is absent,” Gordon Douglas, an American urbanist and author of “The Help Yourself City,” told Al-Monitor. “It is letting the state off the hook.” That said, this sort of informal activity can directly influence the governing system and its decision-makers.

As examples in the US context, Douglas found that in one instance DIY bike lanes prompted authorities to install official paths. A concept called “parklets” was born out car spaces being rented out for pop-up shops. Los Angeles legalized sidewalk vendors, and painting projects were formalized or become eligible for public support. Already in Tunisia, various municipalities have begun to support groups that are cleaning up and painting by providing them with materials. 

Ahmed Sellami, an engineer who started the hospital crowdfunding effort, doesn’t see any other choice for now. “It is the state[’s job], but we have a lot of problems, and the parliament can’t resolve these problems, so we have to,” he told Al-Monitor. “There is a Tunisian saying [to indicate that a hard task can become easier if many people chip in]: The load [carried by] many people turns into a feather.”