- Published on Saturday, 23 June 2012 23:07
- Category: Letters From Tunisia
Political and social differences sparked tension last week in Tunis, resulting in security alerts and a four-day curfew. Among causes for the clash, Islamist protesters objected to a contemporary art exhibit that displayed works that they deemed heretical (see Letters from Tunisia).
These events followed disruptions at a nearby university where students were demanding more accommodations for Islamic practice. In the wake of the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians recognize that conflict and frustration among a diverse range of stakeholders will require effective avenues for expression and mediation. The Maghreb Search for Common Ground (SFCG) is a program aimed at creating opportunities for conflict resolution and mediation. It hopes to model and implement dialogue to reduce discord among the next generation of “new” Tunisians. Recently, I caught up with Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri, the Regional Director of the group. He discussed his his goals in light of a political situation that is still very tense.
Haleh Hatami: What is the goal of the youth program?
Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri: During the revolution last year, Tunisian youth showed their country, and the world, their power to act as a force for change. Now, as Tunisia grapples with unprecedented change and complex challenges during its transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, its youth must find ways to continue to use their talents, energies, and potential influence to positively contribute to the debates and decisions that will shape the future of their country.
Search For Common Ground’s (SFCG) Youth Leadership Development Program, conceived in this post-revolutionary context, helps Tunisian youth play a constructive role in the current democratic transition. We are helping 300 young Tunisian NGO leaders acquire the skills needed to engage in civic life and make positive changes in their communities. In doing so, we’re helping them engage more broadly with other youth groups, decision-makers, journalists and opinion shapers on issues that are important to them, such as school violence, child labor, environmental tourism, NGO roles, youth culture, etc.
HH: What strategies do you employ to achieve your goals?
AFF: We have supported the establishment of 14 “youth councils” comprised of young NGO leaders, aged 18-30, in half of Tunisia’s regions (governorates or wilayat). The “youth councils” provide young NGO representatives, who come from diverse social backgrounds and political ideologies, with a platform for dialogue and cooperative action.
Our role is to provide them with intensive specialized training and coaching to help them plan and implement civic discussions and volunteer projects, advocate policy recommendations on issues of local and national importance, and engage strategically with local and national media to raise public awareness.
HH: What surprises or unexpected challenges or opportunities have you experienced so far?
AFF: We’re struck and impressed by the level of enthusiasm, creativity, engagement with issues, and passion to help shape the future of the country that we’ve encountered with youth with whom we work on a daily basis. Their ambition has no limits. For example, their idea to create a web-radio in Sousse to be the voice of the civil society; or the initiative in Bizerte to organize a two-day tour of the old city to show foreign diplomats and investors the underused potential for tourism of their beloved city.
Like all international NGOs, we’ve had to grapple with the challenges of the current context: political and media sectors seeking to reinvent themselves after decades of repression, a certain level of volatility in current events (such as recent curfews in several cities across the country), and a very polarized political environment. Yet for these youth councils, these also represent opportunities to encourage their fellow Tunisians to approach conflict and challenges in a constructive way, through cooperation and dialogue. It’s both a difficult and a tremendously exciting time for these youth leaders to be engaged in civic life, and it’s a privilege for our team to accompany them in that engagement.
HH: How do you, as an international organization, build trust and manage relationships?
AFF: We work with local partners and networks to ensure that our programs are culturally appropriate and grounded in the needs of the local communities where we work. Apart from myself and our two dedicated American interns, our 14 staff members are Tunisian. All of the ideas for community actions come from youth council members themselves. It’s simple: the youth run their own actions, roundtables, and awareness raising campaigns on the issues they have selected. We provide coaching and training upon request. This is a genuine youth leadership development program!
Building trust and solid relationships is also an ongoing process, one that we engage in every day. Our offices downtown in Tunis include an open-space where youth NGO leaders can hold their meetings. We try to engage with communities and partners on a long-term basis – this is an 18-month youth leadership development program. We know this is the best way to build genuine trust.
Finally - our goal – building a culture of dialogue – tends to resonate strongly with Tunisians, where the majority of the population is unhappy with the current polarization and eager to find a safe space and a platform to contribute to social positive change.
Based in Tunis, Abou El Mahassine Fassi-Fihri is Maghreb Director, with over nine years’ experience with NGOs and multilateral agencies, including SFCG, the World Bank and the European Commission, designing and managing conflict prevention and institution-building programs focused on mediation, alternative dispute resolution, youth and media. Visit them on the web here: http://www.sfcg.org/programmes/tunisia/By Haleh Hatami, Aslan Media