Haythem Srihi: From H4D Participant to Municipal Councilor
To address a growing lack of civic engagement among Tunisian youth, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) launched an original initiative called Hack4Democracy (H4D), a combination of democracy camps and hackathons which uses technology to engage youth in civic activism. IFES conducted six intensive four-day camps across Tunisia which resulted in youth aged 18 to 30 designing high and low-tech democracy service projects.
At just 24 years old, Haythem Srihi is a member of the H4D finale’s winning team and a newly elected municipal councilor from the city of Jammel. Haythem’s success in both the H4D competition and in the May 6 municipal elections serves as a prime example of what Tunisian youth can achieve when they are given the tools to prosper and have the drive to overcome societal barriers. In addition to the challenges that Tunisian youth face today, including continued political and socio-economic marginalization, Haythem also has a physical disability.
“My motivation and source of inspiration is my sister who suffers from the same disability as me. Yet she challenged all the obstacles and got first place nationally in the school of engineering, and now she is pursuing her studies in France.”
Before joining the H4D competition, Haythem had begun to pursue a degree in biology, worked as a disability rights advocate with the Tunisian Organization for the Defense of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and wrote two books about disability rights in Tunisia. When joining the H4D competition, Haythem and his team felt they lacked the experience to compete in such an event and were afraid they would not be accepted by fellow participants. Haythem said, “I study biology and don’t have any knowledge of technology and my teammates lack experience in such competitions, but the idea of the project was powerful and original and we had a good presentation so we could convince the jury with our project and finally win the prize – it was a historic moment in our lives, for me and for my teammates.”
Haythem and his H4D teammates cared deeply about the future of their community, which resulted in the winning H4D project idea – “Bikom likom” (“with you and for you”) – a web and mobile application that allows citizens to express their level of satisfaction with services in their municipality and propose improvements.
“I participated before in several competitions, but in the H4D, it was the first time that I could get on the podium using a ramp. That meant a lot for me and I will always be thankful to IFES for that.”
Following the H4D competition, Haythem realized his potential to bring about change in his community and lead by example as an engaged and active citizen with a disability.
Winning the H4D competition inspired Haythem to run on an independent list for the first municipal elections since the 2011 popular uprising that ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He wanted to demonstrate to his community his belief that elections and democracy can improve the daily lives of citizens.
“We visited all the districts of Jammel, to talk to voters, with me campaigning in my wheelchair and holding a Tunisian flag in my hand. I crossed all the roads despite the barriers. I talked to people to convince them to vote on May 6th. I was a real demonstration that we still have hope in this country despite all the problems and challenges we are facing.”
Before deciding to run for the elections, Haythem convinced all the candidate lists in Jammel to sign the Local Community Service Charter for People with Disabilities, which he developed to guarantee a minimum set of rights for persons with disabilities in his municipality. After joining his independent list, he translated the list’s platform into sign language and actively campaigned for his list.
Citizens of Jammel responded positively, as his candidate list garnered the most votes on Election Day, defeating the major national political party. Haythem’s list obtained 10 seats out of 30 in the newly elected municipal council, guaranteeing him a seat as the ninth candidate on the list. Haythem subsequently became one of 144 municipal council members with disabilities elected on May 6, out of 7,212 candidates across all lists nationwide.
“I will never forget the May 6 Election Day, because I met a Deaf man who was trying to speak to me but I couldn’t understand him, so, he wrote to me on a piece of paper, ‘I voted for your list, Jammel, our city, because you are my voice, you are the voice of voiceless people.’ His words meant a lot to me.”
Haythem proudly expresses how much he benefited from the H4D experience and how he applied the tools and lessons learned from the competition to run for a seat in the municipal council elections. He gained both personal and professional skills such as public speaking, self-confidence and critical thinking, all of which helped him during his electoral campaign. Through his determination to overcome the many barriers to civic and political participation faced by persons with disabilities and youth, Haythem demonstrated what can be accomplished when one refuses to accept the status quo.
Haythem is now preparing to serve his community as an effective municipal council member. At the same time, he and his teammates are developing their H4D project while continuing to advocate for the inclusion of persons with disabilities in their community. Haythem is still pursuing his studies in biology and will soon publish his third book, The Reality of Disability in Tunisia. Haythem concludes that “success is not exclusive to one category of people; success is accessible to everyone who is a hard worker and who thinks outside of the box.”
The H4D initiative was funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.