Mobilizing Black Tunisians Ahead of the Municipal Elections

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IFES outreach ambassadors approach a woman in Medenine.

Seven years after the popular uprising that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, minority groups, youth, and women remain underrepresented in public life throughout Tunisia. Black Tunisians are among the most marginalized of these groups. While there are no official statistics on the number of black Tunisians, estimates place them between eight percent and 15 percent of the population. Dwelling mainly in rural and difficult-to-access areas in the south of the country, black Tunisians are more likely to live in poverty and face social and political exclusion and discrimination.

To shed light on the factors contributing to black Tunisians’ political marginalization, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) undertook a study of black Tunisians’ political behaviors and sentiments, the first of its kind. Then, building on the findings from this study, IFES, in partnership with M’Nemty, a Tunisian civil society organization that promotes the rights of minorities, designed an outreach campaign that aimed to encourage Tunisians in regions with high populations of black Tunisians to participate in the May 6 municipal elections.

An IFES outreach ambassador works to persuade a woman from Tozeur to vote.

IFES’ study found that two main factors prevent black Tunisians from playing a greater role in public life. First, the study demonstrated that black Tunisians often lack information on elections. When asked about the municipal elections, the vast majority of focus groups participants (92 percent) said they did not have information on the elections, and 34 percent did not know that they had to register to vote. Indeed, one young man from Medenine remarked, “I am going to vote but the thing is I don’t know who I am going to elect and I don’t have enough information about it.” A second, more troubling finding was that black Tunisians are reluctant to participate in public and political life because they fear that their participation might create confrontations and aggravate social tensions. They prefer instead to remain “invisible” and avoid exacerbating the discrimination they already face.

Equipped with this information, IFES and M’Nemty developed an outreach program that sought to provide black Tunisians with basic electoral information and educate them on the issues at stake and the importance of their participation. The first step was to identify and train “outreach ambassadors” from local communities with high populations of black Tunisians who would go door-to-door to speak with Tunisians. Through a call for applications and two information sessions, IFES selected 47 men and women outreach ambassadors from the governorates of Medenine, Tataouine, Gabes, Tozeur and Kebili, all of which have large populations of black Tunisians, to attend training workshops to prepare them for the outreach campaign.

“We are happy with the work that you [IFES and M’Nemty] are doing. No one pays attention to us [black Tunisians], it is time to act and do something, and that starts by voting.” – A woman from Medenine who had experienced racial discrimination in the past

The workshops covered issues related to decentralization, elections, and local governance. In addition, workshop sessions were held on communication strategies, interview skills and awareness tools, and IFES’ study findings to sensitize the ambassadors to the challenges facing black Tunisians. These workshops not only prepared the ambassadors to conduct the outreach campaign but also had a positive impact on their personal outlook. For example, one ambassador from Tozeur observed, “As a metis (dark-skinned Tunisian), I think that it is extremely important to remind the minorities that if we vote, we can change our situation and choose someone who can represent us and speak for us.”

Following the workshops, 36 ambassadors deployed across the five governorates between April 14 and 18 to encourage Tunisians to vote in the May 6 municipal elections. The ambassadors shared information on the elections that they had learned in the workshops and explained the decentralization process and the roles and responsibilities of municipal councils as established under the recently adopted code of local authorities. Equally, the ambassadors emphasized the important role of citizens in holding their elected municipal representatives accountable through voting and participating in local political life.

In order to avoid the feeling of stigmatization that was prevalent in the study commissioned by IFES before the activity’s launch, the ambassadors spoke to all Tunisians, regardless of skin color. They succeeded in reaching 2,685 Tunisians, including 1,599 black Tunisians, 35 metis (dark-skinned Tunisians), and 1,051 non-black Tunisians. Preliminary data collected during the campaign were positive: of the registered black or metis Tunisians reached, 95 percent said that the outreach campaign provided them with new information on the elections. At the same time, the campaign confirmed the finding from IFES’ study that black Tunisians felt a high level of mistrust in politics. One beneficiary pointedly asked, “Those people do not represent us, so how am I supposed to vote for people that will do me no good?”

An IFES outreach ambassador heads to a construction area in Tozeur.

In order to more thoroughly measure the effectiveness of the outreach campaign, one month after the campaign IFES conducted a phone survey of 244 black Tunisians who had spoken with the outreach ambassadors and were registered to vote. IFES found that 80 percent of respondents remembered the campaign, 89 percent of whom said they benefited from it More impressively, 85 percent of respondents reported that they had participated in the municipal elections, in stark contrast to the nationwide turnout of 35 percent.

IFES’ study on black Tunisians, as well as comments by the ambassadors and beneficiaries of the outreach campaign, are evidence that, although they are traditionally marginalized, black Tunisians are eager to play a more active role in their democracy. The campaign also demonstrated the effectiveness of face-to-face voter outreach in increasing political participation. Continuing to reach black Tunisians through such efforts, therefore, is of particular importance as Tunisians prepare for national elections in 2019.

The outreach campaign was supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.