Tunisian Youth and Political Life: From Stagnation to Revival?

Supporters of independent Tunisian Presidential candidate Kais Saied attend a campaign rally in Tunis, Tunisia, 11 October 2019. © EPA-EFE/MOHAMED MESSARA

Introduction

Tunisian youth are no different from their peers across the world when it comes to their indifference to public life. This apathy towards politics is not new; it goes back before 14 January Revolution. A 2008 national survey of youth showed that around 83% of Tunisian youth were not concerned with politics and 64% were not concerned with elections or joining civil society associations.

Nonetheless, the Tunisian youth surprised observers and played an essential role in the revolution that led to the fall of Ben Ali. Immediately after, however, they returned to their position of indifference. The political tensions and episodes of instability that accompanied the democratic transition disappointed the youth greatly and led to apathy towards politics in all its forms. Successive elections were the most glaring example of this attitude: the youth abandoned the ballots and stopped taking initiatives of political work, either as candidates or as voters.

The rise of Kais Saied as a presidential candidate seemed to have reignited the Tunisian youth’s interest in politics. They walked with him through all the stages of his elections. They led his most unusual campaign at the smallest cost; they confronted media attacks against him and provided him with alternative and new media platforms that improved his image. This support brought the youth and Kais Saied closer together. Saied also showed great understanding of the youth’s economic and social demands and gave them priority. He shared their anger at the political establishment, so they decided to stand by him to punish the establishment that they see as the source of their successive disappointments.

The results of the presidential elections, in which one candidate won the bulk of the votes of the youth participating in the elections, generated many questions about the reasons for the youth’s support of Kais Saied, and the hopes that they hanged on him. What can we infer from this experience that can benefit the youth political participation generally? How does this experience help us understand the actual needs that push young people to participate in public life?

Methodology

To answer these questions, this paper adopts a methodology that is built on documentation, field research, and a survey published through social media platforms, especially the Facebook pages that supported Kais Saied.

Documentation

This phase included the collection and coding of information available on social media as well as in news covering the Tunisian presidential elections to document different positions and revisit the events of the elections. It also included the analysis of statements by Kais Saied, since the revolution until today, to be able to draw a clear image of his positions vis-à-vis social, economic, and cultural issues, and to understand his political project. This stage is important because of the unique character of Saied’s presidential campaign, in which he never presented a clear project but only partial and scattered ideas he mentioned in TV and radio statements or newspaper interviews. Collecting and analyzing the content of these statements was essential to understanding the reasons for the popularity of Saied’s political discourse among the youth.

Field research

This stage included interviews with people who took part in leading Kais Saied’s election campaign, as well as with some of those who voted for him in the first round of elections. The interviews were followed by questions about why they supported Saied as a candidate, what ideas they shared with him as well as their evaluation of his performance as a president.

The interviews with people who contributed to the election campaign looked into the experience of some young people in leading the election campaign of Kais Saied, and hearing testimonies of young activists who voluntarily engaged in political work. The interviews also sought to find out the reasons that prompted a group of young people to leave the state of political apathy and engage in political action through elections, and to understand the manifestations of the role of youth in the so-called “youth-led campaign”.

Survey questionnaire

The authors prepared a targeted survey that included 400 young male and female of those who voted for Kais Saied in the first election round. Although the questionnaire was not based on the same scientific rules that govern opinion polls, it was characterized by its directed nature and attempted to target a specific group of Saied constituencies, namely the youth. The questionnaire was centred around the following themes:

  • Reasons the youth opted to vote for Saied in the first round of the presidential elections. What are the common traits between the voters and the candidate and to what extent do they share the same principles? These questions tried to determine the ideas that Saied projected and were popular among the youth in order to understand the needs of this category of Tunisian society.
  • How do the youth who voted for Saied see reality in Tunisia? This is not only about understanding their ambitions and opportunities, but also their fears and challenges. Were these factors influential in the youth’s decision to choose Saied over others?
  • The youth’s evaluation of the performance of state institutions and the impact of this evaluation on voting for Saied in the presidential elections.
  • Understanding how the youth think about the trajectory of the democratic transition in Tunisia. How far had the problems of this transition impacted their participation in political life and their election of Kais Saied?

A reluctant political participation

A study conducted by Muraqiboun (observers) network and One to One, in cooperation with Heinrich Böll Stiftung, in 2018, concluded that 47% of the Tunisian youth do not care at all about political life and local affairs. The study was conducted after local municipal elections in May 2018.1Tunisia, 19 December 2018, Heinrich BOLL STIFTUNG, participation of women and youth in public life and local affairs, Muraqiboun network.

This apathy is also evident in the UNDP 2019 report entitled Youth and participation in Elections in Tunisia. The report states that: "The debate surrounding youth participation in the elections is mainly directed towards their reluctance to participate. This is confirmed by the figures presented by the Independent Elections Commission after the end of each election, with regard to registration in the elections and casting votes. The figures from the Independent High Electoral Commission indicate that, for example, from the period between 10 April 2019 and 22 May 2019, the number of registered persons in the age group of 18-35 years reached 631 thousand, equivalent to 56% of those registered in the same period. This doesn't necessarily mean going to the polls. For example, in the second round of the presidential elections, only 6.11% of the 18-25-year-old age group participated. This is from a total of 3,820,825 male and female voters who make up the electoral body.”

The very low level of participation seems understandable before the 2011 revolution, given Ben Ali’s regime tight control and confiscation of political freedoms. However, contrary to expectations nothing new came out in this regard after the revolution. The percentage of youth participation in the elections of the Constituent Assembly, for instance, did not exceed 10%, which is a very weak figure given the degree of political freedoms brought about by the revolution.

This state of political apathy and indifference continued to be noticed in the low rates of participation in the elections that followed the revolution, be it in the 2014 presidential and legislative elections, the 2018 municipal elections, or the 2019 presidential and legislative elections. Although the 2019 presidential elections did not witness a significant increase in youth participation, what is striking is the success of one candidate to win the largest number of votes among the young voters that participated in the first round of the elections, setting a political precedent in Tunisia.

According to estimates by Sigma Conseil, a private opinion polls agency, more than 37% of the youth (aged between 18 and 25) that participated in the elections voted for Kais Saied, with 11% voting for independent candidate Safi Saied, 8.7% for the Heart of Tunisia (Qalb Tunis) Party’s candidate, Nabil Karoui, while 5.4% only voted for the then prime minister, Youssef Chahed, as the candidate of the Long Live Tunisia Movement (Tahya Tunis).

According to the same polls, more than 20% of those aged between 26 and 45 voted for Saied, while 13.3% voted for Karoui, and 10% voted for the Ennahdha candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou.

These numbers reflect Kais Saied's monopoly of the largest share of the youth votes, and his ability to mobilize an electoral base that has not previously voted in any elections. According to Sigma, 62% of those who voted for Saied in the first round had never voted before.

Kais Saied and the investment in political apathy

The Tunisian revolution ushered great hopes for the youth, who longed for an economic revival that would allow them to be rid of unemployment and economic vulnerability and move towards social stability. This revolutionary mobilization was quickly faced with a depressing reality; optimism evaporated, and political strife compounded the transitional period. It was a period that witnessed political instability, highly charged party politics, the deterioration of the economy, and increasing social vulnerability. The blame was quickly directed at political actors who were blamed for serving their interests and ignoring the substantial demands of the youth for freedom, the right to work, dignity, and social justice.

All this contributed to the creation of a strong public opinion against the entire political class, especially after its repeated failures, and the inability of successive governments to meet a significant part of the youth’s expectation. This disappointment hastened the return of the youth to political apathy, abandoning polling stations and walking away from the political arena. They mistrusted politicians’ promises and refused to be merely a tool to be used for elections just to be ignored afterwards. The best evidence of the youth boycotting political life after the revolution is their reluctance to even register in the voters' register.

Sociologist Jihad Haj Salim confirmed this trend in our interview with him, “determining the reasons why the youth elected Kais Saied is a very general question. However, there is a strong element at play here, which is the loss of trust of the youth in the political establishment at large. At that particular stage [of the presidential election], they saw an intellectual figure, a man who uses an ethical discourse based on principles. He seemed to be the right person at the right time”.2Interviews conducted on 28 and 29 April 2020.

Amidst the tense Tunisian political context, Kais Saied emerged gradually as a public figure with an anti-political establishment discourse. He appeared opposed to the current political arrangements and a rebel against traditional party structures. If Saied was an unknown figure before 2011, since the dawn of the revolution, he was seen in the company of some patriotic figures, touring the sit-ins of Kasbah 1 and Kasbah 2, and coming into direct contact with the youth. This was confirmed by Tarik al-Rahali, a member of the electoral campaign team of Kais Saied from Ben Arous. He said, “unlike most of the campaign team, I did not know Kais Saied in the lecture halls of a law school. I knew him in the Kasbah where he used to tour protests. I used to listen to him, and his words attracted me a lot”.3Interview conducted on 28 April 2020.

During this period, Kais Saied also considered that the political model of the transitional phase did not express the true will of the Tunisians, but rather circumvented it. He highlighted the need for a new approach that would break with the past and where authority is driven from the local to central. During this period, Saied focused his discourse on the youth, considering them "the owners of the revolution." As he put it, it was their "revolution", defending their demands, especially the economic and social ones.

He also attacked the political class that has been dominating the political scene. He vowed to punish the “homeland sellers”, accusing them of skirting the gains of the people. He entered into a position of boycotting the political establishment, refusing to vote or run for any position. As he mentioned in one of his statements before the 2014 elections, “I have not been elected nor will I be elected because what counts is to build a new system that fulfils the will of Tunisian men and women". He also turned down offers to hold senior positions in successive governments. He turned down twice an offer to hold the position of the justice minister. He was refused to head the technocratic government that succeeded Ali Al- Laarayedh’ government in 2013 or to be a member of the Islamic Supreme Council after his appointment to the position by the former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh. Kais Saied’s boycott of the ruling political establishment is a factor he shares with the youth, who consider they were repeatedly let down by the political parties. Consequently, the rallying of young voters around Kais Saied is a form of punishment of the political establishment and a resumption of war on the traditional systems of political organization.

Figure 1: Level of trust in state institutions. A survey conducted by the research team.

During the presidential election campaign, Saied's discourse opposing parties and all elements of the established political system and holding them responsible for Tunisia’s setback gained traction. This was clear in many of his statements in which he affirmed his independence from all parties, "I was born independent, I lived independent, and I will die independent."

He also stood to gain from the sympathy of the youth who consider that the “machine” (that is the media in Tunisia) was targeting him after several attacks against him.

To confirm the above, as part of our survey, we asked 400 young voters from those who voted for Kais Saied in the first round of the election about their opinions of political institutions in Tunisia. The House of Representatives ranked as the least trusted institutions. More than 80% of Saied's voters expressed their lack of trust in it and – like their candidate – do not consider it representative of the prevailing political class nor the entire political spectrum present in the country. Besides, it is considered the arena of most political conflicts, and an obstacle in Tunisia’s reform path.

Kais Saied has therefore adopted a stance against the system as a whole and is considering carrying out reform from the outside, in the sense of reshaping a political system that reverses the existing equation of political actors and gives voice to the youth as he considered them a source of sovereignty. This trend echoes the state of despair that afflicted young people in the post-revolution period after reforms were delayed and the political establishment ignored their demands.

The youth leading the presidential campaign

Perhaps the most obvious manifestations of how the youth took Kais Saied’s side is their support of his campaign, to the extent of leading it and supervising all its details.

The special character of Kais Saied’s campaign

While Saied refrained from calling his campaign an “election campaign”, preferring instead to describe it as an “explanatory campaign,” his, nonetheless, had a special and unique character. As one of our interlocutors said, “we were not in an election campaign, but in a strange political phenomenon that resembles a popular revolt. We were organized without organizing, coordinated without coordination. Professor Kais Saied was careful time and time again to state that we shouldn’t make false promises to people but rather remind them of our political principles when contacting them”.4Interview with activist Serene Bouazizi, 2 February 2020. Contrary to the rest of the candidates, he did not present a clear-cut electoral programme, stressing that programmes should stem from the will of Tunisians. He, therefore, based his election campaign on "empowering young people with the legal mechanisms that will allow them to assert their will." Perhaps Saied’s premise here was the feeling of disappointment that accompanied each election because of the big promises made by the candidates in return for a few achievements, something that he considered a form of lying.

The organization of Kais Saied’s campaign team was also unique. It did not include an official spokesperson nor specific leaders. Kais Saied was the only prominent figure in his campaign entourage. Sirine Bouaziz – a young woman on the electoral campaign team of Kais Saied – said: "There was no clear and precise organization of the election campaign, and there was no clear and specific number of participants in it. Every person helped in their own way." She added, "the team was a mixture of young people from different ideological backgrounds, and included people whose relationship outside the electoral context was a conflicting one, as was the case with the student unions”.5Ibid.

A youth campaign on social media

The youth’s involvement in Kais Saied’s campaign started as early as his first appearance in the privately-owned Hannibal TV channel to announce he was running for election. They were recruited through social media, especially Facebook. This inclination towards new media represents a break with the traditional ones, and a move by the youth towards challenging what they considered an attack by this traditional media against their candidate. They considered the Tunisian media part of the old political order that deploys specific agendas and lacks integrity.

The massive campaign led by young people on social media allowed them to get close to the largest possible number of young voters because these online spaces constitute the virtual environment in which young people are active.

According to the report of the Court of Accounts on monitoring political parties and financing early presidential election campaigns issued on 8 November 2020, Kais Saied was ranked last among the candidates who received media coverage on TV, radio and newspapers.

Audio-visual media Witten and electronic media
Candidate Overall  TV coverage % per TV channel Overall  Radio coverage % per radio station % of coverage in written and electronic press
Carthage La 9 Al Hiwar L’expresse FM Jawhara FM Mosaïque FM Le quotidiin La Presse Al anwar Electronic newspapers
Abdelkarim Zbidi 6 hs 1,2 3,9 13 2hs 30mn 0,13 7,16 5,1 0 11 18 9,48
Youssef chahed 6 hs 1 9 1,5 2 hs 52 mn 3,44 5,05 6,05 13 11 17 13, 43
Slim Riahi 3 hs 4 0,2 11 1 hs 55 mn 4,7 4,81 0,2 6,36 - 9 5,82
Nabil Karoui 3 hs 30 mn 3 0 4,69 2 hs 4,9 0,71 3,21 10,84 - 26 7,53
Mohamed moncef Marzouki 6 hs 9 6,7 1,43 3 hs 21 mn 4,9 1 1,85 4,10 4,13 - 4,8
Abdefatah Mouro 7 hs 9 5 ,3 1,77 1 hs 55 mn 0,5 1 4, 96 5,57 - 15 6,34
Safi Said 7 hs 6 7,4 2,03 2 hs 52 mn 4,46 0,7 4,97 - - - -
Mohamed Abbou 4 hs 5 3,8 1,5 4 hs 5,1 5,32 4,49 - - - -
Mohsin Marzouk 4 hs 1 5,6 8,32 4 hs - 4,16 2,8 - - - -
Hamma Hamami 4 hs 30 mn 1 3,5 7,88 4 hs - 5,88 2,32 - - - -
Mehdi Jomaa 4 hs 48 mn 5 5,7 1,8 4 hs 5,32 5,7 2, 44 - 8,03 - -
Seifeddine Makhlouf 5 hs 4 6,6 1,6 3 hs 4,40 3,98 3,84 - - - -
Hamadi Jebali 4  hs 48 mn 5 1,6 8,65 3 hs 4 5,58 4,66 - - - -
Hatem Boulabiar 6 hs 45 mn 5 3,5 1,5 4 hs 5 5,9 3,86 - 4,22 - -
Kais Saeid 2 hs 30 mn 1 1,02 1,43 1 hs 30 mn 0,10 0,69 0,08 - - - -

Figure 2: Media coverage of the presidential candidates during the first round.

Source: Report of the Court of Accounts mandated with monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns during presidential elections, issued 8 November.6Report of the Court of Accounts mandated with monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns during presidential elections, issued 8 November.

On the other hand, the same report ranked him first in terms of Facebook pages coverage for the campaigns with 30 unofficial pages supporting his campaign. Together these pages had around 3 million followers and were run by 85 admins living in Tunisia and abroad.

It should be noted that the Court of Accounts report only covered the Facebook pages that contributed to the promotion of Kais Saied, but did not include groups that were established on social media sites such as the "People Want" group and "We are a Machine" group that attracted large numbers of voters, especially among the youth.

The data contained in the report of the Court of Accounts7Report of the Court of Accounts mandated with monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns during presidential elections, issued 8 November. http://www.courdescomptes.nat.tn/Ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84_46_6 shows that the pages that promoted Kais Saied are all unofficial because Saied does not own any of them, while the rest of the candidates had official pages and a limited number of unofficial ones. This indicates several possibilities, the most important of which is that the pages that led the election campaign of Kais Saied were doing so voluntarily and, therefore, were not directly supervised or directed by Kais Saied.

This was clear from the geographic distribution of admins of these pages which reaches across many countries. The report of the Court of Accounts also refutes information that Saied contracted media agencies. This confirms the volunteer nature of his campaign, and it is consistent with his campaign’s philosophy that rejects traditional ways of doing politics.

Candidate Number of Facebook pages Number of the Web pages administrators Geographic distribution
Kais Saied 30 3045466 85 in Tunisia

 

1 in Turkey
24 in Belgium
1 in Belgium
1 in Canada
2 in USA
1 in China
3 in KSA
2 in Belgium
Nabil Karoui 3 587613

 

35 in Tunisia
2 in Roumania
1 in Czech Republic
Abdefatah Mouro 2 26030 9 in Belgium
4 in Turkey
Abdelkarim Zbidi 1 177 1 in Tunisia
Youssef Chahed 2 227916 2 in Tunisia
1 in Belgium
Ahmed Safi Said 1 133874 13 Tunisia
1 in Belgium
Mehdi Jomaa 1 3228 4 in Belgium
2 in Tunisia
Hama Hamami 2 126628 3 in Tunisia
7 in Belgium
Mohsin Marzouk 1 5240 2 in Tunisia
Abid Briki 1 17660 3 in Tunisia
1 in Belgium
Slim Riahi 2 1223390 5 in Tunisia
13 in Belgium
1 in Belgium
1 in the USA
Mohamed Hachemi Hamdi 1 810440 1 in Tunisia
1 UK

Figure 3: Number of admins of unofficial Facebook pages and their geographic distribution. Source: Report of the Court of Accounts for monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns, issued 8 November.

 

Candidate Number of pages according to the agency Number of pages according to the HIEC Number of pages according to Civil Society
Kais Saied 30 14 22
Nabil Karoui 3 - 22
Abdefatah Mouro 2 - 11
Abdelkarim Zbidi 1 - 38
Youssef Chahed 2 - 42
Ahmed Safi Said 1 - -
Mehdi Jomaa 1 - 36
Hama Hamami 2 - -
Mohsin Marzouk 1 1 -
Abid Briki 1 1 -
Slim Riahi 2 - -
Mohamed Hachemi Hamdi 1 1 -

 Figure 4: Variations in the numbers of pages used for the presidential campaign of each candidate. Source: Report of the Court of Accounts for monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns, issued 8 November.

The role of youth in the campaign drove its cost down

The extremely low cost of Kais Saied campaign is one of the indicators of the voluntary spirit of his campaign and how he benefited from the youth’s support.

A large number of young people decided to independently volunteer to serve in the Kais Saied campaign. Some of them took the initiative to provide material support, each according to her/his limited capabilities. Others organized and supported Kais Saied’s visits to their provinces and meetings with local authorities. This was confirmed to us by Faouzi Deaas, one of the most prominent participants in the election campaign of Kais Saied. He said, “the thing that distinguished the campaign is volunteering. There was no top-down relationship and no coordination of efforts. Everyone who believed in the idea was an ambassador for it and a spokesperson for the campaign”.8Interview on 12 May 2020.

This is also confirmed through indicators of horizontal communications and the direct contact between Saied and the members of his campaign. In fact, according to our survey, 72% of the youth in the Saied’s campaign said they met him in person. This confirms the presence of a personal aspect to the relationship that formed the core of Saied’s communication with his constituencies.

Figure 5: Source: A survey conducted by the research team

In addition, the young cohort of supporters did not cost Kais Saied much. Based on the report of the Court of Accounts, we note that the election campaign of Kais Saied did not require huge sums of money, unlike the rest of the candidates. He refrained from accepting public funds for the electoral campaign, arguing these funds should not be wasted, nor did he provide self-financing for his campaign. The total budget for his campaign was the lowest among all candidates. For example, the electoral campaign cost of Kais Saied represented 0.7% of the electoral campaign cost of Youssef Chahed.

By calculating the total votes he obtained compared to the cost of the election campaign, the cost of a vote for Kais Saied did not exceed 0.030 Tunisian dinars, which is the lowest cost among candidates and much lower than the average cost for all candidates, which was at 1.98 Tunisian dinars.

Figure 6: comparing resources of candidates during the first round of elections in 2019, and the number of votes. Source: Report of the Court of Accounts for monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns, issued 8 November.

This shows that the financial cost of Kais Saied’s campaign was low compared to the very high participation rate from the youth. The fact that he refrained from accepting public funding also increased young people’s sympathy for him. They saw him as a humble president whose material and economic status is similar to theirs, which reinforced the feeling that he was president from them and for them and created a wave of solidarity with him, as opposed to the other candidates who were seen as wasting a lot of money to buy votes.

Ahmed Hussein al-Abbasi, a young man who participated in leading the campaign, said "all social groups were represented in the campaign volunteers, but the poor class was dominant”.9Interview on 24 March 2020.

Another activist in Saied’s campaign, Ayman Ben Ammar, also confirmed this when he said that “among the factors that encouraged me to get involved in the campaign, is its very low budget… We were tired of people spending billions in elections without any results after they win”.10Interview on 26 March 2020.

Kais Saied also benefited substantially from donations for the elections the youth collected. Tunisian law stipulates that a candidate for the presidential elections is required to collect 10,000 donations or ten donations by ten members of the House of Representatives. Kais Saeed did not set up a programme to collect donations. Rather, he left it for the volunteer youth activists to make donations and only set up an address to send donations to. He received a huge collective gift from young people who managed in record time to collect 32,000 donations for him, despite what was said on the theft of the donations of the candidate Kais Saied and their diversion for other candidates.

This donation gift from the youth represents a breakthrough on all levels. Perhaps what marked all forms of youth recruitment to help Kais Saied during his campaign was the feeling of enthusiasm towards him and the desire to support him whenever he was under attack by the old regime – whether attacked or criticized by parties affiliated with the existing party system or by the media over funding and the theft of some of his donations. This is considered a psychological factor and a collective behavioural manifestation based on sympathy, on the one hand, and represents a desire to punish the existing political establishment, on the other. Sirine Bouaziz, an activist in Saied’s campaign, confirmed this, during an interview we conducted with her. When we asked her about the reasons and factors that pushed her to support Saied’s campaign, she said, “when he made his first TV appearance to announce he was running for election, his appearance touched me. His way of talking, and his words. I felt he’s lonely, and that he’s counting only on the people. I was touched deeply by this”.11Interview on 30 February 2020.

Kais Saied attracts young voters

The priority of economic and social demands over individual freedoms was high on the agenda of young voters

Youth participation in the presidential elections was not limited to supporting Kais Saied in his campaign. It was also present in the massive contribution of young votes to his election. Saied won the votes of the majority of the youth and succeeded in pushing a large number of young men and women who had never participated in previous elections to come to the political arena and vote.

Kais Saied attracted various youth groups and presented a discourse that resonates with their expectations. The image of an educated academic who speaks eloquent Arabic and is capable of conducting sharp legal analysis encouraged young people with higher education degrees to vote for him, and be attracted to his image. They look forward to restoring respect to the educated in Tunisia and in public life, as they consider that the existing political class is dominated by people who are not educated and do not believe in scientific production.

 

According to the statistics from Sigma Conseil agency, Saied got 25% of the votes of the highly educated, to become the candidate with the biggest votes of university graduates.

The young people who voted for Kais Saied are men and women who have suffered from successive disappointments as a result of the political establishment’s lack of consideration for their social and economic demands. Our survey showed 70% of Kais Saied voters are people who do not have a steady income.

Figure 7: categorization of Kais Saied’s voters according to monthly income, from the survey conducted by the research team

Figure 8: Degree of support for individual freedoms (expression, conscience, opinion)

Although a large part of the youth who voted for Saied support individual freedoms (88.8% of those we surveyed support individual freedoms), these young men and women were not bothered by Kais Saied's stance regarding several human rights issues, such as equality in inheritance and homosexuality. This indicates “acceptance” by a large part of the youth of the logic of Kais Saied, which is based on giving priority to economic and social benefits over other entitlements, especially those related to rights and freedoms.

Prioritizing socio-economic issues was also clear in Kais Saied’s position on inheritance, when he said, “so that women can find something to inherit in the first place”, referring to the deteriorating economic and social indicators in Tunisia.

It is noteworthy that some presidential candidates expressed unrestrained support for individual freedoms but were not supported by the youth. This confirms the youth also giving priority to economic rights over individual freedoms, and that the ability of the candidate to respond to their economic needs before any other consideration was one key criterion for choosing their candidate.

The youth looked for a candidate with integrity

Corruption was one of the main reasons for the outbreak of the 14 January 2011 revolution, and ending it was one the most sought after concerns afterwards. Disappointment befell the young, however, who started to increasingly mistrust state institutions as well as political actors, whom they considered involved in many illegal practices. Indeed, 50% of those surveyed considered corruption the first threat to the revolutionary path. For the youth, they increasingly see corruption as the cause of the delay in achieving their demands and, therefore, denying them access to the economic benefits they wanted.

One of the young people who contributed to leading Kais Saied’s campaign,  Ahmed Hussein Al-Abbasi, reiterated this feeling when he said that his candidate, “was neither the leading political figure nor the personality with a great political history of struggle, but what attracts you to him is his honest spirit... his integrity is a trait you don't find very often in political life”.12Interview on 24 March 2020.

In the meantime, President Kais Saied appeared as a figure with no record or suspicion of corruption. Rather, he is known for abstaining from taking senior positions, committed to fighting corruption and favouritism, and determined to enforce the law. He stated frequently that, “the law must be like death, in that it does not exclude anyone”. Kais Saied has appeared on several occasions with furious statements targeting the current political establishment, accusing them of involvement in corruption and “tampering with the livelihood of Tunisians”. Therefore, the young voters have searched for an honest candidate who will be entrusted with the state and not use state agencies to serve his interests.

Figure 9: Survey participants estimates of the risks facing the democratic transition.

Source: Authors survey

Was relying on the youth a strategic choice by Kais Saied?

Despite the limited participation of the youth in elections, Kais Saied got the vast majority of young votes in the first round, compared to other candidates. The question now is: was he targeting this group from the start? And what led him to heavily count on this group and not others?

There are no clear answers to these questions. However, most interviews we conducted indicate that the demands of the young for social justice were strongly present in Kais Saied’s political discourse.

The prime motive for this inclination towards the youth might be linked to Saied’s long years as a university professor, which allowed him direct contact with them and the ability to build a strong relationship with them. This was confirmed by all interviewees. Sirine Bouaziz said, “I knew him through campus. He was amazing”. Even Ayman Bouamar, a young man from the Saied campaign, confirmed the same idea, saying, “we met him through a seminar outside campus in Monastir. He enjoyed discussions with the youth”.13Interview on 26 March 2020.

It remains unclear why Saied relied on youth in his campaign. He might have a strong trust in the value of the youth in the context of his political project or a strong understanding of the voting potential of the youth cohort. The question still begs further study.

Conclusion

The Tunisian revolution ushered great expectations for the Tunisian youth and their longing to improve their economic situation and social standing. However, the youth remained isolated and refused willingly to participate in political life, despite the freedoms Tunisia enjoys since January 2011.

The lack of political participation was evident across the various elections held in Tunisia after the revolution, with the youth staying away from politics and no political actor in the country was capable of attracting them.

The presidential elections in Tunisia in 2019 represented an important event in that it witnessed the political participation of the youth – not in quantitative terms (because the percentage of young voters didn’t grow substantially) but in qualitative ones. One candidate managed to get most of the young votes by succeeding to rally the young around him, as they voluntarily joined his campaign.

Kais Saied showed a deep understood the concerns of the Tunisian youth. He adapted his political discourse to their social and economic demands, shared their anger at the old political system, and promised to build new political structures where their will is at the core of governance.

The youth’s participation in the presidential elections confirms the great value of youth participation in political life. This demographic group can overturn the power equations and acquire substantial political strength. Their participation also reflects their great value in formulating real demands and pushing them to the centre of decision-making.

Despite these events, however, this case remains transient. It depends on Kais Saied’s success in governing to strengthen the hope for broader participation of the young generation in political life.

This unusual awakening of the youth represents an invitation for the political community in Tunisia to think about new mechanisms and pathways to integrate this demographic group in political life and public affairs. What is needed is new political discourses and a change in the youth’s role in the political arena – a change from consumers of political discourse to actors taking a role in shaping it. Until this happens, the 2019 Presidential elections will remain a transient awakening across a longer torpid timeline.

Footnotes

1 Tunisia, 19 December 2018, Heinrich BOLL STIFTUNG, participation of women and youth in public life and local affairs, Muraqiboun network.
2 Interviews conducted on 28 and 29 April 2020.
3 Interview conducted on 28 April 2020.
4 Interview with activist Serene Bouazizi, 2 February 2020.
5 Ibid.
6 Report of the Court of Accounts mandated with monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns during presidential elections, issued 8 November.
7 Report of the Court of Accounts mandated with monitoring parties and financing of early election campaigns during presidential elections, issued 8 November. http://www.courdescomptes.nat.tn/Ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84_46_6
8 Interview on 12 May 2020.
9 Interview on 24 March 2020.
10 Interview on 26 March 2020.
11 Interview on 30 February 2020.
12 Interview on 24 March 2020.
13 Interview on 26 March 2020.