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Tunisian Townspeople Take Running Town into Own Hands

  • Lisa Bryant

Tunisian people stand at the seaside in coastal town Zarzis in southeastern Tunisia, February 18, 2011

Tunisian people stand at the seaside in coastal town Zarzis in southeastern Tunisia, February 18, 2011

The North African country of Tunisia is at the vanguard of the popular, anti-government uprisings spreading across the Arab world. Now, Tunisia is entering new phase as it seeks to build democracy from scratch.

The Zarzis Youth Association is packed with people. Local residents are making sandwiches and salads for their guests - hundreds of Egyptian workers who fled the violence in Libya and crossed Tunisia's border, about 65 kilometers away.

How they got here is one example of grassroots democracy slowly taking root in this country, a month after anti-government protesters forced former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power. Zarzis teacher Mohamed Jelouali explains how the town's residents - and not Tunisia's caretaker government - arranged for the Egyptians to be bussed here and for their food and shelter.

Jelouali says Tunisia's government was totally absent in this effort to help the Egyptians. In fact, the government is pretty much absent in this town altogether.

Like elsewhere in the country, Zarzis was awash in anti-government protests in January. After Mr. Ben Ali fled, residents here elected a 30-member popular committee to represent them. Jelouali is part of the committee.

He says the committee tries to solve the town's daily problems. The state still pays civil servant salaries, but the residents have fired all the local authorities except for the mayor.

Resident Ali Darrak gives the popular committee good reviews. Darrak says residents think the committee is doing a good job managing the situation in Zarzis.

Zarzis even has its own, budding media outlet, website Zarzis TV. Walid Fellah, 27, is one of its founders.

Fellah says Zarzis TV members participated in the anti-government protests in Zarzis, but they also filmed them - and the police crackdown. They published everything on their Facebook site. Now, they are publishing town news including news of the hundreds of residents who fled Tunisia for Europe.

Fellah says he believes political change in Tunisia will come locally. Zarzis is trying to build its own democratic structures. If other regions do the same, Fellah says, democracy will take root in Tunisia.