Tunis Community Groups Get Creative

Tunis      One of the treats of this Organizers’ Forum is getting to meet some of the organizers and members of El Comita, which is essentially ACORN Tunisia, the affiliate of ACORN International in this country.  There are now several hundred members in five groups that have been organized in various neighborhoods in and around Tunis as well as one group that all of the organizers are working with outside of the city in Borj Chakir abutting the huge Tunis landfill.

This is basic, fundamental community organizing in the new Tunisian world of devolution where both citizens and governmental officials are flexing their arms to try to build some muscle now that they actually have some powers at the local level rather than the previously top-down centralization under the dictatorship.  The issues so far have been the fundamentals of city services.

I’ve often joked, very seriously, that if we ever had the secret to winning campaigns around loose dogs, sanitation, and drainage-related issues, we could organize and run the world.  All of these issues have emerged in Tunis.

Loose dogs were a fascinating local campaign that was both contentious in the neighborhood and creatively handled by the El Comita members.  Contentious in that the first solution the local members proposed was hunting the dogs down and shooting them.  The slightly more middle-class section of the community bristled at that plan, wanting a less direct solution, partially because of concern for the animals, but largely because it was less of a problem there, because, no surprises, sanitation was better, so the dogs were not roaming in packs as much.  The compromise was to get the dogs caught and have them spayed, which was seen as a longer-term solution, but one that might work eventually.

City officials weren’t taking the demands seriously after several meetings, so the group of course had to go with some direct action.  They had a feeling showing up with some of the dogs themselves might not get the job done, so a bunch of them obtained dog-masks and put them on as they entered city hall.  If you have a dog mask on your head, you going to have complete that with some solid, boisterous barking, and that’s just what they did.  The city officials and staffers reacted in an interesting fashion:  they turned and ran, as frightened as some of the residents were of the real thing.  Needless to say, progress has been made.

We spent lots of time with all of the organizers in the group campaigning for action around the city dump.  A number of meetings have been held, but the only sign of action so far is a ten-foot wall being built around the area, which makes it less unsightly to passersby, but does nothing for the residents’ health, water purity, or air quality.  Residents showed me pictures of fires that had broken out on the dump from the methane gas explosions several months ago (for a similar situation see a New York Times article on similar dump on West Bank).  A petition is being circulated.  Other communities are joining in the demands.  The dump was supposed to be closed years ago, but like so many cities around the world, this has never happened for lack of municipal alternatives.

This is a hard campaign, and we’ll spending more time working on plans and actions, but one thing is clear, when it comes to ACORN’s new affiliate, El Comita, “don’t let the dogs out!”



The Quiet Before the Election

Tunis        Saturday before the election in Tunisia, another huge test of the fragile democracy forged during the Arab Spring, there was quiet.  The election rules had ended debates and public campaigning the day before the election.  In fact, the Organizers’ Forum had to reschedule one of our events because there was a rule against public gatherings of almost any form.  After days of endless debates on the central boulevard, it seemed nice to have some relative peace.

Such a rule is not common in the United States, except in union elections before the National Labor Relations Board.  In these instances, there is a 24-hour rule, where a company is well-advised to maintain some silence, because any new allegations trigger unfair labor practices that could lead to filing election objections and rerunning the vote.  The simple reason is that the union would not have enough time to respond to a company fabrication to offset its impact in the 24-hours prior to voting.  As I’ve often explained, the rules for elections under the NLRB make lying legal as long as the union has enough time to try in an uneven situation to tell the truth, up until the final day.

This is unlikely the reason for the quiet period in Tunisia.  ACORN’s organizer in Kenya, part of our delegation this year, said that a similar end to campaigning was mandated in his country.  It is likely common elsewhere as well, even if unknown in the USA.  The argument is that it allows voters to reflect and make their judgments more soberly.

Soberly, is key.  There are still rules in many parts of the United States about whether liquor can be sold on election day or, if sold, in what proximity it can be hawked to the voters.  Such rules have deep roots in the old school American practice of selling votes.  I can remember hearing similar stories from by great uncle, Grady Bullock, who served several terms as a county judge in a farming county north of Memphis.  Elections, he described, were one-dollar a vote and a lot to liquor, both central to the GOTV program there.

Walking through the city and the Medina, there were numbered blocks painted on some walls between one and twenty-six and one and forty some.  The purpose was to allow pictures of candidates or parties in the voting places to be presented so voters could poll by the numbers.  An interesting technique.

The first set of elections had seen voting percentages in the high 60%, which was encouraging, but the more recent municipal elections had been only about 38% of eligible voters.  Expectations are high for the democracy, especially for the economy, and have been hard to deliver, depressing enthusiasm at the polls.  There are many election observers present to observe, and, hopefully protect, the process.  Reports that came to our organizers of an unprecedented surge that registered 1.5 million voters has some worried about the outcome of the election.

A 50% majority is required, so with 26 candidates remaining, a runoff is virtually assured.  This will be interesting to watch.