Nobody has ever explained participatory democracy to the people I met today in El Ktar in southern Tunisia. Until recently it was only a vague concept, irrelevant to their daily lives.
But today, in this makeshift classroom situated in a tiny village nestled in the mountains of southern Tunisia, a group of mostly males are listening eagerly to a lecture on the meaning of a Constitution. The room is packed. The audience range in age from adolescents to men well into their 80s.
Tunisia will hold its first free elections this Sunday, October 23. Tunisians will elect the 217 members of a constituent assembly that will write the country’s new Constitution — and play a decisive role in selecting Tunisia’s next leaders.
At the blackboard today is a young Tunisian with the Association de l’Initiative Culturelle et Sociale d’El Ktar, a local civil society organization that's getting support from Mercy Corps and its local partner, CAWTAR, to build their organizational capacity. In turn, they are helping teach political literacy through workshops in rural areas just like this. The goal is to engage Tunisians in the electoral process and ensure people go out and vote.
Those gathered are learning concepts like the difference between parliamentary and presidential systems, and how Tunisia’s upcoming election will work. There’s a mixture of frustration, comprehension and hope among the people present. Things I take for granted are being taught for the first time. The political system never existed to serve these people before. Only now, in the wake of Tunisia’s revolution, will they be allowed to actually participate.
“To have people reach us all the way here just to give us this information means a lot to our community," commented Ben Said, a young student. "We don’t have the same access as our neighbors in the north, so coming here could make a difference in whether people vote or not."
For months now, the world has been tuned in to the revolutions across the Middle East that have become widely known as the “Arab Spring.” For people here in this classroom, today's lesson on democracy was a small revolution in itself.