Uncertain but necessary: street vending in Tunis

In post revolutionary Tunis, the streets are filled with vendors selling peeled cactus fruits, home- made muffins, cheap underwear, make-up products and fake perfumes. The counterfeit fragrances are mostly brought up from neighboring Algeria and Libya. Trade is brisk around Place Barcelone at the city center with vendors peddling smuggled wares and buyers flocking for bargain-priced products.

Many Tunis residents see street vendors as a source of nuisance but others are becoming more understanding after the revolution and fatal self-immolation of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Before the revolution street vending was not as ubiquitous. Most of the time, illegal street hawkers were getting chased by police and restricted their activities to areas such as Boumendil and the Moncef Bey bazaar downtown, where all sort of cheap goods are sold.

For Roua Khlifi, a Tunis local who daily strolls around the city center area, street vending is becoming an integral part of the post revolutionary urban space. “Street vendors are a new addition to the urban scene in Tunisia as their number grows following the revolution,” said Khlifi. “They have been part of all the major events and demonstrations and protests that the city of Tunis has witnessed over the past years, sometimes as part of clashes, sometimes as part of the counter economic movement that sprung from the difficult economic reality.”

Although informal trade makes up five percent of the total imports in Tunisia it is still considered a significant part of the bilateral trade between Tunisia and neighboring Libya and Algeria, according to a 2013 World Bank policy research working paper. Street vending has become a major source of income for many Tunisians who have found themselves at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder as the country grapples with an unemployment rate of 15.2 percent. Vending is becoming an activity that is essential for the local economy of many cities like Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the revolution, and the southeastern governorate of Tataouine.

It is estimated that around 500,000 to 700,000 Tunisians are working in the informal sector. This includes those working in agriculture, as well as unskilled labor workers, according to Adnan Souidane, head of the National Institute of Statistics.

Hafedh Ben Abdennabi, an economic analyst based in Tunis, maintains that the Tunisian government is still unable to map the number of hawkers and calculate the profit they gain from their activities.

Most vendors in Tunis are operating without a permit from the city council. They have no regular income and work in a climate of uncertainty. Despite the usual crackdowns and frequent police raids where vendors’ wares are confiscated, the informal trade phenomenon is spreading to other parts of the city like the Station de la Republique and even to Lafayette area, north of the Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

“There are no labour standards for street vendors and the state considers their activities illegal,” said Abdennabi, the economic analyst. He considers the competition from vendors as not fair for people working in the formal sector because of the lower prices street vendors offer.

Uncertain but necessary

Vendors say they have few other options for work. “This is our only way to make ends meet. By cracking down on us they are implicitly stating that they want us to steal and engage in improper deeds,” said Dhaw Dahchaoui, a street vendor who hails from the southeastern governorate of Medenine. “People do sympathize with us. When police are chasing us people collaborate by making space for us to escape from the police officers.”

Moufida Dkhili is the only female street vendor I met in the downtown area who hustles daily to get a space in a world owned and run my men.

“I try to hassle daily for the little space I have in the street. They (male street vendors) sometimes turn me down claiming the space to be all theirs and sometimes they sympathize with me and simply let me be,” said Dkhili. “I [turn] a blind eye to the ubiquitous swearwords vendors throw around.”

Dkhili is a widowed mother to three children. One of them had to quit school for financial reasons. She dreams of owning her own side street booth or kiosk one day where she can sell tobacco and other goods.

Along with constant harassment from neighbouring street vendors, Dkhili says she also has to contend with raids from municipal police officers who pop up from time to time and confiscate vendors’ goods.

“This job is very uncertain. Last time the policemen took three dresses from my small mobile stall,” she alleges.“I couldn’t say anything for fear of [them] confiscating the rest.”

 Street vendor Moufida Dakhlaoui choking back tears during the interview. Afifa Ltifi.

Street vendor Moufida Dakhlaoui choking back tears during an interview. Afifa Ltifi.

 Solutions needed

While vendors claim they need to vend to survive, others see vending as an activity that impinges on the livability of the city and diminishes the walkability of downtown streets and side-walks.

“By the end of the day some streets are in a pathetic state with wrappers, banana boxes and shoe boxes that are thrown everywhere,” said Fraj Elmonsir, president of nongovernmental organization the Tunisian Association for Environmental Education and Sustainable Development.

For Abdennabi, the economic analyst, temporary illegitimate municipalities are behind the government’s slack attitude toward the informal sector. “Street vending was among the issues that were always swept under the rug for the other successive governments to tackle. Now we will see how this government will deal with it,” he said. “It is urgent that they come up with laws that push progressively the people working in the informal sector to gradually get integrated into the formal one.”

While some consider the efforts of municipalities as minimal, Elmonsir, of the Tunisian Association for Environmental Education and Sustainable Development, acknowledged the work of municipalities, like that in his home city of Ariana, which has made efforts to regulate the informal sector.

“The city council worked hard to provide the street vendors with a space where they can sell their goods. To our surprise they abandoned the space offered to them saying that the place wasn’t visible enough for people to see them and the situation now is even worse,” he explained. “Many municipalities have done the same but it seems that these street vendors are not cooperative.”

Others, however, don’t see integration as the answer. “Integrating street vendors in the formal economy does not make a drastic solution,” contended Yessine Turki, president of the Tunisian Association of Urbanism (ATU). “First, not all of them will accept to be integrated. Second, even if they will all accept to be integrated, hundreds will replace them.”

Turki suggested issuing some regulations and providing the minimum control and monitoring of the products sold by hawkers. “We can push them to give a symbolic tax, for instance, a less than a dollar tax at least to provide for the cleaning services,” he said.

Turki finds it crucial to reconcile street hawkers with the city. “Tunis loses its vibrancy at night and streets become almost deserted on Sundays. Taking into consideration the specificities of each part of the city, it would be wise to allow vendors to sell late in the evenings and on Sundays when the streets are quiet, so as to make the city livelier,” he said. He noted that a study should take place to define the areas that would benefit from this.

The last presidential elections marked the end of the transition period in Tunisia, and now a newly elected government is establishing itself. With the municipal elections predicted to take place in 2016, street vendors will find themselves facing a future in the hands of the next government. For now, they remain in limbo, struggling to make ends meet amid high uncertainty about their future.


Afifa Ltifi is a budding Tunisian journalist and former Tunisia Live writer. She holds a master’s degree in Cross Cultural Studies. She is a youth activist and the cofounder of the first Black rights organization in Tunisia. She is currently working as a research assistant for the Finnish led research project ‘‘Youth and Political engagement in contemporary Africa.’’ Keep in touch via twitter @AfifaFanon.

Main photo: Street vendor Dhaw Dahchaoui standing by his mobile stall. Afifa Ltifi.



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