An uncertain urban future for Tunis?

Echoes of street poetry resonate in the dusty domes and alleys of the Medina of Tunis. On breezy evenings in April, culturally sensitive youth crowded through the  gate of the ‘Beb Bhar’(Port de France) entrance, thirsty for poetry, music and art of the spectacular ‘‘KlemShera3’’ (street poetry) event. This spectacular show is just one of many artistic manifestations that have started to overwhelm the city’s urban spaces on the heels of the revolution.

Two years after the 2011 revolution and ousting of former president Ben Ali, Tunisians have started to enjoy a larger space to express their anguish, delight and frustration openly and freely. The streets of downtown Tunis are smothered by an inflow of moviegoers and artists. Grafitti artists are wallpapering the city’s walls, and musicians are playing the soundtrack to the city’s new character. At the same time, protests sparked by the politically heated atmosphere of the country are ongoing at the main avenue of Habib Bourguiba. Every now and then an event pops up to test the government’s capability to handle a post revolutionary country in a transition period.

Image: a young man plays the violin in the avenue of Habib Borguiba. Mariem Ben Ghazi.

Before the revolution, portraits of Ben Ali hypostatized George Orwell’s “big brother is watching you.” The streets of Tunis used to be eerily interlarded with purple slogans reading ‘‘Ben Ali is our Future’’ and facades were wallpapered with pictures of his face. Squares and metro stations were named after the ‘7th of November’ the date when Ben Ali came to power in 1987. Today, almost all the squares, streets or stations are being renamed after the ‘‘14th of January,’’ the date when Ben Ali was ousted. Many other streets were renamed after Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself on fire in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid as an act of dignity after being abused by police officers. This suicidal act sparked the revolution that flared what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

People with different backgrounds and ideologies have reclaimed public spaces. After the rise of the moderate Islamist Al-Nahda party, which leads the current coalition government, public busses and metros started to host sermons given by proselytizers. These acts touched a raw nerve with many locals, and to answer back youth groups organized artistic public shows. For instance, a group of young people created their own Mezoued (popular music) show in a public bus and uploaded the video to Youtube.

Last December, youth members of the ‘‘Art Solution’’ association took to the streets and exhibited a dance show named ‘‘I will Dance Despite Everything’’. On May 29 three FEMEN activists staged topless in front of the courthouse to show support for the arrested Tunisian Amina Sboui who was the first Tunisian woman to post topless pictures of herself on Facebook. More drastically, Adel Khazri, a Tunisian man, set himself on fire in downtown Tunis out of frustration at unemployment and poverty.

Image: breakdancers from Art Solution in Beb Bhar (Port de France). Art Solution

Anarchic housing and architecture: an identity crisis

In the wake of the revolution there have been many reports of violations of zoning laws, according to Hind Gafsi, president of the Tunisian Association of Urban Planners (ATU). And today infringements are committed with impunity. Constructions are not only used for housing but also for other purposes, and there are tobacco kiosks and boutiques set up on sidewalks that violate the city’s zoning laws.

The majority of urban zoning violations take place in popular suburban neighborhoods, such as Tadhamon, Mnihla, Sidi Hsin Sijoumi, Hrayria, Mhemdia, and Foushena (in the southern part of the city). New construction zones are established by locals without any building permits. The government is taking a laissez-faire approach to zoning law violations and buildings are on the rise, especially in the periphery of the city. Next to the historical aqueduct monuments in the suburban Bardo, for instance, a kiosk is built with utter impunity, spoiling the general landscape. Traders have built many kiosks on sidewalks in fact; the government has destroyed some and not others.

‘‘Even when the government reacts, it is always too little too late. It can not make drastic solutions for two or three storey buildings with the first floor being built legally with a building permit. It can fine the person though and that is not a sustainable solution,’’ says Gafsi.

Furthermore, Tunisia lacks regulations to keep neighborhoods with some fixed aesthetics akin to the famous Blue and White Sidi BouSaid small town. New Tunisian buildings are neither faithful to the old traditional Tunisian spirit nor to the colonial architecture.

Image: the medina from above. Khaoula Ben Amara.

Renaissance of the old medina

The old medina of Tunis is a UNESCO world heritage site. President Habib Bourguiba’s conception of modernism had put the medina and many historical sites in jeopardy during his mandate (1957 to 1987). He aspired for a haussmann-style city attempting to relate the Kasbah square and Beb Bhar (French Port) gate (west of the avenue) with a large boulevard. That could have led to razing half of the medina. Fortunately, the medina survived with the establishment of the Medina Conservation Association (ASM) in 1967.

Today, poverty is the main problem spoiling this medieval site. With the North-western exodus of the original inhabitants that took place during the 1960s and the ’70s, the medina fell into decay. With the depopulation of its houses, tertiary industry activities were established and low-income Tunisians moved into those abandoned houses that became known as ‘Oukail’ (Tunisian Arabic for boarding houses). Today, the boarding houses remain persistent especially on the non-refurbished side of the medina. The Oukail phenomenon lingers today mainly in popular medina quarters like that of Beb-el-Khadra, HafsiaHalfaouin, and Zarkoun street. Also, many abandoned houses were never restored as their owners completely neglected them.

Unfortunately, there are no sustainable restoration plans for this historical heritage, which is managed by the ministry of culture.

‘‘The restoration and maintenance plan is an expensive project,” says Gafsi. “Besides that the medina does not represent a priority for the ministry of culture.’’

Image: women walk through the medina. Khaoula Ben Amara.

Green spaces unsafe

Dubbed ‘the Green land’, Tunis has 15 square meters of green spaces per inhabitant, according to the ATU. But under the old regime, in many popular neighborhoods on the periphery of the city, green spaces that were supposed to be created never were. Instead, many were transformed into commercial centers.

Unfortunately, many of the green spaces that do exist are places of ill repute, and sites for prostitution, sexual harassment, and drug selling. There are parks that can be used safely in the morning like the ‘Habib Thameur’ park, located in the city center, but residents systematically boycott the park late in the evening as many suspicious activities start taking place.

Informal Trade in Tunis

Before the revolution street vendors were chased everywhere. Police ensured that the only place they had to sell their goods was in some restricted areas like Moncef Bey and Boumandil bazaar in downtown. But after Bouazizi set himself on fire, citizens and especially police started to develop a tolerant attitude toward street vendors. The streets of downtown Tunis are becoming more congested, with vendors, who are known to smuggle their goods via the Libyan-Tunisian border or the Algerian- Tunisian one, adding to the madding crowd. The downtown city character has been almost washed away by crowds, customers, mobile stalls, and street vendors shouting and asking people to have a look at their supplies.

The permissiveness of police has proliferated this phenomenon in the city, and dysfunctional municipalities are helpless when it comes to the violations taking place on a daily basis. It seems difficult for municipalities to implement the law as they lack legitimacy.

Failing municipalities 

Currently, municipal delegations are provisional and have no legitimate right to mobilize staff or stop infringements. All governmental institutions are awaiting the next general election, scheduled for October this year, to start operating effectively. The future of the municipalities remains unclear, meanwhile, since municipal election dates are not yet fixed.

The city is witnessing a massive deterioration of its ecosystem, and municipalities are struggling to collect and dispose of domestic and industrial garbage waste. There are 15 municipalities in Tunis that do not have the same capacity for collecting waste as before and local municipalities’ equipment and waste collection vehicles are becoming more and more deteriorated.

The random recruitment of workers under pressure from the Tunisian General Labor Union and municipal strikes in protest against selective wage increases and outsourcing have added to the problem. Each time a strike takes place uncollected waste accumulates. And when locals give up on the garbage collectors, obnoxious odors sweep across the city’s streets and the smell of burning domestic waste fills the air.

Image: an evening scene from Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Khaoula Ben Amara.

What urban future?

Following the revolution, Tunisians have taken advantage of their newfound freedoms. The cultural space has opened up with positive consequences. On the other hand, many Tunisians have glossed over the thin line between freedom and responsibility as many are abusing the current transition period for their own good. The stakes are high, and the government needs to be accountable for the current economic situation, security issues and urban challenges.

With the upcoming general election, a legitimate government with legitimate municipalities and constituencies may enforce the rule of law. Yet, my concern is about Tunis’ urban future. Urban planners have been excluded from decision-making where urban governmental projects are concerned, and in drafting the new constitution there is no agenda to stick to as far as urban planning is concerned. Urban planners have to be included in future development project debates to save the city — which is already losing it character and spirit — from mediocrity.


This article forms part of Urban Africa’s urban reporting series and was produced with our partners openDemocracy.

Afia 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 image: breakdancer. Art Solution.



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