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A self-taught democracy emerges from Tunisia's classrooms

Zarzis , Tunisia.

Doug Saunders/The Globe and Mail/Doug Saunders/The Globe and Mail

It's late morning, and the streets of this desert town are impassable because high-school students are, in the words of 16-year-old Haifa Zardeded, "holding our own revolution."

The entire student population, plus one teacher, have defied their principal's orders and skipped school to pack the streets in a jubilant and defiant mood. They are demanding a quick move to democracy - not just in the capital of Tunis, but also here in Zarzis, where it is the youth who have forced out the regime-appointed mayor and set up a committee that now controls the town.

Many of these kids are as young as 16, but they talk of democracy with a grave seriousness informed by experience: On Jan. 13, when hundreds of thousands of Tunisians took to the streets to force dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to quit and flee, two of their classmates were killed by police bullets.

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Among these students, you will find the earliest answers to a question that now hovers around Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and much of the revolution-torn Arab world: What happens next?

In towns such as Zarzis, the people's response has been to fill the power vacuum caused by the disappearance of the regime, along with much of its hated police force and many of its appointed mayors. They are organizing nascent institutions of local democracy - a concept that has never existed in their countries.

"Things have changed in this town since Ben Ali left. Before, there was no trust among people," says Walid Fellah, 27, one of the organizers of the local-government committee. "Now there is a great respect, because we all worked together to take control, and we all have a stake."

Mr. Fellah is one of many unemployed high-school graduates whose frustration with lack of opportunities and freedoms drove him to join the revolution. After all, the Tunisian revolt was triggered when a man of the same age, Mohamed Bouazizi from the village of Sidi Bouzid, driven to rage because he couldn't afford to bribe the municipal government enough to sell vegetables on the street, set himself ablaze.

Walid Fellah, inspired by Mr. Bouazizi's self-sacrifice, decided to respond differently. His city's government was corrupt, but there was no media to complain. So he set up Zarzis TV, a Facebook page upon which he posted videos of local protests and government reprisals. It became an instant hit and fanned the local revolution.

It was mainly people under 30 who hit the streets and braved tear gas and live ammunition during those fervid weeks in January. After Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Jan. 14, those young people had to learn where to direct their newfound passions.

The comment threads on Zarzis TV became a rallying point for students, who would spend hours debating the best structure for municipal government and the pathway to elections.

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"These students were never taught anything about democracy, they didn't know the language or ideas, but they're learning it all by experience," said Mourad Dani, 32, the lone high-school teacher willing to join the school's "revolution." (He risks suspension from his job, and the students risk losing their diplomas, for being involved.)

"Before, government was the most boring subject, nobody thought about it. Now it's all they can talk about."

Two days after the national revolution, the Zarzis protesters held an election among their ranks to form a 20-person revolutionary committee. Then they held a town-hall meeting, with almost everyone in Zarzis attending, to decide how to create a non-authoritarian municipality.

On Jan. 20, six days after the dictator's ouster, they occupied the square outside Zarzis town hall and drove the mayor out of office. They kept him around, in exile at his house, to sign the papers that allowed the town's financing to continue (all municipalities in Tunisia are directly financed by the national government).

Virtually all of Tunisia's old regime-appointed mayors have disappeared. So have most policemen. The local bureaucracies continue to function only because officials have faith in the citizens, garbage is collected by voluntary agreement, and in a great many towns, people have had the chance to reinvent the way they are managed.

There is still a lot of anger directed at the remnants of the regime, and at the army leaders and transitional officials for not moving quickly enough, or fairly enough, toward elections. In Egypt, this frustration is even greater.

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But on the main streets of thousands of towns, people are simply taking matters into their own hands. They often don't quite know how an elected town hall works, but they sure know how authoritarianism works, and they want to avoid its return at all costs.

"I think we can change everything at the regional level to make this into a democratic country," says Ali Ben Aissa, a 20-year-old economics undergraduate who was elected to the revolutionary committee. "This is where we can start. We have the liberty, and we should use it where it helps us."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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