Auditioning to be Tunisia’s Next TV President

A photo of a film set for auditions in the new TV show “I Am the President,” in Hotel Africa in Tunis, Sunday June 23, 2019. Photo by William Edwards.

The current Ukrainian president played the role of the country’s president in a fictional TV show before turning his acting performance into a reality this April. The current president of the United States was the star of the hit reality TV show “The Apprentice” for years before winning the 2016 election. The largest party currently in the Italian parliament and leading the government is the Five Star Movement, which was cofounded by an Italian comedian and actor.

With TV stars enjoying real success at the polls in other countries in recent years, Tunisians may be watching closely to see who wins a new reality TV show called “I Am the President.” The new show is scheduled begin airing in mid-July on the TV channel Carthage+ with the finale to broadcast just one month before Tunisia’s official elections in November this year.

“The purpose is to have something serious. It’s not a usual reality show; it’s not entertainment; it’s something serious,” said Amina Hamila, a media assistant working on the show for Search For Common Ground (SFCG), the organization managing the project.

The show, which was designed to “showcase” the “innovative ideas and leadership abilities” of contestants is based on a similar one that began in Palestine in 2013. Another version of the show also ran in Kenya.

“I Am the President” opened auditions in Tunis on Saturday, June 22 for candidates who are between the ages of 18 and 35. More auditions are scheduled to take place in Sfax, Sousse, Sidi Bouzid, and Gabes in the coming days. The show is being funded the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and managed by SFCG, a registered nonprofit charity headquartered in Washington D.C. that has had an office in Tunisia since 2011.

“The purpose of the show is to make young women and men in Tunisia participate in political life, to trust more in themselves at first because many people aged 18 or 21 have a lot of ideas but [people say] ‘Ah, you are young, what are you talking about?’” Hamila told Meshkal at the second day of auditions and filming for the show in Tunis on Sunday, June 23.

Whether young people really are participating in political life or not depends on what counts as politics. An SFCG project note available online clarifies that one of the main objectives of the show is to “promote a conducive environment for youth’s participation in formal politics.” But some analysts have identified other kinds of political participation amongst young people that are outside of formal politics.

Elections before the 2011 uprising were largely a sham, limiting the avenues in which all people, regardless of age, could meaningfully participate in them. However, outside of formal politics, political economist Emma Murphy has identified specifically “youth-based class resistance” to the regime that occurred during that period, “such as the Gafsa riots in 2008, social media activism or the growth of popular protest music cultures.”

As for participation after 2011, one analyst notes in a 2017 report that Tunisia has seen a “steady decline in formal political participation by youth since 2011. That is, Tunisian youth are politically engaged, yet they are increasingly eschewing formal politics (voting, joining political parties, and running for office) in favor of informal politics (starting or joining a civil society organization, protesting, or signing a petition).”

According to a poll released in March 2019 by the International Republican Institute, among Tunisians who think that ordinary people can have an influence on politics, only one third say such influence can come through voting. An equal number said individuals can have an influence on politics through protest.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, 80 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 25 did not vote. Since then, the 2018 municipal elections saw even lower turnout than previous years, with particularly low participation amongst young people.

While young people may not be interested in formal politics, they have shown plenty of interest in the new TV show, the show’s producers claim.

“The day we announced that we’re going to have a reality TV show, a lot of people approached us [asking]: ‘What? Where?, When, How can I participate? I want to take part in it, I want to be president,’” Khadija Maalej, a project manager for SFCG, told Meshkal. “Followers bombed us on social media to participate.”

According to SFCG, the show received 2000 applicants, 200 of which were present for Sunday’s auditions in Tunis. After all auditions are held, judges will choose 100 contestants and then slowly eliminate contestants as they are judged on challenges they complete. The audience will have the ultimate say when they choose the winner on the final episode in October.

Trust in government in Tunisia has declined in recent years, especially among young people. According to an infographic published by the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center using numbers from a 2014 World Values Survey, 91 percent of young people lacked confidence in parliament.

Economic struggles also contribute to young Tunisians’ dissatisfaction with their government. By the end of 2018, the “youth unemployment rate,”  stood at 33.4 percent while almost thirty percent of university graduates were unemployed, according to a report in African Manager citing the National Institute of Statistics. Political scientist Laryssa Chomiak has argued that concerns about the economy are one reason people are getting involved in informal rather than formal politics. In a 2016 paper, Chomiak argued that “non-institutional and informal political contention will likely expand in scope, support, and activity in light of the public perception of looming economic austerity programs and contracted public sector.”

Yet at auditions in the capital this weekend, those trying out for the job of TV president were full of enthusiasm.

“I have ideas to promote, I really want to learn how to [promote them],” said a 25-year-old woman from Tunis who is an artificial intelligence engineer auditioning for president in the new reality TV show (contestants are contractually obligated to keep their identities secret until the show airs). “A show like this will help you do it, but first of all you need to believe in yourself, you need to believe in this country, you need to love this country in order to make a change.”

“It’s really good to see all of these people…between 25 and 35,” a 25-year-old Tunis man who works in business and is auditioning said of his fellow competitors.

According to the same IRI poll, 60 percent of those polled said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate if they were under the age of 35. However, Tunisia’s 2014 constitution stipulates that the President of the Republic must be at least 35 years old and a Muslim.

Maalej, the project manager for SFCG, has high hopes for “I Am The President” and thinks it might be able to get voters to see the upcoming real elections in a different light.

“We’re coming very soon to our parliamentary and presidential elections…we’re going make our audience reflect and think twice about taking a decision,” Maalej said. “The [trust] between Tunisians and politics, we started to lose this…Now we need it back.”

During the course of the show, contestants will visit different government ministries, one of Tunisia’s embassies overseas, museums documenting Tunisian history, and other sites that relate to public policy issues. The show’s producers will task contestants with completing projects related to these visits and the show’s judges will assess their performances.

Palestine’s version of the show, called “The President,” received some support from the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the show’s judges included PA officials.

Some of the Palestinian contestants in the show experienced real-world success afterwards, with several going on to work in politics, journalism, and other fields following their time on the program. Organizers of the Tunisian version hope such a translation of TV success to success in other fields can also happen this time.

“Politicians, ministers—I don’t know who else will watch it abroad—[might] be interested in [the] specific profile [of contestants] and they can approach him or her,” Maalej said.

As for who succeeds in the real presidential elections in November, several recent polls have shown another TV personality leading the race: media mogul Nabil Karoui, the founder of the popular Nessma TV station who is currently under investigation for tax evasion. Karoui’s eligibility to run has been put in question after parliament unexpectedly amended the election law in June in a way that appears to exclude several high-profile political figures coming from outside of traditional politics. Regardless of whether he will be able to run or not, Karoui’s popularity seems to be a sign of the continuing power of TV in politics.