“Citizen Knowledge” to Build Democracy: In Conversation with Olfa Lamloum

Olfa Lamloum (far left) addresses an audience after the screening of Voices of Young People in Thala, a compilation of five short documentaries made by amateur directors (on stage in photo), produced by International Alert. Photo by Fadil Aliriza on April 9, 2019 at Culture City in Tunis.

Since 2014, political scientist Olfa Lamloum has been the Tunisia country director of International Alert, an organization that describes itself as helping “people find peaceful solutions to conflict.”

This February they published a study entitled “Youth and Institutional Violence: Studies Ten Years after the Tunisian Revolution.” The study includes an introductory chapter by lead authors Lamloum Myriam Catusse as well as chapters on violence in the Tunis transportation system (“Urban Mobility in Douar Hicher: Transit Obstacles for Youths in one city in Greater Tunis” – Stéphanie Pouessel), violence in a global supply chain (“The Invisible Hand of Women or the Weak Link in a Global Economic Chain: Interlinking Violence” – Chiraz Gafsia), and violence between football fans and authorities (“Reading Institutional Violence: The Ultras of Ettadhamen Neighborhood” – Chaima Ben Rejeb). The study is currently only available in print and in French. In March, International Alert published another report entitled “A Dignity Budget for Tunisia”.

Lamloum sat down for an interview with Meshkal in Tunis on April 6, 2021 to discuss their recent publications as well her own broader vision of politics.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fadil Aliriza: If it is political, sociological studies you and International Alert are doing, how do you think these studies can inform political discussion or legal discussion about what laws should be passed, what should be changed? What is the practical application of what you’re doing?

Olfa Lamloum: The interest of this work is to produce knowledge on marginalization, in borders areas and working-class neighborhoods from another perspective. Because until the collapse of Ben Ali, access to the field—especially to the marginalized areas, working class neighborhoods etc.—was forbidden. One of the many added-values of the revolution is to permit this kind of access and to permit another narrative and another way to interrogate it, to understand, to size up social conflict…from the perspective of people from below.

We try to do that, and I think even that is interesting: to produce another narrative…and have knowledge on this social question. What’s marginalization? And what’s dispossession? And [what’s] the link between dispossession and the daily life of people in those areas?

The second thing is this narrative is for the youth, for people, for local civil society…I think we also need as civil society to have a common understanding and a common narrative of those questions, social, dispossession as I said, the nature of the conflict. How things are going in this country and precisely to have another alternative than: “The miracle is self-entrepreneurship.”

Now, how to interfere with political decision-makers at the national level is maybe very hard for two or three reasons. The formal reason: the political instability. As you know we try to work on access to health and question of regional inequality and territorial inequality in terms of access to public health. Even since the Covid crisis we had three ministers of health. And since the revolution until now [there’s been] 11 or 12 governments. This political instability is a factor that doesn’t really allow us and civil society in general to do a kind of advocacy work in the long term. But the main reason is actually the successive governments continue to do the same things [previous governments did] before the revolution in terms of social and economic policy.

FA: If we were to put aside the challenge of advocacy, let’s say you didn’t have to act as an advocate, how could you say what you’re studying from a sociological perspective – if you had a magic wand – should be acted upon by other sections of society? You’re identifying very significant, real barriers to change, I think that’s important to recognize. But imagine perhaps there were not so many barriers?

OL: But even with these kind of barriers, I think the main impact of our work is to mobilize civil society and civil actors at a local level in producing citizen knowledge, citizen diagnostics, and a citizen narrative from below and from their needs and also to create tools, spaces—democratic tools and democratic spaces—for participation, for advocacy and for accountability, also to set up is this kind of democratic and participatory governance from below at the local level. We set up some pilot projects or some tools or mechanisms, like the participatory budget in Hay Ettadhamen, Douar Hicher, Kasserine, Tataouine for example, or the health diagnostic in Tataouine which is really an interesting tool for advocacy tool for citizen knowledge and participation. This is a good thing for democracy from below and I think the process is kind of cumulative.

FA: Is this why you have done documentary films? To be more accessible?

OL: Documentaries is one of, [but] not the main thing [we do]. For us the documentary is kind of a platform of debate and a tool to raise other voices and other narratives. I don’t know if you watched Voices from Kasserine – in this documentary we try to explore this binary of this dispossession and resistance in Kasserine to better understand the question of marginalization but from the point of view of people from Kasserine. This documentary for us is a kind of discussion platform on this very political question of marginalization.

FA: Would you appreciate it if for example parliamentarians were to ask you for your advice in terms on where to go in terms of crafting a strategy or a policy?

OL: Like adviser? No, not to be adviser to political parties. We try with civil society, with people, with citizens to make pressure to advocate in favor of the needs of people and mainly in favor of economic and social rights. And we are of course ready to advocate in front of parliament. We did [appear at parliamentary hearings] twice with other actors

FA: As a human rights collective?

OL: Yeah.

FA: But not necessarily on social, class or marginalization issues?

OL: We did that many times because our work is mainly local work. We had really a lot of opportunities to discuss or to work with municipalities, the mayors, with the public sector, the health sector, public institutions etc. We did a lot of things with Health Reproductive Centers (Centre de la santé reproductive), Centers for Defense and Social Integration (Centres de défense et d’intégration sociale), culture centers, youth centers.

FA: You feel like these are works in which both sides manage to benefit from each other?

OL: Yes, sure

FA: So it is permeable then, the elements of the State at some point, whether it’s at the local level or different institutions there is this capacity for some sort of cross…

OL: I think we have more space as civil society to do good work at the local level. For example, with the municipality in Hay Ettadhamen and Douar Hicher, with the participatory budget or the Open street map. We did a lot of campaigns for corona and raising awareness. We had partnerships with many public institutions or elected bodies at the local level and it was really interesting and they know that we have our added value and it’s interesting to work with us and even because through this kind of work they rebuilt confidence in people and with the citizen, which is of course very useful for them.

FA: For the State to rebuild confidence?

OL: Yes.

FA: When I read your work, watch your work, the theme that I feel is common throughout it is urban poverty. Is this a correct assessment?

OL: Urban? No. It’s more and more difficult to separate urban from not urban. Everything now in Tunisia is urban after this classification, this generalization of municipality. [Updated editor’s note: In 2016 the Tunisian State reorganized municipalities and created new ones so that every geographical region falls under the jurisdiction of a municipality, even in rural areas]

FA: Technically. People are still living in the countryside.

OL: Yeah of course. The common point is marginalized areas. We work on the border [areas], which are not urban, and in urban areas, peri-urban…

FA: These two most recent International Alert reports [“Youth and Institutional Violence: Studies Ten Years after the Tunisian Revolution” and “A Dignity Budget for Tunisia”], I know it’s very early but have you had any response from anyone in official positions, anyone in parliament, any political engagement from parties? Or even maybe civil society?

OL: On the budget of dignity, we are really very happy because the media coverage was very good. I had a lot of interviewees with a lot of radio here in greater Tunis, Sousse, Sfax, Monastir etc. and a lot of articles on this project.

FA: Any negative media attention?  Or anything surprising or shocking in some of the questions from media? Or anyone you felt they didn’t understand?

OL: Yes this kind of thing. For example some of the media thought this budget is an average, not a family budget, so a misunderstanding. Not really a negative reaction, [media were] very open to discuss and we had many which is good. Now maybe because the context is also good as we are not far from Ramadan and the question of the economic situation of families is crucial. We’ll continue with that. We have a kind of advocacy strategy. We will present this project to the UGTT, to some deputies in parliament.

FA: Would you advocate that the minimum wage should be increased for example? Like very specific [policy] things are not in the report, I noticed. But do you want other people to take up these ideas? I feel like there’s a clear vision here.

OL: Yes. In terms of advocacy we have two priorities. The first is to defend the idea of another perspective, a complementary perspective, the average of poverty, the rate of extreme poverty. We said: ‘10 years after the revolution, it’s time to think in another manner and in terms of needs of people and insuring dignity for people.’

Second thing is the approach. What we try to say is there is no legitimacy—institutional or bureaucratic etc.—to decide our needs. People, citizens, women, men and, in general, citizen expertise is able—and has enough legitimacy—to decide and discuss this very important thing, this participatory approach with consensus. Because at every step we are looking for a consensus between people in these different focus groups. The first main idea is to promote the right of people, citizens, to decide, to speak, to deliberate on their needs and their minimum needs and it’s a democratic way. It’s more democratic than the IMF or I don’t know who decides that to survive we need X calories or X dinars.

[Another] thing is to promote democratic debate on how to raise the minimum and also how to raise and have another public policy. The figure of 2400 Tunisian [dinars minimum monthly income for a family of four], this budget shows something very important. It shows that one of the needs is public services. 2400, for example, in some interviews journalists asked me: ‘Don’t you think it’s a lot? It’s a lot!’ And my answer was: ‘Yes of course, because in this country to have access to transport, to health, and education, daycare—you have no choice.’ The only choice is private sector because of the [poor] situation of the public services in this country—and of course it’s a result of policy, political choice, privatization, liberalization, austerity. [These] have a price. And this price today is paid by people. By poor people. This absence of services also shows the inequality in the country and it’s a source of inequality between citizens.

FA: These people who say [2400 dinars]: ‘It’s too much’, I imagine that they’re speaking from a position of middle class, upper middle class. They’re not talking about ‘It’s too much’ for them?

OL: Yeah sure, because for sure they have. When you think, [2400 dinars], it’s six times the SMIG [minimum monthly wage of about 400 dinars], yeah because the SMIG is just nothing. Even this SMIG [rate] is not available in the private sector today.

FA: If these people are saying ‘It’s too much,’ these are people who maybe don’t have a problem with inequality? It sounds like they don’t believe in equality. Is this a challenge as well, that maybe there needs to be an awareness campaign?

OL: I think, frankly, it’s not about believing. It’s a power relationship. We don’t need to push them to believe.

FA: So there needs to be a power rebalance?

OL: Yeah, we need to have a balance of power to have the same rights. Because a lot of people, people who don’t believe, they just defend their interests. So we can’t try to change their minds. We have just to create a new balance of power to impose equality.

FA: I think there are some people who are convince-able and some people who are not.

OL: Yes sure, you’re right. But maybe [they’re] a small part of it.

FA: I want to ask you as well about the report on institutional violence. Why is it important to think of violence as “institutional” violence.

OL – At the end of our research in 2015 on youth in Douar Hicher and Hay Ettadhamen—it was the first quantitative and qualitative research on daily life perception. At the end of the work, and we wrote that in the conclusion, the violence appeared as a very prominent social phenomenon. We discovered at that time that the violence is really—from the point of view of youth—very present in their daily life. [It’s a] multiform violence: collective, individual, institutional etc. And also the context [then] was [that] the only narrative on violence in mainstream media and even other media was: ‘Youth as actor of violence’ and criminalization of the working class. So from that time we decided to work on violence and the question of violence from another perspective to understand how violence impacts the life of youth and from the perspective of youth to reverse the approach and the understanding of violence.

Of course at that time the mainstream media reduced Douar Hicher and Hay Ettadhamen to a bastion of radicalization and, as you maybe noticed, at that time we had a lot of projects, works on violent extremism etc.

FA: Countering Violent Extremism, Preventing Violent Extremism?

OL: All that. So actually we didn’t work on extremism and violent extremism. But we decided to have another position and to work on institutional violence and not the violence of youth.

FA: By ‘institution’, you mean the State?

OL: More than the State. So we immediately had two challenges. The first one was how to deal with this question, how to classify, size [up], understand and even identify violence. What is violence actually? And we decided that our approach to violence would be based on the point of view of people, of youth…how they describe it or live it. The second challenge was also the absence of official statistics on violence. It’s really very paradoxical: We speak a lot about violence and we have almost nothing [in terms of data].  Ministry of Interior? Nothing. Not updated nothing, nothing!…

So by institutional we tried to make a kind of categorization of violence. We identify four registers of violence.

FA: I think I understood all of them except “transgressive” violence. I didn’t understand what you meant by transgressive.

OL: The first one – anomic [violence] is for us kind of structural violence. If we want, it’s the violence as a result of neoliberalism and the collapse of landmarks and the welfare state. [It’s] uncertainties or the rise of uncertainties related to the collapse of the welfare state, precarity, unemployment, absence of insurance etc. This is the first institutional kind of violence.

The second one relates to the State, police violence, all the institutions, the public institutions, the municipality, hospitals etc. [It’s] the violence of the State.

[The third one is transgressive violence]. Transgressive means transgressing the norms: violence against oneself like suicide, or transgressive [like] the forms of radicalization against the State like jihadi [violence] and also a kind of institutional product of violence.

FA: Which norms do they transgress?

OL: They transgress the dominant norms, the norms accepted by society, consensual norms. And the last [form of institutional violence] is in the family: family as an institution, which reproduces many kinds of oppression, sexual oppression, generational oppression.

FA: When you look at youth–I think you cite Emma Murphy’s work on the political economy of youth in Tunisia—the way that ‘youth’ is used in Tunisia can be very oppressive or maybe repressive, in a sense like: ‘It’s just youths,’ or ‘Youths, they have some special need,’ or even the challenge is not a class challenge, it’s not a political challenge, it is a generational challenge. I feel like sometimes the discourse of ‘youth’ can reproduce this, so this is why I’m curious, when you chose to focus on youth, were you concerned about reproducing some of this?

OL: It’s a good question, it’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about that. I thought about that. I even wrote things about that. No, I think…youth in marginalized areas, in border [areas], in interior governorates, in working class [neighborhoods]—for me it’s the social group that is intertwined with many forms of oppression and domination. I think that the youth in [these popular] areas, not the youth in [wealthy] Menzah 6 are the more socially vulnerable group because they are marked by something relatively new: structural unemployment.

It’s a huge phenomenon, a massive phenomenon, and it marked this group and this group has really a sociological specificity [distinguishing it] even from the generation of their fathers and their grandfathers, mothers etc. You have two differences, even from the same social background that’s why I said their fathers/grandfathers. They benefited from the democratization of the school but this was not a guarantee. School didn’t offer them a guarantee to social ascension. So they are victims of another kind of dispossession. It’s a dispossession from this formal right, which is a right to education, and they are a victim of many forms of inequality and subalternity, economic inequality, territorial inequality, social inequality, social disqualification and criminalization in other forms. Even their fathers and grandfathers and mothers were criminalized for other things… for me it’s not just a generational thing but this group is one of the main victims of neoliberalism and the collapse of the welfare state and it’s precisely this generation from the mid-90s until now.

FA: The research that you’ve been doing over the last few years, has the nature of your research changed if we look at 5 years ago vs today? Or any new challenges?

OL: The simple answer is to say is that understanding and research is a cumulative thing and I think from different perspectives we try to understand the same context or the same area or the same space and frankly those spaces are very complicated…because the barrier between the formal and informal, legal and illegal are really blurred. By the way, that’s not specific to this area. If we try to understand the bourgeoisie in Tunisia, the barrier between formal and informal isn’t clear, or [between] legal and illegal.

FA: They don’t speak about it this way; it’s not stigmatized.

OL: Exactly. But what changed, I don’t know if it’s really a change or we discovered it now. Two or three things. For example, the ‘zones d’ombre’?

FA – Things that we don’t know that we don’t know?

OL – Exactly. The informal economy, this political economy, the economy of drugs, the economy of alcohol and their connection with political actors. The rise of [drug] consumption is a new phenomenon and the social impact of that in terms of everything—I mean the relationship between people, the phenomenon of addiction, the impact of that on the physical integrity of people, the mental health and the rise of new forms of violence.

And the other thing is the new governance of the today. After ten years, we have Ennahdha in a lot of municipalities and it’s a new phenomenon. So how [do] people or youth perceive today this conflict, and new bi-polarization between Abir Moussi and the Islamist party; we don’t know. We need to work on that.

FA: International Alert, from what I understood, is focused on conflict. Is the goal in the big picture to reduce conflict? Sometimes conflict can also be…

OL: A good thing!

FA: …helpful.

OL: Yes. We are not trying to eliminate the conflicts. What we say here in Tunisia – internationally it’s a peace building NGO around the world. Every office has its own specificity related to the context. Here we worked on marginalization, which is for us the main social conflict here. And by marginalization we mean the intersectionality of inequality, social, economic, symbolic, territorial and gender inequality. We worked on that, and we worked on a local level on the borders and popular neighborhoods and the idea is not to eliminate the conflictuality but to promote rights, economic and social rights.

FA: As citizens. Citizenship is also very tricky concept to grab ahold of.

OL: That’s another discussion