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The need for a culture of common ground in Tunisia: a view from the back of a taxicab

2012 May 7
View from a Tunisian taxicab

Lenore’s taxicab rides in Tunis have led to many interesting conversations about social change in  post-revolutionary Tunisia.

We are delighted to introduce our newest guest blogger, Lenore Dukes. Lenore has been with SFCG for the past 8 months, the last 2 months of which have been as an intern with our team in Tunisia. She has graciously agreed to share her impressions of SFCG’s new work in this exciting post-revolutionary country throughout the duration of her internship. Watch our website as well as we begin to post updates over the next few weeks on our projects in Tunisia.

A few weeks ago, I was riding a taxi to work in downtown Tunis. As it’s always clear from my accent that I’m a foreigner here, the taxi driver politely asked me what I was doing in the country. When I told him that I’m interning with a non-profit that works toward conflict resolution, he seemed skeptical: Tunisia’s not at war, after all, so what are we doing here? I explained that Search for Common Ground is in Tunisia to help build a culture of dialogue, to help people and groups understand and deal with their differences in a productive way during this difficult time. He liked this idea and was about to tell me why when his cell phone rang. I looked out the window and tried not to listen as the driver argued into the phone, gesticulating angrily with both hands and growing louder by the minute. Eventually he hung up, turned to me and quite mildly apologized:

“See – that’s why we need a culture of conflict resolution in Tunisia.”

We both laughed, but he was sincere. During the rest of the ride he told me that more Tunisians needed to talk through their differences calmly and with respect. I’ve heard this theme in many conversations I’ve had in my short time here, conversations that have helped me better understand the role that Search for Common Ground is playing in post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Exploring the “common ground” approach in today’s Tunisia

Rooftops in Tunis, Tunisia

A view of the Tunis skyline.

I came to this country in March to intern with SFCG’s new Tunisian office. I had previously interned at the Washington DC office, and I wanted to see for myself how SFCG’s programs affect people’s lives in the other countries where we work. I was also excited for the opportunity to see how Tunisian society is grappling with the questions of identity, governance, and new freedoms just over a year after the Tunisian revolution toppled a 23-year-old dictatorship and began the Arab Spring. In my time here, and occasionally on this blog, I hope to explore how the “common ground” approach that SFCG offers is assisting the democratic transition in Tunisia.

A space for Common Ground Journalism in post-revolutionary Tunisia

Place 14 Janvier

Taxicabs circling Place 14 Janvier, the site of many of the demonstrations in 2011.

So far, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to delve into these questions. Almost everyone I talk with, from my housemates to taxi drivers, has opinions to share about what’s happened since the revolution. The other day, a different taxi driver complained that the constant protests staged by left- and right-wing groups in Tunis are disrupting life for ordinary people. He told me, unprompted, that he was especially fed up with the media’s tendency to emphasize negative subjects, adding that their coverage is creating artificial divisions between Tunisians. I was struck by the relevance of this to one of SFCG’s major projects in Tunisia: training journalists to cover events with a more impartial, constructive, solution-oriented approach.

At the moment, the media sector is seeking to reinvent itself but struggling to find the right tone to cover this time of changes and conflict. SFCG’s goal is to help the media play a positive role in Tunisia by reducing the destructive polarization in society and drawing attention to the many things that Tunisians have in common – in other words, exactly what this taxi driver was calling for. The journalists themselves have been enthusiastic about the need for this change, but to hear this from someone outside of the project was a remarkable confirmation of the need for common ground journalism in Tunisia today.

The legacy of football in Tunisia: a tool for peacebuilding?

Tunis Street Football

Tunisian youth play football in the Kasbah square in Tunis. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet another indication of what SFCG has to offer comes from conversations about Tunisia’s troubled past. I’ve heard from several people that under Ben Ali’s regime, no freedom of expression was allowed in Tunisia, except in the area of sports. The government channeled the energy, passion, and engagement that would have normally gone toward political participation into football (soccer). It strikes me that this is the reverse of how Search for Common Ground treats speech and sports in its popular TV show, The Team, in 17 countries around the world. The Team uses football, not to distract from civic issues, but as a vehicle to talk about social problems and to build support for working together toward common goals. In a country where people, especially youth, are used to football being one of the only public spheres for self-expression, The Team could be a familiar, fun and effective vehicle for dialogue about the important issues that the country is facing.

Tunisia’s still-forming future: opportunities for conflict resolution

All these conversations have brought home to me the complex legacy of the Tunisian revolution. Most people I’ve met in Tunis are excited finally to be able to speak their minds and to play a part in determining the future of their country. At the same time, there’s a lot of anxiety and tension about what that future will look like. Much of this unease is fed by an atmosphere of destructive conflict between people with different points of view.

In this context, it’s been striking to see people’s support for Search for Common Ground’s mission, from taxi drivers to editors-in-chief of media outlets to the young leaders in several of SFCG’s projects. Whether by supporting a culture of mediation and dialogue, helping the media tone down the negative polarization within Tunisian society, or perhaps using a soap opera about sports to open up dialogue about difficult issues, Search for Common Ground has an important role to play in helping Tunisians find a way to work together to shape Tunisia’s future. I look forward to sharing that process with readers of this blog in the months to come.

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