The setting was certainly unusual, with strict security checks at the entrance to the “tourist zone”, which was where the conference hotel was. Under-vehicle and car boot inspections were conducted; security officers rifled through the baggage in the hotel lobby. The fear of an attack is tangible in Tunisia. In fact, during the conference the words “terrorism” and “radicalisation” were frequently uttered by all North African participants. On the day of arrival, another event was taking place at the same hotel: a variety of civil society initiatives were presenting their anti-corruption projects and the Prime Minister was expected any moment, demonstrating how important the issue is to the government. Towards the end of the conference, the mood among the participants was somewhere between hope and scepticism. Tunisia remains a country in flux.
The first evening offered ample opportunity for informal exchanges. Some participants had already met at a prior event in Bonn in 2015, some had worked together already for years. Others knew each other from national networks and activities. The official part began the next morning, with prominent politicians in attendance: Mehdi Ben Gharbia , Tunisia’s Minister of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights, Houda Slim, Member of the Tunisian Parliament, and Saifallah Lasram, the mayor of Tunis. They all pointed out how important it is to ensure economic and political inclusion for young people. The politicians are aware of the difficult circumstances under which young people are growing up. Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt all have a young population, yet youth unemployment is rampant throughout these countries, especially in rural areas. For all speakers, the hope of peaceful coexistence in the region was a dominant theme.
Young people have not reaped the benefits of the revolution
The exact implications of this became clear during the first panel discussion with experts. Anis Boufrikha from We Love Sousse, one of the conference partners, pointed out that 38% of Tunisia’s population is aged 15 to 25, with youth unemployment at 33%. 44% are thinking about emigrating. “Young people may have brought about the Arab Spring, but they’ve not been able to reap its benefits,” concluded Yassine Isbouya from Morocco’s No Hate Speech campaign. The expectations placed on international youth work are correspondingly high. While youth and expert exchanges cannot solve all the problems, they can flag up an alternative path for young people that takes them away from hopelessness and extremism and towards a shared world marked by solidarity and tolerance, and make a contribution to developing civil society in all participating countries. This requires overcoming a number of obstacles, notably visa requirements – a recurrent subject during the discussions.
Marie-Luise Dreber, Director of IJAB and Sami Essid, the President of the Tunisian partner CCAB, reminded those present how the conference came about. After the Arab Spring, the Federal Foreign Office set up a fund for Germany’s transformation partnerships with North African countries. This fund include a budget earmarked specifically for youth and expert exchanges. The partners met for the first time in Bonn in 2015 at an event that produced two main conclusions: we need a network – and we need a stronger civil society that fights for democracy and against extremism. Youth work plays a major role when it comes to eliminating prejudice, developing confidence and aiding young people to take charge of their lives.
Is there a consensus on the challenges of the future?
Youth and expert exchanges and building stable partnerships are not a means unto themselves; instead, they develop along the lines of a shared agenda. During the workshops, participants discussed issues ranging from youth participation, democracy and civil society to interfaith dialogue, nature and the environment, gender equality, and inclusion. For instance, how are democracy and civil society perceived in the countries in question? What importance do they attach to them? These are particularly salient issues for the societies in transition in the region, and the workshop on this subject found some answers. Although the concept of democracy exists in all countries, it is interpreted in different ways depending on the social, political and economic situations at hand. All participants agreed that democracy needs to develop from inside a society; it cannot be imported nor imposed. A similarly clear consensus was reached on the connection between democracy and human rights: one cannot exist without the other. In all of the workshops, participants expressed a strong desire for dialogue, both within the disparate societies of North Africa as well as in Germany, their partner country. It became patently obvious that things that may seem divisive at first glance can be fertile ground for new partnerships. The terrorist attacks in recent years did not cause victims just in Europe; they have equally opened up wounds in the Arab world. Their root causes are to be found in both continents. Prevention, then, can be a shared project, for instance with an interfaith theme. These were serious and relevant issues which many participants would have liked to take more time to discuss.
Insight into Tunisia’s youth work
Among the reasons why Tunis was selected as the conference venue was because Tunisian NGOS manage a large part of the exchange activities between Germany and Tunisia. They are so good at it because civil society in Tunisia is highly diverse. Participants had a chance to visit some Tunisian institutions and organisations on field trips. The Arab Institute for Human Rights, for instance, is located on the premises of Dar Essaida, in the heart of Essaida, a low-income district of Tunis. The Institute organises projects for children and young people. Since the revolution in 2011 it has been able to move more freely and develop a stronger role. “The situation in Tunisia is all new,” said director Lamia Grar. The organisation specialises in introducing young people to the subject of human rights in a playful way. Some of the young people come to the Institute by way of an exchange programme. For instance, at the time the conference participants visited the Institute it was providing training to a group of Dutch youngsters from a partner organisation. Beyond its child and youth activities, the Arab Institute for Human Rights continues to promote social change in Tunisia. “We are working with the Tunisian union and the Ministry of Education to reform the school system,” recounted Lamia Grar. “We’re trying to help bring change to the authorities.”
The organisations participating in Dialogue Me To Network also had a number of good examples to show of activities by NGOs and the resulting youth exchanges. A project fair and a presentation of good practices were good opportunities to get to know them.
IKAB, a Bonn-based organisation, has maintained a partnership with CCAB in Tunisia for a long time. “Our activities are designed to benefit disadvantaged young people,” explained Lucie Engel. However, CCAB’s exchange programmes are not directly targeted at young people, but at educators and teachers in schools and non-school institutions. IKAB is a partner of the Franco-German Youth Office, so it is involved in trilateral exchanges as well, although most of its exchanges are between Tunisia and Germany only.
Imane Larich presented FOMEJE , the Mediterranean Youth Forum, from Morocco. The NGO maintains numerous international partnerships; amongst other things, it is responsible for implementing the Council of Europe’s No Hate Speech campaign in Morocco. It does at the institutional level, for instance by reaching out to politicians and the media. This has created a network that is working to popularise the campaign in all of the country’s youth clubs and universities. What priorities have been set for the campaign in Morocco? “Morocco is a transit country for many refugees who pass through here on their way to Europe,” explains Larich. “Some of them end up staying here and occasionally experience racism.” Yet sometimes there is also tension between various ethnic groups inside Morocco, so the No Hate Speech campaign also responds to that.
Solidaritätsjugend, a German youth organisation and We Love Sousse, a Tunisian organisation, only began working together recently. Their representatives met in 2015 in Bonn, at the first conference between Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Germany, and have since organised a number of joint exchange projects. Two young Tunisians from We Love Sousse attended a work camp organised by their German partner in Lindenberg in the Allgäu region which was all about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
A political framework is necessary
All these wonderful projects and exchanges operate within a certain political framework that deserves attention. It is based around funding from the Federal Foreign Office and the express commitment of all the participating countries. Against this backdrop, the visit of Tunisia’s Youth Minister Majdouline Cherni, member of parliament Houda Slim, Franz Maget, the social affairs attaché at the German Embassy in Tunis, and Judith Mirschberger from the Goethe Institute was highly significant.
“I am delighted to see that many young people are getting involved in politics today,” commented Minister Cherni, yet she also acknowledged that many disenchanted young people had turned away from politics and would have to be won over once again. Tunisia, she continued, has become more open towards other countries in recent years, with civil society playing a larger role today. “The world has become a village,” as she put it. As many young people as possible ought to take part in exchange programmes abroad, the Minister felt; in this regard, civil society organisations are instrumental.
Franz Maget also highlighted the importance of stabilising civil society, which is one of the objectives of the Federal Foreign Office as it promotes youth exchanges. Maget used the conference as an opportunity to speak about the visa issue situation and the travel warnings published by the Foreign Office, a subject highly relevant especially to the Egyptian partners. “Submit your applications early,” Maget advised, “and please bear with us if we have to take unpopular decisions in order to keep everyone safe.”
Finishing on an agreeable note
What are the next steps? As the conference drew to a close, the participants agreed on a roadmap. They want to stay in touch via a Facebook group that may later be opened up to a wider circle of interested people. Existing national networks are to be stabilised and strengthened, for instance by holding national conferences.
The partners expressed a clear desire to continue working on the issues identified during the workshops. In addition, a group was set up that will work on language and translation matters. In particular, they will examine the complex terminology used in Germany’s child and youth services system, and explore the terminological discrepancies in Arabic that arise from the differences in the countries’ specific systems.
Existing projects and materials will be compiled and put online for everyone to share. The international network, too, will be given an online profile, with a working group set up to verify whether to set up a dedicated website and how to fund it.