vendredi 14 octobre 2011

Report: Interview with the mayor of Sidi Bou Saïd

Raouf Dakhlaoui, mayor of Sidi Bou Saïd

Raouf Dakhlaoui isn’t like any kind mayor we are used to seeing, at least not for a city like Sidi Bou Saïd. When you enter his office, you immediately notice the piles of documents neatly stacked on his desk, the two telephones that always seem to be ringing and the constant interruptions by his staff. This doesn’t seem to bother him very much as he answers my questions at the same time.

Know that the mayor of Sidi Bou Saïd has more on his plate than just governing the city. He is currently in 3rd position on the Pôle Démocratique Moderniste (PDM) electoral list in the Tunis 2 riding and he is also the owner of the Art-Libris library in Tunis. And don’t think for a minute that he neglects the library in lieu of his other duties. Why, do you ask? It’s because Tunisian mayors aren’t paid and their expenses aren’t covered either.

This means that being mayor costs Raouf Dakhlaoui money because he has to hire people to run his business in his stead. It is why also he says that he doesn’t know if he’ll run for mayor again next spring.

Mr. Dakhlaoui has been in office for close to four months now but the monetary implications as well as his other personnal obligations are making him consider if he should be candidate or not at the first municipal elections. There is also the risk of being elected to the Assembly, although he calls his a happy problem to have. The mayor remains realistic however of his chances of success, ‘‘it’s possible and I’m confident I’ll be elected but for that to happen, the Pôle will need to have excellent results’’ he says.

As for the PDM’s program, he staunchly defends its primary points and details the vision that the party has to improve Tunisia. Amongst his priorities, the first is to arrive at a consensus about a constitution that guarantees fundamental individual liberties and that is difficult to amend in order to protect citizens from the state. Once this is achieved, in a year or so, the other projects that Tunisia desperately needs can be set in motion.

According to the mayor, the PDM is the only party that has an economic plan that isn’t tainted by demagogy. In other words, they don’t make promises they know they can’t keep. The mayor adds that ‘‘the truth is that unemployment is higher now than before the Revolution. This is normal but we must now work to stabilize our institutions and regain the trust of foreign investors and tourists. “Of course the government can’t just snap its fingers and make 500 000 jobs appear all at once. What we need is clear long term direction and also achievable goals in the short term’’.

Speaking of short term, the PDM presents a ‘‘plan for the first 100 days’’ that implies investment in the regions’ infrastructure to boost tourism. From a social point of view, the party states that it is against all forms of discrimination and opts for more individual liberties. It does not go as far as to, say, legalize gay marriage as Dakhlaoui says ‘‘we simply are not there yet with our current mentality’’.

On religion, the party calls itself very open. They want a separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion. As for the religious parties though, the mayor is absolute, ‘‘there can be no coalition with Ennadha or any other Islamic party’’. I felt that he was restraining himself when he spoke of them and their chances of victory. I could also add that this man speaks his mind quite frankly. That’s probably why he refuses to answer some of my questions outright; he waits until after the elections so his opinions cannot be portrayed as partisan.

On the topic of his city, even though it is a major tourist destination, he admits there are very serious current economic problems. A major one right now is the current state of permits being issued to street vendors. From a logistical point of view, the city must limit the number of permits to prevent overcrowding, but on the other hand they represent a serious source of income to many residents.

As I was saying above, Mr Dakhlaoui has only been in office for four months now. This is due to the changes in administration that occurred right after the Revolt. Before, the leaders of cities were appointed and controlled by the regime. His predecessor was in fact just a puppet serving the interests of the Trabelsis, the family of Ben Ali’s wife.

After the Tunisian revolt and the many protests at the Kasbah, the transitional government did a housecleaning, so to speak, in the cities. Like in other municipalities (La Marsa, Sfax, Sousse, Tunis, Carthage, etc.), Sidi Bou Saïd’s city council was sacked and replaced with a steward government until an election could be called.

According to the mayor, this was the best course of action at the time. He also doesn’t hesitate to be optimistic about Tunisia’s future and believes the upcoming election will be transparent. The only thing that worries him is the losers' reactions to the results. He states that ‘‘the PDM will accept the results, win or lose. ‘‘The revolution was carried out by the people for the people so the least the parties could do is put their egos aside and accept the October 23rd judgment’’.

Sidi Bou Saïd’s highest magistrate is right to say that because it could have major consequences after the ballots are cast. Either way, we’ll see very soon; only 10 days left.

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