As the world’s attention focuses on the ongoing drama of the U.S. presidential campaign, let’s reflect on the unexpected turn of events that led, just about a year ago, to the election of Tunisian president Kais Saied. A research hosted by SOAS Centre for Global Media and Communication (CGMC) indicates that - in the midst of the controversy surrounding the national media coverage of the 2019 presidential race - Saied’s alternative approach to political communication led him to gain popularity amongst the youth.
At the time, candidate Nabil Karoui, who was Saied’s opponent in the second round of the election, had been arrested on charges of tax evasion and money laundering. He was also under investigation by the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) for having allegedly benefitted from the exposure he gained from his own media outlet Nessma TV. This introduced a national debate on mainstream media’s ability to hold political actors accountable and act as credible sources of information. In this context, the High Authority for Independent Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) in charge of monitoring media coverage of the campaign reported that other official media outlets (including TV channels El Hiwar Ettounsi, AttessiaTV, Zitouna TV, Hannibal TV and the radio Al Quran Al-Karim) had transgressed the rules and regulations set to ensure media independence.
A number of international observers insisted on the anti-establishment rhetoric of the two candidates, which they interpreted as the electorate’s decline of interest for partisan politics. Many did not expect Saied to have such an important reach amongst the Tunisian youth, because of his conservative views on the topics of death penalty, inheritance law and homosexuality. Yet beyond the question of his ideological position, the result of the last election can also be interpreted as a vote in favour of a decentralised approach to political communication.
Interviews conducted as part of SOAS CGMC study revealed that the victory of Kais Saied was the sign of a growing enthusiasm for informal and bottom-up campaigning practices, designed to facilitate the inclusion of the youths in the public debate. Interviewees reported that young voters had been particularly receptive to Saied’s communication strategy, which contrasted with the ‘one-to-many’ conventional approach to political campaigning:
'Having coffee at the local café is part of the Tunisian culture. It is the only leisure available to young people in Tunisian society. […] As you know, usually, an election campaign requires a lot of money, but in the case of president Kais Saied…well, he almost did not spend anything. Because he invested time and kept meeting people in local cafés across the country. He spent four years visiting different cities and meeting with members of the youths'. (Interviewee, SOAS CGMC dataset, Tunis, January 2020)
In the days following the announcement of Saied’s election, supporters inspired by the unexpected outcome of the campaign reclaimed ownership of the public space, working collaboratively to refurbish and customize the streets that had been neglected or poorly maintained. In October 2019, the regional news platform Al-Monitor reported that ‘[cleaning campaigns and painting initiatives organized via Facebook had been popping up around the country, since the run-off presidential election had elevated the outsider Kais Saied to Tunisia's presidency]’.
The events demonstrated that, for many young Tunisians, legitimate forms of public and political engagement operate in the peripheries of the public sphere. The credibility of official information channels is still in decline and national media outlets fail to reach out to young audiences. With the exception of local community radio stations, the mainstream media outlets are said to cultivate outdated genres and forms of storytelling that no longer resonate with the younger public.
A range of independent media platforms including Nawaat, Inkyfada and I Watch have gained recognition in the post-revolutionary media landscape by delivering in-depth investigative reporting or denouncing cases of corruption in the political and mainstream media sphere. This market is however generally perceived as limited to a niche audience and almost entirely dependent on foreign donors, which poses particular challenges in terms of sustainability. Moreover, the few independent news platforms that have been formally recognised, in the aftermath of the revolution, by regulation bodies like the National Union of Tunisian Journalists are becoming more established and thus more likely to be associated with more traditional media outlets.
In this context, young audiences are said to be drifting away from hard political news to consume alternative media content covering sport, entertainment, popular culture or political satire. SOAS CGMC study however shows that this does not necessarily affect their political awareness and does not mean that they are misinformed or ill-equipped to join public deliberation. In many cases, alternative media consumption in fact demonstrates a strong political consciousness as well as a high level of media literacy amongst the youths:
'During the last presidential election, everyone was surprised cause they did not expect such an important election turnout within the youths. They kept saying ‘youths don’t vote’, ‘youths don’t follow politics’, and in the end we have a president that is supported by the youths, who have been very influential on social media. A candidate, who came from nowhere, who was not really involved in the traditional political sphere. He was elected thanks to youths’ support and they informal power and influence on society.' (Interviewee, SOAS CGMC dataset, Tunis, January 2020)
As it appears from the case of the last presidential election, alternative communication practices can be used to channel playful and informal experiences of public engagement.