In early February 2018, Sarah Yerkes and Houda Mzioudet visited two of Tunisia’s interior regions—Sidi Bouzid and Siliana—to try to understand local expectations for the May 6 municipal elections and the country’s broader decentralization process.

Sidi Bouzid, about 265 kilometers southwest of Tunis, is the town where the Tunisian uprising began in December 2010. Siliana sits in the southern end of the Tunisia’s northwest region, about 128 kilometers west of the capital, and is primarily an agricultural region with numerous Roman and Byzantine ruins. Both regions were marginalized during the regimes of presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine ben Ali, leading to dramatically lower levels of socioeconomic development than coastal regions. For example, in the final budget of the Ben Ali regime, 82 percent of state funds were dedicated to coastal areas, compared to only 18 percent for the interior.

The drive from Tunis offers the first sign of the vast disparity between the coast and the interior. The highway between Tunis and Kairouan, about 160 kilometers south, is in good condition—wide and well-maintained. Further south, however, the route becomes unpredictable. At times it turns into a barely passable dirt road and at times becomes a pristine highway, which dramatically increases the amount of time it takes to get anywhere.

As we drove farther out of Tunis, we saw two symbols of the economic challenges of the interior: numerous young men sitting around at cafes or on street corners in the middle of the workday, and gas cans full of smuggled gas from Algeria—just one example of the informal economy that dominates this area. Since the uprising, the central government has taken steps to improve the economy of the interior through a program of “positive discrimination,” which is intended to provide for equitable (rather than equal) resource distribution, from state budget support to administrative and human resources. This is designed to level the playing field for Tunisians across the country, regardless of where they live.

In both Sidi Bouzid and Siliana the people with whom we spoke—civil society activists, government officials, and candidates for the municipal elections—were both more optimistic as well as realistic about what decentralization will bring than their Tunis-based counterparts. In the interior, people view decentralization as a way of ensuring local control over local affairs. In regions that are both physically as well as psychologically far from the capital, residents hope that putting decisionmaking powers into the hands of locals will bring a more effective distribution of resources to better meet local needs.

However, our interlocutors in both Sidi Bouzid and Siliana were also realistic in their expectations. As a local delegate in Sidi Bouzid said, “We have to be cautious about local democracy, because democracy is a mechanism that does not always bring the best results.” He emphasized the need for greater citizen participation in decisionmaking—another goal of decentralization that was echoed throughout our discussions. While public support for the political system is quite low nationwide, in Tunisia’s interior regions there is a palpable sense of hope that decentralization will bring some positive change.