Tunisia is thought to be the only “success story” of the Arab Spring, but maybe “success” is a big word here. Although it has not failed like Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, “not failing” is not the same as “succeeding”, as Houssem Aoudi – founder of coworking space Cogite, put it when referring to the recurrent impression people have about his country.
“Success” was hanging by a thread before the now famous National Dialogue, which won the 2016 Nobel Prize, provided some stability. The National Dialogue is the largest Tunisian trade union, bringing together employers, lawyers, and the major Tunisian human rights institutions. Yet stability in Tunisia is fragile, as evidenced by the 2015 terrorist attacks on tourist destinations. Most young Tunisian people have difficulties foreseeing a future, and for some time now, Tunisia has been a significant supplier of jihadists for the so-called Islamic state.
Houssem does not need to think twice to come up with an explanation for Tunisians who join ISIS, “These guys feel completely inferior. They have no job, no family, they hang out at the coffee house around the corner, aimlessly, or at the mosque. We need to give them a purpose in life. We don’t have any other choice”.
Cogite, a coworking space for young entrepreneurs, could be the dawn of reaching this goal. The first objective of Cogite is to provide a pleasant place to work with like-minded people. That is just the beginning, as they also receive training to learn new skills in order to better run their own business. Cogite has achieved the TOP 10 list of best coworking spaces in the world according to Forbes magazine. In principle, everyone is welcome to join. Indeed, it is just as accessible as the TEDw that Houssem organises in Carthage each year. “There, everyone is truly welcome to join, from the CEO driving in a shiny Mercedes to those who can barely afford a bus ticket”.
A good working space is a facilitator: coffee, toilet paper and let’s get to work! But Houssem does even more for unemployed entrepreneurs - he gives them a helping hand and tries to let them grow and invest in their projects. Many start-ups have been launched in Cogite, mostly in the cultural sector. There also small green business such as a sustainable honey production. This gives young people a tangible reason to believe in the power of their own ideas in order to scale them up.
Cities are the place where the creative economy can flourish. San Francisco, Amsterdam and Berlin are some examples of cities where social entrepreneurs have taken root. Make no mistake, these cities foster this creativity because f their openness, their liberal and their LGBT-friendly environment. Houssem works to foster this openness but also seeks to expand and externalise the safe, free space of Cogite into the rest of society.
As a teenager who grew up under the strong authoritarian regime of Zine Ben Ali, Houssem took action by being an active blogger. He wrote about music, poetry, his peers, about hacking devices, radios and computers. Together with friends, they secretly watched illegally downloaded movies and listened to forbidden heavy metal music. “If music is not free, if you supress artistes and suffocate culture, if you then oppress minorities, homosexuals and lesbians, all people who are different, then you automatically start searching for cracks in the walls of repression. Internet piracy was our only oxygen”.
Houssem particularly believes in one thing: culture is the way to shape the identity of aimless young people. “Do you know how many cinemas there are in Tunisia? Six! Cinema is a way to give meaning; it is a way not to get bored and ultimately do very stupid things”. In the meantime, the government expects very little. “Social change must come from society itself, and entrepreneurship can be part of the solution.”
“Clear a field, provide a referee, and let the people play,” said Houssem about a meeting in San Francisco where John Kerry, then US Secretary of State, discussed the role of government from a quite liberal perspective.
Hivos supports Cogite through the CSE programme funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the context of LEAD (Local Employment in Africa for Development).