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Tunisian street vendor serves success despite bureaucracy

TUNIS: Tunisian street vendors often complain of official harassment, but one sandwich maker-turned-social-media-star hopes his struggles against bureaucracy will motivate young entrepreneurs. Habib Hlila, 27, first set up a food van in the working-class Bab El Khadra district of Tunis in early April, selling sandwiches at the end of each day’s fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He quickly became a star of Tunisian street food, gaining a social media following as he used banter and theatrics to prepare his signature “El-Bey” sandwiches and grills, accompanied by his own special sauce.

As videos on social media helped his name spread, Hlila started drawing ever bigger crowds. But in late April, police detained Hlila and seized his truck on the basis that he had no licence to operate. The operation was caught on camera and widely shared online, sparking anger among Tunisians who often complain of the obstacles authorities place in front of small businesses and everyday life. Hlila rode a wave of public sympathy and started appearing on television to talk about his experience.

The story drew comparisons to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire following police harassment in 2010, triggering a nationwide revolt that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Hlila rejects the comparison, despite his own experience coming at a time that Tunisia faces crippling economic conditions and a political crisis that some have warned could return the country to dictatorship.

TUNIS: A woman looks while her son eats one of the sandwiches prepared by Tunisian street food vendor Habib El-Bey along the capital Tunis’ Habib Bourguiba Avenue.

Inspire unemployed youth

“I’m not Bouazizi and I would never resort to acts of desperation in response to crises,” he told AFP. “I’ve decided to succeed and to be a source of motivation for the young.” He says he wants to turn his experience into a positive story to inspire young Tunisians who often find it impossible to create a successful business in the face of suffocating bureaucracy.

After a long struggle, he finally managed to procure a license to organize cooking shows across Tunisia – then retrieved his van and started up his sandwich business again. Last Saturday, at an entrance to the Old City of Tunis, he held a show in a brand-new food truck worth more than $20,000, which he is paying off in installments. Wearing a black outfit dotted with small Tunisian flags, he held court for more than five hours in his first meeting with customers since his arrest.

‘Success story’

“Bravo to this young man who kept going despite the obstacles,” Naziha Bahloul, 51, told AFP as she queued to buy a sandwich. “He’s a good example to young people who only think of leaving the country. It’s a beautiful success story.” But not everyone is inspired. Bilel, an unemployed 31-year-old who, like many young Tunisians, wants to leave in search of a better life in Europe, said that Hlila “was able to go back to work because his case got media attention – it’s not the case for other young people.” But Hlila said he wants “to prove to the young that you can reach your goals if you are determined. I want to tell them that you should never give up, despite the difficulties.”

Hlila’s interest in street food began in 2021 after helping a friend make sandwiches and he has succeeded despite not completing high school. Handcarts and vans selling fast food are common in the Tunisian capital, but Hlila says the sector needs to be brought into the regular economy – something that could both create jobs and contribute to tourism. “I have a lot of ideas to develop a project that could inspire unemployed youth,” he said. – AFP

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