Tunisian street vendor serves up success despite bureaucracy


Published on: Amended:

Tunis (AFP) – Tunisian street vendors often complain of official harassment, but a sandwich maker turned social media star hopes his struggles with bureaucracy will motivate young entrepreneurs.

Habib Hlila, 27, first set up a food van in Tunis’ working-class Bab El Khadra neighborhood in early April, selling sandwiches at the end of each fasting day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

He quickly became a star of Tunisian street food, gaining a following on social media as he used banter and theatrics to prepare his “El-Bey” sandwiches and grills, complete with his own special sauce.

As videos on social media helped spread her name, Hlila began to draw larger and larger crowds. But in late April, police arrested Hlila and seized his truck on the grounds that it lacked a business license.

The operation was filmed and shared widely online, angering Tunisians who often complain about the obstacles authorities place in front of small businesses and daily life.

Hlila rode a wave of public sympathy and began appearing on television to talk about her experience.

History has drawn comparisons to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire following police harassment in 2010, sparking a nationwide revolt that toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Hlila rejects the comparison, despite her own experience at a time when Tunisia faces crippling economic conditions and a political crisis that some say could lead the country back to dictatorship.

Handcarts and vans selling fast food are common in Tunisia’s capital FETHI BELAID AFP

Inspire unemployed young people

“I am not Bouazizi and I would never resort to acts of desperation in response to crises,” he told AFP. “I decided to succeed and be a source of motivation for young people.”

He says he wants to turn his experience into a positive story to inspire young Tunisians who often struggle to build a successful business in the face of stifling bureaucracy.

After a long struggle, he finally managed to get a license to host cooking shows across Tunisia, then got his van back and restarted his sandwich business.

Last Saturday, at the entrance to the old town of Tunis, he organized a show in a brand new food truck worth more than 20,000 dollars, which he reimburses in installments.

Dressed in a black outfit dotted with small Tunisian flags, he held court for more than five hours in his first meeting with clients since his arrest.


“Bravo to this young man who carried on despite the obstacles,” Naziha Bahloul, 51, told AFP as she waited in line to buy a sandwich. “It’s a good example for young people who only think about leaving the country. It’s a great success story.”

But not everyone is inspired.

Hlila set up his food van in April in Bab el-Khadra, a popular district of Tunis, to serve sandwiches to passers-by on Ramadan evenings
Hlila set up his food van in April in Bab el-Khadra, a popular district of Tunis, to serve sandwiches to passers-by on Ramadan evenings FETHI BELAID AFP

Bilel, a 31-year-old unemployed man who, like many young Tunisians, wants to leave in search of a better life in Europe, said Hlila “was able to return to work because his case attracted media attention – this is not the case for other young people.”

But Hlila says she wants to “prove to young people that you can achieve 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 started in 2021 after helping a friend make sandwiches and he was successful despite not having finished high school.

Handcarts and vans selling fast food are common in Tunisia’s capital, but Hlila says the sector needs to be integrated into the regular economy, which could both create jobs and help tourism.

“I have a lot of ideas to develop a project that could inspire young unemployed people,” he said.


Comments are closed.