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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Poverty, Inequality and Opportunity

Tunisia: “Unemployment has killed me”

“Jobs or another revolution!” protestors chanted during demonstrations in January 2016, following the death by electrocution of Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old unemployed man in Tunisia.

After finding himself passed over for a job yet again, Yahyaoui climbed a telephone pole during a protest in Kasserine and touched a live cable. The electric shock killed him, although it is unclear whether his death was a suicide.

The incident was reminiscent of the death five years earlier of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose self-immolation sparked massive protests in Tunisia in December 2010 that eventually toppled then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Yahyaoui’s death and the subsequent protests illustrate the central position that economic woes continue to play in the lives of young Tunisians. In the third quarter of 2016, Tunisia’s unemployment rate reached 15.5%, the highest on record. But unemployment is far higher among young university graduates, at 31.9%.

The Tunisian revolution of 2010-11 has been understood as a point of rupture after years of worsening job prospects and living standards in the country. Some have claimed it highlighted the inefficacy of Tunisia’s development policies, while other studies saw a link between high rates of literacy, lack of economic opportunities, and protests against the state. One should, however, be cautious of taking an economically deterministic approach to Tunisia’s uprising. Many countries whose citizens are mired in deep poverty and rampant unemployment are not in a state of revolt. Other factors such as pre-existing social networks (like trade unions and family ties) also play a major role in shaping political events. Furthermore, economic statistics in North African countries, such as Tunisia, are often manipulated for political reasons.

Recent studies have found that lack of opportunities to marry (mainly due to lack of wealth) is another major cause of resentment against the state and social order in Tunisia.[1] For many young people, poor economic prospects block them from two of the main pillars of adulthood in Tunisia: marriage and employment. This situation affects both men and women in Tunisia, even if its social articulations are gendered. This partly explains the high rate of female participation in movements for work and around demands for regional development.

Left behind

The situation is especially dire in Tunisia’s impoverished interior. The governorates of Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, epicentres of protest in 2010-11, have the highest rates of unemployment and unmarried people in the country. According to the last census in 2014, the unemployment rate was 30% in Kasserine, compared to 15.5% nationally.

The table below illustrates the high unemployment and low marriage rates in Kasserine Governorate. Within Kasserine, rural areas such as Magel Bel Abbes are even more deprived than the governorate as a whole.

[table id=4 /]
Source: INS, 2014 Census

Tunisia’s new constitution recognizes the need to speed up development in the country’s disadvantaged regions, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has made of it one of the priorities of his national unity government. Yet despite their efforts, Tunisia’s post-Ben Ali governments have not figured out how to resolve the employment demands of youth eager to benefit from what was touted as the “Arab Spring.” Economic plans promoted since 2011 seem unlikely to reverse the worst economic and social crisis in Tunisia’s post-independence history. Its public debt has risen from 41% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010 to 59% in 2016. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s budget deficit last year was 62% of GDP, the biggest gap in the past 30 years. Economic growth is stagnating at 1.2%, a rate far too slow to create enough jobs for the many unemployed.

Foreign fighters

The economic malaise appears to be a factor in the large number of foreign fighters coming out of Tunisia. The Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid regions are believed to have supplied a large contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Al Nusra front, which is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Tunisians from these regions have also travelled to fight in Libya, and even Afghanistan. The other main source of violent extremists is the Tunis metropolitan area, especially its poor southern suburbs. According to Geoffrey Macdonald and Luke Waggoner, who lead a team of researchers on Tunisian foreign fighters, about 7,000 Tunisian men and women have enlisted in the ranks of extremist groups, most in Syria or Iraq. Tunisia contributes more foreign fighters to ISIL than any other country in the world.

Tunisia’s interior has a long history of restiveness; the region distinguished itself with its fierce resistance to French colonisation, and then its resistance to independent Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. It also paid the highest price in terms of human lives during the revolutionary period of December 2010 to January 2011.

According to my research as well as that of Macdonald and Waggoner, poverty, inability to marry, and a sense of abandonment by the state are among the main causes of this radicalism. These factors appear in dramatic form in the account of Nassim Soltani, who lives in the village of Saltniya, in Sidi Bouzid governorate. The 20-year-old, whose 16-year-old cousin was beheaded by a terrorist group, was quoted as saying: “We live at a level of poverty that is well below zero … We eat leaves that my mother picks, washes, and cooks … terrorism has the ability to buy us! Yes, it would buy all the youth in the Saltniya area.”

The possibility of a “political winter” in Tunisia after its so-called “spring” is all the more urgent given that many Tunisians engaged in violent extremism overseas are returning home. This controversial topic deeply divides society and the Tunisian political class. President Beji Caïd Essebsi has said that Tunisia is ready to welcome returnees who were involved in extremist movements, and Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, has recommended that they be welcomed within a socio-psychological monitoring structure put in place by the government. But so far, the approach has mainly been to arrest and prosecute foreign fighters.

Since 2012, I have researched the links between youth unemployment in Tunisia and their politicization and radicalization, combining quantitative techniques with an ethnographic approach. Youth unemployment was one of the driving forces behind the demonstrations that led to the fall of Ben Ali, and it continues to feed social and political protest today.

This phenomenon is summed up by an unemployed graduate I met in Magel Bel Abbès, in Kasserine Governorate. He told me: “With work I make my mother happy, and I become someone of value … Unemployment has killed me.” Indeed, what do young people who consider themselves already dead have to lose?

[1] Som-I, Joseph-Désiré2017. “Du métier de la débrouille à l’art de la conteste : trajectoires d’autonomisation des jeunes ruraux en Tunisie post-révoltes arabes,” Afrique Contemporaine, dossier Les jeunes dans les Afriques rurales, 2016/4 (forthcoming).