Since the desperate act of self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, a marginalized city in the center of Tunisia, on December 17, 2010, the streets of the country have again become a fertile ground for relentless protests. Tunisia’s disillusioned youth are protesting more defiantly after the 10th anniversary of the revolution as their country is experiencing an ever-worsening economic crisis compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The real gross domestic product (GDP) of Tunisia is estimated to have shrunk by 8.8 percent in 2020, the worst economic downturn since the country’s independence in 1956. Tunisia’s informal workers were hard hit by the coronavirus lockdown, which was exacerbated by the lack of financial assistance from the government. The overall unemployment rate rose to 17.4 percent by the end of 2020 compared with 14.9 percent before the pandemic. Tunisia’s debt is about 93 percent of GDP, which in 2020 was about $39 billion.
The country’s crucial tourism industry was particularly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, plunging by about 60 percent in the second quarter of 2020. This woeful condition triggered heightened sociopolitical unrest and filled the streets with demonstrators, predominantly youth. Over 10 years have elapsed since the downfall of the autocratic regime of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and yet young Tunisians have not succeeded in transiting from protesting to exercising their active citizenship.
Young Tunisians are still subjugated to marginalization and exclusion because Tunisia’s transition to democracy has fallen short of implementing economic and social programs that specifically target the needs of the youth. The long-standing grievances that led to the revolution of 2011 are still present; in fact, they are more pressing and pronounced due to the steadily worsening and dire day-to-day challenges faced by Tunisian youth.
The long-standing grievances that led to the revolution of 2011 are still present; in fact, they are more pressing and pronounced due to the steadily worsening and dire day-to-day challenges faced by Tunisian youth.
Tunisia continues to witness several acts of self-immolation in front of governmental institutions as a desperate form of protest. These acts persist as a grim reminder of the failure of meeting the goals of the revolution: jobs, freedom, and dignity. The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) recorded 62 such suicides or attempted suicides in the first 10 months of 2020. The overwhelming majority are poor working-class men in their 20s and 30s, living in deprivation in interior areas such as Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Tunisian and Arab revolutions.
What prevails is despair, anxiety, and anguish. Most Tunisians are not in the mood for celebrating the revolution. Many among them, especially young people, take to the streets to participate in raucous and chaotic night and day protests to continue demanding social recognition. Similar to 2011, recent youth protests, which were sparked in cities and towns across Tunisia, are more powerful than their predecessors. According to FTDES, a total of 3,865 protests were recorded in the months of January, February,i and March 2021. The social protests were mostly concentrated in the center-west and southwest of Tunisia. Both regions account for 2,068 protests, a number that represents almost half of the total number of protests in the first quarter of 2021.
Gafsa, a phosphate-rich region in southwestern Tunisia, accounted for the highest number of protests, which constituted 18.6 percent of the total protests in the country. Many of the youth protests in Tataouine, in southeastern Tunisia, occurred in the oil- and gas-rich governorate of El-Kamour. These two resource-rich southern regions have remained severely underdeveloped and marginalized, with the youth more acutely impacted. The numerical distribution of youth protests in Tunisia reflects the continuing dire regional disparities between the capital and coastal regions, on the one hand, and the western and southern regions, on the other, due to the regional economic policies pursued since the 1950s. The country’s south and west and their youth are relegated to a marginal status.
Tunisia’s youth are subjugated to multiple forms of marginalization, being pushed to the fringes of the socioeconomic, political, and cultural aspects of their lives that constitute their social reality. Young people account for a significant share of the Tunisian population, making up over 28 percent of the total. Yet the government still pays little attention to preparing them to transition from school to work.
Tunisia’s youth are subjugated to multiple forms of marginalization, being pushed to the fringes of the socioeconomic, political, and cultural aspects of their lives that constitute their social reality.
Such a transition poses a weighty problem as the youth unemployment rate has been increasing. The challenge of going from school to work is of utmost gravity and is hampered by inefficient governance that is failing to enhance job creation. According to the World Bank, the unemployment rate increased from 13 percent nationally in 2010 to almost 17 percent of the active population in the fourth quarter of 2020. Youth unemployment has soared to 36.5 percent. Young university graduates have been particularly hurt by the deterioration in job creation. The number of unemployed graduatesii increased from 130,000 in 2010 to 300,000 in 2020.
Students present a segment of the youth that is not part of the labor market. However, while working toward earning a university degree, students know a priori about the weak demand for skilled labor and are aware that nepotism, bribery, and regional discrimination hinder their chances of securing employment. Unfortunately, many middle and high school students have come to believe that pursuing higher education is a waste of time, energy, and money. As a World Bank report put it, “In the eyes of Tunisia’s youth, schools produce more unemployed due to the poor quality of education.” All those factors tremendously contribute to the high dropout rate among primary, middle, and high school students. About 110,000 students drop out of school annually.
Yet, even acquiring a university degree does not guarantee employment. Individuals with higher education face higher rates of unemployment because being overqualified poses a problem to their recruitment in the labor market. Research has revealed that many young women choose to prolong their studies in order to postpone facing the reality of unemployment.
The main focus by successive governments has always been on the unemployed university graduates; however, other excluded socioeconomic groups of youth need closer attention, too, like those in the “Not in Employment nor in Education or Training” (NEET) group. This group is the most economically excluded, most vulnerable, and most prone to recruitment by extremist religious organizations. The NEET phenomenon in Tunisia points to intense precariousness, and the country has one of the highest rates of NEETs in the Middle East and North Africa region, or 33 percent in 2020. As female unemployment is higher than that of males, it is also the case within the NEETs. The share of NEET is higher in the interior and the south and in rural Tunisia generally. Even though most of the youth in this category are school dropouts, many graduates could end up in it as well. The NEET indicator is a particularly important factor in understanding Tunisian youth’s continuous discontent with the political system since 2011. The NEET rate is a better indicator than the unemployment rate of the way the government is supporting the process of transition from school to work because it does include those who are not in education and those actively searching for employment. It is an effective and efficient method for analyzing youth exclusion because it focuses on those facing difficulties transitioning from education to employment.
As a result of the shrinking youth labor market, an increasing number of young Tunisians is opting to leave the country to seek a source of livelihood abroad. Fifty-six percent of young Tunisians aged 18 -29 consider emigrating. Attempts to emigrate to Europe by sea have soared. Among those who did not take to the streets or who lost hope in the power of protest to bring about meaningful social and economic change in their lives, there is a segment of youth that expresses its disaffection by attempting to cross the Mediterranean in quest for “Paradise Europe.” This is the most desperate group among the marginalized.
Among those who did not take to the streets or who lost hope in the power of protest to bring about meaningful social and economic change in their lives, there is a segment of youth that expresses its disaffection by attempting to cross the Mediterranean in quest for “Paradise Europe.”
The thin thread between protesting and escaping the country clandestinely is despair and hopelessness. The ten successive post-revolution governments failed dramatically to address this precarious situation, whether by improving control of the increasing attempts to flee the county or by dealing with the root causes of the covert immigration, especially by enhancing job creation. The number of Tunisian migrants reaching Italian shores soared fivefold to 13,000 in 2020, compared to 2,654 in 2019. Thousands of Tunisians are willing to take a chance on this hazardous crossing, called the journey of death. They would rather risk death or experience humiliation upon their arrival to Europe, and possibly be sent back to Tunisia where they would be imprisoned, than to stay in their own country.
Disenchantment with Politics
It is true that the persistently high rates of unemployment are the most significant drivers behind relentless social unrest in Tunisia, but political factors are also important contributors. It is widely recognized that young Tunisians have been the main driving force behind the social and political uprising that led to the fall of Ben Ali’s regime. A poll conducted by the Tunisian SIGMA group found that 96 percent of those who set in motion the 2011 revolution were young people, and that 85.3 percent of them were unemployed. The voices of those young revolutionary Tunisians are unheard in Tunisia in post-2011. What is heard is the growing cacophony of Tunisia’s politicians as Tunisia’s political crisis deepens between the different political factions that are not being held accountable for their failures. Most of the young Tunisians who led the revolution have been excluded from the political process. Youth are less likely to be part of governance and decision-making processes at all levels, local or national. Their earned freedom was not paired with the achievement of political influence that could enhance their socioeconomic inclusion, which was a key demand of the revolution. Post-revolution politics excluded the youth under the pretext that they are too young to lead.
Most of the young Tunisians who led the revolution have been excluded from the political process. Youth are less likely to be part of governance and decision-making processes at all levels, local or national.
The lack of youth-targeted programs, the political alienation and disillusionment from mainstream party politics, and the growing demand for rights and personal freedoms led the youth to pursue politics away from the traditional methods of political participation. Indeed, they want to have influence on society. Several young Tunisians are leading civil society groups. Tunisians in their mid-twenties from different regions of the country have formed a watchdog group and named it “I Watch”; they say that they follow two main principles: no exclusion and no trusteeship. By trusteeship, they mean that youth should have a bigger role and not be “babysat” by the older generation under the pretext that they lack experience. Instead, they should stand up for themselves and pursue their rights. Al Bawsala (The Compass) is another nongovernmental group that promotes democracy and human rights. It monitors the activity of elected officials and tries to connect them with decision-makers to work on citizens’ issues. Other nongovernmental organizations like Damj and Shams espouse and defend cultural identity causes. In addition, youth movements emerged as an alternative to political parties; an example is “The Wrong Generation,” which had a significant presence in last January’s protests and riots.
Addressing Youth Concerns
Youth de-marginalization policies and strategies should be articulated and urgently implemented to help Tunisia’s youth exercise their active citizenship and transition to a secure and comfortable life as adults. Immediate action is needed to revise and reform the education system at all levels to reduce the education-labor mismatch and help workers to perform efficiently and productively in their workplaces. Such reform should aim at developing skills rather than mere academic credentials. The quality of teaching must be improved by reviewing recruitment criteria to favor teachers’ pedagogical skills. Upgrading the curricula is also necessary. Providing student counseling and academic assistance like tutoring, as well as making teachers and the educational institutions more accountable for each student’s performance, would help reduce the number of dropouts. Vocational programs would also go a long way toward curtailing that number.
NEETs need urgent socioeconomic integration since they represent an enormous, productive, and under-utilized force. Professional training would equip them with the sufficient skills needed to enter the workforce. Socioeconomic inclusion and empowerment of unemployed graduates should be enhanced by creating a high skills job market. It is also important to ensure regional balance in job creation, as more jobs are required in the interior and the south. Moreover, it is crucial that gender-based labor discrimination is addressed; indeed, despite Tunisia’s breakthroughs in gender equality, only 27.4 percent of Tunisia’s women were employed in 2019. If implemented, these policies would lessen overall poverty and clandestine emigration and, most importantly, uplift youth from the margins of Tunisian society.
Houda Chograni is a Tunisian writer and activist.