Seven years after a popular uprising raised hopes of social transformation, young graduates in Kasserine are holding protests on a daily basis because they cannot find jobs.
KASSERINE, TUNISIA – On a Thursday morning in July, as the sun starts beating down, a scattered group of around 30 young people is hanging around the stairs that lead to the office of Kasserine governorate.
They have set up a makeshift residence there with carpets and mattresses laid on the ground, two tents and a banner unfurled on the entrance gate that reads, “Resistance sit-in of unemployed young graduates of Kasserine.”
For almost five months, some 75 university graduates have been occupying the site, asking for jobs.
“In Kasserine, we are not Tunisians. We are from another planet,” says 36-year-old Sanhouri Bartouli as he expressed frustration over the difficulty finding jobs in the poor central town.
Since graduating from a nursing school in 2008, he has not been able to find suitable work. For almost three years after finishing school he worked in a marble quarry where he manually cut stones, putting in 16 to 18 hours a day for a miserable monthly salary of $95 or $3 a day.
The popular uprising in 2011 that had brought down the government of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali raised hope for Bartouli and others that things would change for the better.
But since then he has applied to hospitals and other healthcare firms in different towns from Kasserine, Tunis and Sousse, to Nabeul but hasn’t had any luck securing a job.
“Every time they checked my ID, they would look at my birthplace and say ‘no, there’s no work.’ Because I’m from Kasserine, people would think I’m a terrorist,” he says with resignation.
Once known for its pivotal role in the Tunisian uprising, Kasserine is now often identified as a source of radicalised young men heading to Syria and Libya in their thousands to fill the ranks of terrorist groups.
Close to the Algerian border, with its mountainous terrain on the outskirts, the central western city provides an ideal cover for the militants.
During the uprising young Kasserine residents fought for a better life, but in the post-revolution chaos, severe poverty and unemployment turned it into a fertile recruiting ground.
Bartouli is particularly upset about his situation since he worked voluntarily at a public hospital for nine years, seven days a week, but has nothing to show for it.
“I’ve tried everything to get a job, all my attempts have failed,” he says in a tone of frustration, “I don’t have a job, a wife or a house. I hate my life, and I’m really angry with the state.”
Many young people in Tunisia’s border regions such as Kasserine, Jendouba, Medenine and Tataouine have developed a deep hostility towards the Tunisian government as they struggle with extreme poverty, severe disparity and unemployment.
The governorate is a striking example of the inequalities that separate Tunisia’s more developed northeastern coastal areas such as Nabeul, Sousse, Mounastir and Sfax and its impoverished interior and western regions.
Home to half a million people, Kasserine has the worst socioeconomic indicators in the country. It has a poverty rate of 32 percent compared to the national average of 15.5 percent. Based on the last census in 2014, Kasserine recorded an unemployment rate of 30 percent, compared to 15.5 percent nationally.
Youth unemployment in Tunisia currently stands at 35 percent,
For Bartouli, youth joblessness is worse than what official figures suggest. He believes it may be as high as 50 percent in Kasserine.
Takwa Omry, 32, an economics and management graduate who is also part of the protest camp at the governorate office, says actual unemployment is much higher as Tunisia's National Institute of Statistics (INS) has not issued “real data” since before the revolution.
In Kasserine, it not uncommon to meet families with more than one young graduate looking for work, she says.
“The Tunisian state has no intention to promote this region. It’s a discriminatory policy, indifferent to the whole region, that treats us unfairly,” she continued, “We feel discarded and unwelcomed.”
According to sociologist and professor Abdessatar Sahbani, head of the Tunisian Social Observatory, the 2011 revolt unveiled a “deep, rejected” Tunisia.
“Today you see many Tunisians in their 30s who have no job prospects, unable to raise a family,” he observes. “The majority of these young people resort to black market labour or remain jobless and hold regular sit-ins.”
In reference to sit-ins, the sociologist explains that after Tunisia’s 2014 elections, protest actions organised by young unemployed people were ignored by the political class and the press.
That led the protesters to move their camps from the capital back to their towns in the past few years where they find relatively bigger support from the local population of the country’s marginalised regions.
Kasserine reflects the worst of Tunisia’s feeble economic development — narrow and bumpy roads link different towns, which lack well-equipped hospitals, and people long for a good internet connection.
With poor infrastructure, workers without proper education and rising security threats, the border regions are not the top priority of investors. The Arab Institute of Business Leaders ranked the Kasserine region 21st out of 24 governorates in terms of economic appeal.
“In an area that has no development project, little to no public services, insufficient medical facilities and doctors, let alone leisure and cultural activities, why would a potential investor put money in Kasserine?” Sahbani says.
The outskirts of the Kasserine are dotted with dilapidated houses, decaying public buildings, dust and dirty roads.
When discussing marginalisation in the governorate, Sahbani also raises the problem of the high rate of school dropouts, in certain areas double the national average.
Since February 27, the group of dozens of graduates has been staging a sit-in outside the offices of the Kasserine governorate to claim their right to work and implementation of Article 12 of Tunisia’s constitution, which says the state ensures social justice and regional equality.
Zakya Gharsally, one of the protesters, says they work in groups making sure someone remains at the sit-in throughout the day.
The graduates have been unemployed for long periods ranging from five to 17 years. Some of them are mothers who have joined with their children.
“We’ve been here during these months even its cold, rainy or really hot, simply to ask for work and dignity,” Gharsally says.
Earlier in June, when the sit-in moved its location from a side road to the main street facing the governorate’s entrance, the demonstrators were beaten by police, leaving several of them injured.
Since the start of their sit-in, the young Tunisians have not seen any encouraging sign from the governor or anyone else among the local authorities.
“We’ve sent letters, faxes to political parties, MPs, regional authorities to prompt a dialogue. But no response until now," says Omry.
After graduating in 2008, Omry worked for a trading company in Tunis for a brief time earning $95 only and did not receive any reimbursement for travel expenses. She then returned to Kasserine looking for work closer to her home.
She sat various competitive examinations for government jobs but did not pass. In her opinion, corruption plays a part whereby there are people paying bribes in order to get the jobs, blocking more deserving people from finding work.
“It’s the same story since 2008. I keep on taking competitive exams, perform well, and I still haven’t been selected for a job,” she notes with a bitter smile, “I’ve lost hope.”
Despite that, Omry continues to train off- and on-line, paying for her training with money earned from casual private teaching or thanks to her family’s help. She wishes to set up her own business, however, the procedures associated with that are too demanding and costly.
Her parents, like the families of her fellow sit-inners, largely invested in giving them higher education, yet their hard sacrifices have not paid off.
“We’re not just waiting around for a public job; we’re looking up for any opening, any new opportunity that comes up,” Omry concludes.
“The future looks bleak. Our sit-in has been going on for months, nothing has changed,” Bartouli says in a steadfast voice, “but we will stay here anyway, however long it takes.”
Since 2011, nine cabinets have failed to resolve Tunisia’s economic problems, including unemployment. After the May 2018 municipal elections, citizens in Tunisia’s marginalised regions hope that decentralisation will bring job opportunities for unemployed youth.
Along with the Tunisian economy’s weak capacity to create jobs and opportunities, its educational system is not designed to produce adequate skills or to ensure high-quality training. The educated youth who are most affected by high unemployment lament a mismatch between the skills gained through training and the actual jobs available on the labour market.
Seven years after the Jasmine revolution, the same demands of jobs and dignity remain. After consecutive administrations failed to resolve their problems, Tunisian youth are watching with pessimism what the current government and the newly elected local councils will do next.