x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Flames of despair are still burning brightly in Tunisia

A desperate young man, a container of petrol, a match: an all-too-familiar scenario in Tunisia. More than 150 people in the country have self-immolated since the event that set off the Arab Spring. Caroline Anning reports from Kesserine

Latifa Khadri the mother of cigarette vendor Adel Khadri, shows a picture of her son following his funeral in Jemaa, northern Tunisia. Adel, who could barely support himself let alone his family, set himself alight in protest.
Latifa Khadri the mother of cigarette vendor Adel Khadri, shows a picture of her son following his funeral in Jemaa, northern Tunisia. Adel, who could barely support himself let alone his family, set himself alight in protest.

KESSERINE, TUNISIA // A desperate young man, a container of petrol, a match: an all-too-familiar scenario in Tunisia.

The latest protester to opt for this most extreme form of dissent was 27-year-old Adel Khedri.

Forced to sell cigarettes to survive, Khedri shouted: "This is unemployment in Tunisia!" then set himself on fire on the steps of the municipal theatre on Habib Bourghiba Avenue last month.

Since Mohammed Bouazizi did the same on December 17, 2010, and set off a wave of protest that toppled Tunisia's president from power and sparked revolts across the Arab world, more than 150 Tunisians have followed the same course. Many have survived their burns. Khedri did not.

The psychological and political motives for these fiery protests are invariably complicated and defy simple generalisation. But more often than not these aggrieved share one thing in common: despair that they can better their lives, even in the "new" Tunisia.

Tunisians now can protest freely on the streets, and trade unions are stronger than ever. But since the successful uprising against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, political institutions have changed little, if at all. Politicians remain as inaccessible to most people as they did under Ben Ali's regime.

Unemployment, particularly among young university graduates, was one of the main catalysts for the revolt in Tunisia more than two years ago. But it has worsened since then. The jobless rate is now 17 per cent nationally and 23 per cent for university graduates, according to the Brookings Institution. In the poorer interior, the figures are even worse.

Antonio Nucifora, an economist at the World Bank who focuses on Tunisia, said the government has tried to address the problem of unemployment.

"It has substantially increased expenditure on public investment projects to create jobs and boost economic activity in the interior regions," he said. "But that effort has been hindered by the administrative bottlenecks and limited implementation capacity, particularly in the regions."

A bleak, graffiti-covered town, Kesserine is in one of those regions, the centre-west. One day recently, two separate queues of about 150 men and women snaked out of the employment office building and down the road.

They waited in the spring sunshine to apply for work under one of the government's new job schemes. The programme provides one year of employment to one member of a family, with the possibility of a year's extension.

The lucky few are chosen according to a range of criteria, including the family's socio-economic status and how long the main breadwinner has been out of work.

As valuable as they are to those who get them, a handful of jobs will not make much of a dent in Kesserine, which has an unemployment rate of 22 per cent. It is a community that feels it is owed something. People of the town enlisted early in the protests against Ben Ali, and 21 were killed in clashes with his regime's security forces.

Officials of the ruling Ennahda party insist that they are doing their best.

"This government is trying to make up for past imbalances by giving the majority of investments to the interior regions", said Mohsen Bousuri, general secretary of the party's local branch.

"Ennahda doesn't have a magic button to change everything for the better, but we hope that we can give to the Tunisian people what they want from us."

For Belgacem Benabdelhafith and his cousin Saber, waiting at the employment office in the southern town of Tozeur, these assurances are not enough.

"We are from a very poor part of the country, a very marginal area, near the border with Algeria," said Belgacem, 22. "My father is dead, so I am the breadwinner and I came here to apply for a job through the family work programme. But as usual it's mostly hopeless - I'm not optimistic that I'll get a position. The most important thing is employment, then comes freedom."

Since the uprising, tourism has dried up in places such as Tozeur, and the demand for jobs far outstrips supply. According to the employment office in Tozeur, there are 1,250 jobs available nationally through the one-job-for-every-family scheme. In the Tozeur district alone, 5,000 have applied.

"The revolution was meant to help people like us from marginal areas, but it's just the same as under Ben Ali. The government is totally separate from the people. We don't have any links to politicians," Saber said.

For Adel Khedri, the cigarette seller, the Jasmine Revolution did not deliver on the promise of change quickly enough.

He left the village of Jendouba in north-western Tunisia and travelled to the capital in search of work. He ended up selling cigarettes on the street, hardly earning enough to sustain himself, let alone support his mother and five siblings back home.

Mongi Boughzala, an economics professor at the University of Tunis, believes the government has moved too slowly and ineffectively.

"It hasn't shown enough concern to those young people who are really angry," he said. "A few things have been tried but not enough and not the right things. They have not really innovated and the return is weak.

"We have tens of thousands of people like the cigarette seller. The problem will be there for years, and we should admit that. But we should deal with the most urgent, before they lose all hope."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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