In Tunisia, a youth crisis threatens the Arab Spring's most successful revolution
In 2010, a desperate man's suicide inspired a country to overthrow an authoritarian regime in the hopes of freedom and opportunity. It got freedom, but amid staggering unemployment, opportunity remains a dream for many
By ERIC REGULY
Tuesday, March 19, 2019 Print Edition, Page A10
SBEITLA, TUNISIA -- On a late December afternoon in 2016 - six years to the month after the start of the Tunisia revolution - Farid Touti decided he could not endure his wretched life anymore.
The gentle Tunisian man had no money and no hope. He couldn't find work or afford medicines for his ailing mother or even pay the electricity bill.
Standing outside the mayor's office in the dusty central-west town of Sbeitla, he set fire to himself and would have died were it not for the quick thinking of the patrons of a nearby coffee shop, who knocked him to the ground and smothered the flames that were burning his legs with blankets. "I intended to die," he told The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Touti, who is now 37, spent the next year in hospital. He can walk again, but his effort to rebuild his life has gone nowhere.
He and his mother are still destitute and, once again, he is gripped by the dark awareness that his life is nothing but a struggle.
He is not alone. There is a feeling among hundreds of thousands of young Tunisians, perhaps more, that the revolution of 2010 and 2011 has failed them, that they are a lost generation.
The youth crisis is getting worse as little Tunisia - population 11.5 million - is buffeted by soaring unemployment, lack of socio-economic reforms, terrorist attacks and the never-ending civil war in Libya, whose porous western border has opened Tunisia to human traffickers, jihadi recruiters and contraband smugglers.
The Tunisia revolution, which sent its dictator into exile in January, 2011, is celebrated as the only successful Arab Spring revolution. It came with the promise of social and economic freedom that would make Tunisia, wedged between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert, a beacon of freedom and opportunity.
Today, Tunisia is no doubt truly free, making it a shining Arab anomaly. But for many Tunisians, especially the young, the dream of prosperity and dignity has shattered. Tunisia's economic and political stability is not just a concern for the country's youth, it's a concern for all of Europe, which fears that the failure of the only democratic Arab Spring country could leave much of North Africa chaotic, violent and a potential exporter or terrorists.
Recently, Italy arrested five Tunisians in anti-terror raids and a Tunisian man, Anis Amri, killed 12 people by ramming a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in 2016.
Algeria, on Tunisia's western Frontier, is also going through a youth crisis. The Algerian economy, suffering from low prices for its main exports, oil and natural gas, is incapable of reducing the crushing youth jobless rate. In March, after weeks of largely peaceful mass protests, Algeria's ailing President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, agreed to not seek a fifth term in office. He will support the formation of a new, and possibly democratic, government. But unless the next rulers overhaul the economy to create jobs, Algeria's youth could explode in rage, threatening to destabilize the only North African country that proved immune to the Arab Spring revolutions.
Tunisia's youth unemployment rate, at 36 per cent, according to the International Labour Organization, is well more than double the national average of 15.4 per cent. Tens of thousands of young people are taking to the boats, making the dangerous voyage to Italy. And suicide rates have reached tragic levels. A Tunisian academic study published in 2016 says the number of suicides by burning - self-immolations - in the five years after the revolution has tripled, compared with the five years preceding the revolution. The actual number may be higher because some Tunisian parents, out of embarrassment, might not report the cause of death of their children.
Al Bawsala, a Tunisian political watchdog association, has said that Tunisia has seen about 300 self-immolations in the eight years since the revolution (the figure excludes suicides by other means). It says there were another 2,000 self-immolation attempts. The total number of fatal and non-fatal self-immolations since the revolutions - 2,300 - suggests that, on average, there are five incidents of self-immolation every week.
Other estimates are even higher. In the past three years alone (to the end of 2018), the Tunisian Social Observatory, a civil society group that monitors socio-economic developments, including violence, emigration, protests and suicides, counted 1,885 selfimmolation attempts, of which 437 were fatal. Roughly 40 per cent of Tunisian suicides are selfimmolations. "Self-immolations are a form of protest," said Najla Arfa, the observatory's project manager co-ordinator. "They are designed to attract attention and are almost always done in public."
Virtually none of them is reported in the Tunisian and international press. "The sense is that the revolution was done for the adults, by the adults, not the youth," said Abdedayem Khlifi, the youth-medicine doctor who is president of the Tunisian Association for the Fight Against Corruption. "The socio-economic situation after the revolution has become very difficult for them."
The Tunisian revolution began with an act of self-immolation on Dec. 17, 2010, when a 24-year-old vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid, not far from Mr. Touti's hometown of Sbeitla.
The suicide triggered the first protests of the revolution. The protests multiplied a week later, when the security forces of Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali killed two protesters in Sidi
Bouzid. A couple of weeks after that, at least 22 protesters were killed in the Kasserine Governorate, just to the west of Sbeitla, not far from the Algerian border.
Within days, Tunis, the capital, erupted in mass protests and the body count rose. On Jan. 14, 2011, after some 300 protesters had been killed across Tunisia, Mr.
Ben Ali fled with his family to Saudi Arabia after reportedly packing his jet with treasure.
The revolution's first goal had been met - the brutal kleptocracy of Mr. Ben Ali was over. The country was in one piece, its people full of hope. Within weeks, the Tunisian revolution inspired uprisings across much of the Arab world in North Africa and the Middle East.
The Libyan revolution succeeded in ridding the country of Moammar Gadhafi and his savage regime. But Libya, bombed by NATO planes (including Canadian ones, which flew 11 per cent of the missions) and divided by warring militias, soon became a failed state.
Egypt's uprising removed strongman president Hosni Mubarak, yet Egyptian democracy proved short lived. The country is now under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's military rule. The uprisings in Syria and Yemen led to wars that wrecked both countries and have yet to end.
By 2014, Tunisia stood alone among the Arab Spring states as a largely peaceful democracy in the making. Early that year, a remarkably progressive constitution was approved under the motto "Liberty, Dignity, Justice and Order." Tunisia, constitutionally, would be a civil state with freedom of speech, equal rights for women and men, an independent judiciary and the right to health care. Sharia law is notably absent from the constitution.
Tunisia held democratic legislative elections and its first democratic presidential elections in late 2014. A year later, the democracy-building Tunisian "Quartet" - composed of the representatives of workers' unions, employers, human-rights activists and lawyers - won the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, Tunisia's democracy, while always messy tug of war between the secular and Islamist parties, is alive and inclusive. The government has even appointed a Jewish cabinet minister and Tunis has a female mayor.
But that's pretty much where the good news ends because the Tunisian economy, while not technically in recession, has done no favours for millions of Tunisia's citizens. The young, especially, are feeling left out and they are becoming angry, taking to the streets to protest their plight and highlight their frustrations. Currency devaluations and inflation, which hit a 30-year high of 7.8 per cent last year, are damaging their buying power. Tourism, a crucial industry, stopped generating new jobs in 2015, when three terrorist attacks - one at a beach resort in Sousse that killed 38 foreign tourists - saw the country land on the black list of many tourism operators.
The poor are getting poorer and the middle class is shrinking fast. The Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies recently said that the proportion of Tunisians who could be considered middle class has shrunk to about 50 per cent from 70 per cent in 2010.
There is no doubt that the government's failure to attract foreign investment, stem the extreme power of the national unions and break the corrupt networks that thrive on government contracts have punished the economy. The (meagre) reform efforts of the government have been a failure, to the point that the International Monetary Fund has given Tunisia a minibailout in the form of loans totalling US$2.8-billion. In return, the IMF has demanded austerity measures, including a freeze in public-sector wages that have only triggered more public agitation. In mid-January, Tunisia's biggest union called a nationwide strike that paralyzed the country. It was the biggest strike since 2013.
The young are getting fed up.
A 2016 survey by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) found that more than 45 per cent of young Tunisians would like to emigrate, up from 25 per cent during revolution years (before the revolution, almost 30 per cent said they wanted to leave). Young voters largely boycotted last spring's municipal elections and street protests have become everyday events. In December alone, FTDES recorded 867 protests, including 35 suicides or suicide attempts, largely for "socio-economic reasons," it said.
"We cannot say that the revolution has failed but it has come with huge failures in social and economic policies," said FTDES communications director Ben Amor Romdhane. "There is still hope, but these hard circumstances could ultimately threaten the revolution."
A poor, rough Tunis neighbourhood called Ettadhamen - "Solidarity" in Arabic - is considered a no-go zone by many Tunisois (as Tunis residents are known). It's even difficult to find taxi drivers who will take you into its cluttered, buzzy streets. Idle young men clog the coffee shops.
Located about half an hour's drive west of the city centre, it is infamous for its high unemployment and crime rates. During the height of the Syrian civil war, it became fruitful territory for Islamic State recruiters, who promised jobless young men money and glory if they would fight in Syria (Tunisia was the top exporter of foreign fighters to Syria, with various estimates putting their number at 7,000). Today, local residents say agents employed by human traffickers haunt Ettadhamen's coffee shops, offering passage to Sicily in flimsy rubber dinghies for the equivalent of 1,000 or so.
Montassar Ammar is one young Ettadhamen resident who dreams of making the voyage. He can't find work, is bored and takes out his frustrations by drinking too much beer and getting into fights. He has had runins with the law - he's had two short stints in jail - and has a deep horizontal scar on his nose, courtesy of a knife fight that went against him.
Mr. Touti, of Sbeitla, used a self-immolation attempt as a spectacular form of protest. Mr.
Ammar has no intention of taking his own life. His idea of protest is, simply, to leave the country. Like Mr. Touti, he was at first thrilled by the revolution and the prospect of freedom and employment. In January, 2011, Tunis's streets filled with protesters, he joined the fight against the dictator's security forces. "We burned the police station down and fought the police," he said. "They used rubber bullets and tear gas on us."
Mr. Ammar is 24, has no professional or tradesman skills and says his girlfriend gives him a few coins. She, too, is unemployed, but she gets some money from her father, he says. He has had odd jobs, like a gas station attendant, that never lasted. He resisted the invitation to fight with the Islamic State in Syria but says three of his friends went and got killed.
Basically, he has nothing to do.
"Every day I wake up at 10 or 11 in the morning, drink coffee, play cards and meet my girlfriend," he said. "If I am lucky, I'll have enough money for some beers with my friends."
His plan is to somehow scrape together enough money to head by boat to Italy, head north and find work in France or Switzerland. He is not alone. With youth employment opportunities vanishing, the desire to leave Tunisia is becoming pervasive. Even the professional class is leaving. Almost half of newly qualified Tunisians doctors left the country in 2017. FTDES say 6,700 Tunisians reached Europe in 2017. Last year, the figure was 6,000. Over the two years, 120 Tunisians died making the journey. "They say they are dead socially and economically, so they migrate to Europe," said Ms. Arfa of the Tunisian Social Observatory. "The risks of the boat passage do not concern them."
That's pretty much Mr. Ammar's view. "For us, the revolution has not been a success," he said. "Poor people go poor and the rich got richer. ... I am dying here. Whether I die here or in the sea, it doesn't matter."
In central Tunisia, far from the relatively wealthy coastal cities, everyone wants to work for the local or state governments and their agencies because the private sector is largely limited to family-owned shops and small businesses, which can offer only meagre pay, no stability and no career advancement.
Governments know that they are the only game in town in many of the poor regions. Since the revolution, as the jobless rate climbed along with the number of protests and suicides, the national government has tried to buy peace by stuffing the payrolls.
According to Le Monde diplomatique, the public-sector work force grew by an astounding 200,000 workers between 2011 and 2017, raising the wage bill to 15 per cent of gross domestic product, one of the highest in the world, from 10.8 per cent.
State-owned industries have also been press-ganged into adding workers, phantom or otherwise, in the economically clapped-out parts of Tunisia. One is the Phosphate Company of Gafsa, one of the world's biggest exporters of phosphates. Located in poor region of central Tunisia, it has hired thousands of workers who do not actually work in an effort to ensure that local families can feed themselves - effectively a stealth form of social-economic policy funded by the taxpayer. This time last year, Gafsa reportedly had 13,500 employees who received a salary for nothing.
"Gafsa is full of phantom jobs," said Oussama Sghaier, a member of parliament with the Muslim democratic party, Ennahda.
"People don't want investments," he said, implying they want instant pay instead of trying to develop sustainable employment. "They want salaries and we have to change this way of thinking."
Mr. Touti wanted a salary.
He graduated in 2009 with an IT diploma, thinking some knowledge of technology would tilt the employment odds in his favour. But there were no IT jobs in or near Sbeitla, a hardscrabble town (population about 24,000) that is best known for the ruins of an ancient Roman city - Sufetula - the site of some of the best-preserved Roman temples in Tunisia. Many of the houses in Sbeitla are primitive, a sign of the grinding poverty that grips much of central Tunisia.
The house that he and his diabetic mother, Zaara Touti, 69, occupy lies on the edge of Sbeitla, next to an abandoned railway track and a dried-up river bed filled with garbage. The streets nearby are often filled with pickup trucks carrying jugs of smuggled Algerian gasoline that costs a few cents a litre. Their drivers hide until they are sure the local police have left the area. Thin carpets partly cover a cold, concrete floor. The second storey is unfinished. The broken fridge door is held shut by rubber cords.
The rooms are largely bare, except for a few family mementoes, and there is no heat.
After his father abandoned the family when Mr. Touti was in his early 20s, he had to take care of his mother, who used to make a pittance harvesting olives, and couldn't leave the area. He occasionally found menial jobs, such as coffee-shop waiter and freelance driver, which never paid enough for them to live in anything but abject poverty.
By then, his dream was nothing more than snagging a government job - national, regional, local, of any description - or at the Gafsa phosphate company. But none was on offer, at least for him. "There were jobs," he said.
"But here all the jobs that are announced are fixed - it's nepotism."
In early 2016, he and a few of his friends organized a protest. In rotating shifts, they staged sit-ins at the mayor's offices, demanding jobs. After almost a year, Mr.
Touti still had nothing. The electricity in his house was being shut off because he couldn't afford to pay the bill. The house was like an ice-box in the winter and a cauldron in the summer.
His mother was becoming increasingly ill. "It was an accumulation of everything that pushed me to do that, to burn myself," he said.
On Dec. 4 of that year, at 5 p.m., he went to the front of the mayor's office building in Sbeitla and removed a 1.5-litre plastic bottle of gasoline from a sack.
Using his right hand, he poured half of the gas on his legs.
Determined, but shaking with fear, he prematurely ignited the cigarette lighter in his left hand as he was raising the bottle to pour the rest of the fuel over his shoulders. The bottle exploded and, in an instant, his legs were on fire.
Mr. Touti remembers pain so intense as his legs began to melt that he started to run - he called it an "automatic" reaction that he could not explain. If the men in the coffee shop had not snuffed out the flames that had enveloped his legs, he would have died.
At first, the doctors wanted to amputate his legs. But four operations later, the skin grafts took hold and he was able to walk again, though not easily. Once again, he has no regular work and cannot pay the overdue electricity bill. His mother has no money for medicine and the fridge is virtually empty. "Nothing has changed in my life," he said.
On Dec. 24, 2018, two years after Mr. Touti survived his self-immolation attempt, another young Tunisian man lit himself on fire in the same region - Kasserine - and died. But unlike Mr.
Touti's own flaming protest, this one made news around the world and called attention to the dire economic conditions in central Tunisia, the home of the revolution.
The victim was Abderrazak Zorgui, 32, a local television reporter. A few minutes before he doused himself with gasoline and burned himself to death, he posted a chilling video online.
Speaking calmly, he said: "In Kasserine, there are people dying of hunger. Why? Are we not humans? We're people just like you.
The unemployed people of Kasserine, the jobless, the ones who have no means of subsistence, the ones who have nothing to eat ... I am going to protest alone. I am going to set myself on fire and, if at least one person gets a job because of me, I will be satisfied."
The video went viral. The next day, Tunisia was rocked by protests, some of them violent.
Mr. Touti says he knew the journalist, that they had been acquaintances even before the revolution started. He went to Mr.
Zorgui's funeral. Mr. Touti said he and Mr. Zorgui are both victims of a revolution that has failed Tunisia's youth.
"The revolution didn't do anything good for us," he said. "I will not burn myself again. But I feel I am dying."
Mr. Touti, right, has occasionally found menial jobs, such as being a coffee-shop waiter. Here, he works alongside coffee-shop owner Nasreddine Bouallagui.
Mr. Touti's identity card broke after partly melting in his pocket during his self-immolation attempt. Patrons of a nearby coffee shop knocked him to the ground and smothered the flames with blankets.
PHOTOS BY AMINE LANDOULSI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Mr. Touti, with his mother, Zaara, looks at a picture of his sister, who is married and lives far from the family home. Zaara is diabetic and Mr. Touti is her only caregiver.